I started this year as an only child, seemingly faced with a personal Fermi’s paradox.
Just as there exists a high degree of probability that extraterrestrial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, I was almost positive that I had siblings with whom I shared an anonymous sperm donor.
For the whole of my life, however, I faced a paradoxical lack of evidence to suggest as much. Before the rise of direct-to-consumer DNA tests, I had no way of connecting with my donor siblings or finding other members of my extended family.
(Although my parents received a dossier of sorts on my donor in early 1994, they misplaced the information at some point a few years later. If I still possessed those files, I could have used the donor’s identification number to match with others on the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), which was created in 2000.)
Just as Enrico Fermi is reputed to have remarked to other physicists during a lunch in 1950, I couldn’t help but wonder “Where are they?“
In February of this year, I received my first answer to that question and found my half-sister, Audrey, on 23andMe.
More answers followed in the intervening months. About eleven years prior to our match on 23andMe, Audrey connected with our half-brother on DSR. In a matter of just a few hours, I gained an older brother as well as a younger sister.
I soon convinced my half-brother, who works as a white water rafting guide and pilot on the west coast, to take the DNA test offered by Ancestry.com in hopes of finding more half-siblings and members of our donor’s family.
He received his results in late April and discovered two additional donor siblings, only one of whom appears to want contact with us. That half-sibling is currently in high school, enjoys reading, competes as a hurdler, and, yet more revelatory, has a twin brother.
The sibling count is tentatively brought to six.
About two weeks ago, Audrey and I briefly matched with another half-sibling on 23andMe. After sending what I believed to be an anodyne message with a request to connect, they made their account anonymous on the platform, They also seem to not want to be contacted.
The count rises to seven, perhaps eight, as an exhaustive web search revealed that this donor sibling might also be a twin.
Excited by the prospect of an ever-growing family tree, I hatched an ambitious plan soon after discovering these two additional siblings.
Within a week of my match with Audrey on 23andMe, her mother emailed a scan of the files on our donor that my own parents had lost some twenty years prior.
(While I use masculine pronouns when referring to my donor, I recognize that the donor might be gender-nonconforming and identify differently.)
The 24 pages on Donor ID 1244 provided a near-consummate record of his life, barring his name, age, and location. Listed were his extracurriculars in high school, college majors, volunteer work, standardized test scores, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the languages he spoke, and his favorite animal (notably, an armadillo).
The files also contained information on his family that could be of use in searching for him, including
- The ages of his parents and relatives at the time of his donations*;
- I estimated birth years below based on these ages
- Those individuals’ professions, languages spoken, and heritage;
- The number of siblings of different members of his family.
*As far as I can tell, donations were made at two separate points in time based on the ages of our donor sibling cadre. Five of the eight of us were born around 1994, and the other three from 1999 through 2002. There was also a gap of about five years in two of the sections in the donor’s file in which he listed the ages of his relatives. He likely donated for the first time around 1992, and then again around 1998. These details proved sufficient to construct a rough family tree of my donor.
Afterwards, I began messaging third cousins on my father’s side with whom I or my half-brother matched on 23andMe and Ancestry, respectively. My aim was to elicit any genealogical information that might offer a shred of information that could align with my makeshift tree.
Radio silence largely followed. The one response I received on 23andMe came from an individual who was themself conceived from a donor. They offered to send what little information they possessed from their mother’s side of the family. I provided my email address, but didn’t hold my breath.
I moved on to the next phase of my plan, which was admittedly much more intimidating.
There was an array of distant relatives among my half-brother’s DNA matches on Ancestry.com, ranging from fourth to sixth cousins. Some of these individuals had extensive family trees on the website composed of thousands of branches. Better yet, the vast majority of these trees were public.
I culled those cousins who didn’t share a match with the two other donor siblings on the platform to determine whether these distant relatives came from my half-brother’s maternal or paternal line.
This process left just four individuals with substantive enough family trees to make this endeavor worthwhile.
The next step was combing through the fourth, fifth, sixth, and (if present) seventh generations of these trees, parsing out strands of information that could potentially be connected to the schematic I constructed. Among the myriad individuals that made up these trees I looked for the following information:
- Birth year or the age of death that was similar to those I estimated;
- Number of siblings that was same as indicated in the donor’s file;
- An origin in Czechoslovakia sometime between 1840 and 1900;
- Military service in World War II.
Understandably, this undertaking with fraught with frustration and dead ends.
I initially believed that the relatively recent link to Czechoslovakia held the most promise. Based on the information I possessed, there was reason to think that the donor’s paternal grandparents or great-grandparents immigrated directly from Europe, given that the former spoke both Czech and English.
The lack of documentation for the extended families of some European immigrants, however, stymied this line of reasoning and ultimately led nowhere.
The veritable connection to my schematic actually came from the donor’s maternal lineage and a few seemingly minor details.
For the remainder of this piece, I have changed and redacted identifying details about my donor and his family, again out of respect for their privacy and his possible desire for continued anonymity.
Just three facts included in my donor’s file ultimately cut this Gordian Knot:
- My donor’s maternal grandmother passed away at the age of 65
- My donor’s maternal grandmother had two sisters
- My donor’s maternal uncle worked as a geologist and had four children, one son and three daughters
The branch that eventually led to my donor stemmed from the family tree of an Ancestry.com user named Later21, my half-brother’s fifth cousin.
As was my established protocol, I began clicking through the fifth generation of Later21‘s tree (their great-great grandparents). Provided offspring were listed, I would then check whatever details were available on Ancestry for each member until I found individuals born between 1880 and 1900, the period during which I approximated my donor’s great-great grandparents to be born.
Once I reached that point, I feverishly checked the number of listed offspring to see if I could find an amount that corresponded with my schematic.
This is was the path I followed, starting with the individual listed as one of Later21‘s great-great grandfathers, AG.
I then clicked through to each of AG’s five children, only two of whom, SG and JMG, had their own offspring listed on Ancestry. SG had nine children while JMG had twelve children.
Of SG’s nine children, four also had offspring (SG’s grandchildren). In total, there were twelve grandchildren. This quickly proved to be a dead end; none of these twelve had known children of their own on Ancestry.com.
Of JMG’s twelve children, meanwhile, eight also had offspring (JMG’s grandchildren).
Only a few of these eight were born in the 1880 to 1900 range stipulated for the donor’s great-grandparents (the fourth generation in his lineage), but I continued clicking.
I was looking for one of two possibilities in these eight grandchildren of JMG:
- One of the offspring had five children (three boys and two girls, among whom would be my donor’s grandfather), or
- One of the offspring had three daughters, one of whom would be my donor’s grandmother. Recall that she passed away at the age of 65, a particularly salient detail.
Then, I struck gold! I found a son of JMG, whose initials are JRG, born a few years before 1880 who had three daughters!
My body instantly started to quiver once I clicked through to view the details of these three women. One of them, initials AGN, passed away at the age of 65. A coincidence, maybe, but an unsettling one at that.
The short profile for AGN held few other clues beyond the location of her death, a mid-sized town in California. There were no known children listed and the first name of her husband was also unknown. The only scrap of information I had to go on was their last name, Nelson.
At this, I made a leap. If AGN was indeed the grandmother of my donor, she had two children according to the information I had available. Assuming her son, my donor’s uncle, had the surname Nelson, remained in California, and still worked as a geologist, a simple Google search might be earth-shattering.
The second result for the search terms “Nelson geologist California” was an article in a local paper from another mid-sized Californian town. Published several years ago, the item detailed the retirement of a well-known geologist in the area, RN. Now that RN was no longer studying rocks, he was looking forward to spending more time with his four children and his grandchildren.
Recall that my donor’s uncle was listed as a geologist and as having four children. Though I couldn’t find a definitive link between AGN and RN besides their last name and location in California, there can only be so many coincidences in life.
The quiver in my body almost immediately turned to shakes.
I opened a new tab in my browser and entered the geologist’s name and putative location into MyLife, a website that collates publicly available information to create what amount to very short biographies for most adults in the United States.
His MyLife profile listed his children (indeed, there were four) as well as his wife. There was still no clear link to AGN, nor was there any indication that RN had siblings.
In another tab, I opened Facebook and searched for each of the geologist’s children, some of whom publicly listed their friends on the social networking site.
Among these friends, I searched for those who shared the last name “Nelson,” eventually finding a woman slightly older than the geologist whose maiden name matched his surname. Her married name, meanwhile, was of a Czech origin.
My donor’s father was Czech. His wife would have likely taken his last name.
The shaking intensified.
Immediately listed on her Facebook profile were her education and her profession, from which she was now retired. These details were a perfect match with those provided about the donor’s mother in his file.
I was now almost certain that this woman, MNV, a former social worker, was my donor’s mother. There was no stopping the tears from welling up in my eyes. I was so close to finding him.
Another search among MNV’s Facebook friends revealed only two middle-aged men who shared her Czech last name, MV and TV. After clicking on their Facebook profiles, I entered each name into Google, eventually landing on MV’s LinkedIn page.
Nearly all of the details listed, even the most esoteric, aligned with every bit of information the donor provided in the early 1990s– his college majors, his volunteer work, and the languages he spoke.
I did it. I caught the white whale. I found my father.
There he was in front of me, clad in a blue checkered shirt, red tie, and dark gray jacket, sporting a self-effacing smile and hair parted to the left, just like mine.
Once I read over the components of his LinkedIn profile again, absorbing each sentence he wrote, I sprinted to my mother’s bedroom.
“Mom, Mom, Mom!” I said urgently to wake her up. “Turn on the light please!”
About a half-hour earlier, just before she went to bed, I told her that I was planning to stay up especially late that evening to research fourth cousins’ family trees on Ancestry.com.
“Umm… okay” was her initial, less-than-enthusiastic response.
Once she turned on her bedside lamp, I screamed “I found him! I found my donor!” and nearly collapsed in tears onto her bed.
I hurriedly texted Audrey a few minutes later, my fingers still shaking with every keystroke. We chatted briefly that afternoon about a new summer job she’d picked up and her plans to visit a friend elsewhere in Florida.
Seconds after my last text was shown as “delivered,” Audrey called me over FaceTime.
How fitting that the first time I hear my sister’s voice, which carries the slightest hint of a southern accent, I am able to tell her that I have found our donor. How fitting that our most meaningful communication to date comes with such momentous news.
Of course, she already suspected that this discovery was what I wanted to tell her. In the preceding weeks, I texted her reams of information about the other half-siblings we’d found on 23andMe and Ancestry, revealed through exhaustive web searches. At one point she remarked, “You’re so f*cking good at researching!!!”
We talked for nearly ten minutes about this revelation. We were each at a loss for words. Neither of us could begin to envisage such an event occurring in our lifetimes, never mind a mere four months after we found each other. I was sure that I would die with this mystery unsolved, this trail forever left unblazed.
Thanks to DNA tests, Ancestry.com, search engines, social media, and web crawlers that mine publicly available information, my life has gained a degree of clarity and equanimity unknown to my former years.
Half of my family tree is no longer barren, with branches atrophied and cauterized. I am now able to reach up into the verdant canopy and stretch my arms centuries into the past, almost 350 years ago to Moravia, Czechoslovakia with my eight-greats grandfather, Jan Kolub, and more than 600 years ago to Preston, Northumberland, England with my sixteen-greats grandfather, Thomas Harbottle.
Along with this growing family tree, I am now much more whole.
This piece was published on Father’s Day 2019.