Late yesterday afternoon, I received an email notification from 23andMe.
I sent in my saliva sample some 14 months ago, fully cognizant of the potential risks posed by handing over my genetic information to a private firm. In recent months, 23andMe has faced increasing scrutiny over the accuracy of its health screenings as well as the potential marketing of customers’ genetic information.
Indeed, there was no telling how long my genetic data would be preserved and the perverse ways in which they might be used.
Perhaps those concerns would’ve held more weight if half of my genetic background hadn’t been a mystery for the entirety of my life.
In early 1994, I was conceived through in-vitro fertilization with the use of an anonymous sperm donation. Though accurate records do not exist regarding the overall number of “donor children,” there may be as many as 30,000 to 60,000 of these offspring born annually.
With the severe legal restraints on the anonymity of sperm donations–which have recently been relaxed in a number of Western countries–I had little hope of learning anything substantive about my sperm donor prior to the advent of DNA testing.
Recent battles waged in court seek to counter some of these regulations, but have achieved little to no success in repealing the stipulation of anonymity in the United States.
What little information my parents received about his donation had been misplaced a few years after my birth. The few details could be remembered seem almost apocryphal:
My father was especially tall–about 6’3– and supposedly majored in English and music in college. He might have been from California, a prospect that once led me to consider spending my life savings to travel out West and make a short documentary about my search for him.
(Given the evolving social mores surrounding gender identity, I cannot even be sure that my donor uses masculine pronouns.)
My drive to find my donor gradually dissipated once I matriculated to high school. My priorities shifted to baseball, AP classes, dating, theater, running, blogging, and college applications. In fact, I wrote my college admissions essay about the role my father wouldn’t play in my life:
I breathe in the fresh summer air, feeling free, no longer plagued by the idea of a man who doesn’t exist. The radiant sun warms my face. Relief washes over me.
The ‘Be a Dad Today’ PSAs I loved were wrong. A father is not necessary to flourish. Better yet, the next four years won’t be spent trying to impress him or make him proud. No more waiting to be taught skills I can easily learn from others. I wanted someone to make the hard decisions for me. I don’t need a ‘father’; I’ll have to make those choices on my own.
Still, my donor represented the white whale I would never catch, the chimera that would never materialize, the ultima Thule I would never reach.
At best, there was a chance in trillions that I would meet him. I would sooner win the lottery several times over before I would glimpse his facial features, hear the sound of his voice, or learn whether he believed in God.
That my father existed was beyond the shadow of a doubt. He lived, he was at some point, perhaps even right now.
The possibility that I might have siblings who share my DNA, however, was wracked with far more uncertainty.
With a few lines of text in a single email sent at 12:08pm yesterday, my life gained piercing clarity.
My half-sister, Audrey, had also submitted a DNA sample to 23andMe. After a latency of about six weeks, the results of her analysis were made available. We matched almost instantly.
There are few events around which one’s life can be neatly demarcated into “before/after” periods. These instances can either be devastating– “Before the accident, I was beautiful,” “After the fire, we can barely scrape by”– or comprise the most joyous experiences, such as entering college or meeting the person you will one day marry.
Finding a sibling you never knew existed? That’s a bona fide “before/after” event.
Finding two siblings? Well now, that’s just the cherry on top.
Soon after we matched on 23andMe, Audrey revealed that we also share a half-brother who lives on the West coast and works as a white-water rafting guide. He and Audrey connected through the Donor Sibling Registry some seven years prior with the use of the donor ID number that my parents had misplaced.
Over the last 24 hours, Audrey and I have sent streams of text messages to each other, revealing bits and pieces of our lives–our career plans, our passions, our health conditions, our personalities, our political views, our tastes in music–making up for the lost time we never knew had slipped away.
My lingering childhood fantasies about meeting my father have been thoroughly supplanted by the very real prospect that I will soon be face-to-face with my siblings. Better yet, they already prove to be far more interesting than any errant daydream about my donor.