Ten doors down and a lifetime of questions: At 41, Robert Tickner reunited with his birth mother.

I have a date with destiny this Sydney summer day in late January 1993.

I have always moved fast when I’m on a mission. Today, I am truly a driven man, but, at the top of the historic sandstone stairway leading to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, just along from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I pause to gather my thoughts.

Sydney Harbour, which Captain Arthur Phillip aptly described as ‘without exception the finest Harbour in the World’, is awash with sailing boats, ferries, and pleasure craft of all kinds. Down below in the gardens, people are relaxing and enjoying the sparkle of the water, unaware of and indifferent to what is about to happen to me.

Electrified, brimming with optimism, I am catapulting down the steps into the gardens, where I soon find myself mingling with the families and couples strolling along the long arc of the stone wall that circles the harbour and leads to the Opera House.

All around me are people in the Australian summer uniform of colourful shirts, dresses, shorts, and thongs. By contrast, I am dressed up for the occasion in a white shirt and casual pants. I want the person I’m meeting to know I’ve made an effort, but don’t want to scare her with the formality of a suit. I have put a lot of thought into all aspects of today, including this simple decision of what to wear.

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There are so many small details to get right. I will only get one shot at this encounter and want to make it special in every way.

As I’m walking, I can’t help but notice the many babies in prams and little kids with their families along the footpath. Given the nature of my fast-approaching meeting, these sightings are quite unnerving, and my edginess and anticipation of what is to come continue to mount.

When the white sails of the Opera House appear, I pull my shoulders back and stride out. I feel so strong now, I could tow a bulldozer behind me.

I run up the Opera House steps to get the best view of the surrounding area. I am early, as planned; lateness might have conveyed a lack of caring or indecision on my part, so it wasn’t an option.


I can see way into the distance in both directions, and I am confident that I will be able to see my rendezvous companion long before she sees me.

It’s only then, looking around, that I realise the Opera House forecourt is unusually busy. Some huge and colourful carnival tents have been set up right in front of the steps, an unwelcome intrusion I hadn’t anticipated when it was agreed we meet here. I hope the additional crowds won’t cause any confusion.

I know the person I’m soon to meet will be feeling petrified, so I want everything to run as smoothly as possible.

In the days preceding, I haven’t had much time to dwell on this meeting, but now, the magnitude of it is sweeping over me. I peer into the distance trying to make out who is approaching, but my eyes are too watery to see anything properly.

Robert as a baby. Image: Supplied.

I realise I must be quite a sight: a 41-year-old man standing alone at the top of the Sydney Opera House steps, tears streaming down his face. Crazy thoughts spin in my head; suddenly, I see the carnival tents as a sign of our future together, full of happiness and laughter.

I pull myself together, and peer into the distance again. Will we hug? I wonder. Yes, definitely. But what if she comes up behind me? I experience a little staccato of panicked thoughts when I realise that, although we have seen photographs of each other, photographs sometimes lie.

What if I don’t recognise her? We have never met. I have never heard her voice. Our scheduled meeting time is now only minutes away.

I take deep breaths, and try to meditate to stabilise my roller-coaster of emotions. For some reason, my sensory awareness of everything around me is heightened. I see a solitary older woman about 400 metres away, coming from the direction of Circular Quay. Could that be her? No, a false alarm.


And then another — and another. By now, my heart is in my mouth. I see another figure even further away, but this time, I know instantly it is her. I take a photograph with the cheap throwaway camera I purchased, as an afterthought, on the way to the city this morning.

Later, I will show her this photograph, and all we will be able to see is a tiny speck in the distance, barely visible. But I knew it was her, as soon as I saw her.

Robert's mother, Maida, sitting on the steps of her house, which coincidentally was just ten doors down from Robert's grandmother's home. Image: Supplied.

As the minutes tick by, the speck gradually becomes a tall handsome woman. She stops at the bottom of the crowded Opera House steps, and I bound crazily down towards her, like a man possessed. I startle a Chinese tourist standing between us as I hurtle in her direction, waving vigorously at the person just behind her. She moves out of my way just in time.

‘It’s me, it’s me, it’s me!’ I shout, pointing at my chest with my fingers.

The woman looks up and sees me, and a broad smile spreads across her face.

We are swallowed up in each other’s arms, weeping, laughing, and hugging in a flood of emotion.

I have met my birth mother, Maida, and she is holding her only child in her arms for the first time since the week I was born, 41 years ago.

This is an edited extract from Ten Doors Down: The Story of an Extraordinary Adoption Reunion by Robert Tickner  (Scribe $32.99)