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How I met my sister

The discovery of an unknown sibling introduces the possibility of a new kind of kinship



"Perhaps my father had known about the child. Perhaps my mom knew too."

Illustration by Richard Mia

One morning, I got a text message from my brother, asking me to call him before work. I asked if he was OK. Fine, he assured me.

“So, I have this Ancestry account,” he said. “Ancestry?” I repeated. In my mind, this DNA-testing service was for people who organized multigenerational family reunions with 200 attendees in matching shirts. His wife had given him a membership, he explained. He had spit into a tube, mailed it, and received confirmation that our ethnicity was essentially the same European brew outlined on the family trees we had drawn in grammar school. The results were so anti-climactic that he had forgotten about the membership until he received a message titled “Close Family.”

“So, kiddo,” he said. “It looks like we have a half-sister.”

Processing that sentence was like tripping with my arms full. I couldn’t break the fall. I became aware of my lungs. My first assumption was that this was a hoax, a scam. But if not … was she my mom’s or my dad’s? Possibilities ricocheted. I remembered that our dad, now deceased, frequently traveled when we were kids. Maybe he had a covert family. Maybe he was a secret agent. Maybe our mom was lonely while he was away. My brother was saying something about DNA and adoption papers. I couldn’t hear him over the wondering.

The message was not a hoax. Our half-sister, whom I’ll call Anne, was born more than a decade before my parents met. She had been searching for her biological family for years, but she, too, had joined Ancestry only for a confirmation of nationality. Then my brother appeared on her profile.

Anne’s mother was a college student when she became pregnant, and like many young women with an unplanned pregnancy in the 1940s, she was sent away. She stayed with relatives in another state until she delivered her baby, who was adopted by a local family. The adoption papers state that the biological father was never informed of the pregnancy; however, the birth mom provided a description of him. Particulars regarding his military service, college major, siblings, and family medical history aligned with those of my father.

Anne knew from a young age that she was adopted. She describes her childhood as loving and fortunate, but after her adoptive parents died, she began pursuing information about her biological parents. By that time, they, too, were deceased, and she instead found us.

My instinct was to distance myself. Although a decade had passed since our dad’s death, I still missed him. I initially felt defensive, unwilling to share his memory or dilute our family. Our mom is still alive. How would she handle this information? Would it delight her to know that another part of her husband lives on? Or would it disorient and devastate her? I don’t think she would be shocked to learn that he had had an intimate relationship before their marriage. Perhaps he had known about the child. Perhaps my mom knew too.

Unsettled, I decided to ignore the situation. But when my brother sent a copy of the DNA match and Anne’s initial message, I wavered. “I believe your father is my biological father. … Anything you would be willing to share about him would be so appreciated. … I’m sorry if this is overwhelming. … If you would like no further contact, I will respect your request.” She had been waiting for years. She had disclosed details about her own history, hobbies, children, and pets. Yet she had accepted the possibility of complete rejection. Her manner struck me as brave, kind, and grounded. Then my brother forwarded a note that Anne would be in town briefly and would like to meet. He would be out of the country. Did I want him to put us in touch? I said no. Then I said yes.

We met at her hotel. I told the parking attendant to keep my car close by, as if I might need to make a fast getaway. Sunlight bounced off the revolving glass doors, splintering across the large, atrium-like lobby, which was packed with convention attendees. Anne and I had not exchanged photos, but we had described our general appearance, almost as an afterthought. I’ll never find her, I thought, then spotted a woman with alert posture. My hand rose to wave as instinctively as if catching a tossed ball. I knew it was Anne. She waved back. Walking toward her felt surreal. We spoke, but I can’t recall what was said in the first few minutes. We hugged uneasily, and she felt shaky in my arms.

In a quiet corner, we began our discussion chronologically. For me, there was a purposefulness, as if we had to get to the bottom of this. Where might our father have met her mother? They had attended different colleges. If it was true that she never told him about the pregnancy, hadn’t he wondered why she had disappeared? Hadn’t he tried to contact her? “Before email and mobile phones, it was easier to relocate without a trace,” Anne said. “We will probably never know.” The protectiveness and concern I felt for her mother surprised me. We considered the limited choices young women had at that time and how painful it must have been to surrender a child, then secretly harbor the loss.

Anne had a list of questions; she had been thinking about this for decades. I was unprepared. We didn’t know how to speak with each other about family, how to name the man who had fathered us both. Neither of us was yet comfortable saying “our dad.” It implied a shared experience that we lacked. We didn’t have common door frames notched for height. We weren’t quieted in the same arms. Our little hands hadn’t held the same books. Plus, she had had a father. A good father. We tried different vocabulary. Biological dad. Birth father. We tried calling him by his first name, but that felt both too distant and too familiar. We stumbled along, intermittently awkward, then bolstered by accumulating similarities. Her daughter’s unconventional career was almost identical to mine. We both love lakes and oceans. We both felt astonished and would fall into silence, staring at each other as if into a fogged mirror. Her face, I realized, resembled that of my paternal aunt, and my own.

For several months, we were more like pen pals. We continued to discuss family history. I sent her a photo of our father. She sent one of her adoptive mom. Gradually our correspondence set sail. Anne and I have stopped writing about the past and now text one another about burst pipes, smartphone settings, and fender-benders. Increasingly, I think of things I want to tell her, and have a sense of what will make her laugh. As we entered winter, we found that we’re both cheered by hygge, the Danish concept of coziness. And as summer approached, we realized we had both seen the same listing for a lake house in a little-known town and fantasized about buying it.

I like her not because she is my sister, but my growing fondness and respect run deeper because of it. I have friends I think of as family, and family I do not think of as friends. Anne embodies the possibilities of both a friend and a family member. It’s a new sort of kinship. She and our father share a similar wit and twinkle that would charm me even if there weren’t a biological tie. But it resonates differently. I’m certain that knowing her would have been a great joy to him.

I haven’t told our story to many people. I kept my Ancestry family tree private, and once I received my DNA results, I closed the account. I still get emails prompting me to renew so that I can uncover more of my “inside story.” No, thanks. One revelation is enough for now. Like most people, my brother embarked on a genealogy journey expecting a straightforward report on lineage. Although startling, the discovery of my sister was relatively gentle, largely because of her generous and respectful approach. By contrast, a friend learned about his three brothers only when he met them at his father’s funeral.

Being found by a sibling highlighted what I didn’t know about my family, but it also reminded me of what I had always been lucky to have. Stories. Photo albums. Letters from my grandfather, a young soldier in World War I, preserved by my great-grandparents. That history is as much a part of me as those coiled chains of DNA linking us all. Finding Anne was like finding another stack of treasured letters. I’m OK with not knowing all that remains between the lines. Empathy for the people who faced difficult circumstances and choices seems more relevant. I’m left with less certainty about facts, but a better understanding of what it means to be human.

Sarah Long is a pseudonym for a Midwestern writer.

• This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.