Brothers finally get together after almost five decades
Chuck Eighner and Eric Cunningham were born in Danville, grew up an hour away from each other and played prep football against each other in the same conference. They've had friends in common.
They even have the same smart-aleck sense of humor, a friend said.
But it took nearly 50 years for the brothers to find each other.
Eighner had known since early childhood that he was adopted, and Cunningham learned in high school. Each became aware he had a brother by the same birth mother.
Cunningham and his wife began actively searching more than seven years ago. In February 2006, Eric Cunningham called his mother, only to have her hang up on him.
"That was kind of a kick in the teeth. After that, we didn't do anything for a while," he said. "But it's like an endurance race. When there was a new state law (to open some adoption records), my wife really got on it."
Their paths might have crossed any number of times through the years because they have friends and family in common. One was a cousin who knew both — but not their relationship to each other.
"Another strange thing ... a man came up to our area to work at the prison (where Cunningham works). He got transferred to Danville. His dad got brain cancer and passed away, and Eric was this man's boss. We were at the same visitation for the father," Eighner said.
Still, he and Cunningham never connected — until a phone call about three months ago changed everything.
On Sept. 27, the two came face to face for the first time at the Red Lobster in Danville. Now they are brothers, and their wives, Amy Eighner and Lauri Cunningham, are like sisters to each other.
Both men were a little concerned about what they might find.
"You never know when you start looking for relatives. They could be vagrants or have chemical problems or be multibillionaires," Eighner said.
But the brothers found out that each has done well — and married well.
Eighner owns and operates five funeral homes in the Sandwich-Somonauk area. Cunningham lives in Ridge Farm and is a major in the Department of Corrections at the prison in Danville.
Since that first meeting, they have gotten together several times, though they live more than three hours apart. And Thanksgiving will be bigger for both this year as they get together for an extended family feast.
All it took was that new state law, a persistent friend and a kidney transplant. And two women very intent on helping their husbands find new family — even though some in the family didn't want to be found.
"This couldn't have happened without our wives," Cunningham said. "They never gave up. They were on the Internet all the time."
Brothers and friends
The brothers are 14 months apart. Cunningham is 48; his brother, 50.
Cunningham and Eighner joke about how they look alike, though one (Eighner) got the height and the other got the hair.
"My wife said we both got red, rosy cheeks," Eighner said.
After they were given up for adoption, the brothers stayed close — in a geographical sense.
Eighner went 25 miles north from Danville to Hoopeston; Cunningham went 10 miles south to Georgetown.
In the old Wauseca Conference, they played a frosh-soph football game against each other. Cunningham later developed knee problems, so they didn't meet as varsity players. (Knee problems also put a quick end to Cunningham's military career.)
In the meantime, they grew up with loving families. And now both have two sons, the Cunninghams' Zach, 23, and Evan, 12, and the Eighners' Kyle, 16, and Zachary, 13.
Amy Eighner, 41, and Lauri Cunningham, 48, who both have blonde, wholesome looks, say they're sisters now.
The same is true for their husbands.
"They're blood brothers, all right," said family friend Les Banks, who helped track down their biological mother through friends of family in Danville.
Wife is a lifesaver
Eighner might not have even been around to meet his brother if not for his wife, who gave up one of her kidneys to save him from death as his own kidneys shriveled away from diabetes and disease.
That was in 2009; he had five heart bypass surgeries the year before.
Pounds of fluid had to be drained from Eighner at every dialysis session. A doctor told him that the system worked like dog years: Every year a person is on dialysis, the patient's body ages about seven years.
"I didn't know how long I could take it," Eighner said of the lengthy sessions.
One session was in Urbana the day after Thanksgiving, adding a five-hour round trip to the hours with a needle in him.
It turned out that charity did begin at home: Amy was a perfect donor match.
"I was all for (the transplant operation)," Amy Eighner said. "We have been blessed with a wonderful life, and I want it to stay that way."
"She saved my life," said Eighner, now a much healthier man.
Said Lauri Cunningham: "I'm so glad she did this because if she hadn't, we might never have met. We might have found him too late."
Searching for mother
Eric Cunningham was the first brother to try to contact his mother. He called her in February 2006. When he told her who he was and why he was calling, the birth mother told him to never call again.
It was heartbreaking, the family said, and it took him a while to get over her harshness.
(Cunningham also spoke to one of his birth mother's sons last July; that brother had no interest in meeting his forgotten family.)
For the Eighners, the kidney transplant had been all-important. What else would the Eighner family need to keep an eye on?
"I was interested in knowing about my family for the selfish reason that I wanted to know about family health issues," Eighner said.
As her husband struggled with health problems, Amy Eighner tried to find some information about family health history.
"I contacted the (Vermilion County) circuit clerk's office," she said. "We had to send a letter to a judge in Danville. He said, 'The best thing to do is contact an attorney.'"
At the time, the lost brother was not Eighner's biggest concern, but he got an assist from an old friend.
Banks, who lives in Sheridan, near the Eighners, has coffee almost every morning with the older brother.
"We didn't look for Eric at first," Eighner said. "Les found my biological aunt; she talked to him one time and said, 'I don't know how to process this.'"
That could have stopped the Eighners, but it didn't.
"Don't give up, I said. Even if you hit a brick wall, still go forward," Lauri said of the two families' quest.
Change in the law
In 2005, an Illinois law went into effect that began allowing relatives to find adoption records, such as birth certificates — and soon thereafter both wives asked for their release.
Six months ago, the Eighners got their redacted forms. The certificates offered a few clues. The boxes for "father" were blackened through.
Cunningham also tried to contact two other sons of the birth mother, with no success.
Through a cousin, the Eighners tracked down the birth mother on the East Coast.
In an exchange of letters, though, she made it clear there would be no contact. She wrote Eighner that she made a decision on Oct. 28, 1963, to move forward with her life and never look back. Then she wished them the best.
The fact remained that there were two brothers. Eric and Chuck both said they had concerns that any contact might be unwelcome. They hadn't been encouraged by the reactions from the birth mother's family.
In September, Cunningham called the Eighners. They weren't home, but he was able to talk to their son Kyle. Chuck Eighner called him back the next day.
The brothers met face to face for the first time later that month, and it could not have gone better.
"We're both married to women that, if it weren't for them, this never would have happened," Eighner said. "I've heard of horror stories: Be careful what you wish for. But it's all been great."
Said Lauri Cunningham: "It took several years of researching and a few obstacles that we worked around to get to them, but the journey was worth it, and we are all looking forward to catching up and moving forward, together as a family."
The brothers agree with Humphrey Bogart's character in "Casablanca," that this could be "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"It's pretty amazing that, well into your life, you find a new brother and a new friend," Cunningham said.
Said his brother: "We'll stay close. This isn't going to be a flash-in-the-pan situation."
Like all siblings, they squabble, but on one point only: Eighner roots for the Illini, Cunningham for Notre Dame.
"We don't have to worry about them playing each other," Cunningham said. "Notre Dame doesn't play in the kiddie pool."