The day was no different than any other. It was the fall semester of my sophomore year in college; the changing colors of the leaves against the backdrop of weathered stone buildings made the walk to my dorm seem like a stroll through a promotional brochure for the university. I scanned my ID card to enter my residence hall, unlocked my room, and closed the door behind me.

Then I opened the letters from my birthmother for the first time.

I had requested that my parents send me the letters a few weeks prior to that day. I had received them over the years—eight in total—forwarded from the priest who had arranged my adoption twenty years in the past. Whenever I received a letter in the mail, I asked my parents to put it with the others.

“You can read the letters at any time,” my mother assured me. “Whenever you’re ready.”

It wasn’t really a matter of being ready or not; I just wasn’t all that curious. I was adopted when I was three days old, so my adoptive parents had always been my parents. My friends ask when I first found out that I was adopted, and I don’t have a good answer for them. I’ve always known. My parents didn’t hide it from me. So there was no aura of mystery, no great secret about the contents of those letters. They were available, and I was in no rush to read them.

I should mention that I harbored no resentment against my birthmother. Although my parents didn’t know much, they knew that she had been a young, single mother, and she wanted to give me a better life than the one she was able to give me at the time. As a child, that made sense to me, and I was grateful to have both a mother and a father to raise me.

Perhaps you’ve heard someone say on television or in the movies or even in person, “You’re not my real mom/dad!” I’ve heard that line a number of times, but it’s never occurred to me to say it. What does that mean, “real” mom or “real” dad? My real mom is the woman who taught me how to read, who held her cool palm to my forehead when I got a migraine, who cried a little when I went abroad for the summer. My real father is the man who rigged my Power Wheel tricycle for extra traction, who showed me how to find the best kindling for campfires, who complimented my posture after I received an award in high school. My parents are the people who nurtured me from the beginning.

In the back of my mind, one of the reasons I didn’t open those letters for so many years is that I was protective of my parents. I didn’t want them to feel like I was going to replace them. That one day I’d be done with them and return to my birthmother. Children are surprisingly conscious of their parents’ feelings; although I picked my fair share of fights with them over the years, my adoption was off limits. My parents gave me my life, the greatest gift possible.

But during my sophomore year, I became increasingly aware that there was another person out there who had given me life. I started to have questions: What if there was a disease that ran in my family that I needed to know about? What if my birthmother had passed away or was going to pass away before I even opened the letters? What if my birthmother or biological father were famous? What if I had other siblings out there? What if they attended the same college I did? What if I had met my biological brother or sister?

What if I accidentally dated my biological sister?

Enough was enough. I requested the letters from my parents. Including my mother and father in the process, I knew, would be important. I didn’t want them to feel out of the loop, especially since they were already sensitive to the distance between us when I was away at school.

I sorted the letters by the dates on the faded envelopes. The oldest was already open, read long ago by my parents on the day I was born. I extracted the stationary from the pink envelope (my birthmother didn’t know that I was going to be a boy) as if it were an artifact from a forgotten time, an ancient papyrus that might turn to dust in my hands.