I was born a child to Sellers Home for Unwed Mothers, the longtime Baptist adoption agency on Peniston Street in New Orleans. When I was 2 months old, I was adopted by a teacher Ole Miss and his wife. They had met at the First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge while he was earning a doctorate. in microbiology at LSU. He was the church organist and she was the church secretary – a perfect marriage, but it never really felt that way in our home in Oxford, Mississippi.
Most of the time, I felt like someone was dropping me off at a strange babysitter but had never come to pick me up.
Originally from Bogalusa, my father was the nicest, baking cakes for the students for their birthdays, taking their photos in the front yard under the oak tree. But if the students weren’t there, his mood would deflate and darken with the sunset. My mom tried to patch me up in the family quilt, along with my older sister, also adopted. But the threads couldn’t hold on.
Mom made up white lies to try and make things better, like suggesting my biological dad played basketball at LSU because I discovered Dale Brown’s charisma when I was young. But I knew she wasn’t being honest with me.
At that time, adoption records were sealed, locked away by the state, and birth certificates were amended. Mine says I was born November 27, 1965 at the Baptist Hospital in New Orleans. My mother was listed as “Betty”; my dad as “Lyman.” But they were my adoptive parents. Someone else gave birth to me in late November afternoon. She was 18, single, from Shreveport, and she was told, like all Sellers girls, to give her baby up for adoption and then forget about her.
It was supposed to be like this child never arrived.
Yet I was there, moving to Oxford with my adoptive family. I loved my parents and coveted their love and approval. But in my house, full of secrets and disconnection, I was alone and I looked for affirmation.
At Thanksgiving, my mom’s turkey fell hard in the middle of the awkward conversation. I found relief at the age of 14, drinking my first beers on a county edge run with friends. But the alcohol only made my discomfort worse, leading to vague attempts at recasting even though I never once saw my parents drink a drop of it.
Drinking has become easy for me, like a shot that sails so gently through the bucket that it barely tickles the net. The same goes for speaking in front of a crowd, telling stories and hitting a baseball over the fence, although I haven’t learned any of that at home. On the contrary, such differences only made the obvious more glaring: this family was not mine.
Growing up a few blocks from the Ole Miss campus, going to college was inevitable. My first year, I met my future wife at the Sigma Nu fraternity house.
When our first child, William, was born in 1990, he was the first blood parent I have ever met. The moment was emotional and I determined that I would do better as a father and a man.
Within a few years, we had three children, and when our family sat together on the church bench, I could see other parishioners smiling at our apparent perfection. Often it was like that. My story landed book deals and a daily TV show on a small national cable network, and I was celebrating with a tall glass of wine, followed by another, night after night.
William became a member of All States in Track and Field and went to Ole Miss, where he raced as a sprinter, competing in the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the 400 hurdles while joining Sigma Nu, as i had done so, and excelling as a college graduate student. . But he was also anxious and shy, and was healing himself. Shortly after graduation, we put him on drug addiction treatment.
Meanwhile, another son, Hudson, nearly died of an accidental overdose at the same fraternity house on the Ole Miss campus, while our daughter, Mary Halley, suffered from an eating disorder that started in high school. At the same time, I was losing myself and my career, suffering from prescription Adderall, alcohol addiction and infidelity.
My wife filed for divorce and I was losing the one thing I ever wanted: my immediate family.
I decided to fight back, let go of the things I couldn’t control and move away from substances used to alter my feelings, investing instead in perspective, faith and forgiveness – of others and of me – same. I got my life back, my wife and our family started to heal together.
Except one of us didn’t. I found our precious William dead of an accidental drug overdose one morning in 2013. He was 23 years old.
With a stronger foundation, our family faced the devastation and moved forward together. Hudson has regained sobriety, and so have I. My daughter has recovered from her eating disorder. We embraced the grief, but we also fought to reclaim the joy the addiction had stolen.
Joy returned, like a steady drumbeat in the distance, coming closer and never stopping. We miss our William so much, but in the midst of inexplicable loss came inexplicable gifts. Precisely six years after his death, with a lucky DNA test, I found my biological father’s family – and so many answers.
I learned my life was created at an alcohol-soaked spring fraternity party amid the exuberance of youth at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon House on the LSU campus in 1965. Lloyd Lindsey, who is became a beloved superintendent of West Feliciana Parish, was my biological father and, although he did not play basketball at LSU, his own father, Lloyd “Shongaloo” Lindsey Sr., did. made, as a starter on LSU’s only national championship basketball team, during the 1934-35 season. Lloyd Sr. also dabbled in education, serving as a school principal in Baton Rouge for many years.
Although my father sadly passed away from a fall years before I found out who he was, I also reunited with my mother, and she and I developed a relationship that continues today.
So many of my traits, like storytelling and loving people, came from Lloyd. I see it, and I, in my half-siblings of the family he had: Brother Lile, from Baton Rouge; Tim, family doctor in St. Francisville; Sister Ruthie, now living in Nashville, as well as her nieces, nephews and cousins in Brusly and New Orleans.
That makes all the difference.
This Thanksgiving, 56 years after being orphaned at Sellers on Peniston in New Orleans awaiting adoption, I will be in St. Francisville with my wife and biological family members – with a clear mind and a happy heart, eating turkey that will get right to the point, counting my blessings as a man rich in family and identity.
David Magee is the Institute Advancement Director at the University of Mississippi, where the William Magee Institute for Student Welfare is named after his late son, and the author of “Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love and Loss “. It appears at Octavia Books in New Orleans on November 22 at 6 p.m. and at The Conundrum in St. Francisville on November 23 at 4 p.m. Learn more at daviddmagee.com.