I got a call last week from my estranged brother who has literally never contacted me in our lives except at the behest of one of our parents. Caller ID showed his name, so I let it go to voicemail. Even if I hadn't seen his name, I won't answer calls from that area code unless I recognize them. They could be from my mother.
Dante left a voicemail saying to call him back, nothing more. I received a Facebook message from a random stranger immediately after the voicemail. A Google image search showed that the profile photo had been all over the internet, and a search of the name yielded no hits, so I assumed it was Dante incognito. I discovered I could read the message without "accepting" it or sending a read receipt, so I did. It was Dante saying our dad was doing poorly and the phone number he had for me was defunct (this is the beauty of not having an outgoing voicemail message, Friends) and to call him back. Dante is still living at home with our dad.
My best friend, Jerry, didn't think I should call him. I knew the only reasons anyone from my family would be calling me would be either 1) because they wanted money, or 2) they wanted me to do something, and I didn't have any intention of giving them anything or going there, even if a parent was dead. Still, I hoped for the narrow possibility that something would finally force to the surface the fact that I am not my dad's biological daughter. Maybe Dante would be asking me to donate a kidney or bone marrow and I could say nonchalantly, "I'm not any more related to him than you are. Didn't you know?" Maybe Dad actually wanted to talk to me for the first time in years.
I called back on speaker phone so that I could record our exchange and listen to it later and get thoughts from Jerry as necessary. That is why I have a recording on my phone of Dante choking back a sob and saying, "Dad's dead."
Dad had been in the hospital in Cleveland again when he died. His wound had reopened, as it always has, and the VA hospital in Cincinnati had shipped him back to Cleveland to stay in their spinal cord injury unit, as they always did. He had been in the ICU lately, which wasn't a first for him. I've visited him in ICUs since the '90s. Dante said he hadn't been able to get in touch with him lately, though I'm not sure how "lately" he meant. Some of his updates, such as Dad's driver's license expiring, were things I remember happening four years ago. He said he had tried calling Dad's cell phone but got no answer, which doesn't surprise me since he always avoided taking valuables with him to the hospital out of fear they would be stolen, even if they were his primary means of communication and entertainment and he didn't know how long he'd be there. He said he'd finally gotten in touch with a doctor at the hospital and learned that Dad had gone into cardiac arrest, which was a first for him. He was alive but couldn't communicate except for subtle head movements. Dante said the doctor had called him on his own cell phone from the ICU and was asking Dad if he wanted "to be made comfortable," and Dad supposedly nodded. He died later that day, right before I called Dante back. He was a four hour drive from anyone he knew.
Dante and I talked for several hours over the next two days, mostly trading ridiculous stories of our parents. Every time one of us tried to get off the phone, we'd feel compelled to share one more thing and stay on the line for another ten minutes. He was doing it too. It was good. I've never connected with Dante that way. Maybe he had changed. Maybe I had imagined some of his scariness and inflated it over the years of estrangement.
I was also surprised at how little Dad and Dante had presumably talked since Dante had moved back home. I'm not sure how long Dad had been in Cleveland when he died, but Dante didn't know we weren't in touch. I told him that he had all my contact information but that, when he wouldn't ask me any questions about my family or my life and I stopped working to maintain the relationship, I stopped hearing from him at all. It had been three years. Dante had no idea.
He also had no idea what Dad wanted to happen when he died. He'd apparently only had that conversation with me. As I recall, it only happened because he wanted the go-ahead to cancel all his life insurance policies minus the one the VA paid for, and we were confirming it would be enough to cover the cost of cremation. He didn't want a big service or burial, he said. He just wanted his favorite jazz song playing on a boom box to send him off. I can do that, I had said.
I previously wrote about the wonkiness in my family tree. It's looking more and more like my gg-grandfather was not, in fact, my biological gg-grandfather. I currently have 26 DNA matches I can trace back to the same married couple in the Willis family. Ancestry isn't aware of most of them because I drew up their trees myself. I've made at least thirty of what I think people call "mirror trees." My closest matches in this Willis family group share just over 100 cM of DNA with me. Based on other cousins with whom I share the same amount of DNA as well as the extensive Willis family tree I've mocked up, I think the eldest match is my second cousin twice removed and the other two are my third cousins once removed. This is all still estimation.
I've also discovered, as more close matches appeared, that there are genetic links between this massive group of Willis family members andAidaand my closest mystery cousin, the one who self-identifies as Cherokee but turned out to be 100% white lady. All my mystery people are turning out to reside on the same mysterious branch of my family tree. I guess this shouldn't surprise me since I have so many matches across most of the rest of my tree that I can often tell how I'm related to someone based solely on shared DNA matches. (I have a LOT of matches. I credit it to being so historically American and the DNA testing companies also being American.)
There is so much data it's hard to compile into one place where I can see it at a glance. Today I started to draw the family tree on a wall-sized dry erase surface in the hopes of fitting all the DNA matches I know and then trying out places where my mystery cousins might fit. It makes me look like a conspiracy theorist, or so I like to think. I just need some red string and photographs.
I currently have one most likely suspect for the role of gg-grandfather based on proximity of DNA matches, though he isn't necessarily it. My next step will be to figure out some currently living descendants who might someday DNA test and to hypothesize what their matches to other cousins should look like. I think the match I'd most like to see would be one of my g-grandmother's descendants, any of whom should match to my entire mystery bunch as well as to the descendants of my gg-grandmother's clan in Illinois.
Something to consider for anyone who thinks they can keep a child's paternity a secret if they just wait out the clock: the person I'm in the process of finding out isn't biologically my ancestor is 150 years my senior. He died decades before my parents were born. He fought in the Civil War.
DNA testing is still in its infancy. Who knows what DNA tests will be able to unearth in another 150 years.
If anyone has done genetic genealogy focusing on people this far removed from the current era and has advice or suggestions for what I should be doing next, please let me know. It's hard since the margin of error increases -- snowballs, really -- each time you go back another generation.
I mentioned in a post two years ago that my maternal grandfather was conceived out of wedlock. His mother was between husbands, and his father got around. I also mentioned that a much younger half-sibling had contacted my grandfather in the late '90s, but I never learned her name. She lived far away, and my grandmother had said she would send her a copy of the only photo they had of my great-grandfather and the few she had of his other children, the legitimate offspring. My half-great-aunt didn't know her father because she had been conceived during an extramarital affair. Her mother and social father (stepfather doesn't seem accurate if they passed her off as his own) already had two other children. My half-great-aunt would be about 70 now, barely older than my mother. Well, I found her. Or, more accurately, DNA testing found us both.
My half-great-aunt popped up on AncestryDNA the other day with just three people on her family tree -- herself and her biological parents -- and I immediately knew who she was. Even without the family tree, the 450+ cM of shared DNA and the many DNA relatives in common made it clear that my great-grandfather was our closest common ancestor. I messaged her explaining how we're related (cushioned with "I think") and that my grandfather was one of the children born after their father's wife died. I was trying to put delicately that he was one of the outsiders like her, that almost everything I knew had come much later from my own research. I wanted her to feel comfortable talking to me. I wanted her to know I was an outsider too, albeit one with lots of collected data and photographs.
I asked if she'd been the half-sister whose named I'd never learned who had written to my grandfather in the '90s. She wrote back right away, and she was welcoming. She said she was probably the same sister. The few details my grandmother had mentioned, like birth year and state of residence, matched up, and she said she had tried to reach out to her "father's people" back then. She hadn't known her father, she said. She'd only seen him once when she was little, and her mother was still married to someone else, so she hadn't been allowed to talk about him at all. How strangely similar to being donor conceived.
I'm hesitant to write about this because, as largely unread as this blog is, it's not private. My nearest and dearest are well aware of it, though they aren't interested enough to come here (they hear enough of this stuff in person), and I should assume any up-and-coming nearest and dearest will be clued into it too, which is why I don't talk much about my paternal half-siblings. I want them to like me, even if they someday read my blog.
To recap, I was conceived with anonymous donor sperm. The only half-siblings I've found so far are the two adult children my biological father raised with his wife. I'm the only DC one I know of, though there are probably more.
When I found Joseph, my biological father, he seemed very concerned that I would out him publicly, tag his children in Facebook posts, or somehow stalk or inconvenience his family. I forgive him for this because he doesn't know that's not my style (except for the stalking -- I'm an exceptionally quiet cyberstalker). He didn't want to know me, but my half-siblings did. I have spoken to my half-sister Simone once on the phone. We text sometimes on holidays. We're Facebook friends, as I am with my half-brother Hans. It's a strange relationship. I've always been afraid of being perceived as too forward or forcing myself on them. Both have been welcoming and kind to me. Neither have seemed particularly interested in me though, so I've tried to take their lead. Our relationships cooled, which I think was actually a good thing because they feel more solid now. I feel more vested. I feel like I would have to make a misstep for them to strike me from their lives now, whereas I previously checked Facebook every day to see if they had spontaneously unfriended me yet.
Here's the point of this post. Simone wants to visit me and stay in my house. Right away. I do not want this to happen. I would like to meet her. I would like to share a meal and talk for hours, maybe even spend the day together. She is my sister, and she will be forever, no matter how this relationship plays out. But we have never met in person, we've only spoken once, and I don't want to host her in my home. I am self-conscious of my home, and I have a husband and child and dog to take care of in my home. I want to be able to give Simone my undivided attention somewhere else. I want to be able to decompress after we meet and be alone to process everything. I declined her request. I said maybe in a few months. Want to set a date in a few months? Maybe then I'd have time to get to know her enough I could handle it, though I didn't say that part. She asked again. It needed to be now. To avoid saying no again -- but also avoid saying yes -- I asked what was going on and expressed concern. I knew she had had a fight with her boyfriend. I knew to a certain extent what this was all about because she posts a lot of information on Facebook, which I appreciate as a quiet cyberstalker. We messaged back a forth and few times over the next couple of weeks. Then she asked again if she could stay in my house. I've gotten good at drawing boundaries over the years, but I never learned how to maintain a relationship with someone who might not want those boundaries in place. At the advice of my best friend Jerry, who is good at complex interpersonal relationships, I did what Simone frequently does and didn't respond at all. The next time we talk, I will -- like Simone frequently does -- pretend it never happened. This might sound cold, but I think it's the kindest way I could handle this particular situation. It's strange. I feel like I'm relearning how to play a game I was never particularly good at.
In case you're reading this ever, Simone, I do want to know you. You are interesting, and we have so much in common in spite of all the ways we're different. I think we'd both enjoy taking absurd numbers of selfies together and posting them on social media for attention with various #sister tags. I like you and want to know you better. But I want to take things slow. I know it's been over two years, but we've barely spoken in that time, let alone bonded. I am afraid of being the rebound from your current relationship. I am afraid the novelty of meeting a new sister and posting selfies together on Facebook will not be enough to make you feel better again and that you might end up upset or mad at me. I can be a good friend, but we barely know each other, and I'm not the best person for this job. We could talk over the phone, and I could listen and sympathize, but I'm not good at hosting guests. I don't like doing it, and that's not about you. I want to get to know you, but if I let you light a fire under this sister relationship, I am afraid it will explode. You mentioned starting DBT once on Facebook. I clicked "like." It made me happy that you were getting the kind of therapy I had always thought would work best for you. I wanted to express support in that small Facebook way. You don't know that borderline personality disorder is one of my areas of expertise. You don't know anything about the family that raised me (well, you might now, if you're reading this here). I want to have a functional relationship with you, so I'm not letting this go too fast. Maybe I could come visit you and stay in a hotel. We could go out to eat and you could show me around. This is the best I can do.
When I was packing to leave for college, my mother told me she was ordering me an escape ladder she'd seen on TV to hang from my dorm room window in case of a fire. It could extend up to four stories tall, she said. I reminded her that my dorm room was on the 17th floor. She would buy several, she amended, and I could tie them all together. I was concerned about falling to my death, so I told her I'd rather take my chances in the stairwell.
When I was packing to leave for college, my mother told me I should take one of her inflatable twin mattresses with me so that I wouldn't need extra long sheets for the dorm mattress. Instead I could just inflate the air mattress every single night and use old sheets from home. I declined and bought myself the extra long sheets on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond.
I've been considering something for awhile. I've been considering coming out on Facebook as donor conceived. It isn't a secret among my nearest and dearest, and I don't keep it a secret at all anymore really, but it's something most people don't know about me. Almost none of my family or my high school friends know I'm donor conceived, and those two groups make up a significant portion of my social media "friends."
The reason I'm considering coming out is that I want to push people from my hometown to take DNA tests and I was hoping this might be attention grabbing enough to... get their attention. I was conceived locally with fresh sperm from a local donor. I already accidentally found a paternal second cousin who is a friend of a friend. Any DC half-siblings I might have were (I am 95% certain) conceived at the same hospital as me, and I'm not from a big city. They were also (again, I'm 95% certain) conceived around the same time as me. We might have even gone to school together.
I will never know if I've found all my DC half-siblings. There is no way for me to know for sure. But I feel pretty certain that there is at least one out there somewhere, and odds are good that s/he and I know some of the same people.
I was thinking of doing one of those videos where the person holds up poster boards of text like the bad friend does to Keira Knightley on Love Actually. Those seem popular for getting people's attention. Here is what I'm thinking of writing on them:
"Hi, I'm Christina. You might know me from Smalltown High School. What you might NOT know is We might be related. I was conceived with sperm from an anonymous donor. The doctor said not to tell anyone, including me. An estimated 90% of people don't know they are donor conceived. DNA testing through AncestryDNA or 23andMe can tell you if you're one of them. It will also tell you if you're my sibling. I don't know how many half-siblings I might have. But I hope to meet them someday."
I'd like to hear your thoughts, both on this whole idea and on what words to use if I were to do it. Has anyone else done something along these lines or with this goal in mind?