When the message I’d been anticipating for six weeks finally popped up in my inbox, I froze. Did I really want to see the results of my dad’s DNA test?
Sure, why wouldn’t I? But I hesitated to click on it. I took a few deep breaths and told myself I was being dramatic. At least I thought I was, until I opened the results to find that the man who raised me—a man who was everything I could have wished a father to be—didn’t share any DNA with me.
The news went through me like an electric shock. Before I could even catch my breath, I understood that everything had changed—that my heritage, family medical history, and even my birth certificate were bogus. Most of my relatives were no longer mine. My identity collapsed like a building imploded, all because my dad and I spat in a couple of tubes.
But when the dust settled and I emerged from the wreckage, I was thrilled.
Although the results of my own DNA test, which I had taken a year earlier, were odd, they didn’t set off alarm bells. I knew my mother’s ancestors were British, and my father, a first generation American, was the child of Russian Jews. I was also aware that ethnicity results are broad and refer to migration patterns going back centuries. So when the test pegged my heritage as largely English and Italian, I took that as evidence my paternal ancestors were Iberian and, thus, Sephardic Jews, as some in the family believed.
While I’d always felt like an interloper in my family, I didn’t for a minute think I actually was one. I chalked up my lifelong impression of having been switched at birth or spawned by aliens to anxiety, imagination or the desire for a more appealing gene pool.
Don’t misunderstand: I’d won the dad lottery. I adored my dad. He was fun and playful—the dad all my friends wished was theirs. He loved generously and unfailingly and was devoted to me and my brother. His pride in me seemed to be the scaffolding of his life, even if he took all the credit, never missing an opportunity to crow, “It’s all in the genes!”
While there was no logical reason to believe it—and plenty of logical reasons not to—I grew up certain I had no idea who I was, that my story was inaccurate, that I was somehow inauthentic or fraudulent. The identity that was given me was like a pair of shoes two sizes too small. My name, better suited to a wizened crone in a babushka than a little girl in Buster Browns, didn’t suit me and the sound grated on me. I named every doll I had Kathy, the name I thought should have been mine.
When I was an infant, my mother had abandoned me and my brother, who was the result of an affair she’d had with a married man two years prior to meeting my dad. She was the troubled, restless child of a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father and had been out on the streets since she was 16. My dad loved her and she loved him, but her love of horse-racing and gambling was more compelling. After she left, my dad adopted her son and raised us on his own.
It was easy enough to explain feeling like a misfit. If I had little in common with my relatives, I convinced myself it was because I took after the mother I’d never known, the one I yearned and searched for. And when gut feelings of being misplaced among strangers gnawed at me, I only had to look in the mirror at my untamable curly hair, a trait I share with my dad, or at my knocked knees, which surely were a variation of a birth defect we called “the family knee,” to see there was no way I had been adopted.
In late middle age, after searching for decades, I caught the trail of my mother by stumbling upon her obituary. I found and reunited—or rather united—with six half-siblings, who were listed in that text as her sole survivors, the children of a later marriage between my mother and another horse racing aficionado. They welcomed me and my older brother with love and enthusiasm and finding them brought a sense of belonging I’d never experienced.
At family reunions, when we talked about the secrets and lies that had kept us apart, one of my sisters-in-law often speculated that some of my six siblings might have had different fathers. It was true they didn’t much resemble each other, and she repeated it so often that I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.
I didn’t really believe it was possible that my dad wasn’t my father, but I indulged the spawned-by-aliens scenarios of my youth and asked my 90-year-old dad if he’d take a DNA test “just for fun.” Despite my inklings, I felt torpedoed when he turned out to be 97 percent Eastern European Jewish, sharing zero DNA with me.
I only had to look at my non-British DNA matches—Sicilians with names like Giuseppe, Giovanna, Catarina, and Domenica, and Catholics according to baptismal certificates—to know my tribe wasn’t Sephardic Jews.
Once my heart came back to a normal rhythm, I called the testing company. My voice quaking, I asked if a mistake could have been made. But I knew, deep down, there’d been no mistake.
Assuming I was distraught, the woman taking my call confirmed that the results were correct, her tone suggesting that she was sorry for my loss. But she misunderstood the nature of the loss. I hadn’t lost my dad. That could never happen. She also couldn’t know how much I ultimately would gain.
As I continued to stare at my dad’s test results, blinking dumbly, a crowd of feelings bloomed at once: confusion, anger, disbelief, and a sense of rudderless. But the one thing I didn’t feel—that I thought I should have felt—was sad. My excitement and gladness over the fact that my gene pool had been drained and refilled seemed a betrayal of the person who loved me most, had always loved me, and whom I loved equally. Even when he drove me nuts.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that secrets are corrosive. Still, I never told my dad before he died last year. Perhaps I would have if I’d discovered this secret much earlier, but he was 91 years old, and there was nothing to be gained from stripping him of the role that was his greatest joy in life. Although he told me years before that he couldn’t be sure my mother hadn’t been unfaithful, I’m convinced he never knew I wasn’t his child.
Soon, all I could think about was my other father and whether I’d ever know who he was. I’d solved a half-century mystery about my mother and felt more whole than I ever had. Suddenly I had two absent, unknown parents and new and bigger mystery to unravel: Who am I now? The question haunted me. The year-and-a-half of obsessive sleuthing it took to identify my now deceased biological father was nearly paralyzing.
After following the DNA clues, getting a close cousin match, and putting together the puzzle pieces, I learned that my great grandparents had arrived from Sicily around the turn of the century, became farmers in New Jersey, and had four sons and a daughter. But I had no idea which of their children was my paternal grandparent.
Much later, when another close cousin match turned up, it became clear that the daughter, who had died during childbirth, was my grandmother. It all began to make sense when my cousins told me that her son, like my mother, followed the horses and was a problem gambler. No doubt they met at the races.
It wasn’t the only time my mother was unfaithful. While my parents’ divorce was being finalized—when I was 1 year old—they briefly got back together, but soon split again. Not long after she left, my mother informed my dad that she was pregnant with his child. Yet again they flirted with the idea of a reunion, but it never happened.
My dad never saw the child but agreed to sign papers allowing my mother to put her up for adoption. Only last year, DNA led me to find that sister, whose father, it turns out, was not my dad. Additionally, after taking a harder look at the DNA results of the oldest of the six siblings I’d discovered, I realized that the man she knew as her dad wasn’t her father either.
After additional DNA matches emerged, I eventually confirmed who my biological father was and found his family through Facebook. I was fortunate that some, but not all, were receptive, and those I went on to meet have been a joy. But it’s a joy tinged with regret, since I can’t help but wonder what it might have been like to have been raised among these warm, happy, hilarious, family-loving Italians, instead of the humorless, melancholy Russians who seemed so unfamiliar in my youth. I can’t help but imagine, for good or for bad, who I might have been if I’d only known who I was.
I have to admit that the months between learning my dad wasn’t my father and finding out who was might be described as a trek through temporary insanity. On this side of that journey, of course, it’s clear my dad is my only father. My love for him only seems stronger knowing it isn’t just an expression of filial affection and loyalty, but something much stronger. He earned it through pure goodness, unselfishness and unconditional love.
In the aftermath of my DNA surprise, there’s grief to be sure—for the years without a true sense of self; for the family members never met; for the other life unlived. But spitting into a tube has given me one of the greatest gifts of my life—my truth.
I’ve seen the faces of my father, my grandparents and my great grandparents. I’ve traced their lineage through centuries. I know where I come from, and I no longer feel as if I’m somehow broken or misplaced.
Deconstructing and reconstructing my identity will be a work in progress, and learning not to spend too much time on “What if?” will take time. But as a result of a DNA test, I’m feeling more myself these days.