DNA

I have two family trees. All adoptees do. The first is the family whose name I share, who I grew up with, my family. The other tree is newer, yet with older roots. It is my DNA tree. I had done a DNA test over fifteen years ago, but the parameters were much broader back then. This time, the motivation was from Dad. He had his DNA tested and showed me the results. I asked Katie if she wanted to get tested because they were running a two-for-one special. To my surprise, she really wanted to see what her genetic background was.

The irony of her enthusiasm is that I searched for my other family tree because of Katie. When she was in high school, she had a rough time. Was there some clue in my birth family that might help me help her? I must have had an unconscious desire to know myself, but I sure didn’t know that then. I just wanted to find out my genetic background, I told myself.

I hope Dad understands this journey is completely separate from my relationship with him. I am always, and forever, Bob’s daughter. Shirley’s daughter. Mike’s sister. Ginger’s cousin. Katie’s Mom. Me. I never expected that this quest begun for Katie would awaken a desire to know my other family tree.

As an adoptee, not knowing your DNA family is nothing new. In fact, it was probably more common to have been orphaned or abandoned throughout history than now. I can tell you that no matter how wonderful your family is, or how good a fit (mine were/is, on both accounts), being an adoptee is incredibly lonely. There is no one who looks like you. There is always the stark words ‘adopted’ written across your medical history. No one compares you to an aunt, or brothers and sisters, or mom and dad. You are an island unto yourself. I coped by keeping a little part of me protected. I wasn’t aware that I did this until recently, and I wasn’t too happy to see that.

I already knew who my birth parents were when I ordered the tests. My journey started back in August of 2007. Apparently I had to mull over my options because this was three years after Katie had graduated from high school. For $65 I ordered my de-identified  adoption paperwork from the Methodist Mission Home in San Antonio. The heavily inked out lines are reminiscent of secret government files.

There have been a lot of emotionally jolting firsts for me since then. The afternoon I received a packet from Methodist Mission Home, I pored over the papers. My birth mother wanted to be a journalist, her family owned a restaurant; she was one of eleven kids.  My birth father was a musician and a journalism teacher. Huh. Imagine that. September 5th, 2007, two months after listing my information on every adoption reunion site I could find, an “adoption angel” who had seen my request sent me my birth mother’s name and a link to my original birth certificate (my birth mother had named me “Suzie”. I’ll give her a pass because she was 18 and it was the late 50s). After months of sleuthing, I saw a picture of my birth mother. I remember I sat there, stunned, staring at the young girl who looked a lot like me. Some five years later, I finally, finally, put all the pieces of the puzzle together and found out who my birth father was. His picture confirmed everything. I look like him, too. At long last, I had images of the people who created me.

I now have a dual-track family narrative. The one that is, that I’ve known my whole life, and one that I’m struggling to form into a new narrative. They will never meld. I have no desire to spring myself, uninvited, into my birth mother’s life. I don’t care to hear her story, the mea culpas and rationalizations behind her choices. It is enough—more than enough—to know who I came from, to see their pictures and names, and to see what I am made of.

 

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dad

Yes, my dad is alive and kicking. I want to take the opportunity to embarrass him while I can. It’s not often we get our own personal heroes, but I have one, a fact that has become even more emphatically clear during my struggle with Lyme. Dad and I are extraordinarily close, our relationship uncomplicated, unlike the relationship I had with Mom. Maybe that’s the nature of fathers and daughters, but more likely it’s because our personalities simply mesh. His 89th birthday is next month. He hates his birthday. His office once threw him an unbirthday party because he assiduously and purposefully withheld the date for years. He is going to kill me for writing this. I know it. That’s okay, Dad. You know you love me.

I was adopted on the sixth day of my life. I didn’t know until this year that mom and dad adopted me because I was a “hard to place” child, because I am half-Hispanic. This fact rattled me a bit. Hard to place? Moi? That’s because Mom never shared this tidbit with me, and I don’t think it ever occurred to Dad to even mention it, until I asked.

Dad was raised in a world of women. His dad traveled for work, and eventually divorced his mom when Dad was twelve. Dad credits his decidedly egalitarian views towards women (an anomaly for his generation) to this upbringing. I realized he was different from a lot of other dads early on. Other kids weren’t canoeing with their fathers. Other kids weren’t playing ping-pong, tennis, or just talking to their fathers. I rarely heard of friends’ fathers vacuuming, cleaning windows, or washing dishes. He did all these things and more without complaint. I complained enough for the whole family. Mom went back to work full-time when I was in the sixth grade with his blessing (I hesitate to state it that way, because he fully supported her choices). In his mid-fifties, he moved to Memphis for her job and commuted to Denver two weeks every month because she had interrupted her career to move for his. He took care of Mom for the last ten years of her life, putting aside nearly everything for her.

One of the things I love most about Dad is his absolute, unwavering unconditional love for those fortunate to be in his orbit. He wants nothing but good things and happiness for you. This used to intimidate and frighten me: could I live up to such a fierce love? Now I see that I do the same to Katie. There are worse things in life to know you are someone’s sun, moon and stars. He spoiled me a bit, but again, there are worse things. He has supported me unequivocally throughout grad school (he used the proceeds from Mom’s cello and bow to pay for it) and through my ordeal with Lyme disease. I do the same for Katie, and we do what we can for him. It’s a happy circle of unconditional love that I wish everyone could experience.

Dad was not a pushover, however. I tested plenty of boundaries. My brothers didn’t know what boundaries were. Dad has questioned his (and Mom’s—they were a team, 100%) choices on how he raised us. This is both endearing and annoying, because there were maybe four or five times, tops, where the punishment was unwarranted. He likes to remember differently, but some of his punishments were downright genius. One of my favorite stories (and his least, probably because it reflects poorly on me) is the time I was caught completely bombed on Quaaludes (thank goodness the guys’ parents came home, because we were literally on our knees howling with laughter because we couldn’t get the car keys in the door to unlock the car). Dad grounded me for six months. He said we were going to be spending a LOT of time together and signed me up for tennis lessons with Kingwood’s new tennis pro, Jim Rombeau. To this day Dad and I share an abiding love for tennis. This didn’t solve all of my misbehaving, but it brought us much closer together.

There was a time when it used to irk me that old boyfriends (really, all of my friends) always asked how Dad was doing, to the point where I suspected they liked him more than me. Now I see it for what it is, a huge compliment to him. He’s nonjudgemental and listens, no matter your sex or age. I remember discussions about news, books and life as early as nine or ten. When I was twelve, or maybe thirteen, I announced I was atheist. He asked me how I came to that conclusion and we began a discussion on belief and faith that continues to this day.

Dad won a lawsuit against an oil company known for stiffing independent exploration geologists who’d done work for them, largely because the jury found him an impeccably honest and moral witness. He once told me he’d rather see an honest F than a cheater’s A. He embarrassed me and my cousin Ginger at the movie theater by doing a spot-on imitation of Tevye singing “If I were a Rich Man” during intermission. He got thrown into the pool regularly because he was that dad, a good sport who liked to have fun. He likes to solve the world’s problems over a few drinks. He makes his granddaughter feel like she’s the center of his universe.

Whew. All these compliments! Lest you think he’s perfect, he can’t dance. His singing is abysmal. His ‘cooking’ is utilitarian at best, popcorn and wine at worst. He hates to wait. He can barely sit through a movie. He hates most holidays. He never feels like he gives good gifts (this is nonsense, he gives the BEST gifts).  He gets mad when Katie and I fuss over him. Too bad, Dad. We will fuss over you forever. Many friends who know him joke about letting him adopt them, too. He picked me, a hard-to-place monkey-faced baby. I’m not nearly as nice as he is, so too bad, he’s mine, and I’m not sharing.

 

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genes

With all the talk about elections, race identity has become a thing. White people are clamoring to stay on top, everyone else is frantic, and with good reason. Recently, a dear friend had her DNA tested, the kind of test that gives you percentages of your heritage. Hers was a veritable smorgasbord of ethnicities. She looks what people like to call ‘exotic’, beautiful and not quite white. Most Americans classify themselves by family history, even if that history has been altered by name changes and inconvenient ancestors eliminated by omission. Some of us are unknowns, unless we choose to look.

I am adopted, this is the earliest fact of my life. Born in San Antonio, I was given to my parents when I was six days old, in a dress my mom brought for my birth mother to dress me in. Aside from the heartbreaking aspect of my birth mother dressing me to give me away, I wondered. Who am I, really? When I got curious, about fifteen years ago, I discovered that my birth mother was/is Hispanic. Big deal. I was always the darkest white person in every class photo, anyway. How many of us know what ethnicity we truly are? Women have obfuscated and dodged paternity questions since forever, due to the murky politics of sex, rape and love. But now, as American citizens are busily sorting and screaming about exclusion and inclusion and whose lives matter and lets get rid of illegals, this self-identification thing grows complicated.

This does go back to Lyme disease, because everything in my life now returns me to Lyme, and why I got so sick. Well, it turns out one’s reaction to Lyme is influenced by genetics and age (of COURSE age, as in, the older you are the sicker you can get). Cytokines, which are the body’s most important immune signaling molecules, decrease with age. Strike one for me. I guess I should be glad I’m not older. There is also a certain genetic variation that makes some people sicker than others. Did I get that, too?  Like everything about Lyme, it depends. It depends on what bugs were in your tick bite. It depends on when you started treatment. It depends on whether it is the right treatment. It depends on what tests you took and how accurate they were. Maybe my genetic makeup made me get sicker than others. I’ve always viewed my adoption as a sort of talisman against sickness. As I wrote “unknown, adopted” across the top of the family health section in every medical intake record I’ve filled out, I felt a smug sense of destiny—if I don’t know it won’t happen. Hey, I know it’s magical thinking but it’s mine, so there.

I was never one of those adoptees who had a burning desire to know my birth parents. Until I had Katie. At some point, I wanted to know why she loved animals, or where her artistic streak came from (it certainly wasn’t from me or her father!). I ordered the adoption papers the Methodist Mission Home in San Antonio would release, the pertinent facts blacked out like a classified war document. I searched for three years. I registered with adoption search agencies and tried to figure out what I could from the meager information I had. An “adoption angel” saw my information and sent me the link that opened the doors to my heritage.

My birth father was white. In fact, he was her Journalism teacher. In high school. That’s right, my birth mom got pregnant in February of her senior year with her 32-year-old teacher. It’s hard to put myself in her shoes, much less in the times (1958, McAllen, Texas). I thought about this even more when I read the reviews of “Loving”, a new movie about the Supreme Court decision to strike down interracial marriage laws. Would my birth mom been ostracized for having a half-white baby? Would my birth father not have married her because she wasn’t white? This puts a whole new spin on why she put me up for adoption (other than the obvious). She was number five of eleven children. Her family had lived in the valley since the 1860s. I don’t know why I like this fact, other than it makes me really, really Texan. I gathered what details I could about her life after me. I found some pictures of both her and my birth father. It’s obvious, I look like both of them, there’s no doubt at all in my mind that he is my birth father. It was a validation, too. He taught journalism, her family owned a restaurant. He played musical instruments, she went on to study journalism in college. Somewhere out of those ten birth aunts and uncles, I bet there are artists and animal lovers.

I was surprised how comforting it was to see pictures of my birth parents. I still don’t know their medical histories, but the days of magical thinking are over. I have genetic flaws, like every human on earth. A genetic anomaly might be what made me get so sick with Lyme. I will still tell people I am half-Hispanic when the subject comes up, and it comes up often. Think about it. Even the most liberal-thinking make classifications and inquiries while getting to know someone. Where are you from? What kind of name is XYZ? I wonder now, will some people look at me differently if they know my background. There’s a powerful video making the rounds, a room full of people opening their DNA tests together. The surprises are evident, the video’s obvious purpose to shatter the notion that anyone is pure anything. Maybe we should all take a DNA test.  Level the playing field a bit. Meanwhile, I have to get back to fighting Lyme, genetic destiny be damned.

 

 

 

 

 

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