EAST LANSING – Melanie McCormick and Madie Gustafson were born seven years apart, grew up on opposite sides of the U.S. and never knew one another until recently but their stories are mirror images.
Both were born in Seoul, South Korea and were given up by their birth mother as infants. Their adoptive parents met them in airports — Melanie’s in Detroit and Madie’s in Seattle. Both grew up with brothers, not sisters at their new homes, adopted youth with almost no information about their birth parents.
Neither considered the possibility their birth sibling was living in the U.S. Then last year Melanie, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, saw Madie’s face for the first time in a photo posted on the DNA testing website 23andMe.
“Half sister,” read the notification she received from the site.
“It was the biggest gift of my life,” Melanie, 28, said.
Madie read Melanie’s first message to her at her home in Washington State.
“It was like an out of body experience reading it,” Madie, 36, said. “I immediately began to weep uncontrollably.”
They’ve spent the last year getting to know each other long distance. Family illness kept them from meeting in person last year.
Now amid the COVID-19 pandemic they stay in touch via phone calls, texts and Zoom sessions, patiently waiting for a safe time to visit with each other face to face.
In childhood, both women longed for a sister.
“We had no idea but she was there,” Madie said. “We had it.”
Melanie and Madie’s birth mother wasn’t in either of their lives very long.
Melanie grew up in Grand Blanc. The adoption paperwork she has described her birth mother as “calm, pretty, and of medium build.” It indicated her mother wanted to remain anonymous.
Melanie made peace with it.
“I never really had interest in trying to find my biological family,” she said.
Madie was curious. She had an “idyllic childhood,” but remembers feeling like she didn’t completely belong where she was.
“My parents did as much as they could to try and encourage my culture,” Madie said. She remembers attending a youth camp with other Korean adoptees and she focused on being a part of the largely white, suburban community they lived in.
“I thought about that a lot but I kept that internal because I didn’t want my mom or dad questioning if I loved them,” Madie said. “It’s silly but those are things I thought about growing up.”
Neither sister signed up for DNA testing because they hoped to find blood relatives. They received their kits as gifts after expressing interest in learning more about their genetic makeup and health history.
Madie submitted her information first in 2018. She was registered on the 23andMe site for a year before Melanie found her.
“I had no intention of finding any family members but I was very curious about health,” she said. “It was really frustrating going to the doctor’s office and putting down N/A for everything.”
Melanie signed up for the site in early 2019 for many of the same reasons. She stumbled upon the notification listing Madie as her half sisterearly one morning.
“She’s the sibling I always wanted but never had,” Melanie said.
In the time since that first phone conversation, establishing their long-distance relationship has been easy.
Melanie and Madie find common ground with every conversation — in their childhoods as Korean adoptees growing up in America, the movies and shows they watch and the questions they both have about their birth country.
“We kind of grilled each other with questions at first,” Melanie said. “We’ve talked a lot. I still sometimes don’t believe it, to be honest with you. What are the chances of this happening?”
Science and technology made their discovery possible, Madie said.
“If this had been a couple decades ago we would have never found each other,” she said. “There would have been no way to.”
Waiting to meet
A face-to-face meeting has been in the works for the past year but wouldn’t feel right, Melanie said, unless both her adopted parents could go to Washington State with her.
A trip was delayed because Lynette McCormick, Melanie’s mother, wasn’t well enough to travel last year.
COVID-19 has delayed it further.
In the meantime, Melanie and Madie took advantage of technology once again for the next best thing — a Zoom session this year with both sets of adoptive parents, Melanie’s partner, Tristin and Madie’s husband, Trevor and their two daughters, Charlie, 5, and Olive, 2.
“I can’t wait to meet them in person,” Melanie said.
Connecting with the people in her sister’s life matters, Madie said.
“I want to know her parents and brothers,” she said. “I want to get to know who raised her.”
The takeaway from their surprise discovery is something others should consider if they’re hesitant about exploring their heritage, Madie said.
Go for it, she said.
“You just never know.”
Contact Rachel Greco at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.