Falls Church, Virginia — Three weeks before his death, 52-year-old Sam Anthony mailed his last wish to a man he had never met.
He was dying, he wrote in a postmarked letter on August 2 about the aggressive cancer of his mouth and throat that he had been struggling with since 2005. He has enclosed a copy of an article in a college graduate magazine. National Archive. He wrote because the two men shared an ancestor, he explained. He is a fact he learned from DNA matches and public records.
He recently learned that his real father’s name was Craig Nelson.
“I’m wondering,” Anthony wrote, “if you’re that Craig.”
On August 9, in Green Valley, Arizona, Anthony’s letter fell into the hands of a 78-year-old retired airline worker.
Craig Nelson’s first thought was that no one in Falls Church, Virginia knew when he took the envelope and looked at the return address. Then he read the content.
And it started to tremble.
It’s been decades since Nelson gave up the hope of finding his father’s biological son near the end of military service in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“52 years, it’s been a long time trying to carry memory,” Nelson said. “Especially when I had no memory in the first place.”
All he knew about the baby was in 1969 when his mother told Nelson on a short long-distance call. It was a healthy childbirth and she had already given up adoption.
Now, in a well-typed, single-space Times New Roman paragraph, my son’s code, or emptiness, spoke to him in a man’s voice. The voice of a dying man.
Anthony wrote that he realized that “this letter may shock you, and I don’t want to confuse someone’s life.”
“My hope is to look at the pictures and find out about my family’s medical history,” he gently begged. “I accept contact with biological relatives, but I don’t want to invade.”
Mr. Nelson picked up the phone. He called the number provided by Mr. Anthony.
Anthony had surgery to remove the blood clot. The phone went to voice mail.
In the recording he left, Mr. Nelson, who usually speaks leisurely, spoke fast, in a hurry with nerves and excitement.
“Well, hello Sam, this is Arizona’s Craig who meets all the requirements of your wonderful letter,” he said. “I want to talk to you, so I’ll try again when I get better. I’m fine.”
In this way, a relationship began in which the two men tried to make up for the lost time of 52 years.
They spent 11 days.
The letter carried Mr. Nelson back, back, back — Before retirement, before moving to Honolulu, Oregon, before two divorced marriages, before the birth of his daughter in 1972, before returning to civilian life as a United Airlines equipment and baggage loader at the airport, his hometown In Portland, Oregon.
It carried him all the way to the late 1960s, and in a year or so he used tools with a sporty red English two-seater Morgan around North Carolina in 1952 and a young woman he met at a dinner party near Fort. rice field. Bragg.
He joined the Army in March 1966 at the age of 23 and wanted to receive better training than the draft. He became a sergeant and spent three years in hitch training medical care.
Then, as his military service was nearing its end, his girlfriend informed him that she was pregnant.
Their memories of what happened next are probably not surprising, but they are at odds with the passage of time and the way people try to move forward.
She offered to move with her, but said she wouldn’t marry her. He says he proposed a marriage, but she refused because she wanted to have a baby for adoption so she could finish school.
Upon leaving the hospital in March 1969, Nelson returned to Oregon and moved with his parents.
She traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, spent the last few weeks of her pregnancy at her unmarried mother’s house, desperate to keep her baby secret from her friends, classmates, and father.
She contacted her by phone, claiming anonymity, and saying she didn’t want to confuse her life by revealing to her family and friends that she had an unmarried child. Only her mother knew, she said. Her father died without learning.
“It was 1969,” she said. “Good boy, good boy, I didn’t do that.”
Mr. Nelson settled down at his parents’ house One day, when I happened to be at home and answered the phone, I was dressed in civilian clothes. It was his ex-girlfriend.
“She said,’I just wanted to tell you’—and this is a quote,” he said.
But on the next breath, she informed Mr Nelson that he would never be the father of any kind of baby. She had already given up the boy for adoption, and as a father he could not learn any more about his son.
Nelson and his parents consulted with Portland lawyers and adoption authorities, but were told that the father had little rights when the mother chose to give up the baby for adoption.
Eventually, he tolerated. “I thought it was useless,” he said. “So things were. I believed what was said by a force.”
Nelson refused to think about it in order to deal with the loss of his son, who he knew but had never seen.
That was impossible. “Things will cause it,” he said. “Suffice it to mention North Carolina.”
Eventually, those feelings of pain resolved themselves to a selfless, comforting wish, “I hope he returns to a decent home.”
About 2 percent of Americans Although adopted, there are no data on the number of searches for biological relatives, said Adam Partman, president of the National Center for Adoption and Persistence.
“How many adopters look for their parents who were born?” He said. “They all do.”
Still, Anthony never had it.
“He felt like he had a great life with the parents who raised him,” said his wife, Sharon Ellis.
Anthony grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina. The mother was a housewife and the father was a neurosurgeon playing the French horn. His sister was also adopted.
Anthony, a competitive high school soccer player, studied history at the University of North Carolina, graduated from the National Archives and Records Administration, and got a job as a text and microfilm lab engineer.
He became a special assistant to the archivist, making him the public face of the institution and giving him the responsibility to choose the gifts the president gave to senior foreign officials.
He showed off a copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to thousands of school children and toured Prince Charles, pop stars and professional athletes on a private tour. He led the agency’s lecture program, regularly appeared on C-SPAN, created virtual tours, and once slept on the Rotunda floor of the National Archives to test room noise levels.
His mother died of ALS in 2000. Anthony began to wonder about his real parents after his father died of heart surgery complications in 2016.
Colleague Debra Steidel Wall, The US Deputy Archivist worked with Anthony for 30 years. He is the second official in the 2,800 agency and is also an amateur genealogist. Her father was adopted and Mr. Wall tracked his real parents and connected with what she didn’t want to know.
From time to time, she updated her permanent offer to help Anthony find his born parents. In September 2020, he agreed.
Mr. Wall had him genetically tested by Ancestry and 23andMe. The results showed a match with the assortment of maternal relatives. In just five days, Wall used DNA matching, census records, and decades-old newspaper clippings to identify and identify Anthony’s real mother.
That October, he sent her a two-page letter introducing herself, informing her about the diagnosis of cancer and sharing his desire to learn …