It took Nathan Oystrick 26 years for the chance to speak to the person who gave him life.
The Thrashers defenseman recently met the woman who, at 16, gave him up for adoption. Their reunion was understandably emotional; they had found each other through a random Internet search. But Oystrick had one simple thought he wanted to express above all others.
He really just wanted to thank Kandace Lawson-Aspelieter.
"It was probably tough for her," said Oystrick, who will start the upcoming season with the Thrashers' minor-league affiliate in Chicago. "In the long run it was her decision: to have the kid and put it up for adoption; have the kid and take care of it; or, worse comes to worst, the A-word. She went through the pregnancy and the birth. I was always thankful for her doing that because without her I wouldn't be here, wouldn't be where I am. I may not even been born.
"That would be the biggest reason I wanted to find her. To just say thanks. Give her a hug."
He thanked her that he wound up being raised in a home with two loving parents. He thanked her for the chance to live – and live such a fortunate life.
"I could have ended up in a ditch somewhere, been a drug addict or in jail," Oystrick said. "But she can say, 'I had a son when I was 16. I put him up for adoption and it worked out. He plays hockey in the NHL now.' I think that was the biggest load off her shoulders. She made the right decision."
If the search is over, the relationship has only started. But in retrospect, their journey to reunion was filled with twists of coincidence, luck and irony. Consider:
-- Nathan's search began only when his wife, Lindsay, Googled herself.
-- Kandace's search unknowingly began when she helped her adopted sister find her birth mother.
-- Nathan's biological father was a minor-league hockey player.
-- The first house Nathan can remember living in was just four blocks from Kandace's house.
-- It is likely that Kandace served coffee to Nathan's mother, Elsie, at a restaurant, neither knowing their link.
A loving family
The story begins in Regina, Saskatchewan, where on Dec. 17, 1982, a baby named Jordan Robert was born to Kandace Lawson. Three simple facts would become essential 26 years later.
The child, born out of wedlock, was put up for adoption and shortly, Dan and Elsie Oystrick took in a two-month-old boy named Nathan. He became the couple's second child; they also had a teenage daughter of their own.
It was never a secret how Nathan had joined the family. Adoption was a word used frequently in the household. Nathan was told he was adopted when he was eight. He grew up in Regina, a typical kid from a loving home with an aptitude for hockey.
All along, Kandace was close, though no one knew how close. Her family was in the hotel business. One of those hotels was where Nathan's youth hockey banquets were held. They could have met and never known it.
One of the hotels was located across the street from Elsie's office. It had a coffee shop she frequented with co-workers. Kandace often helped out there. She and her sister, in all likelihood, waited on Elsie. They could have met and never known it.
"It's kind of weird to think over the past 26 years, there is a pretty good chance that I've run into her a few times or passed her in the mall," Nathan said.
That they one day would search for each other seemed predestined. Kandace tried early on, writing letters to Nathan that were not delivered by social workers because the adoption was closed. Writing the letters gave Kandace a chance to explain, to wonder how he was doing. It gave her a chance to remain connected, even in some small way.
"He's never been a secret in my life and I've never been a secret in his life," Kandace said.
The search starts
One night last February, Nathan and Lindsay, then still his fiancee, were watching television and her maiden name -- Gendron – was mentioned on-air. Curious, she went to a computer and entered her name in a search engine. A genealogy Website popped up.
She entered Nathan's biological name. The very first item that came up was an entry about a baby boy born in Regina on Dec. 17, 1982.
"I never thought I'd find anything," Lindsay said.
Although Nathan had thought about searching for his biological mother while in college at Northern Michigan, he didn't act on Lindsay's discovery. He was in the midst of his first NHL season. There was too much going on. He had waited this long, he could wait a while longer.
Once the season ended, Nathan and Lindsay took a vacation to Destin , Fla., where on their first night, in a hotel room, Lindsay persuaded Nathan to return to the Website. There were no more excuses.
They again found the entry. It had been posted several years earlier, when Kandace was helping her sister locate her biological mother.
After calling his parents and sister – he wanted to be sure if the posting was their attempt to find his biological mother– Nathan responded to the post: he was born in Regina. Robert Jordan was his biological name. Dec. 17, 1982 was his birth date. He was adopted at age two months.
Kandace got the e-mail an half-hour later. She ordinarily didn't check her e-mail in the evening. And when she saw the reply through the Website, she nearly deleted it, thinking it was junk mail.
But she knew the enormity of the situation the minute she opened it.
"I don't know what made me open it," Kandace said. "I said, 'If this is a joke it's not funny.' Then I started bawling. ... I can hardly put it into words but it was the most amazing moment of my adult life."
She replied immediately. Several quick e-mails were exchanged with questions confirming what they all already knew. They had found each other. The whole process took about an hour.
The e-mails were followed that night by a phone call. They talked for nearly two hours.
"It was a pretty emotional phone call," Nathan said.
Kandace wondered if she could visit Nathan in Atlanta. Before he answered, Nathan made another phone call. He wanted to let his parents and sister know what had happened. He also wanted to ask them if they would mind if he met Kandace.
"They were like, 'Sure, why did you even call us? Call her back,' " Nathan said. "They've always been behind me."
Time to cry
One week later, Kandace and her daughter Maegan, 23, flew to Atlanta. Nathan flew his sister, Dana, in as well. With Lindsay there, Nathan was soon surrounded by four crying women.
"It was obviously pretty amazing to find your mother," Nathan said.
They spent several days together, sharing stories, pictures and those unsent letters. Nathan read everything Kandace had wanted to say to him so many years ago.
"Not a day in 26 years that went by that I did not think of him," Kandace said. "It's a dream come true. I never regretted doing what I did, but I spent 26 years hoping and praying I made the right decision."
Nathan had photos of himself from his short time in a foster home, a baby boy in a blanket wearing a blue sweater. They came with his adoption papers. Kandace had the same photos.
"She explained everything that happened," Nathan said.
The reunion in Atlanta was followed quickly by another one. The families reunited this summer – at Nathan and Lindsay's wedding.
They still speak once a week on the phone and Kandace is planning to see him when the Thrashers play in Calgary and Vancouver. She also has plans to return to Atlanta. The reunion has had several emotional levels. Lindsay says it "completes" Nathan. But all involved are also certain about one thing: Nathan did not find his "mother."
"My parents will always be my parents," Nathan said. "I love them. I had to yell at my mom a few times because she would say, 'Oh, you found your mom.' And I would have to say to her, 'You're my mom. Sure, she is the person that gave birth to me, but you raised me.' My mother raised me. My father raised me."
Kandace can only concur.
"I look at his parents and have nothing but respect, gratitude and love for two people I only met briefly," she said. "I don't ever want to take anything away from his mother, but I'm very proud of him. The whole experience was amazing. The entire family made me feel completely at home. ... If it all would have ended at thank you, I would have felt like the most blessed person on the earth. Now, I'm even more blessed."
Nathan is not certain if he will search for his biological father. He knows his name and where he lives. It was Kandace he wanted to find, that he wanted to thank.
"There may be a time when I track him down," Nathan said. "I don't even know if he wants to. I'm not sure if I want to, either. My concern was always to find my biological mother."
The story has one more turn. Nathan and Lindsay want to give something back because so much was given to them.
"It's turned my life around," Nathan said. "My wife and I are planning on adopting our first child and then having one of our own. It's just kind of a cool thing that, because I was adopted and brought up in such a loving and caring environment, that I can give that back to some other child and help them grow the same way I did."
"For us to see how his situation turned out," Lindsay said, "to be able to give that to someone would be amazing."
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