HAMILTON—It was the saddest of happy endings.
Darcy Dee was slipping away, her body finally giving in to the breast cancer she’d been fighting for four years.
But Darcy had already won another battle — one that she’d waged for a quarter-century — the struggle to find the little girl she’d been forced to give up in 1991, the baby the system had taken away from her all those years ago after deeming her an unfit mother because of her disability.
At her bedside during those last few days was the 29-year-old woman who had been taken away from her mother as a toddler, fostered and soon adopted, the woman who had grown up and lived most of her life with a loving adoptive family just minutes from the birth mother she never knew. But miraculously, fate had brought them back together in 2015, allowing for three years that would have to make up for nearly three decades lost.
Darcy Dee, 59, died Jan. 20 in Hamilton’s St. Peter’s Hospital. Her funeral takes place Saturday.
She is survived by 10 siblings, and by her daughter — Veronica Ann — the daughter for whom she searched for 24 years.
“Knowing that my mother got her greatest wish, to heal the wound of losing me, has been a huge inspiration,” Veronica said after her mother’s passing. She marvels at how through all those years that they were apart, Darcy essentially built her life around the quest for her lost daughter.
“She formed habits throughout her city to be visible and available so that I might by chance find her,” Veronica said. “She never gave up and I’m so grateful I could be there to show her it was all worth it.”
I told the first chapter of Darcy’s story nearly 30 years ago in November 1990, in the Star, as Darcy was waging a losing battle with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society in Hamilton for the custody of Veronica.
I’d met Darcy by chance in the food court of a Hamilton mall that autumn while I was on assignment. Darcy had been left disabled by a brain injury after being hit by a truck while walking to school on a winter day, when she was 8. She was declared dead at the scene, but somehow survived.
That day in Hamilton, she rolled up beside my table in her scooter, which had a carrier basket full of loose-leaf papers. Once she discovered I was a reporter, Darcy wanted me to read the documents in her basket, notes she’d been typing over the months, the journal of her struggle to regain custody of her daughter. (Over the years, she would type thousands of pages.)
Darcy’s speech was slurred. She had difficulty controlling her movements and articulating her feelings. But her journal read like poetry. Page after page of fluid and heartbreaking detail about how she’d had Veronica with a guy she’d met, and then lost her. Estranged from her family, the fiercely independent Darcy had been living in an apartment in downtown Hamilton.
She contacted the children’s aid society during her pregnancy, and shortly after the baby’s birth, Darcy was deemed unfit as a parent.
“All my life people told me I couldn’t do anything,” Dee said during one of several interviews in her tiny subsidized apartment in 1990. “Well, now I did the thing that is supposed to be the most important of all — I created a life. Now they want to take that away from me.”
After a year of increasingly infrequent and restricted supervised visits, the courts ruled on Feb. 11, 1991, that Veronica would be placed for adoption and that Darcy would not be allowed to see her again.
The system was true to its word, for 24 years.
The story that Darcy shared with me in 1990, the story that continued to unfold in the intervening decades, reads like a screenplay.
She was born in Buffalo in 1959 to John and Rayme Dee, professional actors who immigrated to Canada for work and settled in Ancaster, Ont. Anyone who watched Canadian television in the 1970s and early ’80s would recognize Darcy’s dad, John, who played Al Waxman’s crusty neighbour Max on King of Kensington.
Darcy left home at 21 after getting a Grade 12 diploma from a vocational school. She eventually moved to Toronto, where she took some courses in English and history at Ryerson, without much success. Back in Hamilton in 1982, she sat in on courses at McMaster University and Mohawk College.
When I met her in the small, dingy apartment in 1990, I noticed how she made the best of the lack of space and narrow hallway: because of her limited mobility, she got around by practically bouncing off the walls, propelling herself from the table, to the chair, to the bed.
The journal entries I read in 1990 were heartbreaking and gave voice to the thoughtful, eloquent and angry young woman that the system had written off.
She wrote about when her daughter turned 1.
“Yesterday was Veronica’s birthday. Her very first. I did not get to see her. Although I carried on with my own life, I had a pretty heavy heart, thinking of her. Remember last year at this time, I was in the hospital, in pain, having just had Veronica the night before?
“Yes, but the greatest pain of all is not being able to see my baby.”
After losing Veronica, Darcy reconciled with her large family, and her sisters in particular became the champions of her efforts to locate her daughter. Her parents have long since died.
Darcy’s family and friends recall a spunky, unpredictable woman who could fly into a rage at those she felt were putting her down, and just as quickly flash a wide smile and howl with laughter.
“This is the story of a woman who grew up fighting — for her independence after a severe brain injury, for her life with a cancer diagnosis — and then, in the short time left to her, to find the daughter she was forced to give up,” her sister Betsy wrote in an account of Darcy’s struggle.
Darcy and I were in touch sporadically over the years.
In a journal entry on Veronica’s 10th birthday, June 10, 1999, Darcy wrote: “I will never stop praying for you, and loving you, even though I do not know where you are. You could be in the house in front or behind me for all I know.”
In 2007, when Veronica would have been turning 18, I contemplated trying to find her myself, or even publishing the baby photos of Veronica that I had taken at Darcy’s apartment in 1990. But I concluded that would be a violation of the girl’s privacy.
In late 2014, Betsy let me know that Darcy had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that the family was stepping up efforts to find Veronica.
By then they’d already been through years of paperwork, trying to make contact and obtain official records of the adoption. I went to see Darcy in Hamilton in November of 2014. She was very ill and was now confined to a wheelchair. And she still talked about finding her Veronica.
Little did anyone know that the clue to Veronica’s identity and whereabouts was already in Darcy’s possession. After my visit, Betsy sent a follow-up email to share some adoption-related documents that Darcy had received from Service Ontario in response to one of her requests. The key document was the 1992 record of Veronica’s adoption. While all of the adoptive family’s identifying information had been dutifully blacked out, for some reason the document showed Veronica’s legal name at the time of her adoption.
It took a minute on Google to find Veronica, a young web design and marketing consultant who was at that point living and working in Hamilton, blocks away from her birth mother.
Darcy’s sisters were in a quandary. How should they go about confirming Veronica’s identity and making contact? They didn’t share the finding with Darcy until they could get in touch with Veronica. After weeks of deliberating, they dropped off a letter at Veronica’s apartment, informing her of the identity of her birth mother and extending the invitation for a meeting.
Several weeks later, on Jan. 25, 2015, a Sunday afternoon, the family arranged for Veronica to make a surprise visit to her birth mother’s apartment.
Darcy was seated with her back to the door when Veronica entered and made her way into view.
“Do you know who this is?” the sister asked.
At that point, the striking young woman with blond hair and blue eyes knelt down in front of Darcy’s chair and took her hand.
Veronica looks back now on that remarkable reunion and the months that followed.
“My reunion with Darcy was joyful, compassionate, all about doing things together as newly introduced people,” she said. “We went and did fun activities all through the summer. Darcy always pictured us in the sunshine together and she got her wish.”
Veronica was struck by her resemblance to Darcy, in physical appearance, and in attitude.
“She’s passed that focused, never-say-die spirit on to me.”
In the little time they had together, a lot was left unsaid, in part because it had become so difficult for Darcy to communicate.
“Most of what happened between Darcy and I was over coffees and in each other’s hearts,” Veronica recounted. “We couldn’t easily communicate but the wonder and surreal happiness of beating the odds together was our primary emotional story.”
In the days before Darcy’s death, Veronica spent hours at her birth mother’s bedside in Hamilton, still holding her hand. And while Darcy is gone, she has left her daughter a written legacy, thousands of pages of her writing.
Years before, on Nov. 11, 2007, Darcy typed this poem in her journal. After her death, it seems almost prophetic:
I can only hope and pray
That maybe, just maybe some day
That in heaven, or on earth
It will be like a rebirth
We will meet face to face
I will hug Veronica
And hold her
And she? She will touch my shoulder
Never to let go of each other
Allan Thompson was a reporter with the Toronto Star from 1987 to 2003, when he became a journalism professor at Carleton University.