Photo by Carrie Arrington.
On Mar. 8, Jason Harris stepped off a plane into a small North Carolina airport and locked eyes with Sandi Gunning Arrington. The mother and son smiled at each other for the first time.
Harris, an Augustana business law professor, met his birth mother Arrington for the first time in March as part of a 50-year search for his identity.
In June 1968, Arrington gave birth to Harris in Sioux Falls but said she never got to count his fingers or toes like most mothers. In a blur of hugs and tears at the Asheville Airport, Arrington made sure to count each one of her son’s ten fingers.
“I was feeling an inner peace that I had never had in my adult life,” Arrington said.
The familial similarity was clear from their ears to their smiles. Harris and Arrington left the N.C. airport toward Tupelo Honey Cafe hand-in-hand, and choosing separately, each ordered the same beet salad.
During his five-day visit to Hendersonville, N.C., Harris met many family members including his sister Carrie Arrington. Harris also has a brother, Bram Arrington, whom he has not yet met.
“When you’re adopted, there is this void,” Harris said. “There is this big unknown chunk of your life that you don’t know about. It’s scary; it’s uncertain. And now, mine is full—I obviously have a lot to learn—but it’s full.”
Harris said his understanding of family changed as he searched for Arrington and stayed true to his Harris roots.
“I suppose a family is a group of people that love each other unconditionally, and love is about multiplication not division,” Harris said. “There’s room in your heart for more. You can have two moms, and that’s okay.”’
Like Harris, Arrington also defines family by unconditional love.
“Family isn’t just who lives in your house,” Arrington said. “It’s who lives in your heart—and it can expand.”
In 1968, Arrington attended Florida State University. Well into her sixth month of pregnancy, Arrington told her parents she would be traveling to Sioux Falls in June to have the baby and give him up for adoption.
“I firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose,” Arrington said, “and that was my choice.”
Arrington said she thought of Harris often during their 50 year separation, especially during special occasions such as his birthday, Mother’s Day and Christmas.
“Does he play baseball? Does he play soccer? Does he play an instrument?” Arrington said she wondered.
Two months after his birth, Harris found his home with Russell and Mary Ann Harris in Rapid City. He grew up there with two older brothers, Jeff and Matt, and an older sister, Julie.
“It was a happy childhood,” Harris said. “I had everything that I needed.”
Russell and Mary Ann chose to adopt because they wanted a big family but had complications with births. Their older sons were born with trisomy 9p, a rare birth defect, and one daughter, Jill, who passed away at three days old.
“[Mary Ann] took, in many ways, what people might consider an abnormal situation and made it seem normal,” Harris said. “Here’s this child that biologically is not them, but as far as I was concerned then and as far as I’m concerned now—I’m Harris.”
Harris said although Mary Ann and Russell both passed away, they both would have been supportive of his decision to seek his birth mother. Harris said he calls Arrington simply “mom.”
“She is incredibly intelligent, caring, and compassionate—all those things you would want in a mom,” Harris said. “And I already had [those] in Mary Ann, and now I’ve got them in Sandi. I’ve got both.”
In college, Arrington and Harris both majored in government and minored in history.
Harris’s first year of undergraduate coursework at Augustana, he said he chose to receive “non-identifying information” from Lutheran Social Services (LSS) about his birth. The information in this letter helped him find Arrington years later.
The clues were general: at his birth, his mother was 20 years old with two brothers, who were 13 and 15. Although LSS could have helped him locate her, Harris declined.
The Alaska Center for Resource Families gives seven core issues an adoptee, adoptive parent, and/or birth parent may face: loss, rejection, guilt/shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and control. Harris said identity was a big factor that drove his search for Arrington.
Harris said he was hesitant to search further for several years and took time to carefully consider his decision, but as he saw his window for finding his mother was closing, he decided to start searching again.
In 2017, Harris received 23andMe genetic testing results, but the closest DNA match was a second cousin, which was not enough to locate his mother. Again, Harris took time to think about the impact on both his and Arrington’s families.
Then in July 2018, Harris received results through AncestryDNA revealing his first cousin, Andrea Gunning. After sending her an email, he discovered she knew nothing of his birth, but she remained willing to help.
In Sept. 2018, Gunning told Harris she would be getting married soon. Discovering the wedding would be in North Carolina, Harris had the final clue needed to find Arrington.
Harris used Spokeo and other online family search sites to find siblings of Andrea Gunning’s father James Gunning: Bob Gunning and Sandi Gunning Arrington. Figuring out the age of each person in 1968, Harris knew he found his mother.
“I feel I’ve been very blessed, and I’m very appreciative of his persistence in trying to find me,” Arrington said.
Harris wrote a letter to Arrington outlining his hopes to thank his birth mother for her decision, for seeking genetic health information and pursuing reunification.
“I had a rush of warmth in my heart,” Arrington said.
Arrington described the letter as “kind” and “gentle,” saying she knew immediately at the mailbox the letter was from Harris.
“The joy of knowing he was okay was overwhelming,” Arrington said.
However, Arrington said she took the next few months to consider how and when to contact Harris and whether she should tell her children first.
As Harris went to the HyVee checkout aisle on Dec. 24, 2018, he said he received an unexpected email from Arrington.
“His letter to me was a gift, and I wanted to respond and give him a gift,” Arrington said. “And what better time than Christmas Eve.”
Tears came to Harris’s eyes as he sat in his car reading Arrington’s first words to him in an email beginning “Dearest Jason.”
“It’s this feeling that somebody that gave you life is reaching out to you and wanted further contact,” Harris said.
On Feb. 3, Harris and Arrington spoke on the phone for the first time. Harris said after a moment of awkward pause the two-hour conversation “seemed so natural.”
“Two minutes into the conversation, it was like we’d known each other forever,” Arrington said.
The new-found family members then started speaking about getting together in N. C. Arrington said she plans to visit Harris, her daughter-in-law and grandchildren in South Dakota on June 6.
“I’m telling you there’s good in the world,” Harris said. “The way that I have been embraced by that family is unbelievable.”