- Associated Press - Monday, February 24, 2014

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) - The 1970 Dodge Charger accelerated down a road curved along Lake Overholser. Five juvenile friends panicked; the gas pedal was stuck. When the vehicle struck a tree, all passengers suffered bodily harm. 16-year-old Mary Cordell, occupant of the front passenger seat, sustained leg and brain injuries. A young mother, she wouldn’t see her infant children again for nearly four decades.

The stubborn pedal had set in motion an exploration for answers. Mary, comatose, was expected to die, but a year following the accident, woke suddenly and discovered she had lost parental rights. Her children, Melissa and Wesley, nearly 1 and 3 years old at the time of the accident, had been placed in the foster care system.

“She had severe depression for a long time,” Mary’s niece, Patricia Cox, said. “She wasn’t understanding why.”

The children were in the care of Mary’s aunt, Nancy, for the six months after the wreck. Because Mary was incapacitated, Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) removed Mary’s rights and notified the family the children must be turned over to agency care. The family appeared in court twice, determined to keep the children, but eventually agreed to surrender them, acknowledging Mary’s bleak condition.

“I remember standing up in the back seat, at a stoplight. Aunt Nancy was driving and Melissa was laying in the back seat,” Wesley said. “I looked at Nancy. She wouldn’t look at me. I said, ‘You’re not going to let them take us, are you?’ She had tears and didn’t say a word.”

The children remained united during four years of foster home transitions.

“We went through foster home to foster home, several I can remember, some very bad ones,” Wesley said. “We weren’t there very long. The police would show up and we’d be snatched up and transported to the next foster home.”

In December 1983, the Farrimond family of Checotah adopted the children. The Farrimond couple had lost a biological daughter to a premature death, the day Wesley was born, and accepted the dates as a sign of fate. OKDHS relayed Mary’s situation and condition to the adoptive parents.

“They told our parents, when we got adopted, she was in a vegetable-like state and wouldn’t last long,” Wesley told the Shawnee News-Star (https://bit.ly/MeAfZI ).

Mary spent those early years alternating between stays at a nursing home and at her mother’s home, before permanently settling in a nursing home. The Farrimonds spent those years believing she had died. Melissa’s interest in finding her biological mother briefly gained traction in her teenage years. Her adoptive parents were encouraging, so she researched closed adoption and conversed with OKDHS caseworkers, but was left with more questions than answers.

With technology less readily available at the time, Wesley said his curiosity was at a standstill. Mary’s family was stuck in their search too. OKDHS told them records were sealed. An attorney advised the family drop the pursuit, as Mary was still incapable of caring for children. They refused to abandon their efforts.

“We continued to search for them by phone books and Internet . pretty much all the resources we had to find them, other than waiting for them to come to us,” Patricia said.

Mary remained enthusiastic about finding her children.

“She was very excited about the search for them. She was a little disappointed it wasn’t happening fast, but she was excited about the possibility of finding them,” Patricia said. “She just wanted her babies home. To her, they were still babies.”

In 2005, Patricia continued her search on Ancestry.com. She created a family tree and posted in forums until 2013. The seeds for a homecoming were planted.

“I had kinda given up hope on finding our family,” Melissa said. “Then, about five years ago, I got really ill and tried to start looking for our family. I knew we were from the Oklahoma City area and our last name was Cordell. I got a phone book and called every Cordell name.”

The calls were met with confusion. The recipients were oblivious to her quest. Then, on Jan. 1, 2014, she typed her would-be name, Melissa Cordell, into a search engine. Patricia’s forum post was distinct among the results: “I am searching for you!!! wesley and melissa cordell .”

Melissa immediately e-mailed and called Patricia.

“The first thing she said to me was, ‘You’re a miracle worker,’” Patricia said. “There was a lot of tears. She was in shock. She had a thousand questions and, before we finished the call, we discussed getting together as soon as possible. I also talked to Wesley that day and same scenario. They wanted to see their mom.”

That weekend, Wesley surprised Mary at her Shawnee nursing home.

“She was sitting in the foyer. There was a bunch of kids and she knew every one of them. I waited until everyone had gone through, and walked up to her,” Wesley said. “I said, ‘Do you know I am?’ She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘I’m your son, Wesley.’ You could see 35 years of not knowing and wanting to know in her eyes. She was overcome. I was too.”

Patricia witnessed Mary’s emotions during the half-day reunion.

“She was in shock and she burst into tears,” Patricia said. “She just wanted to hold him and tell him how much she loved him.”

Melissa’s visit mirrored her brother’s. Wesley has visited Mary every weekend since, and both children speak with their mother daily.

“I’d like to get to know her better, become a family and have a better relationship with her,” Melissa said.

When Mary learned she has four grandchildren, she excitedly announced her grandmother status to the entire nursing home. Mary is able to speak clearly, but has a limited short-term memory. Wesley said she remembers the accident, but partially forgets his weekend visits and regularly repeats conversations. He would like to eventually settle into a bigger home, hire a private nurse, and have Mary live with him, so he can see her everyday.”The only thing I’ve ever wanted, all these years, is my mother,” Wesley said. “I’d like to know about my father, but it’s not priority. The priority has always been wanting to get to know my mom, and her getting to know me.”

The initial reunions are testament family members torn by tragedy can reassemble into their natural roles.

“Oddly, it was like we had never been apart. That’s how comfortable we were,” Patricia said. “This is a big miracle, something our family really needed.”


Information from: The Shawnee News-Star, https://www.news-star.com

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