Thanks to the courage of a teenage birth mother and the work of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, St. Henry parishioner Matt Davis received the greatest of all gifts: the gift of life, and a loving adoptive family.
During November, designated as National Adoption Month, Davis reflected on his journey of being raised by an adoptive family and recently re-connecting with his birth mother.
"I'm thankful that a family here opened themselves up to having a child that wasn't theirs by blood," Davis said. "I had a happy home, amazing parents and a great life."
When Davis ponders the brave decision his birth mother made, allowing him to have that life, he just wants her to know "you are a superhero for what you did."
I'm not going to abort
Flashback to Naples, Florida, 1971: Cindi Salyer was an outgoing high school student with a long-term boyfriend. When she got pregnant during her junior year, she was scared and confused, and didn't even tell her mother until she was six months along and showing.
Some family members wanted Salyer to abort the baby to avoid the shame that followed teen mothers at that time.
"All along I said I'm not going to abort," Salyer said.
It was quickly decided that she would come to Nashville to stay with her sister until she could give birth to her baby and return home to finish her senior year and graduate from high school.
With the help of her sister, Salyer researched adoption agencies and decided on Catholic Charities, trusting they would place her baby in a good home.
While she had made peace with the decision to give her son up for adoption, she still struggles to put into words what that felt like after he was born.
"They only gave me one day with him," she says, choking back tears as she talks about the experience almost five decades later.
Still, she said, "I knew I had to give him a better home and a chance at a better life. It was the toughest decision I've ever made, but I did it for him."
Year after year I wondered
Ten days after he was born, baby Matt was welcomed into his forever home by the Davis family: dad and mom Bob and Mary Jane and big sister Kelly, who was adopted from another birth family. While the Davis family had some minimal information about Salyer, they didn't even know her name and had no contact information for her, as was the general practice with domestic adoptions at that time.
Today, Catholic Charities and other adoption agencies strive for more open adoptions, which allows the adoptive family to meet the birth parents and maintain some level of contact.
Without that type of openness, "year after year, I wondered where he was," Salyer said of her son.
When she married in 1976 and had a daughter, she was open with her family about the son she had given up for adoption. "I didn't want it to be unknown," she said.
Likewise, Bob and Mary Jane Davis were honest with their son and daughter about the fact that they were adopted, and always let them know how much they were loved.
Raised in a stable and loving environment, "I never felt like I was missing anything," and never felt compelled to search for his birth mother, said Davis, who is an alum of Father Ryan High School and the University of Notre Dame.
Davis is also a long-time volunteer for the Diocese of Nashville's Youth Leadership Workshop and SEARCH programs. "It keeps me young," he said.
"It's a gift to me every time, watching them experience it for the first time," he said of the teen participants in those programs.
Gifts of life and family
Even though Davis wasn't searching for his birth mother, the search came to him through Ancestry.com after he took a DNA test. Through the website's messaging system, another Ancestry user reached out to him after seeing they were 98 percent likely to be related.
When he let the messenger know that he was adopted and his birthday was Oct. 2, 1971, Salyer's granddaughter responded with an enthusiastic, "OMG, you are my grandmother's kid!"
"Wow, it was exciting," Davis said of the moment they figured out the connection.
Salyer herself could hardly believe it. "Is it true?" she said. "I was hesitant but curious. I asked some more questions and he had all the right answers."
Davis and Salyer spoke the next day, and on Oct. 2, 2017, they were reunited when she made the trip up to Nashville for her son's 46th birthday, the first time she had seen him since he was one day old. "It was very emotional," Salyer said.
For so many years, Salyer said, "I was hoping he had a good family and a good life and he did. I feel so blessed."
Davis remains extremely grateful for his birth mother's decision all those years ago, and for his parents' loving embrace since then. "The way I see it is I got two gifts. The gift of life and the gift of a great family."