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What causes us to love our siblings? Is it parents who tell their children to love each other? Or is it some unexplainable connection? What if you never knew a sibling existed and only met them for the first time after 46 years? What’s the protocol for love then?
Two years ago, I shipped my spit to a company that promised to breakdown my lineage. A few weeks later, I reviewed the results online. The findings corroborated what my parents had told me. I’m a hefty dose of French and Italian with an unmeasurable melange of English, Scottish and possibly Greek DNA. A multicultured cocktail to be sure.
Months later, I received a message through the lineage site from a woman named Julie who believed we might be cousins based on the similarity of our DNA. It turns out that the website compares the DNA of their members to find matches. After a disquieting moment of considering the lack of privacy of my private data – which is something I must have unwittingly agreed to when I accepted the website’s terms and conditions (The same terms and conditions I neglect to read everywhere else), I read Julie’s note.
Julie explained that she was looking to learn more about her birth father. She asked if I could help connect any family dots given the site claimed we were likely first cousins. Julie possessed her birth certificate, which indicated where she was born, St. Jean, Que., and her date of birth, 1969. The field labelled “Father” sat empty. Julie managed to find her birth mother who refused to help and abruptly ceased communicating with her.
My own personal earthquake shook when my mother mentioned that in 1969, my father was 16-years-old and going to school in St. Jean. A second earthquake two classes in magnitude greater rocked me when my father confirmed that his first girlfriend at the time shared Julie’s birth-mother’s name.
Julie and I agreed to conduct another DNA test, a half-sibling test, from a third party to confirm what we suspected to be true. The test was surprisingly easy to find. Evidently verifying half-sibling DNA has become so commonplace it’s borne its own niche industry. While we waited for the results, we took our relationship to the next level: Facebook. When I saw a photo of Julie for the first time, our resemblance served as visible evidence of our sibling status. I recognized her high cheekbones and deep-set hazel eyes as my own. We spoke almost every day asking about each other’s lives. Julie had grown up in a loving adoptive family who cared for her deeply, and I told her about my upbringing, the family she didn’t get to know. Julie was raised in Colorado and was now living with her husband in Phoenix. I grew up in Montreal and now live in Ottawa. As more weeks passed, the second DNA test became a formality. It came as no surprise when it revealed a positive match. Just like that, I had an older sister, and Julie, a younger brother. We decided to meet in person a few months later in Portland, Ore.
When I received the text message that Julie and her husband had arrived, my wife and I, with our toddler in tow, walked to their hotel. The sun was heavy, uncommonly warm for Portland. As we approached, I handed my wife my phone asking her to record the meeting. As soon as I let go of the device, I looked up to see Julie and her husband walking through the doors to meet us. I could feel subtle trembling as we held each other tightly. “It’s real,” I thought to myself. Our long, warm embrace felt like home. I didn’t expect the tears, but there they were leaving shiny, wet trails down my face. It wasn’t sadness; it was the sense I’d returned to a familiar place after being gone a long time. It was nostalgia without memory.
The next few days and nights we were inseparable. We explored Portland through its food and parks while discovering our shared idiosyncrasies such as our smiles, the way we laughed and our silly sense of humour. Our spouses were quick to confirm these findings as we indulged in our giddy enthusiasm.
A connection has blossomed into something more as I got to know Julie. We’ve developed an adult-sibling relationship. I check in periodically, update her on my life and tease her, when appropriate, like a good brother. I’m still waiting for her to buy me alcohol for my next party and at some point, I’ll have to borrow her car only to return it with an empty tank of gas.
Learning I had a sister brought with it a miscellany of emotions. Confusion, anger, excitement, joy, all of which were held at bay by a deep moat of skepticism. When the DNA results confirmed things, skepticism stepped aside. I decided that the revelation was a joyous one, worth celebrating even. I welcomed her kindness and thoughtfulness more than I would have done from a stranger. But why? What caused this overnight acceptance? Dare I call it love? Did the tidal wave of unconditional love from my own new fatherhood spill over to include my new sister?
I believe the answer is akin to my DNA lineage, a hefty dose of acceptance with an unmeasurable mélange of the rest. I accepted the fact that Julie was my biological half-sister and I accepted Julie. I’m also excited to extend my daughter’s village.
More than a year later, although the excitement has dwindled, an inexpressible phenomenon persists. My baseline for happiness has risen. I have someone new to become close with, to learn about, to learn from and with whom I can open up. I feel comforted knowing she is only a quick text away and can look forward to more visits, more shared meals, more joyful hugs. The experience of discovering someone new has also reminded me of the importance of the family already in my life. I’ve tended to cast aside connections with my mother, father, younger sisters and grandmother but these can, luckily, be remedied with a simple phone call or a visit. I’m fortunate in not only finding Julie, but in renewing the ties so important to me and to those I love.
Robert Imbeault lives in Ottawa.