I spend an insane amount of time trying to think of cute Christmas presents only to end up scrambling at the last minute to find my parents crappy sweatshirts in their size from Target on my way to the airport on December 23rd. Ever since I’d been old enough to have a scrap of savings to my name around the holidays, it’d been something of a joke to my family that I spent more time planning my gifts than anyone else, and yet still ended up giving out the least personal gifts--hand soaps and candles-- of the bunch.
Last year was going to be the first holiday that I hosted, having both my family and my brand-new in-laws over, so I was damn determined to break that trend.
Several of my friends had been sharing their results from those DNA test kits on social media lately, and since my mom had been a biology major before she’d “been unable to finish” her second year, (I’m bad at math but not that bad, and been able to work out the code for “got knocked up” year earlier) I thought that it would be a cute idea to get myself and my husband tested.
I’d started to get these grandiose ideas of a tastefully done art piece with my husband and my DNA strands starting out separately and artfully intertwining to form our new family. I had no idea how that would work yet since I was also bad at science but figured that getting the ball rolling would be the best way to make sure that I at least did something.
Which is how I found myself, that July, swabbing my cheek and helping my husband with his (“What are you doing? Why? Lily, wh-umbph!”) before sending it off with an air of accomplishment.
I hadn’t really done my research so didn’t realize the results would take so long. Yeah, I’d started early but 6-8 weeks is a really long time to wait, so after refreshing my account every 12 hours for a week or so, I lost interest and went back to making my cat forts out of boxes and eating my husband’s fries like a good wife for a while.
The time between sending the test in and getting the results fit a lot of life in it. They were busy and bursting with new jobs and trivia nights, weekend trips and pregnancy tests that were, thankfully negative since, let’s be real, I couldn’t go 2 weeks without losing my chapstick so there was no way I was ready for our DNA to get that intertwined. The truth is, like most of my sudden brilliant ideas, I forgot about it just as quickly as I’d dreamt it up. Other than being a couple hundred dollars poorer, it faded into the background.
I’m sure I got the email letting me know that my results were in somewhere, but as you could probably guess, I’m one of those people with a half-dozen emails that I just ignore for weeks and then decide out of nowhere to clear and organize with folders and rules that move things into those folders and to this day, I have no idea where it is.
I do know that it was a Friday in early September when I finally got an alert letting me know that I had family matches. I can remember thinking for a brief second that I hadn’t even known that was a part of the service, probably advertised on the website next to the 6-8 week turnaround. But earlier that same day my butt of a cat had started vomiting blood and after I rushed her to the emergency vet it was discovered that she’d swallowed a staple. She was rushed into surgery to remove the staple and repair the damage and for me, the world outside of that tiny fluffball kind of fell away.
Since we can’t all be lucky enough to have a job where the boss doesn’t notice our work anyway so we can sit and watch the petcam all day, I’d reassured my frantic husband that there was nothing he’d be able to do anyway so to stay at work. “I’m all worked up and cranky right now, and I don’t like you enough not to hit you when you get annoying.” He’d been hesitant, but eventually my droll wit had done the trick and he’d agreed to finish out the day before heading over to meet us.
After we hung up, I sat in the waiting room with my phone clutched in my hands and shoved under my chin, whole body jiggling rhythmically as I bounced my foot up and down, jarring my elbows. That’s probably the only reason I noticed the email at all, since any kind of alert set me off when I was that high-strung.
I must have stared at the notification for a solid minute, trying to figure out what it meant. I’m not exactly quick on the uptake at the best of times, so processing some long-lost relative existence while a shaking, sobbing mess wasn’t really going to happen. I’d turned it over in my mind several times before filing it away to deal with later and searching for a cup of coffee, since that was clearly what my nervous system needed at that point.
By the time the vet came out with a cautiously hopeful smile, I’d completely forgotten about anything that wasn’t feline.
Within a week, though, I was more than ready to climb the walls and think about anything else. Poop was gross, and do you know what has to be examined for apparent ages after a trauma to the GI tract? Poop. Constantly. Poop. Everything in my life was poop.
For the first few days after the surgery, she’d stayed at the hospital with round-the-clock care and people who willingly signed up for a lifetime of rooting through poop. Being the crazy person that I am, though, when they told me she was stable enough to go home or be transferred to another clinic, I jumped at the chance to get my baby back. Somehow listening to them describe what I had to do didn’t feel quite as bad as actually doing it. So I’d called off work for the week, armed myself to the teeth with antibiotics and paper pellet litter, and converted my closet into a kitty hospital room using blankets, pillows, toys and an old baby gate I found at a thrift store to keep her from trying to climb up onto the shelves.
Keeping a cat from doing anything, including destroying the cone of shame, is a full-time task in and of itself, and I found myself spending most of my time laying in the closet too, keeping her calm and stroking her soft little head to try to reassure her that the pain would go away eventually. I’m a horrible person so I did remind her once or twice that she’d eaten that staple of her own free will, but for the most part tried not to rub it in.
My husband had no such compunctions for me, however, and when he’d come home from work the first time and found me poking at a “present” with a gloved finger to make sure there was no blood, he decided it was a good idea to chuckle at my lemon-pinched face. “Well if there was ever any doubt about who you love more, this settles it. You’d never look at my poop.”
Flipping him off instead of throwing the poop at him took a lot of self-control.
As she started to heal, she started to get less content with laying in a closet all day and got more and more fussy. But I knew that the second I let her out, she’d take even more joy than usual in jumping up on the counter and shelves to rub her gross little butt all over everything I own, and I couldn’t risk her pulling her stitches. So I spent even more of my life on the closet floor, scrolling through Facebook on my phone and begging her to chill out.
After I’d been through my newsfeed enough times that the idea of looking at it again made me want to dig my own eyes out, I cycled through all of the stupid games I’d ever downloaded onto my phone. Then I tapped the Facebook icon again out of habit and groaned at myself, shutting off the screen and setting my phone into my lap.
Moments later my phone lit up the dark closet with a junk email notifying me about changes to one of my credit cards. I rolled my eyes and deleted the notification, but then decided to go through the hundreds of unopened emails that I doubtlessly had no use for. What else was I doing with my life whenever the cat actually took a nap?
Buried amongst coupon offers, newsletters and pleas for donations was not only the email informing me of the existence of an unknown relative, but one letting me know that the person had messaged me. This was weird for a number of reasons even beyond my inability to read terms and conditions before agreeing to things. Who was this person? My parents were both only children, and I’d met my various extended cousins at family reunions and weddings enough times over the years that while we weren’t close, we’d at least recognize names and maybe faces. We’d doubtlessly use that information to avoid any contact beyond the occasional Facebook like, but the principle stood. My grandparents were too old and stubborn to embrace change like the internet and still handed me scraps of paper with new phone numbers they wanted saved into large brick cell phones every time I visited. The idea of them subscribing to an online DNA test was laughable, and I had no confidence they’d figure out any user interface well enough to send any kind of message ever. Plus my grandma called me once a week to tell me about her life as it was, why would she message me on a family tree?
After mulling it over for several minutes, I realized that this wasn’t exactly something that had to stay a mystery since presumably the message would say who it was. Feeling silly, I tapped the link to the message and tried a couple of passwords before finally getting to my inbox.
The sender’s name was Linda Harrigan, not one I recognized. In fact, Harrigan wasn’t one I knew as a name in my family at all, though I’m sure one of the various cousins or aunts several times removed could have been married or divorced in the time since I’d made-- and then promptly hacked to bits-- my wedding guest list. The small, grainy thumbnail image showed a smiling woman with dark hair that didn’t ring any bells, but her features were rather nondescript and the shot wasn’t entirely in focus. The subject just said “Found You!”, which could either make her completely social awkward or a serial killer with absolutely no middle ground.
The inbox screen showed the first few words of the message, but they offered no real clarity either. I’ve been looking for you for so long, I swear I never gav…
None of that was exactly any more comforting than the subject, so I found myself distinctly uneasy as I hesitated with my thumb over the text. Uncertainty, I pressed the pad of my finger down on her face and waited for what felt like forever as the message loaded.
I’ve been looking for you for so long. I swear, I never gave up on finding you but there was just no information, it was like hitting a brick wall. Is your mother with you? Is she okay? Are you safe? Please write back, or call me at [redacted]. I just want to know you and to see my sister again.
I love you.
By now, I was shaking. Aunt? Sister? Maybe my mom could have hidden this person from me, but my grandma was not the sort to let a relative fade into obscurity without at least mentioning them. Could she have the wrong person?
I went to her profile, desperate to find some kind of indication that she was crazy or had made a mistake. Things I didn’t understand about centimorgans and mitochondrial linkages-- wasn’t the mitochondria the powerhouse of the cell or something?-- were summed up at the bottom of the page. DNA was as confident that this woman was my aunt as I was that I had no idea who she was. A quick glance at her tree only showed deceased relatives, including both of her parents, neither of which were my grandma or grandpa.
What. the everloving. shit. was happening?
Of course, at that point I could only do what any rational, mature adult would do. I called my mommy.
“Hi honey,” the familiar voice sang out with its ever-present, audible smile.
“Who is Linda Harrigan?” My voice was probably harsher than I set out for it to be, but the last syllable still cracked.
“What? I don’t know who that is, was she a friend of yours? Is everything okay?”
“Mom, who is Aunt Linda? She just messaged me on one of those DNA sites. Says she’s your sister, but grandma isn’t her mom. Who is she?”
The silence grew so heavy that when kitty stretched next to me, I jumped a little.
“Mom!” I demanded.
Finally, she sighed. “I… well. You should probably come on over. Bring Luke, I’ll call your father.”
An hour later, we were all in their small living room, Luke and I on the couch and my mother in the armchair on the other side. My father held her hand comfortingly, though which of them he was comforting was left up to debate. The set up seemed formal, adversarial. Somehow, it was felt fitting.
They offered us lemonade, and cookies that had been baked earlier today, Before. The capitalization hung between us until finally, I exploded.
“Holy shit just tell me already.”
Almost immediately, my mom started crying. Part of me regretted my tone, but another, newer part of me didn’t care. It just wanted the truth.
“Well, we met in college, of course. You knew that. I met your father wh--”
“Yes, yes I already know, your bookbag split, he picked it up, meet-cute, blah blah get to the point.”
My father opened his mouth to reprimand me, but decided now wasn’t the time and sagged back down into himself as my mom continued. “Well, we never really talked about me leaving but it was about six months after we met that I was diagnosed with cancer.”
“Cancer?! You have cancer?” First a sister, now cancer? What else didn’t I know about my mom?
She gave me a weak smile. “Had. I’m one of the lucky ones, it never came back after I went into remission. It came, destroyed my uterus, and was gone.”
Alarm bells started ringing, but it took me a second to realize why. “Your uterus? But…” I trailed off and just kind of limply pointed at myself. I knew where babies came from, and since it usually didn’t actually involve a stork, I suddenly had even more questions than I started with.
“Your father and I got married pretty quickly after the diagnosis, and after he graduated and I settled into remission and being a housewife, I wanted a family. But, as you’ve noticed, the natural method was out of the question. We talked about all of our options but everything is so expensive. It’s amazing, really. You can make a baby by accident for free when you have the right parts, but only the rich can do it any other way. Since we were so young, we had next to no savings, and what we’d had went to treating the cancer anyway.
"Not to mention the wait. It can take years to get a healthy newborn, and after facing my own mortality that just seemed like time I didn’t have anymore. So we talked about fostering. We did research, met with a couple of social workers, but I was so scared about getting attached only to have to give the child back. I wanted something with a little more certainty.
"One day, in the paper, we saw an ad for a non-profit service who charged based on income and traded volunteer service for some of the smaller fees. It was run by a couple who had a small office just outside of the city. She was a lawyer, he was a social worker. An older couple, after she’d gotten burnt out from the crazy hours in her firm they’d both left to start the organization. Annamarie’s Home, it was called. They’d named it after their daughter who had passed away years before, in her honor.
"They said it could take a while for a newborn, but told us about a little girl, just shy of 2. Her mother was a teenager, they said, who had given it a go but found that it was just too hard. She’d been in and out of homeless shelters since giving birth and had decided that this wasn’t the life she wanted to give her daughter. We were warned, of course, that adopting an older child could be more difficult, that it was impossible to know what kind of trauma they’d experienced and even though you were so young you could have internalized a lot already.
"But he, the husband, offered youth therapy services and would help us navigate it all. And the second I met you, I knew you were my daughter. You had nothing but this tiny little tuft of hair, right at the crown of your head, and they’d put it into a ponytail. You looked like a little troll doll but you were so beautiful, Lily. We thought you’d be bald forever.”
She chuckled but a sob broke through, and she used the neck of her shirt to wipe her face. She needed several deep breaths before she could continue. “You worked with your therapist for a few years and he said that you’d recovered, but he had concerns that talking to you too much about your past would set things off. He advised us to wait to tell you until you were older and could process things properly. We told ourselves we’d tell you when you were ten, but it just never felt right. Then sixteen, then eighteen, and then once you got engaged we swore we’d do it before you got married. The wedding seemed to stress you out so much though. I don’t know. The truth is that it was never the right time for us, and we were being selfish.”
I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. They just waited there for me, and I just stared, trying to make sense of everything. I was finally out of questions, but not because I understood. When you’re drowning you don’t stop to think about why, you just desperately search for the surface. My thoughts were so chaotic that it felt like my brain had gone still, like I had pumped my mind so full that it burst open and nothing was left.
“My real family. Where are they?”
My dad choked, I assume at the word real, but answered me anyway. “We never knew. They wanted it to be closed and we understood. We’d gotten hopelessly attached after ten minutes, so losing you after two years would have killed us. I imagine it was the same for them.”
I nodded slowly, though not in agreement to any particular thing. “But so this Linda. She is my aunt then. I…” I trailed off and looked at Luke, who hadn’t said a word the entire time. His worried gaze was fixed on me and for some reason I shrunk back from his concern. “I have to go.”
I stood up and walked out, ignoring my parents’--or not my parents? I didn’t know in that moment-- surprised and desperate pleas for me to wait. Luke hurried next to me, sliding into the driver's seat before I could try to do so myself. He knew better than to try to talk me into staying, but he wasn’t going to let me drive us off a cliff, either.
He talked to me the whole way home, about work and online articles and anything meaningless he could think of. He couldn’t possibly have taken a breath the whole time, and I don’t remember a single word he said. His voice grated on my nerves but silence would have been no better so I said nothing, letting him fail to distract me the whole time.
When we got home, I shut myself back into the closet with the cat. Remarkably, she didn’t howl to be let out or start jumping all over me. Maybe animals are more perceptive than we give them credit for. Instead, she crawled onto my chest and purred while I cried myself to sleep with my husband’s shadow just barely visible under the door as he listened helplessly.
When I woke up, I felt hollow and heavy the way you only do after a good cry. While I was sleeping, kitty had abandoned me for the other side of our tiny cell, but I suppose I had to just be grateful for what snuggles I did get. It was early still, 6am, but I had no idea how I could have slept for twelve hours after all of that. I guess I’d just crashed and it took that long for my brain to function again, I don’t know, but I was suddenly restless.
I opened the closet door and saw Luke curled on the bed, but the way he shifted at the sound told me that he was awake. He didn’t sit up or say anything, though, so I crept toward the living room and pulled my laptop out from under the couch. I logged on and let the countless applications I had set to open at start-up load, my eyes following the moving circles that their loading screens displayed until they were all up and running.
I knew I was doing it, but somehow I was still a little surprised when I entered the domain name for the ancestry page and went to my inbox. I didn’t really want to deal with this now, I wanted time to process everything. But I didn’t want to take the risk that she’d keep trying, so I would shut her down now and then try again later. If she didn’t forgive me, fine.
I wrote a couple short sentences telling her I was adopted and my mom wasn’t her sister. I hit send and sat back on the couch, my open laptop balancing on my knees while I pinched the bridge of my nose as I lost myself to thought again. Despite sleeping for so long, writing even that short missive had drained me, so I didn’t hear Luke come out of the bedroom until he was a foot or two away from me, and I jumped when he spoke.
“Are you okay?”
I turned my head to look at him and was just about to answer when a gentle “ping” took his attention from my face to the screen. His eyes widened quickly, making me whip my head around to see what had caused that reaction.
It was Linda, again, of course. I guess I had to expect that she would respond. But there was no way I could have predicted what she’d say.Your mother has been gone as long as you have. You weren’t adopted. You were kidnapped. Please call the detectives on your case.