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!


  1. Wow!!!!! What an amazing story! Again, so happy for you, that you've had success in finding pieces of your genetic history, and then some. Shannon is just beautiful, and I can see the resemblance! Your Dad and your half-brother, however... wow! Y'all could be twins. LOL. Wishing you the very best with all the ongoing research, and the class. I am starting my own search very soon... I am on a quest to find out about my maternal great-grandmother, who died when my grandmother was very young. I don't even know her name... so, this should be fun. Bombs away! Happy Black Friday. Love to you and the family. xx

    1. Thanks! It's definitely been a trip discovering all these new relatives and revelations while in the midst of a hard-core genealogy class. See? Irony really does like screwing with me. ;)

      I hope you have much success with your search. Genealogy is both exhilarating and maddening, lol. My advice is to start with your mom or your grandmother and to work your way backwards; look for your grandmother on censuses to find her in her parents' household. That might give you her name. If you know your great-grandfather, also check for probate records for him which would likely mention your great-grandmother. I wish you much luck and happy hunting on your quest!!