Editor's note: The original text of this story has been edited.
The receptionist, as always, had opened the mail before Kathleen Chafin came in to work that morning. And everyone in the office seemed to be staring at Chafin as she picked up a stack of envelopes and walked off toward her desk.
Somewhere along the way, a letter fell out of the pile. And as Chafin stopped to pick it up, she couldn’t help noticing that everyone else in the room stopped too, watching for her reaction.
The letter was from somebody named Tom in Omaha, Nebraska.
Now close to retirement age in Seattle, Washington, Chafin had gotten pregnant as a college student back in 1968. And for several years, she had been leaving posts on certain websites and placing classified ads in certain newspapers, hoping somehow to get a message to the son who had been placed for adoption.
Now, in March 2015, Tom had finally stumbled across one of her posts, although by then it was more than five years old.
“Contact me,” the letter said, offering his phone number, “if you’re still interested.”
Her hands began shaking, and Chafin felt a little dizzy. She had trouble pronouncing words, and she couldn’t quite catch her breath. But she dialed the number.
‘An emotional day’
Harold Miller knew Chafin’s roommate, and the three of them had begun hanging out together as freshmen at St. Louis University in the fall of 1967. But the roommate soon became a third wheel.
Miller “had a goofy personality and was always making me laugh,” Chafin remembers. “And he was a super nice guy.”
“She was beautiful,” says Miller, who still has a black-and-white photo showing a slender blonde with shoulder-length hair. “Just beautiful, and a hell of a lady. I loved her.”
Within weeks, they were dating. And within months, she was pregnant.
Like a lot of unmarried coeds in that situation, Chafin discreetly left school and gave birth out of state, where the baby was put up for adoption. Miller, meanwhile, was starting his sophomore year when she called the dorm’s phone to tell him he had a son.
“That was a very emotional day for me,” Miller says, tearing up at the memory 48 years later. “I was a father, but then again, I wasn’t. I don’t know what I was.”
He wouldn’t talk to his girlfriend again for nearly half a century.
‘Couldn’t believe it’
Chafin eventually got married and had two daughters while adopting four other children. Then, after 20 years, she got divorced. But she had always kept track of Miller from afar.
She knew, for example, that he had gone to Vietnam, where one night in April 1971 he went to bed in an Army tent and woke up several weeks later in the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, D.C.
“Those tents,” Miller says, a subtle grin hinting that he’s about to crack another joke, “are supposed to keep you dry. But bullets and rockets and shells pass through them fairly easily.”
Chafin also knew that Miller, as a disabled veteran, was now living at the Town Village senior-living center in south Tulsa, where every once in a while she called the staff to ask if he needed anything. But she never asked to speak to him.
Miller had lost his sight in one eye and lost his hearing in one ear. And surgeons had to replace a sizable chunk of his skull, where a receding hairline has left the scars in clear view. But his injuries had not left Miller as disabled as Chafin seemed to think.
Constantly going for laughs, Miller can sometimes seem distracted and might stray a little off topic in the middle of a conversation.
“Other than that,” the Town Village staff member assured Chafin, “he’s fine. You should talk to him.”
In fact, Miller happened to walk into the office while Chafin was still on the phone. So the staff member handed the receiver to him.
“I couldn’t believe it was her,” Miller says. “And she had found our son? I didn’t know what to say.”
Tom graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, just 10 minutes from where his biological parents had met. And now he’s working as a health-care administrator in Nebraska, where he has a wife and four children, including a daughter who’s about to get married.
Nervous about the way Miller might react to all of this information, Chafin felt a rush of relief.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Miller kept repeating breathlessly into the phone, unable to come up with anything else to say. “Thank you.”
‘Going to happen’
To get reacquainted, Chafin came to Tulsa for Veterans Day last November, and it felt as if they had never been apart.
“We talked and laughed and just had fun together,” she says. “He’s the same person with the same kind of strange sense of humor. He made me laugh.”
Miller spent Christmas with her in Seattle, where they talked to Tom and his family over Chafin’s computer.
“He called me ‘father,’ and it really just blew my mind,” Miller says, choking up. “Me? I didn’t raise him. Somebody else did. But he said ‘father,’ and I still can’t get over it. That was the most amazing thing to hear.”
Now Chafin has come back to Tulsa for Valentine’s Day. Miller’s “girlfriend,” as he describes her, will go to the Town Village party with him. Then they hope to go out for sushi and maybe see “La La Land” before Chafin heads back to Seattle on Wednesday.
After that? Who knows. Chafin has a couple of years left before retirement.
“I know I want to be with him,” she says. “How? When? Where? I don’t know. But it’s going to happen.”