(Editor's note: Some names have been changed and details withheld to protect privacy.)

Barbara Hallahan made a quick stop to pick up her mail in December after attending a Bible study at church and before heading off to play cards with friends. She noticed a handwritten letter postmarked from a state where she didn't know anyone.

Puzzled, she paused to open it.

"Dear Mrs. Hallahan," the letter began. "My name is Sean, and I was born in 1966...."

Mrs. Hallahan burst into tears. The letter was from the son she had given up for adoption 50 years before.

She was on the phone with Sean within minutes.

"I called him immediately!" she said. "He was at work. It was so amazing! We had so much to say!"

The first thing she noticed was how much Sean's voice sounded like that of his birth father.

Five decades earlier, Mrs. Hallahan had been a second-year nursing student living in Massachusetts. Her first boyfriend, a Marine, came home from two years in Vietnam, and before long she realized she was pregnant.

What to do
"He was not particularly interested in getting married," she said wryly.

But "termination was never an option. I made that clear to him. I was really very Catholic, although there I was, pregnant."

She called her parents in Chicago and ended up moving there. Her Irish father was furious with her French boyfriend and with the whole situation. Her mother found her a small flat where she could live on her own while awaiting the baby's birth.

Mrs. Hallahan called Catholic Charities, since she knew the agency arranged adoptions. They offered her a job in the nursery of the hospital where she'd eventually be having her baby. Ironically, she would be caring for other infants awaiting adoption.

Painful memories
A lot of the ensuing months and the time right after Sean's birth have been blocked out of Mrs. Hallahan's memory. Adoptions back then were closed, so she never got to hold Sean and barely got to see him.

She remembers sneaking over to the hospital nursery at night and trying to get a glimpse into Sean's crib. Nurses would tell her, "You're not allowed to come down here," but a fellow student who was also pregnant and working there would at least give her little updates on how the baby was doing.

"I cried for a long time," she said simply.

One kind nun gave Mrs. Hallahan a bust of the Blessed Mother to comfort her. She clung to that small image of another mother who'd had to let go of her son. She still has the statuette today.

Catholic Charities quickly matched Sean with a Catholic couple. Mrs. Hallahan was given little information about the adoptive parents, but it comforted her to hear they were well-educated: "I felt he'd be raised well."

And that was it. Mrs. Hallahan and the baby's birth father did not stay together; just a few months later, she met her future husband, Michael Hallahan, an industrial engineer. The couple married that summer.

Mrs. Hallahan was open about her past, but it made no difference to her husband: "He was very strong."

Moving on
Mrs. Hallahan finished her training and spent the next 35 years as a nurse, working mostly in intensive care in hospitals in Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia and New Jersey. The Hallahans had two daughters, Michaela and Meredith.

From the time the girls were in high school, they knew they had a half-brother somewhere.

"They always said, 'Mom, you have to find him.' I told them, 'I have no rights. I gave up my rights. But if he ever got in touch with me, I would be thrilled.'"

Time marched on. Mr. Hallahan passed away 20 years ago; Mrs. Hallahan retired and moved to what had been the couple's vacation home in Sleepy Hollow Lake, in the Town of Coxsackie.

She joined St. Patrick's parish in Athens and Catskill, counting the offertory collection each week and bringing communion to the homebound. She started volunteering at the Albany Veterans' Administration Hospital. She enjoyed her two grandchildren, Fiona and Aidan.

Always, she wondered about Sean: "You think: 'Where is he? How is he? Is he happy?'"

Half a country away, Sean was learning that he could access his adoption records. Then he did extensive research into newspaper archives, learning more about his birth family - everything from a special comb Mrs. Hallahan's hairstylist mother had invented to a car accident Mrs. Hallahan was in during high school.

The letter
Finally, he wrote the letter.

"I understand you had reasons for the complicated decision you made, and I respect that and cannot tell you enough how much it means to me that you went through with what you did so that I could have my life," he told Mrs. Hallahan. "Things turned out wonderfully for me because of the sacrifice you made."

If Sean had any concerns that his birth mother might not be interested in contact, Mrs. Hallahan quickly squelched them. In fact, after the first time they talked, she could barely restrain herself from telling her girlfriends the happy news as they played cards.

She managed to hold back long enough to tell her daughters first. They, too, cried. Her grandchildren declared, "Great! We have an uncle!"

Today, a few months after that first conversation, Mrs. Hallahan and Sean have become fast friends. Every time they talk on the phone, it lasts for at least an hour. Sean has also spoken to his half-sisters. They all hope to get together this summer.

So far, he and his birth father haven't made plans to meet, though Mrs. Hallahan did let the father know about Sean. He has provided some health information about his family tree.

While speaking with The Evangelist, Mrs. Hallahan pulled up a photo of Sean on her smartphone. The two share the same wide smile. He's married with children of his own and a successful career.

When Mrs. Hallahan talks about Sean, she gushes with pride.

"He has a great sense of humor....He has dimples like his birth father....He does a lot of cooking....He's a golfer; I'm a golfer."

She gives all the credit to his adoptive parents for having raised him well.

"From the bottom of my heart, I thank [them] for doing such a beautiful job -- for what you are," she tells Sean when they chat.

She also thanks God daily "for bringing him to me."

At one point, Mrs. Hallahan got permission from Sean to have his full letter to her read at church. Although the identifying details were changed, she said, "I wanted to get up and say, 'This is my son! I am so happy!'"

Mrs. Hallahan is adamantly pro-life. She brought her daughters to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., and is indignant that pro-lifers were not allowed to participate in the recent March for Women in Washington. However, she said she "doesn't sit in judgment" of women who have had abortions.

Sean, she said, describes himself as "pro-adoption." It's a good description for his birth mother, as well.

"Fifty years ago, this isn't something you went bragging about," Mrs. Hallahan remarked. But today, if she met a young woman in the same situation she once faced, "I would tell them my beautiful story. How precious life is."

(The Catholic Church has a ministry called Rachel's Vineyard to help women and men affected by the pain of abortion. The next local retreat will be May 5-7 at Joshua House in Altamont. Contact rachelsvineyardalbany@yahoo.com or call Pat Mousaw, 518-222-1160.)