December 11, 2017 Annotated

by Stacey Jaros

[As promised here is the annotated update from this post originally written in December 2017.]

Three years ago, through DNA testing on 23and Me. I found a half-sister, M. She has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. She, and her family, have embraced me, and my husband, in a fullness I never imagined was possible. I always wanted a sister. I went through life not-so-secretly admiring the relationships of sisters around me.

How different would my life, everything in my life, be if I chose to DNA test with Ancestry rather than 23 and Me?

Some time in 2016 I realized the only people I would potentially match with were people who opted in to the same testing service. What if other individuals tested with other testing services? M and I could potentially find other genetic relatives by testing with another service. I had friends who tested with AncestryDNA so I thought I'd see what we might find.

I kept putting it off. I didn't prioritize it in time or cost. Finally I saw an ad for a sale price on some TV show so I ordered a kit at a discount price. I waited another few weeks before testing due to logistics. Finally I received the results and I was very surprised.

There are some of my mom's relatives. They're my 2nd and 3rd cousins. I know them. That didn't happen on 23 and Me. Oh. Huh. That's a first cousin I definitely don't know. I can see which relatives I have in common with that person. Nope, none of my maternal, known, relatives are common matches with her. Boy, Oh, that's THREE new half-siblings. Yup. That was a surprise. I'm not sure what I was expecting to find. Maybe some second cousins. Maybe even one half-sibling. But three was, surprise.

So, it turns out the three new "Close Family" matches were not all half-siblings. I wasn't aware at the time but the amount of DNA shared among relatives can only determine categories. Context is required to definitively narrow down the manner in which individuals who share a particular percentage of DNA are related to one another. This is an important detail I wouldn't learn for several months after seeing my results for the first time.

Immediately I had the same inclination when I found M. I knew reaching out could be a shock to the recipient. Nevertheless I knew if that match disappeared the next time I logged on I would always regret not reaching out.

There are no rules in this sort of thing. I realize finding out from a random stranger that one's parent is not a biological relation can be earth shaking. The only way to know why someone decided to test, and make their results public, is to add a note to one's bio, which it seems people seldom do. It may be selfish because I need to know but I reached out to the half-siblings.

I reached out to each of the "Close Family" matches but since I didn't understand that they may not be half-siblings my notes to some of them might have seemed extremely presumptuous, and likely confusing. It would be many months before I learned I might need to try a different approach.

I sent each of the three half-sibling matches an identical letter, modeled on the letter I sent to M. I've often referred to that as, "the hardest letter I've ever written." My letter to M was the first indication she ever had that her parents used a donor. In some ways I will always hold the guilt for rocking her family's reality so drastically. Over time I have come to see it as a blessing for her broader family. There is a freedom that comes with the end of the need for keeping secrets.

So as to not bury the lede, I will share right up front I have yet to receive any response from two of the half-siblings I reached out to on Ancestry.

As I mentioned, one Close Family match responded to my message right away. He was born a few days after me, also in the Los Angeles area. His parents had used a donor from the same clinic. I have a new half-brother, J.

J shared that he grew up with a sister a few years younger. They had known for a very long time their parents used a donor. Their family all believed the same donor was used for both of them as that was promised to their mom by the clinic. J's sister was very motivated to find their donor. He took the Ancestry DNA test to help her.

J wanted to chat on the phone. We chatted and chatted. If I recall correctly my husband, Jeff , had gone to a movie so I had tons of time to just get to know J, and his lovely wife K. I let him know we have another half-sibling and introduced the two of them to one another. Jeff arrived home in time to say hello before the end of the conversation. What a happy evening!

J, M, & I had a Skype session in August. Jeff & I drove to M's house. Her husband and kids were there and were generous hosts while we chatted with J & K. What a day. It was so wonderful getting to know one another. I remember my face hurting from smiling and giggling. We all agreed we wanted to meet. Soon. We began looking for a convenient location halfway between one another.

A few weeks later I drove to M's house in the early morning. From there M drove us to Fresno to meet J & K. We met at their hotel where they had stayed the night before. They were waiting in the lobby when we arrived. After hugs all around they invited us up to their room. The lobby was cavernous and loud. If we wanted to chat at all it seemed like the thing to do. So, minutes after meeting we went to the hotel room of actual strangers.

J suggested M & I bring photos of ourselves throughout our lives. We thought that was a clever and thoughtful idea. He & M had a couple albums. I just brought a handful of photos from different stages throughout my life. It was amazing getting to know all of them while looking at all these photos. Some of us have more resemblance to one another, or at certain stages more than others. We talked about interests, traits, hobbies. Conversation was lively and full of curiosity for one another, and the families in which we were raised.

We made our way to lunch. The four of us enjoyed easy conversation. It felt like we'd known one another for years. There was much discussion about our AncestryDNA matches. We discussed how each of us were higher or lower in relation to one another, and the other Close Family matches in our list. K pointed out that what one needs to be concerned with when looking at DNA matches is something called a centimorgan (cM). The amount of cMs, a genetic measurement of overlapping DNA segments among related individuals, is an indication of how closely related individuals are. This is the first time I heard the term. It would be some time longer before it became important in my research.

J joked he wasn't allowed to drink during our meal because he had information he couldn't share. He made K promise to limit him to one for fear of sharing some knowledge he knew about our donor situation. During previous chats with M and me J mentioned he knew some things about who our donor was but he couldn't share them with us. He had hoped by the time we managed to meet in person he would be able to tell us more but he still was prevented for doing so. He was extremely apologetic. He felt it was our right to know but he was somehow constrained. We joked about getting another round of drinks so he would be more inclined to share his information but he was so earnest with his concern for us, and his inability to share, we didn't push. After some more conversation, J shared that he knew for a fact that our donor was alive. He couldn't say more but he was certain of that fact. Bombshell.

After lunch we all headed home. I was convinced J was involved in some sort of legal matter which constricted his ability to discuss how he knew our donor was alive. CONVINCED. I couldn't work out what that meant exactly but I had plenty to think about having met a new sibling, his lovely spouse, learning about more niblings. J said he would let us know as soon as possible.

It took some time but I have now connected with one more of the individuals who appeared at that time in my "Close Family" matches.