Digging for DNA: Obituaries and DNA Testing

My name is Rebecca Tillou, I am an adoptee, and I searched for my birth mom in 2012. Throughout the searching process, I learned that obituaries can be a wonderful tool to cross people off your search list. I would find an obituary for a person I thought could be my birth mom, and then, through reading the details in the obituary, be able to cross off that name. One of the obituaries I read revealed to me that the person who died had six siblings. Well, as far as I knew my birth mom had one. So, I went on assumptions, and the information I knew I took as truth. Therefore, that name in that obituary got crossed off my search list. Of all the obituaries I had in my possession, there was one that was sent to me by a second or third cousin on 23andme. She was my closest match in 23andme. I had reached out to her, and we had chatted about how our genetics fit together. She thought I was connected to her somewhere through her mom’s side. When I connected with her, I had already found who my birth mom was and discovered her story. Or…most of it anyway.

There was still the question of, “Who was my birth father?” I had attempted to search for him with the limited information on my non-identifying information sheet but came up empty-handed. My birth father had become a fart in the wind. I had given up my search for him. So, when this lady and I connected with one another, I wondered, was she related to my birth father? This thought was fleeting though because she stopped answering my messages, and I figured I had made her dredge up old memories she had rather stayed buried. So, I moved on. I never did open the obituary she had sent me back in 2017. I believe I read right over the website of the obituary she had sent to me. It didn’t come up as a hyperlink, and I probably didn’t read the message thoroughly.

I go onto 23andme and Ancestry.com every so often, just to check in, see if anyone has updated their profiles. On occasion, there will be a message from someone I somehow missed. So, in February 2018, I was looking on 23andme.com and decided to peruse my messages. I found the obituary from that one cousin. I looked up the obituary, and as I was reading it, I gasped. My husband was in the living room behind me, and he asked what was going on. I was, for once, literally speechless as I was reading the obituary. I remember I looked down at my hands, and they were trembling the slightest bit. I pushed my chair away from the kitchen table and ran over to our built-in bookcase. I pulled down my birth mom’s file folder and unzipped it. I was taking papers out in a frenzy, looking for one particular document: her death certificate. I scanned the document for a name that I had just read in the obituary. I found it, and took the death certificate in my still trembling fingers, and stood in front of my husband. He looked at me and asked me what was going on.

“I know who my birth father is.”

He just looked at me, and he probably was thinking, “Oh boy, here we go again!” He let me talk though. Boy did I talk. I had to talk it all out, to map out the relationship, and discuss how I figured out who my birth father was. I had to go back to 2013, to when I found my birth mom. My birth mom’s death certificate had a lady written down as her “friend” with the same last name as in the obituary. The obituary was for this lady’s mother in law. Turns out, my birth father was this lady’s husband. The husband and wife team, my birth father and his wife, owned the bar where my birth mother worked for years. I had spoken to the lady owner’s daughter, who knew my birth mom. She was actually my birth father’s stepdaughter. She had mentioned there had been rumors there had been an affair. Well, turns out it wasn’t just a rumor.

I felt like a true detective. Seeing that name, and then finding that name on another piece of evidence, and piecing it all together. It blew my mind. My birth father was not who I thought it was. I had always suspected another guy, a man who was a regular at the bar where my birth mom worked. He was Peruvian. I had been given a photo of him from my birth father’s stepdaughter. He was in the photo with my birth mom and his girlfriend, and the wife of my birth father. I had gotten his address from his daughter and his phone number. We had spoken, and he said while he knew my birth mom was pregnant with me, they were never romantically involved. I didn’t believe him until I discovered who my birth father really was. The Peruvian man called me on my birthday after we had connected. I thought that was proof he was my biological father. I was mistaken. I now had DNA to connect who my biological father really was.

There is a humorous piece to finding my birth father that I tell everyone who asks about my search and reunion story. See, I have known I was adopted as long as I can remember. I received my non-identifying information to review as I wished when I was around the age of 8 years old or so. It said my birth mother was Polish, and my birth father was Irish. So, I went through life thinking I was a Polish-Irish girl. For my 16th birthday, I got a beautiful Claddagh ring, and a few years later, I received a shamrock necklace. I loved everything Irish. I thought it was cool that although I didn’t know my birth parents, I knew their heritage, and therefore, I knew at least part of who I was.

In my junior year in college, I thought what would be more a more permanent symbol of my Irish heritage than an Irish tattoo? So, I went with my roommates and each of us got tattoos on our lower backs. When I moved in with my boyfriend, who is now my husband of 15 years, my mom gave us cups and plates with Irish sayings and little green shamrock designs on them. For our wedding favors, we gave out bells with an Irish Claddagh design on them. Oh yes, I showed my Irish pride well. Well, wouldn’t you know, turns out my birth father was 100 percent… Wait for it…ITALIAN. YEP! My mom and I laugh so hard at this discovery. My mom never liked the tattoo on my lower back, and now, well, now she finds it funny that I am not even Irish. I have to admit, I find it humorous as well.  I never thought twice about my DNA results showing Irish Composition 0%.” That should have tipped me off, but it didn’t. At all. In my mind, I thought maybe the composition was only my birth mom’s side. How silly of me.

Next was to figure out how tell my parents about my new discovery. My parents knew about my birth mom search, and they knew when I found her. They knew who I thought was my birth father, and my mom agreed, the Peruvian man and I had an identical smile. Well, weren’t they going to be thrown for a loop! They had come for a visit, and I told them I had found my biological father. Through DNA. I then proceeded to explain the connection. They looked at me with confused expressions, and then my dad got out a pad of paper and a pen and attempted to draw a family tree. Then, he saw it. My mom saw it. The missing link. My birth father. My parents thought the DNA, the obituary, the fact I had pieced everything together was pretty interesting, but in their minds was worry.

They were worried that I had found more links to my biological family, and would I become as obsessed with this side of my tree as my birth mom’s side? I had spent about a year searching for my birth mom, at the expense of time with my new family of four. It turns out I didn’t become as involved with this search, and maybe that is because the people who are part of my DNA were not interested in being involved in my life. This is unlike my birth mom’s side. Those that are alive have become a part of my life. We have met one another, and keep in touch, which means so much to me.

So, I discovered who my birth father was, and, unfortunately, he died in 1998, almost a year to the day when my birth mom passed away. I uncovered an adulterous affair, of which there were rumors, rumors which DNA proved to be true. I talked to his stepdaughter, the daughter of his wife. She said he was a nice man and raised her like his own daughter. She told me she never knew another man as Dad. That made me smile. I do wish I had the chance to meet him. I was given photos of him. I was told he had two sons as well, which means I have two half-brothers. They are now in their 60s and don’t really care to know me. They are not upset about our DNA connections from what I can tell, but they have their own lives, and they have gone over 60 years without knowing their father had an affair. I unearthed a secret, or rather DNA unearthed a secret that I pieced together, and it was a secret that maybe his sons, his family didn’t need to know about. They aren’t able to change the past or confront their father. So, I suppose maybe I should have given it more thought before running to his stepdaughter about my find. She was very cool about the matter. She told me she had her suspicions. I feel bad about the family secret no longer being a secret. I am happy that at least I did get medical history on his side. I was told he died of cancer, and his mom and siblings died from congestive heart failure. I was told attention deficit disorder also runs in the family, and one of my half-brothers is diabetic. Everyone lived pretty long lives except my father who died at 67. I was given some photos, and I see a slight resemblance in my birth father and my oldest son. Also in my birth dad’s sister and myself. Oh, the tangled webs I weaved and then undid.

Some may ask me if I regret doing DNA testing. No, I don’t. A small piece of me regrets what I did with the results once I had them, and the puzzle I completed with my birth father and his family. I opened up a door that had never been opened. I never received any nasty messages from those related to him that I reached out to. Many I actually never heard back from (cousins and one half-brother). One of my cousins and I are friends on Facebook, and he has reached out and told me if I ever want to meet with his family, they would try to tell me as much as they knew about my birth father and about the family. That is a sweet gesture, and one of these years I hope to take him up on that offer. It is weird to me because I don’t have that drive to know all about my birth father the way I did with my birth mom. I don’t know if it is because she is the one that held me in her belly for nine months, and there is that innate, biological connection, or for another reason I have not figured out yet. I am thankful for the medical history though.

 

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