23 November 2017

Revelations, Part 3: Gratitude, Thy Name is Shannon

Adoption is an amazing and beautiful thing, but it can also be a double-edged sword honed in contradiction.  An adoptee is ultimately the product of two entirely different realities, one of which is more often than not an unknown quantity. As a result, most of us spend our lives wondering where we came from, wondering "what if."  It doesn't mean we don't love or appreciate our adoptive family; quite the reverse is usually true.  But it does mean we will always wonder where and how we fit into the world, and it does mean that we will always be aware that a part of our identity is missing like lost pieces from a jigsaw puzzle.  Even growing up in happy homes, some of us may feel like we were rejected or abandoned by our birth parents, while some of us may feel a bit like aliens in a strange land.

I was fortunate in that my adoptive family made a point of telling my brother and I about our adoptions long before we had the first clue what it meant to even be adopted.  As a result, we grew up considering it little more than another fact of our existence, like having blue eyes or dimples.  At least I did...I can't really speak for my brother.

I grew up knowing I was loved and "chosen," and my childhood was mostly happy (puberty notwithstanding).  But I still often felt like my parents didn't entirely understand me, not the least because my interests and abilities so diverged from their own.  It's not that they didn't try to be supportive, it's just that they had simply no frame of reference for understanding or dealing with someone like me. I was an anomaly, and I knew it. A loved anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless.

We all search for identity in one way or another, and adoptees more than most. I can remember being asked by the woman who helped me find my birth mother what I thought it would be like to "see photos of people who look like you."  Flummoxed, I had no answer for her.  Even after finally deciding to search for my birth parents, the possibility of finding people who might look like me had never once crossed my mind.  I was far too used to looking either like no one or like everyone; I forever seem to remind people I meet of some random other person that they know.  Visible Anonymity.  Even when I found Norma 5 years ago and my half-sister Robin just a couple months ago, I discovered that I didn't really look like them either.  I was still a mystery, as was much of my heritage--"my heritage" being the operative phrase.

By the time my genealogy course started in September, I had already tested with all the major DNA/genealogy testing sites in my effort to find connections and to solve the mystery of my parentage.  Over the summer, on a whim, I tested with a less well-known company called MyHeritage; I figured since I'd already gone this far, I might as well make a clean sweep of all the testing companies, even this one.  Honestly, I didn't expect much to come of it.

Approximately 5 weeks after I first learned the identity of my birth father, Donald Tolin, I was checking my email in front of the television.  One of the first messages was from MyHeritage; as I had never received a notification that my test had finished processing, I was more than a little surprised to see a subject line boldly proclaiming that I "had a DNA match."  I opened that message on October 8th, which will forevermore be the day my story changed.

That match was for someone named "Shannon Moore Tolin Parrish" who, like Robin, was listed as a possible half-sibling. Seeing the name "Tolin" was enough to send my heart racing; seeing "half-sibling" was something else again.  This time it was my discovery, not someone else's.  I immediately contacted the person administrating this Shannon's test, whose name was Rose.  We emailed back and forth for a couple of weeks while Rose worked on uploading Shannon's raw data to GEDmatch and while we tried to find a mutually convenient time to call. Rose and I settled on the October 21st; I spent most of that afternoon trying to will my phone to ring like Darth Vader Force-choking one of his minions.

Finally Rose called. She gave me Shannon's kit number for GEDmatch and, with Rose right there on the phone, I ran the X-comparison same as I'd done with Robin.  Shannon and I matched even more cM than I had with Robin.

I had another sister.

And, according to Rose, that sister was an awesome individual.

Shannon <3

I have to say, Rose is a woman after my own heart.  A fellow genealogy geek, she and I chatted for a good hour or two, laughing and comparing notes.  I liked her right away; Rose is good people.  From Rose I learned that not only did Donald Tolin have the three legitimate children I'd already uncovered, he also had two older sons I'd known nothing about.  From me Rose learned about Robin and that we all probably have yet another half-brother who was born some 8 months before me (though I haven't been able to contact him yet to confirm or deny).  Rose also learned about some of Donald's more dubious escapades from the newspaper articles I had ferreted out.  Basically my birth father sired enough children to field his own baseball team.

As we were ending the call, Rose asked if it was okay to pass along my contact information to Shannon (duh!).  I was breathless and a little dizzy...everything felt so different this time.

Less than 24 hours later, on October 22nd, I spoke to my sister Shan for the first time.  I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Shan and I clicked from the very start. Violently. Audibly.  Really, really audibly. Like the sound of a bazooka being cocked and then fed through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's speaker array in a small room constructed of stainless steel walls and sitting atop a pounding locomotive.  I don't know if it's because we are both adoptees or because of our particular recombination of DNA or what, but I felt a deep and instantaneous kinship with this woman. She is nothing less than the missing piece of my heart.

That first chat was just under 5 weeks past, but it already seems like a lifetime ago.  There is so much I still need and want to learn about Shan and her family, but it already feels like I've known and loved her my entire life. Chatting with Shan in real time has been a challenge, because she is currently deeply ensconced in an intensive cooking school in Ireland (!!) that will basically qualify her to be a chef when she's finished if she so chooses.

I am in awe of Shannon on a daily basis.  She is so creative and so talented in so many ways and even more beautiful inside than she is outside (which is stunning enough); she outclasses me in virtually every way possible.  She is a fighter and a survivor, yet has enough joy and energy and exuberance to give the girlie a run for her money.  She loves fiercely and forever.  I am prouder of her than she will ever know and humbled that I now get to be a part of her orbit.  I can't wait till we are able to meet in person at long last.

Shannon herself is a gift beyond price, but generous to a fault as she is, Shan has also given me back my missing history.  As a young woman, she did the hardcore, pre-Internet research required to find her birth parents.  Success follows that woman everywhere she goes. I get Irony laughing and pointing at me from the corner while she lives out wildly improbable adventures and achieves accolades and honors the rest of us could only dream about. As a result of her successful searching, Shan had several years of getting to know our birth father and, while it didn't turn out as she may have hoped (let's just say our father wasn't exactly the most upstanding of men and leave it at that), her experiences with him have made it possible for her to fill in missing pieces of myself I thought I'd never get to know. For example, my baby fine hair and my jacked-up teeth are direct legacies of our birth father, as are my intelligence, my love of words, and any small musical ability I may have (actually, there is music on both sides of my birth family).  No doubt there are many more genetic quirks I have yet to learn.

Donald Tolin, sporting our big Chicklet front teeth.

Shan also sent me pictures so I could see my birth father for the very first time.  I still stare at them in disbelief because when I look at those photos, I see my own face staring back at me.  I don't just favor our father, I practically AM him (physically, at least).  Virtually every photo I see of him instantly reminds me of a photo I have in an album somewhere with an identical pose and/or expression.  It's surreal.  What's even more unnerving is the fact that Donald Tolin's youngest son, who was born a scant four months before me, is basically my clone.  Frankly, it's unnerving. Even without DNA tests confirming my connection to the family thru sisters and cousins and half-nephews, Shan's photos alone provide more than sufficient evidence that Donald Tolin was my father.  I don't know if I will ever get over the uncanniness of the resemblance between Donald, myself, and his son.  It's just plain freaky.  Freakier still is that Don died in May, just two weeks after my birth mother Norma.  (You seriously can't make this shit up.)

My birth father and me. I was 17, he was around 18-20.

My half-brother, about age 14, and me at 17.

Me and my half-brother as sophomores in high school, or possibly auditioning for Clone Wars.

Thanksgiving is all about being grateful for the things and people that give our lives meaning. Well, that and egregious gluttony and the inevitable tryptophan comas which follow said gluttony.

I am always grateful for my family and friends both far and near: my brother, my in-laws who've put up with me for over three decades, my fantastic nieces and nephews, my amazingly supportive Posse and Divas--who make all things easier--and of course for my brilliant daughter, who both amazes and confounds me on a near-daily basis.  I am blessed to have had the smallest part in her upbringing (though I'm still not entirely sure who raised whom), and I can't wait to see what she does next.  I adore you all.

This Thanksgiving, however, I am especially grateful for my new sister Shan and for all she brings to my life: knowledge, openness, generosity, light, hope, love, joy, grace, history, a passel of talented and hilarious cousins who have welcomed me with open arms (and two of whom I once lived a mere 184 feet from without ever knowing it), a new brother-in-law nicknamed "Sweet Daddy," and a glorious trio of talented and heartwarming niece and nephews. Shannon is completion...I am at last whole because of her, and I love her unreservedly.

My heart is full.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Revelations, Part 2: Paternity

I love genealogy; it's history wrapped in mystery and tied up with the ribbon of revelation. (Meanwhile, is it just me, or does "The Ribbon of Revelation" sound like something St. John the Apostle would use to tie his tunic during one of his rare whimsical moments?)

Doing genealogy is a little like getting paid to stalk dead people; as a result, you never know going in quite what you'll find so the occasional drama is inevitable.  That's all well and good until the drama magically appears on your own family tree's proverbial doorstep and suddenly you are the one trying to figure out how to process it all.  But more on that in a moment.

Genealogy Dad Jokes

After Spring's riotous insanity, what with the death of my birth mother Norma, the girlie's graduation, and the replacement of both my car and my home's entire HVAC system/water heater (never mind the indecent expense of replacement), my hope was that the rest of the year would prove to be a little more chill. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)  Instead, most of June was spent recovering from the onslaught of May and starting to prep for moving the girlie south to start her doctoral program in Atlanta.  Aside from a few cringe-worthy moments involved in parking a 15' U-Haul truck and attached car trailer and car in an awkwardly-designed Taco Bell parking lot, the move went more or less smoothly and we got the girlie settled back in Georgia--just three years after our having left it.  Irony strikes again, the perverse bastage.

With the girlie safely ensconced in her new apartment, I was able to spend a couple days visiting dear friends in the area before attending my first-ever genealogy institute in Athens, Georgia, my former home.  The institute was a little intimidating at first, particularly since I was surrounded by much more experienced genealogists, but I had a great time and learned a lot about Scottish genealogy research (including the correct way to pronounce "Kirkcudbright"--it's Kuh-coo-bree, by the way) under the auspices of my instructor Paul Milner, whose encyclopedic knowledge and ready humor made the week-long class so enjoyable that I'll be taking a course on English genealogy from him in Salt Lake City next January. (For those of you who don't know, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is basically Genealogy Mecca, so any chance to study in its vicinity is tantamount to going on pilgrimage.)

After the institute I returned home and was finally able to spend a month catching up on things before my next genealogy course started at the beginning of September.  Several of the institute attendees had warned me that the course I was planning to take was rather intensive; each advised me to double or even triple how many hours Boston U said I should allot for the course every week.  Intimidated, I made sure to clear my schedule of conflicts for the rest of the year so I would have sufficient time to adequately focus on the coursework and assignments. Famous last words.

Earlier in the year,  I was contacted by one of my DNA matches on Ancestry.  A man named Terry was looking for help in solving a family mystery regarding his mother-in-law's parentage and, given that I was a relatively close match to his wife, they hoped that I could help.  Unfortunately, since I didn't really know who my birth father was, there was little I could do to assist.  This didn't seem to matter to Terry, who was convinced his mother-in-law and I were half-sisters.  To be honest, I didn't really believe him. Everything he told me about my supposed father, including the man's age and his location in Texas, conflicted with the (admittedly) limited information I already had about my alleged birth father; Also, I had DNA matches in the family of the man I thought was my birth father, albeit rather distant ones.  Given the relatively close match to Terry's wife, it was clear that I was related to Terry's family--I just didn't know how.  Terry decided to test his mother-in-law in the hope of discovering more information and said he would get back to me after the results came in.

A couple of months later a new DNA match showed up on my Ancestry account; it turned out to be for Terry's mother-in-law Robin who was, as he'd predicted, a degree closer to me than his wife was.  I remained unconvinced that Robin was a half-sister or that we shared a birth father, in part because while Ancestry classified us as a "close match," it also offered multiple options for our relationship, including aunt/niece, cousin, grandparent, etc.  Plus I couldn't get past the DNA matches I shared with the family of the man I thought was my birth father. I sent Terry a message about the match at some point in the spring, but never heard back and the whole thing slipped my mind.

However, Irony has an unnatural love for me and likes to hug me tighter than my skivvies, so it wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily. A mere week into my highly-intensive genealogy course, Terry finally returned my call and we chatted for a bit. By then I'd been introduced to the wonders of GEDmatch, which is a free site genealogists use to analyze and compare raw DNA data.  On GEDmatch, there is an option for comparing the X-chromosome of two testers.  Because Robin and I clearly had different mothers, if Terry uploaded her raw data to GEDmatch, I could compare our X-chromosomes; without our mother's Xs to complicate matters, any full X-match we shared would have to have come from a shared father.  By the time Terry called me in September, I'd also learned a little more about how to read and interpret DNA matches in terms of centimorgans (cM), which is a distance measurement genetic genealogists use to determine the closeness of relationships between people.  Robin shares enough cM with me to make our possible relationship one of grandparent/grandchild (which wasn't plausible given the proximity of our ages), one of aunt/niece (which was plausible, if less common, given our age proximity), or one of half-siblings.  Hmmm.

Stand back...I'm gonna try SCIENCE!

I asked Terry to tell me again about the man he thought was Robin's (our) birth father while I took notes, then I asked if he would be willing to upload Robin's DNA to GEDmatch so I could confirm whether or not we were half-siblings via the X-match utility.  While I waited the several days for him to do so, I started researching this putative father, a man named Donald Tolin (who ironically shared the same first name as the man I had thus far presumed to be my birth father).  In the process of frenetically researching Donald Tolin around my coursework, I learned several sketchy things about him, many of which echoed the circumstances of my conception.  I started to wonder.  I also reread my adoption paperwork and noticed that I might have misinterpreted some of it; after looking at the records from a fresh perspective, I realized that New Donald might fit the profile listed in my adoption paperwork after all. Slowly but surely, I started coming around to the idea that this Donald Tolin of Texas (originally from Indianapolis) just might be my birth father after all.

A few days later, Terry got Robin's DNA uploaded to GEDmatch and I immediately ran the X-comparison.

We were a match.

Blue is the color of sisterhood.

Suddenly I had a half-sister. And a birth father. Who was a different Donald than the birth father I spent the last five years thinking I had.

I was stunned.  I was also struggling to keep up with my homework around all the unexpected and exciting revelations.  Turns out my colleagues at the summer genealogy institute weren't kidding about the amount of time this course demanded.  Still, I made it work for me as much as I could by using my new-found paternal family as the basis for my next assignment. Multi-tasking FTW!

A couple of days later, Robin and I chatted on the phone for the first time.  We didn't talk very long; Robin doesn't seem to be a very chatty sort of person, at least not on the phone.  Hopefully we can get to know each other better as time goes on. We texted a few times after that first call because Terry thought he'd found a mention of Donald Tolin's death, but hadn't been able to confirm it.

I didn't hear much from Robin or Terry after that, so I got back to work on my class and settled into a consistent routine of doing 8-10 hours a day and having no life while basically being  imprisoned in my office and virtually chained to my computer doing genealogy assignments.   I fit in research on the Tolin family whenever I could find a spare moment.  All genealogy, all the time.  I figured I would finish up my course and that would be the end of the story.

I could not have been more wrong.

Revelations, Part 1: Saying Goodbye

If I were emulating the coy style of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I might call 2017 #abitofayear.

However, for me to assert that 2017 has been "a bit of a year" would be a gross understatement, even by Miranda's standards. Between not finding much particularly humorous after the election and the ensuing rapid-fire of events blasting me in the face like a runaway fire hose, I've barely had time to remember my own name much less to write or to finish any projects.

What began earlier this year as a new dedication to my ever-increasing passion for genealogy--via an online "Genealogy Essentials" class in February through Boston University--has now turned into a wildly improbable journey of discovery, one that is rife with endless ironies (as all my best adventures are).

The Essentials course only served to whet my appetite, so I decided to take the serious graduate-level course "Certificate Program in Genealogical Research," which builds on the Essentials course by increasing one's professionalism and research skills in the field while helping to prepare one for future certification as a genealogist.  However, with the girlie finishing up seminary in May and moving to Atlanta over the summer, I opted to wait on the second course till September when things would presumably be a little calmer.  It's cute how I thought that.

Sometime during my first genealogy course the girlie was on her way to NY for a meeting and ended up slipping on some ice and putting her car in a ditch.  She was fine; the car not so much.  We rescued her from the cold, white north, then had to replace her car after much wrangling with the snail-like pace of the insurance company.  By the time March ended, my first course was over and the girlie was firmly ensconced in a cute little red Hyundai.  On the plus side, I now get to look forward to having extra pocket change every month when she mails me her car payment.

May was beyond insane.  First, my car started dying, so I had to work on replacing yet another vehicle.  Then my upstairs air conditioner decided to die, ultimately taking out the entire HVAC system and water boiler with it.  I can only assume that they went on strike in solidarity with the first unit, and not at all because they were each passing 20 years old and knew that all warranties were defunct, making it easier to screw with me.  Meanwhile, I still had all the requisite end-of-the-year concerts and the girlie's graduation on my plate. And, just because all that wasn't exciting enough, I got a call from my maternal uncle--ON MOTHER'S DAY (hello, Irony, I was starting to worry you weren't paying attention) that my birth mother Norma was critically ill and not expected to live long.

May turned into what amounted to a military operation of surgical strike precision in order for me to fly to Indianapolis to be with Norma before (and when) she died, to manage the intricate ballet of HVAC people coming and going in and out of my house on and off for three weeks, to coordinate graduation choir rehearsals and actual graduation, to acquire a functional vehicle for me, and to fly back to Indy for Norma's funeral.  Honestly, I'm still not entirely sure how I accomplished it all; the month is largely a blur and I still feel bad that I wasn't able to devote as much time and attention to each individual event as I might have liked.

Picture of Norma at 40-ish, gifted to me by my uncle.
(Photo Credit: Mark Wheeler)

Norma's funeral was definitely a unique experience, given that my status as a pretty much "life-long secret" was blown wide open virtually within minutes of Norma's death and without regard to my opinions on the matter. I found this particularly disconcerting; I figured that as the "secret" in question, Norma's moratorium on divulging said secret would then pass onto me and it would then be my right to decide when and how the revelation of my existence might be disseminated.  Alas, this did not turn out to be the case. Instead, the revelation became a juggernaut over which I had no control or say and I could only hold on for dear life and ride it out, much to my chagrin.  At the funeral, I could almost literally feel holes burning into my back from the piercing gazes of some of Norma's friends and associates; I was never quite clear whether it was because they were judging me (us) or just because they were burning with curiosity, which seemed more the case with some of Norma's relatives. To their credit, most of these relatives gamely introduced themselves to me and were reasonably welcoming, especially considering the news of my existence had to have come as a quite a shock.  For good or for ill, I was the skeleton now firmly out of the closet.

My primary concern about the entire juggernaut was that my presence might end up pulling focus from Norma and keep people from celebrating her life or from recognizing her passing with all the respect she deserved. I really didn't want her funeral to become about me; that would have been grossly inappropriate as far as I was concerned, and not even remotely the reason I was there.

All in all, things went somewhat better than I feared; for the most part, any people who were judgmental kept it to themselves, and the people who did speak to me were polite enough.  Doesn't mean I couldn't still feel the majority of them staring at me the entire service.  The rabid curiosity of everyone scoping me out was physically tangible.

When it was over, I was grateful that Norma could finally be at peace after an often difficult life. She was a quiet person, a private person, but she was loving and kind and generous.  She spent most of her nursing career helping to deliver babies at the same hospital in which I was born, always working the night shift like the night owl she was. I confess it was a little surreal being there in that hospital with her as she died and realizing that the last time I was there, it was also with Norma--when I was being born.  Talk about coming full circle.

There were many ups and downs in May, and many revelations about Norma's life and family (myself being perhaps the biggest one), some of which were good and some of which weren't...as revelations so often are.  But I got to meet some of my new-found cousins, one of whom is a live wire full of energy and and Life with a capital "L." And because Irony follows me like a shadow, it turns out that she was also an adoptee. Also, one of Norma's cousins is a redhead who shares my name and who has a daughter with the same name as the girlie.  There were many other weird little serendipities between us, proving yet again that genetics influences us and our choices in invisible ways we could never imagine.

Surprisingly, the revelations surrounding Norma's passing proved but a hint of what the rest of 2017 had in store for me.  If I'd only known in January where this year was going to lead, I could have purchased a case of Valium and some baseball catcher pads with which to prepare myself for the onslaught.

For more of the story, continue reading parts 2 and 3 of the Revelations trilogy.