Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The First Time I Saw My Mother High

My mother has been a teetotaler since before I was born.  When I was a small child, she told me, "We're teetotalers," and when I asked what that meant, she said it meant the strongest thing we drink is tea.  What teetotaler actually stands for is someone who believes in "Total Abstinence" with a capital T -- someone who never imbibes any kind of alcohol (thank you, PBS documentary on Prohibition).  Being a teetotaler seemed to be a big part of my mother's identity, alongside being a mother, a volunteer, and a virgin (more on that another time).

My family is not, in fact, made up entirely of teetotalers.  One of my uncles was an alcoholic and another had a cocaine problem.  Both were good men, but they are dead now.  My mother started abusing prescription drugs when I was about 14, but it took me over a decade to realize what was happening. 

My mother and I took a trip together the summer I turned 14.  That was the first time I remember her talking about how much her hip hurt.  She complained of the pain any time she was expected to walk for any distance.  She took one of my dad's handicapped placards and started using it in her own car so that she wouldn't have to use the regular parking spaces.  She visited multiple doctors, but the only thing anyone could find wrong with her was something one doctor mentioned to do with her heel.  She said the doctor told her she could have surgery on her heel and it might fix the pain in her hip, but that it was very expensive and not likely to work.  She opted to forgo surgery (this was several years after she'd canceled our medical insurance) and simply take muscle relaxants and pain killers while continuing to walk as little as possible.

Her first muscle relaxant was called Soma.  I remember this because I was reading Brave New World in school at the time, and Soma was the name of the hallucinogenic drug in the book.  There was something weird about how she acted when she took Soma.  For as long as I've known her, my mother has been chronically miserable and easy to upset.  Sometimes back then she was happy and fun -- I don't want you to think she wasn't, and I adored her like a duckling loves its mother -- but she was also volatile and usually had several large mood swings per day.  It was the only way I'd ever known her.  My dad was the same way. 

On the Soma, she laughed easily, even at home when there was no one to impress.  Things that might normally set her off just rolled off her shoulder.  She reminisced about how she'd once gotten drunk on wine coolers with a boyfriend at a New Year's Eve party, and when I quickly did the math and pointed out that she must've been underage at the time, she said, "Oh yeah.  I guess I was," and laughed wildly. 

I remember thinking, "I should be happy.  I should be relieved she's relaxed and not upset," but I felt scared.  She hadn't approved of drinking even in moderation even for full adults at any point in my life.  She'd tried to shame her one friend for drinking white wine; she'd warned her that she'd give herself breast cancer like her sister had.  On Soma, my mother seemed like an entirely different person, which maybe should have been a good thing in this instance, but it felt like more of an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" level of change.  Years later, I looked up the drug online and read that this sort of change in behavior is a symptom of overdose.  I had been scared because my mother was high.  I hadn't realized the drug wasn't meant to make her that way.

I remember telling my mother that I didn't like how she seemed so different on the Soma, that it weirded me out.  She said I just didn't want her to feel better. 

If I were to make a timeline of my life, I would include a mark at age 15 labeled "Mother Starts to Go Crazy."  I don't know a better way to word what was happening because I don't know what was happening, but it was one of my life's important landmarks.  A doctor told her she was "perimenopausal" and gave her some pills to make her stop menstruating.  I don't know what else she was taking at the time or even if the pills were relevant, but that was when she started accusing me of "changing," which I probably did at 15, though I tried my hardest not to appear any different to her.  Physically I was already full grown, and it was hard to hide that fact, no matter how much I tried to act like I was still a child at home.  She became increasingly unpredictable.  I became increasingly terrified of doing anything wrong.  Nothing about her or her reactions seemed to make sense anymore.

I only know a handful of the prescription drugs that followed.  There were more muscle relaxants and pain killers.  Sleeping pills became a favorite since she often napped all day, leaving her wired at night, when the anxiety attacks took hold.  When she freaked out at her doctor's insistence that she cut back on the sleeping pills -- that he didn't want her taking them every single day -- I suggested she cut back on the naps and go outside and move around a little during the day so that she would be more tired at night.  I thought I was helping.  "Stop trying to solve my problems!  I just want you to listen!" she said, and her doctor kept prescribing the pills.  Or maybe she found another doctor.  She had a knack for finding ones who would prescribe what she wanted.  Later came the anti-depressants and I'm not sure what else, and that was when things got really bad.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

My Mother's Paper Route

Because we lived off my dad's veterans disability checks and social security, my mother said the government limited how much she could earn to $5,000 per year.  Because that is approximately half of what my the government gave my family per month (yes, the checks totaled close to $10k per month tax free -- I know the numbers because I managed my parents' finances for several years -- more on that another time), she never needed to work for a living.  She retired from nursing at the age of 24 when they adopted my older brother, but she took on a handful of odd jobs and get-rich-quick schemes over the years.  This was one of the strangest:  the paper route.

I was in my early teens when my mother got her paper route, which means she was in her early forties.  To me, paper routes were something kids with bicycles did for a first job when they were still too young to be baggers at the local grocery store.  I didn't know any paperboys, but according to TV shows, the child would get up early, get the papers ready, and ride his bike through his route, throwing a paper at each doorstep.  He would finish by sun-up and then do other things.  This was not what my mother did. 

My mother got the papers ready throughout the day while I was at school and sometimes while I was at home.  They were scattered across the living room floor as she worked through them, which might have seemed more foreign if she hadn't already been a hoarder and the floors already strewn with random debris.  I'm not sure how long it took her to roll up the papers and slip them into their plastic casings each day, but I saw her doing it a lot, so it seemed like hours. 

Then when I got home from school, we would load them into the car and she would drive me to the neighborhood where her route was.  Then she told me to get out of the car and deliver the papers door-to-door.  I had to hang them nicely on the door handles, NO! we could not throw them from the car window like people do on TV,  and if someone was outside, I had to hand deliver the paper personally and talk with the person and exchange pleasantries.  She would see if I didn't because she drove slowly down the street, watching me while I walked and delivered papers.  If I hung the paper on a door knob when a person was somewhere outside, even if they were engaged in something like mowing the lawn, she would yell at me to go back and hand deliver the paper.  I was shy, which made interacting with strangers difficult on its own, but doing my mother's paper route in this weird, forced way while she yelled at me from her slow-moving car mortified me.  Sometimes the people she saw outside who she wanted me to hand deliver papers to were my classmates, which was worse.

When we finished her route, it was usually around 4pm and I was famished.  She had pretty much stopped cooking by that point in my life, so then she would take me out to dinner, usually to Denny's, where she complained that it cost as much to feed me as she earned doing her paper route.

Her original plan had been to build a paper route empire.  She said she'd heard of another middle-aged woman who subcontracted out multiple paper routes to local children, taking a cut of their pay while they did all the delivering, and this scalable model appealed to her.  She never made it that far though.  She just drove slowly alongside me, watching me deliver papers every afternoon, until one day she told me she quit. 

Meet the Parents

My parents have hated each other since before I was born.  I saw them kiss once, a quick goodbye peck on the lips when my dad dropped us off at the airport for a trip to Walt Disney World while he stayed at home with the dog.  I got the impression my parents didn't confide much in each other, but they told me lots of things.  Here is how they ended up together, based on the stories they each told me.

My parents met in high school when they worked together at a local fried chicken joint.  They weren't friends, and they attended different schools on opposite sides of town.  My dad graduated and enlisted in the air force to avoid being drafted to the front lines of the Vietnam War.  My mother graduated a year later. 

My dad worked on airplanes as a mechanic during the war.  When he wasn't in Vietnam, he lived in a house near the base in Reno.  He loved the dry heat of the desert and still talks about it in a wistful sort of way.  He got into a motorcycle accident while he was home on leave at the age of 21.  He said he was riding his motorcycle when a cop hit him while making an illegal left turn.  The handlebars of my dad's motorcycle had pushed around through his back, severing his spinal column.  He spent the next two weeks in a coma, and when he woke up, he said he received notice that the police had benevolently decided not to ticket him for the accident and also that he was never going to walk again. 

My dad had been seriously dating a beautiful red-haired girl at the time of his accident.  He'd been planning to propose to her.  She was the love of his life, he told me.  When he woke from the coma, he drove her away.   She had still wanted to be with him, but she deserved a fully functioning man, he didn't care what she wanted, and it goes on.  I don't think he really expected her to leave, but she finally did, and he was alone.  The scenario seems predictable if you've met him. 

He was still recovering from the accident when he received a letter from my mother.  She was still living with her parents in the town where they'd both grown up, taking a course to become a licensed practical nurse.  She'd read about his accident in the local newspaper and wanted to reconnect.  I presume this was about the time that my dad realized the beautiful red-haired girl wasn't coming back and that my mother might be his last option.

My mother said she had liked him when they worked together at the fried chicken joint in high school but that he'd been a jerk then.  Now he was paralyzed from the chest down, wheelchair-bound, and largely dependent on someone to take care of him.  Why should that change how I felt about him? she wondered.  "Everyone has a right to a little bit of happiness," she told me.  Besides, the doctors had only anticipated he'd live five years beyond the accident.  With her help, he could have a wife and a house and a child in that amount of time.  "I always thought of your dad as my first husband," she explained.  And she started writing him letters.

My parents wrote back and forth, and when my dad moved back into his parents' house in their hometown, my mother started coming over, courting him.  She was only twenty but had already been engaged twice.  My dad was sorry to leave Reno.  He'd liked the desert.  He'd liked riding his motorcycle.  He'd liked the red-haired girl.  My parents' dates largely consisted of hanging out at my dad's parents' house, snacking and watching television.  A man my mother used to date came back to town for a visit and asked if he could take her out.  My mother asked my dad what she should say.  He said he didn't care, they weren't exclusive, and she could do what she wanted, so she made plans.  When their date finally rolled around, my dad asked her, "Are we getting married, or what?"  She canceled the date with the other man, and my parents were engaged.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Half-Siblings

Hans's email was really nice.  It was almost as though he'd researched what the most supportive things were to say to a donor conceived person because he said all of them.  He said our father had told him when he was a child about having donated sperm, so he'd always known he might have a half-sister out in the world and was totally okay with it, not in shock at all.  He said he felt I had a right to know my biological family and where I come from.  He said he knew our father had written me a letter saying never to contact him again, but he felt it was more reflective of Hans's mother's "irrational anger" at my having found them than his own feelings on the matter.  He said he thought our father felt ambivalent, but he recommended I hold back and not contact him again -- that while our father might change his mind some day and want to know me, Hans felt pretty sure his mother never would.

I felt a wide range of emotions.  My brother seemed considerate, and he was open to getting to know me.  I was thrilled.  The reactions of my biological father and his wife were essentially what I'd expected, but I felt disappointed and sad nonetheless.  I was pleasantly surprised he'd told Hans about me since my closest friends had been quite certain he'd throw away my letter without telling a soul.  I had quietly hoped he'd recognize that I could contact my half-siblings with or without his introduction.  I felt sure it was better for both of us if he told them about me first, and I was glad he saw it that way too.  It was the kind of rational response I'd learned not to expect from the parents who raised me.  I am reasonable in spite of them, so I thought maybe I'd inherited that quality from him.  

I drafted an email response to Hans.  I thanked him for writing.  I told him I was happy to hear from him and that, while I hadn't received Joseph's letter yet, I was glad to hear from him first, that he'd given me advance notice of what to expect.  It cushioned the blow.  I assured him I had no intention of contacting Joseph a second time, that if he wanted to reach out to me in the future, I'd love to hear from him, but that I didn't want to cause a rift between him and his wife.  I told Hans a few things about myself and asked him some getting-to-know-you questions.  I saved the email in my drafts folder to send the next day, when I'd had a chance to reread what I'd written, calm and sober.

By the time I finished, it was late into the night.  I went to close my laptop, and my inbox had another new email in it.  It was an automated message with the subject line, "Simone Von Trapp wants to be friends on Facebook."  I was 2 for 2 with half-siblings.  My heart was full.

Monday, March 16, 2015

New Connections

Now that I knew who my father was, as well as two of my half-siblings, I wanted to figure out the least intrusive way possible to reach out to them.  I also wanted to find donor conceived half-siblings, who I thought might be more likely to be open to talking with me than my father and his real children (I sound like the Velveteen Rabbit calling them "real" -- is there a proper term for the biological children a man raises and acknowledges as his own, as opposed to his "donor offspring"?).  To both those ends, I joined more online DNA databases.  Since I wouldn't be able to track down "donor siblings" through internet sleuthing the way I had my biological father, the only way to find them would be if we tested with the same company, so I cast the widest net I could -- I joined ALL the DNA databases.

Then I got a surprise.  I recognized my closest match on GEDMatch.com as the name of one of my father's brothers, Franz Von Trapp*.  I had already figured out how I was related to a few more paternal cousins on 23andMe, all from different branches of the family tree, so I was 99% sure of my paternity at that point, but the uncle match was what convinced my close friends that I had gotten it right.  I also knew from my limited but intensive experience with genetic genealogy that a match of that closeness was quite likely his closest match yet and would be bound to catch his eye.  If he contacted me to ask who I was and how we were related, I didn't want to lie.  Even saying I didn't know would be a lie.  But I wanted to give my biological father a chance to disseminate the information first.

I started drafting a letter to my biological father, Joseph*, letting him know who I am and that I'd found him through a mass-market DNA test and deductive reasoning.  I didn't want to email him because emails are too easy to delete.  I didn't want to call him because I didn't want to put either of us on the spot.  I wasn't sure if anyone at his office opened mail for him, so I opted to mail a letter to his home address, which was listed on whitepages.com. 

My first draft was brief and nonchalant.  I even toyed with asking if he'd donated sperm while in medical school, but since I already knew the answer was "yes," his answer would only tell me whether or not he was a liar.  My final draft was about a page long, straight-forward, honest, and probably a little bit creepy since I wanted to tell him how I'd seen the resemblance in our bone structures from old photos and could only explain, "Everything is on the internet."  I told him nothing of my parents or how I grew up.  I skipped to my college degree, my profession, my hobbies.  Benign topics, possible common interests.  I asked his hobbies, his favorite book, and how tall he is because these were the things I wanted to know.  I asked if he would please consider telling his son and daughter, Hans and Simone*, about me in case they would be willing to exchange emails with me.  I knew it was unlikely I'd get a second chance to ask him another question or favor in the future, so I wanted to cover everything the first time, no matter how unlikely he was to respond. 

I hand copied my letter onto carefully selected, high-end stationery embossed with golden flying pigs.  I wasn't sure if he'd get the joke that the impossible had finally happened, but it amused me, and I wanted to give some indication that I have a sense of humor since it's one of my better selling points and it was already unlikely he'd ever listen to me tell a story or make a joke.

In the end I felt good about the letter.  I knew it would be kind of weird and might be very unwelcome, but it said everything I wanted to convey, and it was polite and straight-forward.  Even if he never replied, knowing that he knew I existed and that I had represented myself well gave me a certain amount of peace.  My best friend had suggested I let loose and list every way that I'm angry about being put in this situation, but I would have been embarrassed to bare my emotions to a stranger who, at worst, would be defensive about his life choices and, at best, probably wouldn't care.

I mailed the letter, and I waited.  About a month passed.  I wasn't completely certain he'd received my letter since I hadn't sent it certified, but I didn't want to hound him in case he was consciously ignoring me.  I waited for my DNA results to go live on the Ancestry and Family Tree databases and hoped one of my half-siblings would be listed.  I tried to think of a good way to introduce myself to Franz, the uncle on GEDMatch.  He'd listed his email address on GEDMatch, but some people are open to new genetic connections and some are not, and I didn't know where he stood.  Then one night as I was about to shut down my computer, an email popped up in my inbox with the subject line "Hans Here."  The sender field said Hans Von Trapp.  It was from my brother.

*None of these are their real names.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Family Pictures

The first picture I ever saw of my biological father was what appears to be a work ID photo that comes up online when you search for his medical practice.  As he is an old bearded man and I am not, I saw no immediate resemblance.  I wasn't surprised we didn't look alike though.  My mother had always said I looked "just like" her, and I believed her, even when my eyes contradicted the things she said.  For instance, my mother used to tell me I was big-boned and that I would always be heavy like her, who had about a hundred pounds on me as an adult, because I had inherited that trait from her, who had inherited it from her mother, and so on. 

In reality, my bone structure is bird-like.  The bracelets that fit me best are usually intended for children.  The clothes that fit me are several sizes smaller than the ones my mother would buy for me growing up, which was also confusing.  My skin is paler than my mother's, and my eyes are a dark, muddled blue-green-grey compared with her bright, clear blue ones.  We do look similar, but in the way a mother and daughter might when the daughter has taken traits from her father too.  I was never the carbon copy I believed I was supposed to be, and so -- I realize now -- every trait my eyes told me didn't match my mother's just seemed sort of "off" to me.

I went back onto Ancestry.com to see what more I could find out about my biological father, and a series of yearbook photos came up, spanning from middle school through college.  He was in all the clubs -- band, theater, National Honor Society -- and that's when I saw the first resemblance.  He was delivering a speech in a high school play with his fists balled up at his chest, and my breath caught in my throat when I saw my freakishly small wrists -- and my forearms and my long-boned hands -- on his body.  Another photo showed him almost in profile, and I recognized the jawbone and cheekbones I see in the 3-way mirrors in dressing rooms.  His eyes are so dark that they look brown in black-and-white photos, and they are so small that their color is indistinguishable in low-res color photos, like mine.  I guess they're probably the same color as mine too. 

I didn't realize how much people look like their biological parents until I saw photos of him.  I grew up with a biological mother who looked quite a bit like me and a social father whose hair and eye color looked sort of like mine and an adopted brother whose eyes were blue-green and hair was sandy brown and skin was a warm olive color, and I didn't know that blood relatives looked more similar than that.  My mother used to tell me how she and her brothers looked so different from each other that people made jokes about what their milkman must look like.  I pulled up their yearbook photos next.  It was true they looked different.  Their hair colors spanned from dark brown to red.  Some were chubby and some were thin.  None of them looked identical.  But they all shared features.  My red-haired uncle looked more like their father than any of them.  Most of them had inherited his nose.  That was the first time I realized I had that same nose too. 

I had previously assumed when people said a baby had someone's eyes or nose or mouth that they were self deluded, that it was something people said to convince themselves and their children that they belonged.  I was in my thirties with a child of my own, but it still took seeing photos of both my biological parents at the same time to begin to recognize "that nose looks like that nose" and "those eyes look like those eyes."  I grew up thinking people could inherit physical features from their great-great-great-grandparents that had lain dormant for generations, which would explain why children don't always look like their parents, but if that's a thing that happens, it's not a thing I've actually seen happen.  I've learned in the last few months that people look like both their parents, and when they don't -- when they have features neither parent has or they don't share a single physical trait with one parent -- there tends to be a reason. 

I love seeing people with both their parents at once now.  Immediately recognizing that the child is a mixture of the two parents and being able to pick out who passed on each physical trait gives me a deep sense of satisfaction that I can feel in my stomach.  I don't know why.   

Another odd thing that happened when I saw the old photos is I found I liked all my physical features better than I had before, even my nose.  They'd all come from somewhere.  Biology and the randomness of nature had selected them; they weren't just mistakes.  I found photos of my known half-siblings online too -- my biological father's "real children," for lack of a better term.  They have the same pale skin I have, the same colored eyes and hair.  My half-brother has that same bird-like bone structure, while my half-sister inherited their mother's petite frame.  We all have different noses. 

I felt a sudden connection to my biological father and siblings.  I had always wanted lots of siblings, but I hadn't expected to feel anything for the father.  I didn't want to feel anything for the father.  I knew there was a good chance -- I estimated at least 85% -- that he wanted nothing to do with me.  I figured there was at least a 50/50 chance his children would feel the same way.  But I wanted them all to know I exist.  If they wanted to ignore me forever, that was their right, and I would respect that choice by leaving them alone, but I had a right to let my biological family know I exist. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How I Found Him

I discovered a lot of new things from my 23andMe DNA test results.  First, I learned that my ancestry is 99.9% European, which flies in the face of all the Cherokee blood my mother claimed we had.  She used to tell me my great-great-grandmother was "full-blooded Cherokee," but when I asked her one day where she'd learned this, she said she'd assumed she had to be -- my great-grandmother had tanned so easily that she must've been biracial.

Next I looked at my blood relations in 23andMe's "DNA Relatives" database.  Most of them were anonymous, so I could only see their maternal and (when they were male) paternal haplogroups, as well as a prediction of how closely we were related.  I got lucky though.  My closest relative was estimated to be a second cousin or first cousin once removed, and his profile was public.  He listed his full name, a handful of family surnames, and a few locations where his family members had lived.  None of the family surnames were familiar to me, though I only knew two from my mother's family, so I thought there was a good chance he was a cousin from my father's side.  I sent him a generic message through 23andMe proposing we try to figure out how we're related.  I had already received several messages of this kind from other cousins as soon as my profile went live, and I'd replied with the limited information I had, but none had been close relatives. 

Then I browsed graduating class photos from the medical school my biological father had most likely attended -- the one where I'd been born.  Someone had taken pictures of them and uploaded them to a website dedicated to finding anonymous sperm donor parents.  I had heard of other donor offspring browsing photos like these until they saw a face that resembled their own, but looking at the sea of white male faces, I couldn't help but think we all looked kind of similar.  I typed the graduate names into a spreadsheet so that I could reference it again as needed, including all the graduating classes that might have been in school at the time of my conception, plus a couple extra for good measure.  Two overlapped with the surnames in my second cousin's 23andMe profile:  Johnson and Von Trapp*.  Only one had a corresponding photo.

I looked up my second cousin on Facebook, but his name was a common one like Chris Johnson*, so there were quite a few profiles that matched it.  I narrowed down the profiles based on where they lived, weeding out the ones who lived in places he hadn't listed on his 23andMe profile.  Then I browsed the remaining few for Facebook friends with surnames from his 23andMe profile.  Only one Chris Johnson remained -- that was my cousin.

Using the information I'd learned from Facebook, such as his age and the names of a couple extended family members, I looked him up on pipl.com, which showed me his parents' and siblings' names.  I started drawing his family tree.  If he was my second cousin, our closest common ancestors would be a set of great-grandparents.  If I built up his family tree back to great-grandparents and then fleshed it out to contain all their offspring and all their offspring's offspring, my biological father would have to be on it somewhere.  I used pipl.com to determine family members and legacy.com for obituaries, which are sometimes blissfully detailed in their lists of survivors.  Assuming the family surnames he listed on his 23andMe profile were likely to be the closest ones, such as his mother's and grandmothers' maiden names, I found grandparent names and filled them in.  I found great-grandparent names and filled them in.  I started finding offspring and filling them in, focusing the most intently on the Johnson and Von Trapp branches.

I ran into a brick wall on the Johnson side due to lack of detailed obituaries, so I tried making a family tree for the medical student with the same last name, James Johnson.  His ancestry was easy to find online, and lack of overlap with Chris Johnson's quickly told me that he wasn't my father.  That left one more medical student, the unpictured one, Joseph Von Trapp*.  His wife and children and contact information were easy enough to find, but I had trouble finding who his parents were or where he came from.  He had no Facebook or LinkedIn profiles -- compared to most people I know, he was practically living "off the grid."  Finally I found an absurdly detailed obituary that listed him as a survivor.  It was his mother's obituary, it was old, and it gave all his siblings' names and his long-deceased father's name, as well as how his parents had met and how his father had died.

I had done all my work to this point without paying for an Ancestry.com subscription, but it finally became worth it to give them $19.99 of my money.  There was a census record that reportedly showed that Joseph Von Trapp's father and Chris Johnson's grandfather were brothers, and I wanted to see a scan of the hard copy so I could be sure of what it said.  I paid.  The scan proved it.  Chris Johnson and Joseph Von Trapp were first cousins once removed.  Chris was my second cousin, as 23andMe had predicted, and Joseph Von Trapp was my biological father by process of elimination.  None of his brothers had been in the same school or town at that time, and no one else in the family had gone to medical school, so I felt 95% sure I was right.  Now I wanted to find pictures of him.

*These are not their real names.  I made up these names.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Donor Conceived

A few years ago I started thinking about my biological father again.  It's a topic that resurfaces in my mind every so often since finding out around age 12 that I was conceived with anonymous donor sperm.  I made a list of what I knew about him: 
  • blond or brown hair;
  • blue or green eyes;
  • my mother said he was a medical student.
Since I was allegedly conceived with fresh sperm at a local university hospital, I didn't have a donor number or any of the things that cryo banks sometimes hand out.  The doctor had allegedly chosen someone whose coloring resembled my dad's so that I'd be able to "pass" as his child, and my dad's eyes are sort of blue-green and his hair is light brown.  The one time my mother talked about the conception, she claimed she'd seen my biological father.  She said I was conceived on a Saturday when the offices were otherwise closed.  There were only two cars in the parking lot, including her own, and she saw a man who looked like my dad's brother walking to the other one.  He must've been the donor, she said.  His was the only other car in the parking lot.

I also knew the hospital where I'd been born.  It was a university hospital.  There are several universities and colleges in the area where I grew up, but as my mother has never been one to shop around, I thought there was a good chance the clinic had been at the same hospital and that my biological father had attended the same university.

I looked up the hospital online.  They had a clinic devoted to Assisted Reproductive Technology, so that seemed like a step in the right direction.  I called the clinic.  I explained that I'd been conceived there with donor sperm and was looking for any information that might exist from my conception.  The woman sounded unnecessarily hostile -- though this may have just been my perception -- when she informed me that they'd moved offices and everything from before the move had been destroyed.  She said they don't keep patient records for more than ten years anyway, which means my mother's records would have been destroyed well before she'd told me I was donor conceived. 

I hadn't expected to learn much, but after hearing about donor numbers and sheets of non-identifying information some people receive from cryo banks, including facts like height and college major, I'd thought calling was worth a shot.  It was frustrating knowing so little and having no way to find out more information, like when you have a song stuck in your head but you can't think of the lyrics and can't figure out any way to look them up.  I put it away, as I always have when I've reached the point where there was nothing new to be done.  The frustration feels overwhelming if I don't keep tamping it down and putting it out of my mind. 

Then a few months ago I read about 23andMe's autosomal DNA tests.  They had been prohibitively expensive the first time I'd heard of them on a PBS special, but now they only cost $99.  I didn't think I'd find any close relatives on their "DNA Relatives" database, but I liked the idea of finally knowing my genetic ancestry.  When people asked, "Where are you really from?" (in response to my "America" the first time they asked because America apparently doesn't count) I'd grown accustomed to saying, "Guess," and then telling them they were right, regardless of what they guessed.  It made them so happy to be right, and for all I knew, maybe they were right.  Their guess was as good as mine.  I'd learned to take anything my mother told me with a giant grain of salt, so even my maternal ancestry was a pretty big question mark.  I ordered myself a DNA test for my birthday, and I waited.

I recounted the things my mother had told me to my closest friends, and an odd suggestion came up that hadn't occurred to me.  "She said the donor looked like your uncle?  You know who else looks like your uncle?"  My dad.  I confided in a cousin about the DNA test, hoping she could help me by remembering more of the surnames on my maternal side of the family than I did.  "Have you considered maybe your mom was just lying about there being a sperm donor?  That seems like something she would do."  The people I confided in who had met my mother all suggested the most likely scenario was that she had lied to me, probably in order to further alienate me from my dad.  My cousin was particularly doubtful since our incredibly gossipy extended family didn't seem to have a clue I might have been conceived by interesting means. 

I told my dad (when I say "dad," I always mean my non-biological social father, my mother's husband) that I was taking a DNA test out of general interest.  I had still never told him what my mother had said about him not being my father, and I wanted to see if he would tell me himself.  Instead he told me again how his great-uncle had once spent over a thousand dollars on a genealogy researcher and then refused to show what he'd found to the rest of the family.  I'm not sure if my dad was waiting to see what I found before being forthcoming or if maybe he'd forgotten we weren't related.  Or maybe my mother had lied.

Finally I got an email from 23andMe saying my results were live online.  My "DNA Relatives" in their database numbered close to 1000 people, from 2nd cousins to distant.  I searched the database for all the surnames I knew from my dad's family.  Anyone claiming to have the same surname in their family tree would pop up.  They were odd names, but I had a lot of them, gathered from a family tree with pictures my grandmother had drawn that hung on my dining room wall.  Not a single match.  Not a single one of my 1000 cousins claimed to have a single one of those weird surnames in their family tree.  That's when I concluded my dad really wasn't my biological father.  My mother might have been telling the truth.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Biggest Regret

My biggest regret about the state of my relationship with my mother is what it did to my relationship with my maternal grandmother.  My grandmother was the nicest, sanest person in my family.  She was cheerful, kind, and generous with her time, attention, and any money she and my grandfather had.  She was the only babysitter I ever had growing up, and she would cook for me, help me sew clothes for my dolls, and let me help water the enormous number of flowers in her yard.  When I went away to college, she wrote to me every week -- as she wrote to all her friend and family who lived far away -- and I wrote back occasionally too.

By the time I graduated from college, my mother's mental illness was already starting to be apparent to people who met her.  She would say cruel things to people's faces -- not just to me and my dad, but to her brothers and parents who she loved too -- and you never really knew what mood to expect from her when the phone rang, but she was often yelling and angry.  It was around that time that I started shaking every time the phone rang.

I was living far away, working full-time, and engaged to be married.  During one phone call with my mother, she asked where we were holding the wedding, since my fiance and I lived about a thousand miles away from our parents, who also lived hundreds of miles away from each other.  I told her we'd decided to get married in my hometown so that my dad -- the only parent of the four who we knew wouldn't be able to travel long-distance -- could attend.  My mother was angry.  It was a convenient location for her and everyone else in my family, but she said since I was doing it for my dad, I obviously didn't care about my grandparents, who also live in that same town.  "I'm going to tell them the truth about you!" she said.  I didn't know what she thought "the truth" about me was, but I knew it wouldn't be good.  She told me that as soon as she hung up the phone she was going to call her parents and tell them all about me and how I don't love them at all. 

When my mother hung up the phone, I called my grandparents.  As soon as I could get through, my grandmother answered the phone sounding unusually tired and unlike herself.  I told her I just wanted her to know that, no matter what my mother tells her about me, I loved her and Grandpa.  She said okay and that they loved me too, but she still sounded tired.  I'm not sure if she sounded that way because of things my mother had said, the fact that her only daughter was so clearly mentally ill, or just because she was getting old and tired.

I saw my grandma a couple more times after that, but she didn't come to my wedding.  My mother said it was because she didn't want to embarrass me with how poorly she got around.  My mother came to the wedding though, dressed in some old knit pants and a t-shirt and a wheelchair she didn't need.  She wore no shoes, and based on the oiliness of her hair, I don't think she could have showered within the last two weeks.  She was wild-eyed, and one of my bridesmaids mentioned that she appeared to be high. 

One of my uncles escorted her there, and they left before the reception.  By that time, my parents had divorced and my mother had moved back in with her parents, where her brothers came by a couple of times each day to do the laundry and cook their meals.  That was how they lived until both my grandparents died and my mother had to find somewhere else to go.