'I turned out OK'

When she was only a few hours old, the baby was left in the vestibule of a two-flat building on the Northwest Side. She was a tiny thing — just 6 pounds, 6 ounces — wrapped in a towel and placed on the doorstep, like a small gift.

Who was this baby? And why had she been abandoned?

The questions would follow the child, as she was handed from police officers, to social workers, and finally to a couple who had yearned for a child to love.

They called her Sarah. Over the years, the child would grow up and pursue a career that would allow her to help children in the way she had once been helped.

A baby is abandoned in Illinois about once a month, some legally under the state's 2001 safe haven law, some not. After the first news blip, the public typically does not hear more about the babies — what became of them, whether they found happiness, if they got answers.

For Baby Sarah, 30 years have now passed. At times, the circumstances of her birth recede to the back of her mind. But every year, around her birthday in late October, as the air turns crisp and the leaves burst into brilliant colors, her thoughts turn to the past.

Then, Sarah McGraw can't help but look into the faces of strangers and wonder: Could you be my mother?

Shortly after 1 p.m. on Oct. 28, 1982, 17-year-old Shirley Rosene, who had been home from school that day, called police to report she had found a baby in the vestibule of her family's apartment building at 3649 N. Pulaski Road.

"Miss Rosene stated the baby was left wrapped in a towel on the floor just inside the door. There were some stains like blood on the towel," a social worker's report from the time said. "The baby was very quiet until they wrapped her in a blanket and then she began whimpering. There were no identifying objects and (Rosene) saw no one on the street, although she may have been too excited to notice."

Police arrived within five minutes. Officer L. Lindahl questioned Rosene and her 20-year-old sister, Carol. Neither appeared to have just given birth, the officer believed, as they were very active and animated, climbing up and down the stairs several times, according to the report. There was no evidence in the apartment of a recent birth.

"We kind of wondered if (whoever left the baby) knew us, or why they had chosen our house," said Shirley Rosene, now 47.

Paramedics rushed the child to Northwest Hospital, where, by coincidence, it was the birthday of the head nurse, Marcia Zahakaylo. In honor of the nurse and the hospital, the child was called Marcia N. West.

She was, by all accounts, a beautiful infant, with fair skin, blue eyes and white-blond hair. Although she was small, she seemed to be in perfect health. There were no drugs in her system and no signs of abuse or neglect.

"I was thinking, 'Could I add another child to my household?'" recalled Zahakaylo, now 75 and retired. "I had five children of my own. I just loved children and thought, 'If nobody wanted this child, I'd be glad to take her.'"

In Rogers Park, Gail and William McGraw had been married for five years and weren't able to have a child of their own.

Gail worked as a social worker for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She had never tried to use her connections at the agency to find a child. But in the fall of 1982, after the couple had been turned away by an adoption agency, Gail picked up the phone and called a close friend who worked at DCFS.

"I have an abandoned baby on my caseload," he told Gail. "Are you interested?"

Adopting her would be a leap of faith.

There are so many unknowns with an abandoned baby: the child's genetic history, her health, the health of the mother and the history of the pregnancy.

"You have a child that you know nothing about. Zero. You have to ask (prospective parents) to open their minds to negative possibilities. There are people who say upfront, 'No, we don't want an abandoned baby,'" said Lois Sickels, 78, the social worker who handled the case.

It's an understandable reaction, Sickels said, because "most of us try to be self-protective."

The McGraws, however, didn't worry about protecting themselves.

People like that, Sickels said, "just want someone to love."

The day they brought the baby home to their century-old brick bungalow, the furnace broke and left the house temporarily without heat. And so, they bundled the baby and brought her to a back room warmed by a space heater.

"I didn't think anyone could love a child as much as I loved her," said Gail McGraw, now 68, who spent the first several nights sleeping on the floor next to the crib.

"She became ours," said William McGraw, now 70, "just as if my wife stepped out of the hospital after delivering (the baby) herself."

Sarah grew into a shy child, with a contemplative nature and a deep empathetic streak. She was the type of child who, as she got older, would help younger children zip up their coats on the playground.

As she grew, the McGraws made sure that Sarah understood she was adopted. But they held back the detail of abandonment, until one day when Sarah was 7 years old and she found some legal paperwork that referred to her as "Jane Doe."

That day, Gail McGraw held Sarah in her arms and told her the story of how she had been found. Sarah listened quietly; she didn't have many questions.

Her feelings would come out later, in little bursts. Sometimes, she would be doing homework at the kitchen table and would look up at her mother and say, "Why would she leave me?"

She had other questions, too. Questions like: "Where did I get my blue-gray eyes?"

There were no answers, of course. And so the questions receded.

In high school, Sarah McGraw joined the swim team and became a star, breaking Chicago Public Schools records in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100-yard breast stroke, as her parents cheered wildly in the stands, the family said.

She majored in nursing at North Park University and later landed a job in the pediatrics department at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. She could relate to the kids at the hospital because, she said, "I know what it is like to need someone."

For many years, she thought little about the past. But as she got older, she wondered more about her birth mother. She pulled an old news article from the library about the day that she was found, and she drove by the two-flat on Pulaski Road.

Two years ago, she placed a personal ad in the newspaper: I've been searching for you for 28 years.

But she heard nothing.

On a recent afternoon, Sarah McGraw — tall and blond, with a tiny cleft in her chin and dimples in her cheeks — sat in the sun-filled family room of the house where she grew up. It is a lovely home, with a grand piano where she learned to play Beethoven, and an oak staircase in the front hall where she once played daredevil, using a pillow as a sled.

In many ways, she said, "I couldn't be more grateful because I ended up with a wonderful family. ... It turned out really, really well. And I turned out OK."

As she spoke, her father, William, a retired salesman, brought photos from another room, showing off images from their family's life. Her mother, Gail, leaned forward to look at the snapshots and said with a smile: "I'd still do anything for her."

With her sweet-natured Rottweiler, Allie, lying at her feet, Sarah talked about how the anger of her teen years gave way to a sense of gratitude that she was left in an apartment building, instead of a trash can. And she spoke of the sympathy she now feels toward her birth mother.

"I think she was probably really young, and really scared," she said.

Oct. 28 is Sarah McGraw's birthday. She's not sure how she'll celebrate, but she knows she'll be thinking about the woman who left her 30 years ago. She wonders if that woman will be thinking about her, too.


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