JEFFERSONVILLE, IND - Jessica Roth settled into a seat across from her attorney.
Tired and hungry after a 10-hour shift at Amazon that had ended at 5 a.m., all the Jeffersonville woman wanted to do was scrawl her signature on some court papers and head to lunch.
She shifted on the blue padded chair.
With a biological parent on either side, Jessica thought she was there to sign papers that would start the process of changing her name back to the one on her original birth certificate. She wasn’t entirely wrong.
"We have something, a special surprise for you today, though," attorney Anna Murray said. "If you want to, your biological parents have agreed to readopt you."
"Yay!" Jessica screamed.
The room erupted in laughter.
The 39-year-old couldn’t control the tears streaming down her face. For most of her life, Jessica had wanted to know about her birth parents. Who were they? And why, she wondered, had they decided not to keep her?
She never imagined those questions would lead her to this.
Ready or not
Roger Roth was Marcie Keithley’s first love.
They met in 1973 at a barbecue at her sister's house in Pennsylvania. Marcie, then 18, was a tall, beautiful blonde who had just moved there from Indiana. Roger, then 28, was a "drop-dead gorgeous" construction worker, Marcie said.
The attraction between them was electric.
"There's that instant thunderbolt moment," Marcie recalled.
Thoughts of Marcie lingered in the back of Roger's mind. But he was the town playboy, the guy who played the field. It would be four more years before he asked her out.
Their first date was at a race track in July 1977.
From the outset, their relationship was intense. Marcie said she fell passionately in love.
"He was just everything," she said.
In 1978, after about eight months of dating, Marcie found out she was pregnant. She said she was convinced Roger would marry her. Until, that is, she shared the news with him.
"I really wasn’t ready to settle down," Roger said. "And at the time I felt guilty about the whole situation."
He told Marcie she was better off without him.
"I was devastated," Marcie recalled. But she maintained hope that the man she loved would change his mind.
Months ticked by. Her belly grew. So, too, did fears of being a single mother with no money and no college education.
Her doctor's questions chipped away at Marcie's self-confidence. When will the wedding be? How is the nursery coming together? The doctor said he knew of a couple who wanted to adopt.
Marcie refused, sure that Roger would come through.
A few weeks before the baby was due, Roger came over. She brewed a pot of tea, and they sat at her kitchen table.
"What are you going to do?" Roger asked.
He listed all the reasons he couldn’t be a father. He explained why he thought Marcie should give up their child. Then he walked out of her life.
"I pretty much hated myself," Roger recalled.
After he left, Marcie looked around her one-bedroom apartment. She was scared. Alone. Desperate. And she said she realized she couldn’t care for their child on her own.
The next day, Marcie called her doctor. She said she’d place her child for adoption.
"I’m ready," she told him.
'Pretend you never gave birth'
Marcie gave birth Nov. 15, 1978.
She said medical personnel administered drugs so she was out of it when she delivered. When Marcie woke up, the baby wasn’t in the room. The nurses refused to let her see it and refused to tell her whether it was a boy or girl.
"You know you talked this over with your doctor," Marcie said the nurse told her. "You just pretend that you never gave birth to the child."
Marcie refused to leave the hospital until she saw her baby. She said she needed to know it was OK.
Eventually, the nurse carried a baby wrapped in a pink blanket into the room. She declined to let Marcie hold her daughter. But she allowed Marcie to remove the baby’s blanket to look her over and count fingers and toes. The little girl grabbed Marcie’s finger.
Sobbing, Marcie said a prayer and pressed her lips to her daughter’s forehead.
"I just thought, am I making the right decision?" she recalled. "I didn’t know."
On New Year's Day of 1979, Roger showed up at Marcie’s apartment a little drunk. He admitted he’d made a mistake. He said he wanted a life with her and their little girl.
"Is it too late?" he asked. "Let's get our daughter back."
At first, Marcie was incredulous. But he won her over, and she agreed to call her doctor to find out if they could undo the adoption. She said the doctor didn’t return her calls.
So the couple showed up at his office. The doctor turned them away. He claimed it was too late. Marcie said she found out later that her daughter had been adopted by the doctor's friends.
Roger tried to rekindle his relationship with Marcie, but the loss of their daughter proved to be an insurmountable barrier.
Marcie moved back to Indiana.
Marcie earned her securities license and her career took off. Over the next 28 years, she married, raised a daughter and divorced. But Marcie never forgot Roger or her first child.
"I just carried them in my heart," she said. "I loved him like I’ve never loved any man before."
So when Marcie’s niece called from Pennsylvania in 2007 to say she'd run into Roger, Marcie was curious.
She left him a voicemail in September 2007. When he called back, they talked for hours. They talked about their lives. Roger had never married. They talked about their daughter. Their phone conversations became a nightly ritual.
A few months later, around Christmas, they saw each other for the first time in nearly three decades.
He asked her to spend New Year's Eve with him. She flew to Pennsylvania, and he recreated their New Year's Eve experience from 30 years earlier. At midnight, as Roger spun Marcie around the dance floor, he told her for the first time that he loved her.
"This is really crazy," Roger said, "but I let you get away. You were always the one. Obviously neither one of us is getting any younger. I know it’s crazy, but let's get married."
He asked her to be his wife, to let him make up for the years they lost and the pain he caused. He promised to make her happy for the rest of her life.
They married four months later. Roger moved to Indiana to be with her.
After the wedding, Roger and Marcie decided to search for their daughter.
Marcie wrote a letter to their daughter and posted it on an adoption website, in case their daughter would see it.
A woman who helps adoptees find their biological parents saw the post and began to search for Roger and Marcie’s daughter. She found Jessica within hours, because Jessica, who was now living in Florida, had signed up for the Pennsylvania Adoption Information Registry.
Marcie thought the call was a joke. But the woman insisted she’d spoken to Jessica and confirmed it was her.
It was Father’s Day 2008. Jessica was 29 years old.
Roger and Marcie called her on speakerphone that night. At first, Jessica thought her mother was the only one on the line.
"Mama, is this really you?" Jessica asked. "Are you really my mother?"
Sobbing, Marcie replied: "Yes, honey, I am."
"I’ve been looking for you ever since I was 18 years old," Jessica said.
Marcie told Jessica she had another surprise.
"Your daddy's here with me," Marcie said.
Jessica said she couldn't believe it. In one day, she had reconnected with both biological parents.
"I was shocked that I had a daddy," she said. "That was a bonus."
'I knew you’d find me'
The next day, Roger and Marcie sent Jessica a bouquet of 29 yellow, white and pink roses — one for every year they had missed.
They bought her a plane ticket so she could fly to meet them.
Roger purchased an enormous teddy bear with a pink bow. As they waited at the Louisville International Airport — the closest airport to their southern Indiana home — he chatted with a woman standing next to him. He explained why they were there. The woman told her husband, who told someone else.
Soon, a small group had gathered around them. A woman gave Marcie her flowers.
"Give these to your baby girl when you see her," the woman said.
Stepping off the plane, Jessica said she was nervous and excited. She couldn’t wait to find out what her biological parents looked like.
Jessica walked out with her 2-year-old daughter perched on her hip. Her other children remained in Florida.
Roger and Marcie rushed forward. When the 2-year-old raised her arms, Roger grabbed her.
Marcie and Jessica embraced. Crying, they kissed and hugged again.
"It was just like everything was coming together, you know?" Marcie said. "This story that had lain dormant, this unfinished chapter of our lives was just all happening. It's unbelievable."
She said Jessica looked like the "perfect combination of me and Roger."
"I knew you’d find me," Jessica told them. "I never gave up. I knew you’d find me."
That first night, back at the house, they said it felt like they weren't strangers. Jessica stretched out on the sofa and laid her head in Marcie's lap like a child. She cupped Marcie's face in her hands and said, "You’re my mother. You really are my mother." Sitting on the floor, Roger wrapped his hands around the bottom of his daughter's legs.
Marcie said her mind flashed to the past, to what could have been.
"This was the way it was supposed to happen," she thought.
Jessica and her three children moved in with Roger and Marcie a couple months later.
Their idyllic beginning succumbed to the harshness of a reality that her parents never anticipated.
Roger and Marcie learned their daughter’s adoption had not been a happy one. Jessica also suffered seizures as a child and a stroke in her late 20s. She never graduated from high school. She struggled with alcohol and drugs. She gave birth to five children by five fathers, surrendering two of her kids to adoption.
When Roger and Marcie connected with her, Jessica and her adoptive mother, who was dying of cancer, were living on welfare in Florida. Her adoptive father had died in 2006.
"Because I surrendered, I felt a sense of responsibility," Marcie said. "I felt this was not right."
They tried to blend the families together. But Marcie said Jessica's wild lifestyle made it difficult.
"Oh my God," Marcie recalled. "It was a frigging disaster."
Over the next few years, Jessica moved in and out of Roger and Marcie’s home. She couldn’t hold down a job. She’d drink and party, leaving her children at the house.
Roger and Marcie felt guilty, so they kept letting it happen. It took a toll on their marriage. Finally, they told her it wasn’t working.
"Not every family is rainbows and sunshines, you know," Jessica said. "You have your bumps. You have your hurdles. And that's how you learn everything."
The next four years were turbulent for Jessica and her daughters. Her adoptive mother died of cancer in 2012. She and her three children moved from place to place. At one point, Jessica lived in a homeless shelter.
Eventually, one daughter moved to Pennsylvania to be with her father. Jessica and her other two daughters returned to Indiana.
They lived with Roger and Marcie for about four months, until Jessica started renting a small home. She also secured a job at Amazon.
Roger and Marcie divorced in 2014, but Marcie said they remain together. They also found a relationship with Jessica that works.
One day, when Roger and Jessica were together at Walmart, Jessica asked why he hadn't kept her all those years ago. Roger said he couldn’t give her an answer at the time. But her question sparked an idea. He decided it wasn’t too late for them to legally be a family.
He told Marcie they should adopt their daughter back. Adult adoptions are fairly rare, but allowed under Indiana law. Marcie said she was excited to give Jessica a sense of belonging.
"It's never too late," Marcie said.
On Thursday, all three signed the paperwork to initiate Jessica’s adoption. Afterward, Jessica patted her father’s right arm.
"So that’s pretty cool, huh?" she said. "What do you think?"
"It was one of the best times of my life," Roger replied.
At 72 years old, he would finally be a father.
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