Finding sister opens long-closed window on where I came from

In early January, thanks to science, I received a belated but blessed Christmas gift.

A half-sister.

We grew up in the same city – two years apart, she of adoption, me of a single mother—unaware of each other until now.

I grew up not knowing who my father was. My mother had a brief relationship with an American visiting Toronto. He told her he had to return home to tend to an ailing sister and he never saw her again. He had a very common surname. She had little information. He just left a wake of pain, shame, and a son with lifelong questions.

These were the 1950s, an era thankfully in my case of neither effective birth control nor accessible and safe abortions. Hundreds of thousands of babies were adopted in my generation. I was one of the 600,000 “illegitimate” Canadians born between 1945 and 1971.

My mother chose to have me and keep me.

As a journalist I know I could have done much more to find my father. I was asked once why I hadn’t, and I gave the self-serving answer that after emerging from poverty, I didn’t want to discover someone in shambles. No, I was corrected, the real reason you didn’t look: you didn’t want to learn he knew and never came. My history frames my career: seeking secrets from subjects, knowing there is one secret I have never been told and cannot win.

I am at an age and stage now where I’d like to know who he was, where he was, how he was, before I am gone, for me and my children and grandchildren to understand.

There is only one subject more popular in online searches than genealogy. (You can guess it.)

I am one of more than 10 million who have spat in a tube and gotten DNA results from Ancestry and one of about nine million who have done the same for 23andme. You couldn’t miss the TV commercials touting these as Christmas gifts. The tests are revealing origins, solving crimes and finding relatives. I have been connected to dozens of distant and a few close cousins in these two datasets.

The businesses themselves are ethically fraught. Last week the Family Tree DNA firm disclosed it had been sharing data with the FBI. The GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical giant has bought a stake in 23andme and is using its findings to develop drugs. There are logical fears that health-related results might land with insurers to deny coverage.

There is a more personal concern when your results return: the distinct possibility of further rejection or the reawakening of familial discord. The DNA services permit you to send messages, but you do not know the whereabouts or email addresses of relatives, and it is like pleading with a loved one on the other side of a locked door. In my case, I have a close relative who simply isn’t answering, month after month.

Before we were certain of our half-sibling relationship, I visited Toronto in December and spent a swift three hours debriefing our lives with the woman Ancestry described with “extremely high confidence” in the range of “close family-1st cousin.” It was a warm, build-on-each-other’s-sentences morning, and a large part of me knew there were common qualities that ran deeper, the kernel of sisterly love.

She believes she was conceived in a border town. Her mother came to Toronto to one of that era’s prolific Homes for Unwed Mothers, placed her for adoption, and went home with no one around her the wiser. She was lucky, she told me, to have had a great, loving adoptive family she still sees. I am lucky, too, to be here and to have found her.

A report for her in 1981 described her father – our father, as we now know – as “the life of the party” and a sports and music fan, and it is unsurprising that I was riveted by those comments. I spend a disproportionate time escaping into games and songs. Life of the party? Well, let others weigh in on that.

A few Sundays back, she emailed and asked me to look right away at my 23andme account. She had taken the test around the time we’d met and her results had just been posted: I am “half-brother” to her and she is “half-sister” to me.

“I promise to be a responsible and caring big sister,” she wrote.

I hope so. There is a journey ahead. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.