Sunday, April 5, 2020

Finding myself (And those like me)

Please bear with me, as this might be a bit long with few photos to spice things up a bit. But, it might be worth sticking it out.

I've known from a very early age that my parents weren't really my parents. They were always open about the fact that I had been adopted but, dare I say if I'd never been told, I might not have ever known. I may not have been of their blood but, they never treated me as anything less than their own son. Still, there's was always this curiosity about who I was, and where I came from.

As small as the Eastern Shore of Virginia was back in 1981, it seemed that no one knew anything about my birth or biological parents. I ended up being a bit of a celebrity when I was a few days old, when they published a story about my being discovered on the doorstep of a local home. It was like I just popped out of the aether, and landed on some random stoop. 

There were rumors, of course, about who my real parents were. It was said my father was a drug addict, a criminal, just an all around ne'er do well that was likely dead or in prison. It was assumed that my mother was young, scared, and just not able to care for me, hence the reason I was given up. It was all just small town speculation, and if anyone actually knew anything, they weren't talking. I ended up being lucky that my adoptive parents were able to take custody of me quickly, and beyond the few days I spent in the hospital after minor surgery, I never actually spent time in foster care. 

Over the years, my desire to know more about my biological family has waxed and waned. Not having any names to go by meant that any attempts to locate my family were quickly thwarted by a lack of information. Soon, I started to feel like maybe I was better off not knowing who they were. Did I really want to find out that I was related to some of the people living around here? That desire to know was somewhat reignited with the proliferation of the DNA testing services but, even then I could never motivate myself to go through with the purchase of a kit. Eventually I decided I'd had it pretty good growing up, and though my adoptive had their own flaws, they had always done their best to provide the best life for me. I had all but put it out of my mind until this past Christmas morning, when I would unwrap a gift that would ultimately change my life.

Admittedly, the Ancestry DNA kit I unwrapped at Christmas wasn't exactly a surprise, since I had found it in the mailbox a few weeks earlier. My wife is a stickler for tradition, though, and wouldn't let me open it up and use it until Christmas morning. Seeing that little box again gave me pause. I had in my hands perhaps the only thing that would help me answer one of the biggest mysteries of my existence, "Where did I come from?". Any excitement was soon replaced by anxiety. What if I did find someone? Would they actually want to have anything to do with me? Reading reunited stories on Reddit didn't exactly boost my confidence, in fact, I was terrified. But, in the end, curiosity won out. I spit in the tube, boxed it up, and sent it off. Now all I had to do was wait. 

I was a bit of a nervous wreck for the next few weeks. Every few days I'd get an email from Ancestry, telling me my DNA had arrived, it was in the lab, it was being taste tested, etc. After about 3 weeks I opened my inbox and saw the message I had been waiting for, "Your results are in". 

Once they've analyzed your DNA, Ancestry will actually give you a break down of the origin of your genetic code. As you can see from mine, I'm about as caucasian as you can get, with most of my genes originating from England, Wales, and surrounding areas. So, I'm as white as Wonder Bread, which is pretty much expected. What I didn't expect was to see a whole bunch of people showing up as "close" relatives. I had always assumed that I still had some biological relatives living on the Eastern Shore. I used to joke that the reason I didn't date anyone in high school was because I didn't want to take the chance of dating someone I was related to. I mean, the real reason I didn't date was because I was one shy, awkward geek, but ending up with a close cousin was a legitimate concern in this area. There was also the rumor that I could have a half sibling out there somewhere. I enjoyed Game of Thrones as much as the next person, but not enough that I wanted to start my own Lannister family. 

I honestly wasn't sure what Ancestry meant by close relations. They show you how many centimorgans, a unit for measuring genetic linkage, you share with other people. The more centimorgans that you share, the closer the relation. I was seeing people with whom I shared quite a few centimorgans, which meant they were either a grand parent (impossible since they were younger), or they were a half sibling (much more likely). I didn't really have anything to lose, so I started sending messages. Since some of the people I'd matched with hadn't been active on the Ancestry site for close to a year, I figured I might as well try and track them down on social media. If you know me, you likely know my disdain for Facebook, but desperate times call for desperate measures. And, sometimes they call for a little cyber stalking. 

I sent out a handful of messages to various folks, laying out who I was, what I knew, and asking if they might know anything. And, then I did the only other thing I could do, I waited. A couple days later, I received a message and a friend request on Facebook from a woman that went to the same high school as I did, but was a couple years older. "Hi cousin! Or, more accurately second or third cousin!" Not exactly a close connection, but close enough. Over the next couple hours I learned just how many relatives I had in the area, and it was a bit mind boggling. The number of known family members I had just multiplied in a matter of days. During our conversation, my cousin asked me who my close matches were on Ancestry. I gave her the list of names, but she only recognized one of them, a gentleman that due to his age and our number of shared genes was likely my uncle. Then, she told me something that caught me completely off guard;

"Give me a minute, I need to call my mom. I think I know who your father is". 

Those are words I never thought I'd ever hear. My heart started pounding, I broke out into a cold sweat, and couldn't concentrate on anything else. A few minutes later, my cousin messaged me again with a name and a Facebook profile. I looked at my potentially my father's profile, and though he was a bit older in the pictures, I thought I could see a bit of a resemblance. A possible look into my future. Then I found a photo of him in his 20's or 30's, and that's when I was sure that this was my father:

I showed the picture to some friends, and they said "I've seen you look exactly like that with that exact same expression on your face". Things started moving rather quickly after that. One of the women I messaged contacted me, with just as many questions for me as I had for her. We puzzled over how we could be so closely related, and eventually determined that she was my half sister. So, it would seem the rumor about me having a half sister was at least partially true. I say partially true because it turns out I actually have three half sisters, and two half brothers. Suddenly, I had gone from being an only child my entire life, to being the oldest of six siblings. I also went from having no living grandparents to learning that my biological grandparents on my mother's side were still very much alive and well. The first time we met, it felt like we had already been acquainted for years. As they gave me their backstory, the main thing on my mind was how was it possible we had never run into each other before this. Where I work is literally built on the remnants of the company where my grandfather worked. We know a lot of the same people, not unusual in this area, but it still amazes me how few degrees of separation there were between our social lives. I've also had the chance to connect somewhat with my mother as well, and though I don't have all the answers yet, I have a better idea of why things happened the way they did. It kind of gives me the perspective that me being given up for adoption was probably the best for me, my biological parents, and my adoptive parents. 

As great as it's been finding my parents and grandparents, I think the thing that's made me the happiest is learning I have siblings. I've always wondered what it would have been like growing up with brothers and sisters. Don't get me wrong, being an only child was kinda great. I didn't have to share all the snacks and cereals, all of my toys were my own, and I got all of the attention. But, it could get a bit lonely at times if I didn't have any friends over.  My wife made the point that it's possible that all my siblings and I may not have gotten along so well as children, and I guess it's possible. It's not the first time I've heard someone say they get along better with their brother or sister as adults, than they did growing up together. Still, it would have been nice to have the option. 

And these are just half of my siblings!

Much like when I met my biological grandparents, meeting my siblings has gone surprisingly well. Normally I would feel a bit of awkwardness when I would first meet people, but I didn't get that at all meeting my siblings. It's like we've already known each other for years. It's rare that a day goes by now that I don't end up talking to one of my sisters. It's nice having that consistency in life. We also seem to share many of the same interests when it comes to books, movies, and hobbies, which is amazing to me, considering that we've all experience much different upbringings. It really throws a wrench into the whole "Nature vs Nurture" argument. Hell, two of my sisters even ended up going to the same college as I, just separated by a few years. Depending on when I finally publish this, what I thought was my first nephew was born almost two months ago to my sister in law. Well, it turns out that unbeknownst to me I've been an uncle for nearly 10 years. Now I have 3 nephews and a niece to spoil, and share my toy and comic collection with. I hope they like Glyos and LEGO....Really, I'm just looking forward to getting to share more of my life with my "new" family.

I think this a good place to end this post, but it's far from being the end of the story. The current pandemic has put a stop to any social gatherings for a bit, but I still haven't met most of the people on my father's side of the family. When you add in all the cousins and nephews, it's a rather daunting number. Hopefully everyone is willing to wear name tags, so I can keep them all straight in my head. 

If you're in a similar situation as I was, and you've been debating the Ancestry route, I definitely recommend it. If you do, I hope you also find answers for all your questions. 

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