It’s time now for me to tell you

The following is of a more personal nature than I usually share on AstronoMerrdiff. If you would like to reach out and discuss it further, I welcome you to contact me by email.

“Becoming a parent will change your life.”

It’s something all expecting parents hear with increasing regularity until their child arrives. And it’s true! I believed it before I became a parent, and I believe it now. But believing something intellectually is different from living it with your heart.

Figuring out parenthood involves a lot of reflecting on childhood.

My first glimpse of how a parent’s universe centers their child came when my mother was dying. She set three goals: short-term, mid-term, and long-term. I was floored to hear they all had one thing in common. Me. She accomplished the first, which was to see me graduate from high school. (She didn’t live to see me graduate from college, and I haven’t traveled to space just yet.)

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With my mom at high school graduation. June 2004, Richland, WA.

Parenthood is also interesting from a biological perspective. From early in pregnancy, fetal DNA makes its way into a parent’s tissues, and it never leaves. Growing a person inside you is wild. Keeping that tiny person alive after they are born while recovering from labor and delivery is the hardest thing I have ever done — and my experience was uncomplicated with loads of support throughout.

(I cannot fathom how people do this in less-than-ideal circumstances, except I can; they do it the same way people do anything in less-than-ideal circumstances, one bit at a time, one foot in front of the other, breathing in and out, while others marvel at their fortitude and survival.)

As a new parent — I can still claim that one year in, right? — I have officially joined the ranks of folks who proclaim that becoming a parent changes your life. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific. It has a lot in common with the experience of somebody close to you dying. You keep being you, the sun keeps rising and setting, this is just a part of life, nothing fundamental has changed. And yet, everything has.

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Holding my baby Skyler one day after birth. September 2017, Seattle, WA.

I thought that about covered it: life-changing family-related death and birth experiences.

My mom died. Thirteen years later, I had a baby. Check.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned one more paradigm-shifting family factoid: it turns out I have a biological half brother.

Let’s get a few details out of the way. We share a mother, he’s 18 years older than me, and he lives in Indiana with his wife and two teenage kids. I had no clue he existed until March 2018, nearly 14 years after Mom died. Turns out family secrets are a thing!

Learning about this feels like living a fictional tale.

“My long-lost half brother”… Come on, really? But this has been one of those page-turners that leaves you feeling a little more whole by the end, even if you’re not entirely sure what is happening from one chapter to the next. I’m not mad or resentful toward my mom. I understand why she kept this a secret from me, even as I wrestle with her decision.

More than anything, I marvel at her strength and fortitude even more than I already did.

When a loved one dies, they are frozen in time. They leave behind not just memories, but also threads. Connections to the lives of everyone whose life they touched. Early in the grieving process you might be consciously looking for threads everywhere, wishing you could gather enough to sew a proper blanket and don it forever. (This is particularly apt as my mom was an avid sewer.) As time passes, you are still searching for threads, but it is involuntary. You don’t even realize you’re doing it.

Over the years, threads pop up sporadically, whenever you forget about them. A song here, a smell there, a familiar haircut or turn of phrase. Learning that my mom had a baby 18 years before me — when she was only 18 herself — was one of those rare, precious times when some of the threads lying about neatly stitched themselves right up. A piece of my mom I didn’t know was missing suddenly came into focus and made more sense. Of course she felt so strongly about this; no wonder she reacted like that.

For context, I grew up an only child. Like only children everywhere, I occasionally wondered how my life would be different if I had a sibling. As a teen and young adult, I asked each of my parents why they decided to have just one child. The gist seemed to be that Mom kind of wanted me to have a sibling, since she really valued her relationship with her sister. Dad thought I turned out pretty well and didn’t want to “roll the genetic dice” a second time.

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Me as a young child with my mom. Circa 1989, Grosse Ile, MI.

But there was so much more to the story…!

My mom got pregnant as a 17-year-old college freshman in Illinois. She decided to put the baby up for adoption, sever all ties, and work extremely hard to maintain her scholarship since she could not otherwise afford college. She took a quarter off to work as a live-in nanny during the final months of her pregnancy, and gave birth in December 1968.

She continued dating the baby’s father for another year or two, but they did not marry. She graduated on time with a Bachelor’s (1971) and then a Master’s (1972) in journalism from Northwestern. She later married a different man, discovered he was cheating on her, and divorced him. She married my father in 1983 and I was born in September 1986.

Throughout this time, she excelled in her journalism career, working as a newspaper reporter in Miami, a TV producer in Greensboro, and a reporter, producer, and director at TV stations in Seattle and Detroit. She was laid off while pregnant with me in Detroit, and decided to stay home while my dad continued working as an engineer. The three of us moved to Richland, Washington in 1990 for my dad’s work. Mom considered looking for a job, but the local newspaper and TV stations were small and she decided to continue being a stay-at-home parent.

This arrangement continued until she developed advanced kidney cancer while I was in high school and my father retired to care for her. She died in August 2004, two months after I graduated from high school and two weeks before I started college.

As I understand it, Mom was adamant that I not repeat the cycle of getting pregnant in college, and the best way to prevent this was to keep her story a secret. Of course her sister knew, and my dad knew, too. Mom thought often about her son, but never learned what happened to him. She focused all her energies on her present-day family (Dad and me) in a way I now appreciate even more.

When it was clear her health was deteriorating in 2002, she wrote an anonymous, to-the-point letter for the adoption records. “I have looked for your face in the crowd for over 30 years,” she wrote. “I do not want you to get in touch with us … My daughter is a wonderful person, who has a very full plate and does not need any additional stress.” The letter concludes, “It seems it’s time you knew all this. At least, it’s time now for me to tell you.”

I will let my brother Tom tell his own story, but for a few details.

First, he was adopted as an infant by a loving family, and did not find the letter Mom left for him until 2006, two years after she had died. Second, Illinois State law changed in 2010 to allow adoptees access to original birth certificates and adoption records. When Tom submitted a request, he learned Mom’s name, found her obituary online, and then found…me. He respected Mom’s wishes to not contact me, and enjoyed my public internet persona from afar.

At some point, Tom decided to send a DNA sample to AncestryDNA hoping to learn about his genetic history. He wasn’t thinking much about the feature that automatically combs through the DNA database to find likely relatives.

My Aunt Pam, on the other hand, was thinking about AncestryDNA’s database of likely relatives. She enjoys piecing together elusive parts of her (my!) family tree, and using her DNA was a logical next step. So when she saw a notification in January about an “extremely likely” match, she fired off a quick inquiry.

“Which side of the family are you on, Linwood or Sanders?”

The response came promptly. “I don’t know, I was adopted.”

Pam immediately realized who she had stumbled right into.

With that small online exchange, my world shifted. Pam and Dad exchanged messages and phone calls with Tom, conferred with each other, and ultimately decided I should be told. A couple months later, Dad did the telling in his typical drawn-out-story fashion.

“Your mother,” he began, as we sat facing each other in my living room.

OK, yes? He spun a tale of her academic prowess, her family’s limited means, and her tendency to have steady boyfriends, including early in college. She got pregnant, he revealed, and as this was before Roe v. Wade, she was given two options: an address in faraway Mexico for an abortion, or the phone number of a local adoption agency. He paused to ask if I would like to guess what she chose.

“You’re not making this sh*t up, are you?! No, I don’t want to guess, I would like you to continue the story.”

Tom and I exchanged emails and spoke on the phone shortly after, and he and his wife came to meet Pam and me (and my baby) in Seattle in July. We had a truly wonderful time. If I’m being honest, I’m a little disappointed Tom doesn’t resemble Mom more. But there are so many threads. It is a fascinating case of nature vs. nurture.

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My mother’s sister Pam, Tom’s wife Shawn, Tom, me, Skyler, and my husband Mike. July 2018, Fisherman’s Terminal, Seattle, WA.

The most striking thing to me is how easy Tom is to talk to. He majored in journalism, like both his biological parents, but doesn’t work in that field. He is a conservative midwestern sports fan, which are three things I am decidedly…not. But we are both parents, and we are biological half siblings, and everything about that is remarkable.

Does knowing a thing change its reality? Quantum mechanics suggests it may. Becoming a parent certainly changed my mom’s life, but not in the way I originally imagined. I still feel like an only child. And Tom’s family is still Tom’s family.

How I wish Mom could be here to witness this incredible reunion! She didn’t want me to know about her college pregnancy when I had yet to experience either college or pregnancy. But I have a PhD now, and a child, and I think she would be relieved to know that I know.

I am thankful the threads assembled as they did, and not as uncomfortable, unearthed questions decades down the line. It is a blessing that the only sad part of this story is that Mom is dead.

Becoming a parent changed my life overnight, but becoming a sibling is just beginning.