ROCKFORD — Diane Pope stepped into her daughter’s Rockford living room and gasped.
Greg Harris, the newborn son she was forced to give away at age 17 stood beside her — now a grown man — with a bouquet of flowers.
“Oh my God. My baby,” Pope, a South Side native who lives in Park Forest, said as her family watched a reunion nearly 44 years in the making.
“Oh my God. I have to make sure I don’t fall down,” Pope, 60, said.
The mother of five hugged her firstborn — a spitting image of herself — for nearly five minutes, squeezing him tight and kissing him.
“I haven’t seen him in 44 years. That’s amazing,” Pope said. “You are so handsome. I love you. I’m going to kiss you 44,000 times.”
Harris, a West Side native who now lives in Virginia, flew in Saturday to surprise his birth mother in time for Mother’s Day.
Pope had planned to spend the weekend with her daughters in Rockford. Instead, she met the baby she never had a chance to watch grow up.
‘She looked just like me’
Harris, 43, was born in 1970 at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital, a safe haven for unwed mothers. But Pope’s mother was none too pleased. It wasn’t until Pope tried to see her son for the first time that she realized he was gone. Her mother had signed adoption papers and ‘Anthony Darnell Hatchett’ was no longer hers. She was heartbroken.
Forty three years later — in February — Harris learned he was adopted when his adopted mother blurted out the truth during an argument.
“I said, ‘Are you trying to say I’m not your real son?’ ” Harris said. “She said ‘Yes.’ ”
The former police detective asked his adoptive father, who lives in Connecticut, if it was true. He said yes.
Equipped with his original and newly acquired birth certificate, he learned his real name and birthdate. His adoptive parents, who are divorced, had skewed the date by four days.
“I got my [birth] mother’s name on that certificate. I put her name in Facebook just to see if I could see her picture,” Harris said. “I saw a picture, and I just looked at her and I swear to God, she looked just like me. I told my wife, ‘That’s my mother.’ ”
Harris immediately reached out to Pope. But it wasn’t until two weeks later that she responded.
Pope said she didn’t entirely trust the message at first but was urged by her daughter Delilah to take it seriously.
“Is someone trying to dupe me on Facebook?” Pope said. “My daughter said, ‘No, mama, I think somebody is trying to tell you something.’ ”
Pope said her children had searched for Harris for a long time.
“My daughter kept saying, ‘Look at that message, Mama.’ I usually delete my messages. I didn’t delete it,” Pope said. “I kept looking at that picture and I thought, ‘it can’t be.’ ”
Finally, Daniel Jones, Pope’s youngest son, reached out to Harris, leaving him a voicemail that simply said “I’m your brother.”
“I went to bed and the next morning I had several calls from Utah, and all these different numbers, and I found out they were my siblings,” Harris said. “They told me they’d been searching for me for 43 years.”
“I finally spoke to my mother for the first time, and she said ‘I’ve been looking for you all my life.’ ”
A whole new family
Harris and Pope talked on the phone every day. And planned a family reunion for June in Chicago, at which point Harris will see his birth father, who is in a nursing home in the city.
Harris, who believed he was an only child, has four siblings — two brothers and two sisters, as well as 14 nieces and nephews.
And Pope and her family now have Harris, his wife and his two children, ages 13 and 18.
Saturday’s surprise also was the first time Harris met his sisters Bernice Edmonton and Delilah Williams, as well as his brother Daniel Jones: “We’re only 14 months apart. He’s been missed,” Edmonton said Saturday. “Definitely 42 years on my end.”
“He’s got so many relatives now. It’s amazing. You’ve got a whole new family now. Look at them,” Pope said as her family laughed.
“This is the best Mother’s Day ever. Nobody give me anything else ever again. This is it right there. A marvelous blessing right here.”