On the cold afternoon of Nov. 25, 1987, a newborn was found in a garbage bag by two teenage boys in a Calgary parking lot. The infant dubbed Baby Mary captured the hearts of the city and all of Canada. A photo of the baby dressed in pink ran for weeks in the media as authorities urged her birth mother to come forward. While Mary’s story played out in public, a private drama was unfolding for a family that desperately wanted her. For the first time that story is now being told. The now 25-year-old Mary, who was raised by her adoptive family in the Interior of B.C., has come forward to share her journey. Her family and rescuers have also shared their memories of that fateful day along with her childhood years growing up in B.C. To protect her privacy, we use the name Mary, not the one her adoptive parents gave her; her parents’ names have been changed, but all others have remained the same.
– – – – – –
THEY WERE two kids bonded by a love for skateboarding. On weekends, they’d head downtown and with their ‘boarder buddies, perform ollies and kick-flips wherever they spotted a good stretch of asphalt. That was the goal on Nov. 25, 1987, when Blaine MacLean, 14, and Warren Bleile, 13, skipped a class and jumped on their boards.
But in the parking lot in front of a shopping centre, MacLean spotted something shiny. The Grade 8 student went to check out the Mercedes-Benz hubcap, then noticed something else that would change his life forever. A green garbage bag tucked between a car and the curb appeared to be stirring.
“I heard a squeal!” yelled Bleile, looking at the bag where a tiny leg, arm and head was poking out.
The boys saw that the garbage bag was filled with blood and afterbirth; the baby’s umbilical cord was still attached.
Bleile felt a rush of emotion. Like his friend MacLean, who lost a brother to cancer three years earlier, he was already acquainted with life-and-death trauma: when he was 10 he had watched his grandfather die of a heart attack, the two far from help as they fished in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country.
This, though, was something neither could fathom.
They knew they couldn’t waste time thinking about it: the baby was cool to the touch and the temperature had dipped below zero.
“Mister! Mister!” called Bleile to an older man walking nearby with grocery bags toward a vehicle.
* * * * *
BOB WARD, a 30-year pressman at the Calgary Herald, sprang into action.
He dropped the bags, threw off his winter coat and scooped it around the baby. It gurgled, then fell quiet as a mouse.
The three carried the bundle to a nearby medical centre.
“Um, we gotta get going,” MacLean told the nurse after the baby was handed over.
“You’re not going anywhere, young man,” she said. “You can’t just bring a baby in here and leave.”
Police officer Rod Harbridge, who arrived shortly afterward, told the teens they arrived “not a moment too soon.”
“Another 10 minutes could have meant the difference between life and death.”
Bleile and MacLean were allowed to hold the chubby-cheeked girl, who weighed in at 7 pounds, 11 ounces, before she was transferred to the Calgary General Hospital.
After that, the boys were stormed by reporters and had to recount their adventure to each media outlet, one by one.
* * * * *
THEIR 15 minutes of fame would last a year, complete with a congratulatory call from then-mayor Ralph Klein, a certificate of achievement from the Optimist Club and frequent bursts of “There’s the baby savers!” from passersby.
Thousands phoned Alberta Social Services and the Calgary police inquiring about adoption while nursing mothers offered their breast milk. The story made headlines for weeks; the baby’s tale of survival was broadcast around the world.
Far from the glare of publicity, a woman at home in northwest Calgary was also affected by the story.
Clutching the newspaper featuring a photo of the baby, Mae, a 30-year-old mom, charged down to the basement where her husband Paul was finishing some renovations.
“She’s mine,” the former small town B.C. beauty queen told her husband. “I want this baby.”
Paul, on holidays from his job as a reporter for a local media outlet, let out a knowing sigh.
“Yeah, she’s a cutie,” he said to his wife of nine years.
“But you’re setting your sights a little high. There is going to be a lot of stuff around this for a long time.”
* * * * *
WHILE SO many wanted the child, Mae knew she at least had a fighting chance. She and Paul had registered for adoption more than four years earlier: their names were high on the list of the more than 2,500 couples waiting for a baby in Alberta.
The two, who grew up in the same small B.C. town, had been a solid team since meeting in high school.
Then there was the stubbornness factor, Paul thought: when Mae set her mind to something, miracles weren’t out of the question. Still, what were the odds?
Mae was undaunted. Five years earlier, not long after they had moved to Calgary, she had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and not given much hope to see her 30th birthday. Then a mom to a toddler son, Mae had gone to the doctor thinking she might be pregnant again. But the mass in her stomach turned out to be a 3.6-kilogram tumour.
The five-foot-tall dynamo fought the dire prognosis with resolve. Like her 32-year-old husband, who as a young child had fought off a deadly illness, she was a survivor. When she woke from surgery though, she was devastated to learn the surgeon had to do a full hysterectomy.
* * * * *
PLUNGED into deep depression, the only thing that gave Mae hope was being on the adoption registry.
“I’m a survivor and she is a survivor,” Mae told her husband firmly. “This is meant to be.”
While they spent the weekend mulling over the idea of calling their social worker to express interest, nurses at the Calgary General Hospital were completing tests on the infant they had dubbed Baby Mary, including one for HIV infection. She was fine: full-term and healthy.
When Mae called the social worker Monday morning, she had prepared a speech about why she and Paul would be the perfect fit for Baby Mary.
She was interrupted before she could start. “We’ve been talking about you two — why don’t I come over and we can chat in person?”
Mae and Paul were told two factors gave them an edge over the others vying for the child: They had enough parenting experience to handle a vulnerable newborn; and they were keen on keeping Baby Mary out of the media, so who better to hide her than someone in the media?
* * * * *
THERE WAS, however, a glitch.
First, they’d have to take on the role of foster parents and be prepared to hand her back should the birth mother or another suitable family member step forward.
It took them two seconds to decide: “When can we pick her up?” Paul asked.
So, eight days after she was found in a parking lot, Mary was handed over to Paul and Mae. Mae pulled her close and inhaled the baby smell. Then she burst into tears.
Thus began the cloak-and-dagger drama that surrounded Baby Mary.
A week after they took her home, Mae got a call from the hospital. She was asked to bring her in so they could get a DNA sample in case someone came forward claiming to be family. Rather than enter the lobby, she was asked to wait in the parking lot. When she pulled up, three men in dark suits met her.
“This is creepy,” Mae thought as she was handed sunglasses and a shawl to shield her identity.
* * * * *
A NURSE greeted Mae as she emerged from the elevator.
“Isn’t that cute, she’s really bonded with you,” the nurse said.
One of the men barked at the nurse, “Don’t talk to her.”
Escorted back to her car, she shook her head.
“I’m in a hospital, with moms holding babies everywhere,” she told Paul that night. “I might as well have had a beacon over my head: ‘Look over here, there’s something weird going on.’”
For the next few weeks, Paul could barely tear himself away to go to work. He wanted to spend his afternoons on the couch, the baby girl asleep on his chest.
Just in time for Christmas, they triumphantly told their extended family they had an adopted baby. If Mary’s birth mother came forward and they had to give her up, Paul and Mae would then tell them the full story — something they knew would break their hearts.
* * * * *
BACK AT WORK, Paul incredibly found himself covering the media story of Baby Mary. Social services officials sought a permanent guardianship order to expedite the adoption process. But the judge, in a rather unusual move, ordered the department to first place newspaper advertisements with the baby’s photo.
During breaks from the packed court proceedings, Paul would go for walks to escape his colleagues’ speculations about where the baby might be. Sometimes, a representative from Alberta Social Services would follow him into the men’s washroom and, after checking under the stalls to make sure no one was there, inquire about his well-being.
Calgary police inspector Dale McKellar told the Herald that while his department was checking out various tips in their search for the birth mother, “none have panned out.”
Just after the new year in 1988, Mae was at home with Mary when a friend dropped by. “Have you heard? They found Baby Mary’s mother.”
Mae’s heart stopped. But it turned out to be a false alarm: someone had called the newspaper falsely claiming to be the mother.
As winter turned to spring, Paul and Mae watched Mary grow from a helpless newborn to a curious baby who smiled, laughed and learned to sit up. As the tulips began to bloom in April, they began making plans to return to B.C., far from prying eyes.
Until the adoption was finalized, though, they couldn’t leave.
What the world didn’t know was that it would take nearly three months before Paul and Mae would learn whether they would be the lucky ones to call Mary their own.
WHERE WAS I BORN?
“Where was I born? Why don’t you know where I was born?”
On a fall afternoon in 2000, Mary and her mother were at a crossroads. In her younger years, the adopted child was content with the oft-repeated official story: her birth mother wasn’t ready for a baby, while Mae and Paul desperately wanted one.
As a precocious preteen, this simple explanation no longer sufficed. Talking to her now was like undergoing a police interrogation, with Mary firing off a flurry of how, when, where and why questions as the tall, athletic child stared down her diminutive mom.
Mae, wishing her husband wasn’t out of town on business that day, realized it was time: time to admit that her daughter’s pink baby book covered in ribbons and filled with the milestones of first steps and words, was just one of two.
For years, she’d hidden the red book, filled with newspaper clippings and official documents, at her mother-in-law’s house. Recently, she’d brought it back, knowing that the clock was ticking.
“OK, Mary, here it is — this is your story,” Mae said as she handed it over. “You read this and I will answer any questions you have.”
With awe and disbelief, Mary cast her eyes on the yellowed newsprint and read the accounts of her highly public entry into the world. Together, they went through it, page by page. “I was left in a garbage bag? In a parking lot?” she asked, her eyes widening in horror. “It was a garbage bag, but you weren’t garbage,” Mae assured her, explaining that her head was exposed so she could breathe. “She also put you in a visible spot so someone could find you.”
Mary pointed to the photographs of herself in the Calgary General Hospital, her little head dotted with small pieces of black tape. “They were testing you for everything,” her mother explained. “They also had to give you all kinds of antibiotics, to combat the environment you were born in.”
AWAITING MARY’S REACTION
As she nervously anticipated Mary’s reaction to the monumental news, her daughter surprised her by what most alarmed her. “They couldn’t even spring for baby clothes?”
After she closed the book, Mary asked, “Is this a big secret?” Mae told her that her family knew, grandma and grandpa, uncles and aunts. “This is your story, Mary. Now you can do what you choose with it.”
Mae and Paul had known for years that the hard questions would eventually come — and that when confronted, they would pull no punches. When they brought Mary home on a cold December night in 1987, they promised each other that their daughter would one day know her full story.
Nearly six months after they took on the role as foster parents, their adoption of Mary came through — on May 2, 1988, two weeks after the couple’s 10th wedding anniversary and on Mae’s 31st birthday. The family prepared to move to the interior of B.C.
With adoption settled, they relished in the everyday adventures of a young family. Mary had a penchant for tearing plants out of pots when she wasn’t terrifying her mother by climbing on mantels and stairway overhangs, calling out, “Hi Mommy!”
Paul would laugh as he pretended to complain about how the baby would throw up on him every time he picked her up.
As their curly-haired daughter grew into a dark-haired child, she began to ask the usual “Where did I come from?” questions. Mae would explain to Mary and her elder brother their philosophy on parenthood. “Giving birth doesn’t make you a mommy,” she told them. “It’s what happens after that that really matters. We love you both equally, and that love no one can take away.”
After Mary learned the real story, the popular preteen began telling friends, teachers, even strangers, about it. “Guess what? I was left in a garbage bag,” Mary announced in class the day after seeing the red baby book. “No big deal,” she said, enjoying the attention. “Whatever.”
OVERCOMPENSATING FOR ROUGH START
When friends complained about curfews and other adolescent injustices, she began using the popular, shock-inducing refrain: “At least your mother didn’t stick you in a garbage bag and leave you in a parking lot.”
The nonchalant attitude belied an internal storm. Mary couldn’t wrap her head around it and she began insulting her birth mother when she told the story.
That changed when she heard about a 14-year-old girl at her school getting pregnant. “She’s just a child,” Mary, 16, said to her mom. “That’s my birth mom, right there. Maybe she did it not to hurt me, but to help me.”
Through those teenage years, Paul and Mae overcompensated for their daughter’s rough start in life. She learned to ride a pony, played at waterslide parks and went twice to Disneyland. The family home in B.C. boasted a swimming pool in the backyard, where Mary and her brother entertained half the neighbourhood.
As she neared her 18th birthday, thoughts of her birth mother receded. In Alberta, though, Mary was very much on the mind of Blaine MacLean, one of the two then-teenage boys who found her. The birth of his son Tristan six years earlier had brought his longtime desire to know Mary’s fate to full boil.
The 33-year-old heavy equipment operator still had the thank-you card Mae sent him when he was a teenager. MacLean decided the time was right to reach out and called the Calgary Herald with his side of the story.
“I didn’t create her, but I participated in saving her, which brings up the same feelings,” he was quoted as saying in the 2005 story, adding he hadn’t lost hope that he’d see her again. “I feel a tie there.”
MacLean considered it a long shot to find her, but Mae and Paul had relatives living in Calgary who saw the article and alerted them.
“Are you sitting down?” Mary’s mom asked when she got her on her cellphone. “The guy who found you, he’s in the newspaper. He wants to wish you a happy birthday.”
When Mary got home, the family discussed their next move. “I think I want him to know I’m OK,” said Mary. It took her eight months to put her feelings on paper. To protect her privacy, her parents mailed the letter to an uncle with the request to forward it on.
The uncle did more than that: he called MacLean and the two talked for nearly an hour. “He’s a good guy,” the uncle reported back to Paul. “He’d really like to talk to her.”
After a call from Mae and Paul, MacLean finally spoke with Mary. Over the next seven years, he built a rapport with birthday gifts and phone calls every November 25th. He also kept his promise to not let the media know he’d found her.
Last year, Mary decided it was time they met in person. She’d grown up into a beautiful, smart and mature young woman who loved her career working with children. She had followed her fiancé Steven out to a community in southern Alberta and the pair was preparing for a fall wedding.
She wanted MacLean at her wedding, so she invited him to a barbecue for their first face-to-face meeting. With his son Tristan, 13, and his dad Joseph, he finally met the girl whose life he saved as a teenage boy. “Wow, you’re beautiful,” were his first words. “Oh, thanks,” she said with a shy smile.
After a weekend filled with laughter, tears and reminiscences that helped Mae and Paul fill in some of the blanks of that day in 1987, Mae announced: “You’re part of the family now.”
MacLean couldn’t believe his luck as he watched Mary walk down the aisle. “This is awesome,” he thought.
Last Saturday, MacLean sat in a south Calgary restaurant, waiting for a pal he hadn’t seen in 23 years. When Warren Bleile walked in, the two embraced then looked at one another with joyful disbelief. “Never thought this day would come, eh buddy?” said Bleile, who was tracked down for this 25th anniversary story.
“Where have you been hiding?” MacLean asked the boyhood friend he lost touch with after they went to different high schools.
Bleile hadn’t seen the 2005 Herald article quoting MacLean and he had always wondered how Mary had fared.
“She’s been in the back of my mind all my life,” said Bleile, 38, who works as a roofer in Calgary. His mother, Maxine, still has a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about Mary. My mom said ‘I wonder if she ever talks about us, wonders about us,’” said Bleile.
In 2010 he called a television station hoping to do a public appeal for information on Mary. He never got a call back.
Last Saturday, the day he caught up with MacLean, he also heard from Mary for the first time.
A HIGHER POWER
“I believe in a higher power,” said Bleile. “It was meant to be that we found her that day. And it was meant to be that we would meet again.”
For both men, finding a newborn in a garbage bag — and finding her again a quarter-century later — is an experience like no other.
“Other than watching my own son being born,” said MacLean, “there is nothing else that tops it.”
“I have no children of my own, but she was mine,” said Bleile. “She’s my miracle baby. She’s definitely a miracle.”
This story and the reunions it has sparked so far — former Herald pressman Bob Ward hasn’t been located — would not have been possible without Mary’s approval.
“I think it’s time, I think I’m ready,” she says of her decision to tell her story. “I think I’m not so angry anymore. I don’t think I’m angry at all anymore, to be honest. It’s like, she did what she did.”
Her motivation for coming forward is complex. She wants the city that followed her story 25 years ago to know it had a happy ending. She wonders if she has siblings, and would like to know her medical history since she and Steven hope to start a family of their own soon. She also wanted to do it as a thank-you to the three working-class heroes who saved her life that day.
Mary has set up an email account monitored by a friend (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the hope that her birth mother, or someone with information, will contact her.
She knows such a reunion is a remote possibility but is worth the chance. “I think I need to hear her side of the story before I can fully forgive,” says Mary, who has put her name on every post-adoption registry in the country.
Whether she finds her birth mother or not, Mary says she’s clear on who her “mom” is.
“Birthing someone doesn’t make you a mother,” she says. “The woman who was there for me through all the ups and downs, that’s my mom.” Whatever the outcome, Mary’s family will be there. “It doesn’t matter who comes out of the woodwork, it’s not going to change how she feels about us or we feel about her,” says Mae.
“For me, I’d want to know she’s OK,” says Paul of Mary’s birth mother. “I would love to meet her and find out where my daughter’s curly hair comes from.”
At the very least, Mae hopes she can pass on a message to a woman who abandoned a baby from a woman who wanted one so badly.
“Thank you. Thank you for giving me one of the best things in my life.”