June 7, 2009

Dad, 26-year-old daughter get reacquainted

Just before CSUF graduation, a family reunites
Dad, 26-year-old adopted daughter get reacquainted in Fresno.
Published online on Friday, May. 22, 2009
By Chris Collins / The Fresno Bee

The phone rang.

Elizabeth Cox could tell from the caller ID that it was James Cliffe III -- a man she had never spoken to, but who shared the same name as her biological father. A father she had never met. Was this he?

With much hesitation, she answered.

Adopted at birth, Cox had only a handful of records with her parents' names and birth dates. For years, she debated whether she should try to find them. But what would she say? "Hi, I'm your daughter" -- it seemed too strange.

Instead, Cox endured the teasing and nagging that adopted children can go through -- "at least my parents wanted me," some of her peers told her.

That didn't stop the Clovis West High School graduate from living her life -- college, music, sports, art, traveling the world. She took it all in. At 17, she moved out on her own.

Independent and stubborn? She freely admits it.

But about a month ago -- as she was finishing up her classes and preparing to graduate from California State University, Fresno, so she could pursue a writing career -- Cox, 26, decided it was time. She was grateful for her adopted parents, Tim and Jodi Cox, but couldn't go through her whole life without knowing her flesh and blood.

She scoured the Internet and chased down a cell phone number for the Rev. James Cliffe III living in the Los Angeles area. There is no way my father is a reverend, she thought. But she called anyway. She got his voicemail.

"Hello, my name is Elizabeth Cox," she said. "Could you please call me back?"

About an hour and a half later, Cliffe called. Cox asked him if he knew a woman named Caroline Purra -- without mentioning that that was her mother's name.

For 15 seconds -- silence.

Then Cliffe's voice came through on the other end: "I've been looking for you for 26 years," he said.

For the next two hours, the father and daughter who had never met -- but had always wondered about each other -- talked about their lives, their pasts and their dreams. They raced to send photos of each other over Facebook.

Cliffe, 63, told Cox about the family she had never known -- including her older half-sister and older half-brother. He told her about his failed relationship with her mother. He told her that he had always loved her.

For the next month, neither had the chance to visit the other in person -- until Friday. Cox invited Cliffe to attend her graduation ceremony this weekend. He said he would be there.

As Cliffe drove from Los Angeles on Friday morning, Cox sat at a coffee shop fidgeting nervously. Her father -- her real father -- would be here soon.

"This is crazy. All those nights staying up wondering and questioning and thinking ... " she said, looking off into the distance and suddenly at a loss for words.

They agreed to meet at a restaurant near Fresno State. Cox went without any friends or family -- she wanted this to be her own thing.

Turning a corner, she came face to face with a slightly chubby, well-dressed man.

"There you are!" she said.

The father and daughter hugged. They took a look at each other. Then they hugged again.

"You're just like your sister," Cliffe said.

At the lunch table, the two swapped stories. The menus were left alone. When a waitress asked a third time if they were ready to order, Cox apologized.

"I'm sorry, I'm meeting my dad for the first time," she said, laughing.

Cliffe, it turns out, was not always a minister. He said he grew up in Illinois and moved to the Los Angeles area to sell insurance. He opened restaurants and bars and hired Purra at one of them.

They fell in love, but split up after about a year. The last time Cliffe saw Purra, she was eight months pregnant with his daughter. Neither he nor Cox had been able to find Purra.

Cliffe's life spiraled downward as he struggled with alcohol and drug addictions. He became homeless. Then, one night in October 1994, Cliffe said, he had a "spiritual experience" in which he felt compelled to get his life in order.

For the past 15 years, he said, he has been clean and sober.

Cliffe also went on to become a minister and start a $750,000-a-year program that provides housing and rehabilitation for parolees. His preaching became popular and he got his own television show, he said.

But throughout the years, Cliffe wondered about his daughter. Every once in a while, he would see someone who looked like she could be her, but never was. He checked hospital records, but found only dead ends.

When Cox called him last month, Cliffe said he kneeled down and thanked God.

Cliffe and Cox, it turns out, share more in common than their green eyes. They both are Dodgers fans, like sports, play pool and enjoy public speaking. And they aren't afraid to pursue life head-on.

"You'll find that as you get out into the world, you'll possess another quality of mine," Cliffe told his daughter. "Mind over matter: If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

By the end of lunch, Cliffe and Cox seemed to have known each other for years. They teased each other. No question was too personal. And when Cox warned her father that she tended to hold on to new friends and that he was "stuck with her now," Cliffe replied, "I don't feel stuck."

"It's not over," he said. "It's just the beginning."

The reporter can be reached at ccollins@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6412.

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