The Shattering of Self

It was October 10th, 2015 when my results came in. A Saturday. I remember it distinctly because it was later that same day that my parents were flying into New Orleans  to visit me for a week.

The results came in at 8:42am, but I wasn’t awake just yet. However, like with most days, the first thing I did after waking up was to quickly scan my facebook newsfeed, then check my email.

THEY WERE IN!!! Getting that email notification knocked the wind out of me a bit, and hurdled my heart against my chest. I knew there was likely nothing to worry about—“I’m just being silly!” I thought to myself. Then, “okay, here goes”. I held my breath and clicked on the green button displaying “See my results”.

Ancestry Results Email

With anticipation, and my heart thudding a mile a minute, I scrolled down the page to the “Ethnicity Estimate” section, then stopped dead in my tracks as I took in my breakdown.

Regional Breakdown 1 Blurred

My heart, which had been beating violently in my chest, froze. NO. This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t add up!

“English. Irish. Scottish. French. French Canadian. German. Russian. Austrian. Polish…” my inner child vehemently insisted to me. The silence of the screen in return was deafening.

I KNEW who I was. I knew who I was. Who is this??

My mind knew the math, but I desperately clicked on the green “SEE FULL ETHNICITY ESTIMATE” button, frantic for the possibility that their contents would somehow make it all make sense, make my world stop shaking.

Full Ethnicity Results Ancestry DNA

Denial then crept in with full force. “Well,” I thought to myself, “Europe West in the diagram somewhat includes the places I know I’m from. Look at this! France! Germany! Austria! Part of Poland! Maybe no Russia (and wtf, <1% West Asia??) but it’s not just ‘English…Irish…Scottish’. They’re pretty much all there!” But then my cool—cold even, it seemed—predictably logical adult mind’s retort kicked it…”Yea, but it says less than 1%.”

AncestryDNA Map

Science, the subject I had pledged my heart and mind to, thrust a knife into my chest. I get 50% of my genes from my father, and 50% from my mother, yet 97% of my regional breakdown consisted of countries only on my mother’s half of the list.

Denial part two made its entry at this point, as I glanced down at the bottom of the screen, and hesitantly, yet bravely, clicked on the “Show all regions” button.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

I quickly skimmed the list of regions and countries/sub-regions within them.

Africa Results

Okay, that makes sense.

Native American

Fair, okay.  My brother, who loves studying Native American culture will be upset, but okay.

Asia Results

Not surprising, alright fine. I can live with that.

Then, seeking someway, somehow—Europe.

My prayers had been answered instead without mercy, and instead a fresh wave of cold sweats and nausea as I reviewed my full results. Finally came the crashing down of my identity, my sense of self.

Fuller Ethnicity Breakdown AncestryDNA

EUROPEAN JEWISH—0%. Zero percent. Zero percent.

“Dadddddyyyyyyyyyyyyy”, my heart cried. “Noooooonononononono. Daddydaddydaddydaddy! No no no no. Please. PLEASE don’t tell me this”

My heart broke into a thousand pieces as I held myself in my arms and rocked through the pain. I made the wailing noises of a woman losing its child, because in that moment I, too, had lost my child. I lost ME.  I was suddenly brought back into the bathroom of my parent’s house, wondering what it would feel like if, like my cousin, I, too, was not bound by blood to my father.  Cut off and alone, that child inside me wept deeply.

HOW, how, how could this be? I always knew it was somewhat possible, I mean my brothers and I never looked all that much like my Dad, but that happens with other families! I always told myself that I got more of my Mom’s genes on my outside and maybe a little bit more of my Dad’s on the inside, in the way I think about the world, in my mannerisms, in a thousand things.

Maybe the sample got mixed up, or this company is off and the results are just bullshit. I knew in my mind that this was all beyond unlikely, but I decided to at least hold on to a thread of hope that I was still who I thought I was. “I’ll export my raw data then upload it to one of the other company’s platforms to see if I get the same results. I was originally planning on doing that anyway so that I could maximize my possible connections on each.”

Wait. My possible connections…I was then reminded of what all this might also mean. I may have a different “biological” father. No, not father, never that, of course. I quickly walked to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror.

“Who else is staring back at me?” I thought. Then fear. Panic. WHO IS THIS FACE LOOKING BACK AT ME??? To look at myself and not know the answer to that question felt suddenly overwhelming and terrifying all at once. I was now looking at a stranger. How dare a stranger look back at me from myself? Who the fuck are you??

I had to know. I had a million thoughts flying through my head. Yes, I knew that my parents had trouble conceiving. In fact, they had struggled for so many years that they finally gave up, and decided to adopt a daughter. Out of respect for my Mother, I’ll call her Tiffany. She was adopted a little over a year before my brothers and I were born. Tragically, after the first few months of bonding, fully loving, and raising this child as their own, the birth parents decided to take her back. It left my parents devastated. They decided to try again, one more time, to conceive. I knew my mother had been placed on fertility drugs in order to increase the likelihood of conception, and, miraculously, this time it worked—my triplet brothers and I were able to enter this world.

Now I was suddenly faced with the very likely possibility that it was not only my mother who struggled with fertility issues in order to conceive.

Deep down, I knew that I had questioned this possibility at several points in the past, but always shrugged it off because it had never been mentioned. I knew my father had been diagnosed with Hodgekins Lymphoma, stage IV cancer, and had battled the disease before we were born. With that, I knew that he had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments, which, by the grace of God, made him well again. I was also somewhat aware that, sometimes, certain cancer treatments can impact a survivor’s fertility, but I had never seriously thought that this was the case with my father. No one in my family had ever breathed a word.

When I was about nine or 10 years old, I also recall secretly finding out that one of my cousins (whom I had been rather close with) was actually not related to my uncle—she was the product of a previous union. Upon finding this out, I adamantly believed that she was still every bit as much my cousin, even if not by blood. I also remember stepping into our bathroom and crying, wondering “if this is true for her, what if it’s also true for me??” After talking about my cousin with my parents, they quickly assured me that this was not anything for me to be worried about—that they were my biological parents, but also that our Uncle was 100% her father regardless; he is the man who raised her and always will be. In agreement, but also placated, I never fully questioned the veracity of their assurances since.

Until these results were in.

I paced my living room for the next 15 minutes with a million thoughts running loops across my mind.

What do I do when my parents get here? Do I tell them? If so, how? Maybe it’s fate that I got the results the day they come to visit me for the week. But…they’ve denied it in the past…not just with the situation with my cousin, but my brother apparently asked a couple years ago, and my parents were livid at the suggestion. He had been struggling with a few other very significant health issues when this happened, I know, and they were frustrated with his insinuations (while they had very different perspectives on how it was brought up). I remember him being convinced that my Dad was not our biological father, mostly because we didn’t look like him and because all three of us have blue eyes, as does my mother, but his are brown, and he knew brown was a dominant trait. I assured him that this was silly, as eye color is a much more complicated trait to inherit than how it is taught in school. He was letting his imagination run while, and hurting my parents’ feelings in the process. When my parents told me about the situation, they were incredibly upset, but also indignantly denied the accusations, calling them ridiculous—“we’re the ones who raised him and stood by him and sacrificed through everything!” they exclaimed. Surely they would have told me the truth even if they felt he wasn’t ready for that information at the time?

Also, my parents live up north, and this would be the first time for my father to come to New Orleans at all, let alone for a week to see me—it was also the furthest I had ever moved away from them. They were already making the time to see me—I didn’t want to ruin the trip, one of the few times they get to spend with my physically now that I’m so far away, by bringing this up if it would only upset them.

Can I reach out to my brothers? True, this one brother was in a much better place, but would the news change things? Neither of my brothers are quite as close to my father as I am, and in fact sometimes have had a somewhat strained relationship. What if telling them would destroy their relationship? How could I do that to my father, the man who I love most in this world?

My other brother has never (to my knowledge) questioned our paternity. What if he wouldn’t WANT to know? As much as value personal agency and an individual’s RIGHT to know about their own identity and health, I also have deep respect for a person’s right to NOT know things about themselves that they’re not intentionally seeking out. For example, I believe that a person with a predisposition to Huntington’s disease, which carriers a 50/50 chance of inheritance if one parent carriers the gene, has the right to get tested and prepare as best they can for the inevitable, or to live the healthy time that they have free from the knowledge of their likelihood of prognosis if that is what they choose. But as a TRIPLET, I’m placed in a bizarre predicament—by MY knowing my genetic results, I automatically know this truth also for my brothers. Is it fair for me to know something this potentially significant to their identity and not share it?

Alone, alone, alone.

No, I would not call my brothers, but I was desperate to speak to SOMEONE close to me, particularly someone who might have answers.

I dialed my aunt, my mother’s sister, with whom I have a good and pretty candid relationship.

When she picked up, we briefly exchanged pleasantries, then I went in for the kill.

Me: “Aunt _____, I want to talk to you about something pretty big, but it has to be kept between you and me. Are you okay with that?”

Aunt: “Sure, what’s going on?”

Me: “I don’t really know how to ask this, but I really hope that we have the kind of relationship where you can be honest with me.”

Aunt: “Okay….of course…but now you have me worried”

Me: Not knowing how to put it, but deciding to be blunt…”Did my parents use a sperm donor to conceive my brothers and I?”

Aunt: “No, at least not that I know of…not that your Mom ever told me. But your Mom has always been a very private person…you know me, I’m very straightforward about things. Why do you ask?” I could tell that she was telling me the truth, and knew that she would have answered me honestly if she had known anything else.

I then explained the situation. After talking a bit longer on the phone, I felt assured that I knew what she knew, and closed the conversation letting her know that I would keep her posted. She told me she loved me and was there for me to talk if I ever needed.

Afterward, I called another cousin of mine who I was particularly close with, the one who discovered the truth about her sister’s parentage. We talked for a bit, and again, she had no knowledge of any of this…she reminded me that, no matter what, at least it was clear that we were wanted. We spent a few more minutes on the phone before saying out goodbyes.

I then sat in my room, letting the new, ambiguous world settle upon me, and waited until it was time to pick my parents up from the airport.

Are you there?