First Love: High school sweethearts and the daughter they gave up decades ago find their lives intertwined once more.

September 7, 2011

On the banks of a creek near the Laotian border, Kevin Carroll packed the gaping wounds slashed across his body with mud, lay down and began to argue with God.

“You’re supposed to be a fair God,” he railed. This — untimely and almost certain death at the age of 18 — wasn’t fair.

It was 1969. He had been in Vietnam for 10 months. On his seventh day in the country, he saw a woman drop hand grenades on his two best friends. Every day since, he had learned to hate a little more. Even the slightest recognition of humanity — his own or anyone else’s — could interfere with his work. Kevin’s job was to get information, to find out where the Viet Cong were located, and to kill them. And the young Marine from Washington was very good at his job.

But there were moments of stillness, often at night, when he retreated to the one corner of his heart where he still felt love. There he yearned for his high school sweetheart, Debi Waeber, and their baby, which she’d had — and given up for adoption — while he was at boot camp.

Now he’d never see them again. He had led a mission to rescue a downed pilot and encountered 150 North Vietnamese fighters, who fired upon his seven-man team. Five of them were dead, and Kevin was riddled with shrapnel, blood gushing from deep lesions on his left ankle and right knee.

“You’re supposed to be a big God,” he seethed, as the sun sank behind the thick jungle. Would a just God end the life of a man who had so much unfinished business on Earth?

All Kevin wanted was a chance — to be with the one woman he had ever loved and the child he had never met.

***

Debi was an eighth-grader when she first saw Kevin in 1966. She and her parents were at a football game at Washington’s Archbishop Carroll High School, the Catholic boys’ school her brother attended. There at the front of the stands was Kevin, a 10th-grade spectator rallying the crowd in a cheer. He was round-faced and blue-eyed — the cutest boy she had ever seen.

She spotted him again when she tried out for a play at his school the following year. This time he noticed her, too. “I’m gonna take that girl to homecoming,” he told his buddy.

He did, but before that he picked her up in his 1964 MG 1100 sedan and drove to a hamburger joint, where they shared a first kiss. The two were an immediate item, driving back and forth to play rehearsals, holding hands at dances and football games. Debi was all sweetness and warmth, from a tightknit family that adored Kevin.

The fourth of five siblings, Kevin was a first-rate smart aleck who had developed an armor of bombast. His dad had died when he was 7; his mother became a sometimes-violent alcoholic. By his junior year, he was living mostly in the back of a Washington gas station.

Debi was his refuge — the two never fought. They were soaringly in love and completely devoted to each other. Kevin’s younger sister, Ellen Pino, remembers a day when his car wouldn’t start. “He wasn’t worried about getting to school. He was worried about not seeing ‘his Debi.’ He was so upset, and his eyes filled with tears,” she recalls.

By the time of the final performance of the play, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” fellow performers signed their playbooks wishing the pair a happy life together.

And it was — even when Debi called Kevin in the spring of 1968 to tell him she thought she might be pregnant. “Don’t be nervous,” he told her. “There’s lots to think about but nothing to worry about.” The two wanted to marry before anyone could object; there was a county in Maryland where a 15-year-old like Debi could legally wed without parental consent.

Before they could elope, however, Debi’s mother noticed her daughter’s growing belly. The parents sent her to St. Ann’s, a home for unwed mothers in Hyattsville; friends were told she had gone to Arizona to help an ailing aunt. On one wing were girls like Debi, who traded dresses and helped each other with school assignments. The other wing was filled with babies waiting for adoption.

Her parents were upset but, ultimately, forgiving. Each Saturday, with the blessing of her parents, Kevin picked up Debi at St. Ann’s and together they set off for adventures far away from Washington where they wouldn’t run into classmates. As the two explored Annapolis and Harpers Ferry, they dreamed out loud about their future together, what life would be like once they were married and had a home with the baby.

Kevin decided the best way to provide for his new family was to join the military. Debi and the child could have health care and housing on a base. He was only 17, so his mother signed a waiver allowing Kevin to enlist in the Marines a year early.

They never had a real goodbye. Kevin feared it would be too upsetting to Debi and torturous for him. In October 1968, he promised to write and boarded a train.

Boot camp was intense . His drill instructors were intent on training the joker’s smirk off his face. By the time Kevin left Parris Island, S.C., he could do 150 push-ups on his knuckles and barely break a sweat. But there was little time for personal business; Kevin didn’t write home as much as he had planned.

Meanwhile, Debi had been under the care of her mother’s doctor, who told her parents that he knew a local family with four sons who were desperate for a daughter. If Debi had a little girl, he could arrange an adoption.

Debi had heard little from Kevin, and as a high school sophomore, she knew she couldn’t take care of a child on her own. Giving the baby up would be the best thing, her parents assured her. On Dec. 10, she gave birth to a girl with a round, pumpkin face that looked just like Kevin’s.

Later that week, Debi crawled into a wheelchair to leave the hospital. Her most vivid memory is the moment the nurse handed the wailing baby to her. Once she was placed in Debi’s arms, the little girl hushed.

Debi and her parents drove to a nearby parking lot, the designated meeting point. Little heads peeked at her from the station wagon windows as a woman climbed out. To Debi, she seemed like a double of Jackie Onassis.

Debi’s mother lifted the baby out of her arms and carried her across the lot to her new family.

“She’s going to have a good home,” Debi’s mom said as she slipped back into the car.

Kevin was in his bunk when he received Debi’s letter. He wanted to cry but knew that wasn’t acceptable for a military man. Sadness gave way to fury, but before he drew a fist to punch the wall, he began to wonder: What had Debi endured alone, without his support?

Within six weeks Kevin was on a plane to Vietnam. Without Debi or the baby, his life was left with a singular purpose. Pvt. Carroll was a Marine at war.

* * *

Debi can’t quite remember, but it’s possible that Kevin wrote her once. Perhaps he even called, but after that their communication ceased.

To protect her from teenage gossip, Debi’s parents moved to another town and enrolled her at Laurel High School. Her cheeriness with new friends masked a heartache only her parents really saw. Each year, on the baby’s birthday, Debi stayed home from school to grieve the loss with her mother. All the other days, she had to“try to be a normal kid.”

In the early 1970s, she went out in the world. An early marriage after high school lasted six months. At 22, she married again and soon had two daughters, Kelly and Kara. She was grateful to finally have the kind of family that had eluded her and Kevin.

For a while, life was good. Debi seemed born to take care of others and devoted herself exhaustively to the girls. But after seven years of marriage, when their daughters were not quite 2 and 4, her husband told her he wanted out.

She moved back in with her parents for a few years, until she reunited with an old high school classmate and married again. Another daughter, Kendall, was born, but that marriage also fell apart.

Debi almost never spoke of the child she had given up. That was something she thought happened only to “girls who weren’t very nice.” And in the recesses of her mind, she began to secretly believe that maybe because she had given up the baby, the universe wouldn’t let her find the kind of lasting love she had always wanted. The grief, she says, “it scars you.”

So she focused on her trio of girls. She often worked two jobs, usually seven days a week, to provide for them. Eventually she rented out her Sykesville, Md., house and moved into her sister’s so she could pay college tuition for her youngest.

With her girls away, she would lie in bed at night, “just so sad that I was alone,” she remembers. Some people are meant for solitude, but Debi’s greatest nourishment had always come from loving others. She made a list of qualities she wanted in a mate — a man who would get along with her daughters and take her to church — even as she began to believe she might live out her days alone in her sister’s converted pool house.

Though she had gushed to the girls that her high school boyfriend, Kevin, was “the best guy,” Debi never told them about their half sister. But on Mother’s Day 2007, thinking they were old enough to understand, she sat them down in her kitchen.

Debi unspooled the story slowly and answered what questions she could. The baby was a girl. She had signed paperwork that said the new family planned to name her Valerie and that their last name was something like Slovan. No, she didn’t know what happened to Kevin Carroll.

Debi was relieved by her daughters’ compassion and curiosity. The shame she had harbored for almost 40 years was beginning to dissolve. But her aching wonder had only grown stronger with time. Had the little girl been loved? Was she healthy? Is she happy now?

So on a crystalline winter night in February 2010, Debi made a decision: She would find her daughter. No matter the cost, she would learn what had become of her pumpkin-faced little girl.

***

Kevin had done his searching decades earlier.

By the creek in Vietnam, he slipped in and out of consciousness for 40 minutes before hearing a rescue squad corpsman say, “Hey, we got one of these alive!” They loaded him onto a stretcher and headed for an aide station.

He was quickly transferred to a hospital in Guam, where doctors told him they planned to amputate his left arm and right leg. The 18-year-old resisted and pleaded with his older brother by phone to help him persuade the doctors not to do it. In the end, his limbs were spared, but Kevin would still spend the next three years in and out of hospitals, undergoing dozens of surgeries to repair the damage.

In late spring 1970, he was transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. The optimism and bravado he carried to boot camp 18 months earlier didn’t make the return trip.

When he was released from the hospital six months later, he tried to find Debi and the baby. But her family had moved, and no one knew where they had gone. St. Ann’s wouldn’t give him any information, and he couldn’t locate any record of the adoption.

Kevin tried to move on. Though he was unable to drive or stand for long periods, he got a job as a mechanic. Eventually he married. Within a few years his first wife left, and he began dating a woman who had a young daughter. When she became pregnant, Kevin was determined he would not lose another child. They married and before too long were the parents of three little girls.

Outwardly, Kevin was an employed family man who had his life together. Internally he was a disaster, consuming three packs of cigarettes a day, plus too much pot and booze. He had never stopped aching from the loss of Debi and the baby, and was tormented by nightmares of the war. Guilt over his actions in Vietnam coursed through him like a toxin. “Maybe part of God’s punishment for me is to live every day the way that I am now,” he thought. “Still having nightmares, still thinking about things.”

But in 1983, a Pentecostal preacher from his wife’s church knocked on his door. As the two men sat in his kitchen and talked, Kevin began to unpack stories from the war: the Viet Cong he had killed in firefights, the civilians who wound up as casualties, the distrust he felt for even his fellow soldiers. After two hours, the preacher knelt beside him and prayed aloud, recounting every story Kevin had told and asking God to help him find forgiveness.

A month later Kevin followed his wife to church, went to the front of the altar and wept uncontrollably as the preacher and others laid hands on him. As he cried out, he felt as if the pain and hate inside of him were releasing and with every gasp of air, he was breathing in new life.

That night, he quit smoking and drinking cold turkey and became a deeply religious man.

Still, after a few years his second wife left him, and Kevin became a single father. A real estate agent named MaryAnn helped him find a place to live and soon became a confidante. She was raising four kids on her own and could relate to his struggles. In time, their relationship became romantic; by the fall of 1988, they were married.

Before they wed, Kevin told MaryAnn there was something he needed to confess: A part of him was still in love with Debi and always would be. If that was a problem, he said, they shouldn’t go through with the marriage. She told him she was glad for his honesty.

Their life together was a happy hive of kids, church and family. Stability reigned until 2003, when MaryAnn found a lump in her breast. Kevin nursed her through chemotherapy while he worked to open his own auto care shop in Baltimore.

She survived; but in 2008, her doctor called to say the cancer was back. For 16 months, Kevin kept vigil, watching as her body slowly languished in the sunroom of their Parkton, Md., home.

MaryAnn knew how much the child he had never met was present in his prayers. And he had told her how difficult it was to pray for someone who was both part of him and a stranger. “You have no way of putting your thoughts around them,” he said. “Your eyes around them, your hands. To be able to hear their voice, to touch them.”

Wanting him to find peace, MaryAnn helped him search the Web one more time for some record of Debi and the baby. Still they found no leads. And on Dec. 8, 2009, MaryAnn passed away.

Soon after, Kevin’s nightmares returned.

***

When Debi started talking about remortgaging her home to pay a private investigator to find the baby, her daughter Kara Humes worried that the money would go to a scam artist. So on a Saturday morning in February 2010 she sat down at her computer.

Humes began cross-referencing all the public records databases she used in her job as a medical researcher. No Slovans in the Maryland area matched the profile she was looking for: a family with four boys and one girl who would now be in their 40s and early 50s. Then she checked Slovon. Four brothers from Silver Spring came up. No sister was listed.

Humes’s husband finally pulled her away from the computer for dinner. She chatted briefly by phone with her college-age sister, Kendall, who asked if she had checked Facebook.

Bingo. There was a Val Blatt — maiden name Slovon — living 50 miles away in Germantown. The brothers listed matched the four Silver Spring Slovons. “I found her,” Kara told her mom over the phone.

Debi spent the next day poring over the pictures on Val’s Facebook profile. She found Val’s address and drove by the house, just to make things real in her mind. Then she came home and, unsure whether Val even knew she was adopted, crafted an e-mail to one of the brothers.

“Forty one years ago,” she began, “when I was 15 years old I had a baby girl.”

***

Val Blatt had known she was adopted for as long as she could remember. She grew up freckle-faced and happy in a loving Jewish family. Val was especially close to her mother; the night she died in 2008, Val followed her oft-repeated instructions and went to her house to collect the valuables. In the drawer of a nightstand, Val found an old document sealed in a plastic bag: the transaction notice of her adoption, listing Debi Waeber as her birth mother. Val and her husband searched for her on the Web and found a listing for a Maryland real estate agent.

Before that, Val never had much interest in finding her birth parents. Now, consumed by grief for her mother, she tucked the receipt away.

Two years later, in March 2010, her brother forwarded the e-mail from Debi.

Val sat stunned at her desk, surrounded by her colleagues at a technical training firm. She had always felt a sense of gratitude to the woman who gave her up for the promise of a better life. She walked into her boss’s office, shut the door and dialed Debi’s number.

It was before 9 a.m. when Debi picked up. “Hi, Debi. My name is Val Slovon Blatt,” came the voice from the other end. “And I just want to let you know that I know what you did was very hard, and I’ve never held it against you. I know it was a really hard thing.”

Debi began to cry. Just like that, she was offered absolution of the guilt she had carried for 42 years.

“Every cell in my body exploded with happiness,” she said later. “I truly didn’t even feel like I was walking on the ground.”

They spoke for an hour and called again at lunch, breathlessly relaying the stories of their lives. That night, Debi visited Val’s house with a bouquet of flowers. She met Val’s husband, Dan, and her little boy, Zach.

“Your birth dad was the best guy,” Debi told Val, who had the same round face she’d had as an infant. While the women talked, Dan pulled out his laptop and searched for Kevin Carroll. A speeding ticket for one man included a birth date Debi recognized. A few more clicks produced an obituary for his wife, MaryAnn.

For weeks, Debi and Val basked in the glow of their reunion. Though Val had little desire to contact her birth father, Debi had a gnawing urge to offer Kevin the same relief she felt at knowing their daughter was well.

She wrote a card, offering her condolences for the loss of his wife. “The reason I was searching for you,” she added, “was to share some information from our high school days.”

Kevin was tired of sympathy cards, but his heart stopped when he saw the name on this one. He dialed Debi’s number.

“I found our daughter,” she told him. “Do you want to meet her?”

Kevin was immediately transported to the creek in Vietnam, where he had argued with God about the injustice of a life unresolved. Then a quote from the Bible flashed before him: “With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”

***

Val asked Debi to be there when she met Kevin. The two women nervously sipped wine while waiting for him to pull into Val’s driveway.

When he got out of his truck, Debi hung back, watching her first love hug their lost daughter. As his head rose from the embrace to look across the lawn at her, a breath caught in her throat. “It was still the same Kevin,” Debi said. “The same eyes, the smile.”

And to Kevin, Debi hadn’t changed a bit. “She was gorgeous,” he said.

The three chatted excitedly for hours. Kevin, an amateur singer-songwriter, played a recording of a song he had composed for Debi decades before.

Life’s too short and soon will be gone.

And our love, it’s just begun.

So here I am if you want to belong

And Debi, this is your song.

As the clock neared midnight, an exhausted Val — delighted she “could finally say I looked like someone” — went to bed. Kevin and Debi retreated to his truck and talked until 2 a.m.

“I don’t think you understand how I’ve felt about you all these years,” he told her. “I never stopped loving you.”

Debi was flabbergasted. It had been so long. But when Kevin said he wouldn’t let her leave without agreeing to go out with him, she consented.

Five days later, he picked her up for dinner. In the car, they sang along to old songs. After a meal at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley, he walked her around the golf course grounds.

“I want to kiss you,” he said.

“Okay,” she replied.

“And this sounds crazy,” Debi reflected later. “But I was home.”

Kevin became the person she talked to first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Even when his whole body ached with arthritis, he walked around to open the car door for her. Each evening, he unscrewed the lid of a water bottle on her bedside table so she wouldn’t struggle with it in the middle of the night.

“I’m always very guarded, but I could look in his eyes, and I just knew,” she says. “It was just goodness. Just love.”

Still, Kevin was careful, worried that he was on the rebound.

But as months ticked by, he found himself feeling more and more certain that this was right. Just as in high school, he and Debi never fought.

And now they had Val, whom they whisked away for long weekends every chance they got. She had Debi’s sunny disposition and Kevin’s mischievous spirit — and she embraced them both without reservation.

As Kevin drove away from Debi one night in June, he called her from his cellphone. “I can’t take this anymore,” he told her. “It’s important for you to know I’m in love with you.”

“I know,” she replied. “I’m in love with you, too.”

The next month he came to her apartment with a diamond ring and a letter. “I often wonder about God’s timing,” he wrote. “But I’m not one to question a higher authority.”

“I want you to be my wife.”

***

“I know this has been a long time coming,” the minister said to Kevin and Debi as they stood on a sun-drenched bluff overlooking Hayfields Country Club one Saturday night in July.

With 125 guests looking on and butterflies fluttering about, the couple exchanged wedding vows — 43 years after they first agreed to marry. The groom was 60; the bride, 57. Their 42-year-old daughter — lost to them for so long — stood up as maid of honor.

Had they found each other three years earlier, Val might not have welcomed Debi out of fear of hurting her adoptive mom. Even six months sooner, Kevin would’ve still been married to MaryAnn. Perhaps, the three like to imagine, a few special women in heaven pulled some strings to bring three lives together on Earth.

Kevin wrote a new song after their reunion. A recording of it played for the last dance of the night. As he and Debi held each other and Val looked on, his voice sang through the speakers: “Love has found its way home.”

Ellen McCarthy is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at mccarthye@washpost.com.

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