Friday, June 9, 2017

23&us

It started like junk mail....

Hi, I just tested my DNA on 23andME and it says we are first cousins!?! Not sure who you are, but would like to find out more and see if this is in fact true. My name is David and I'm 36 years old. take care

I ignored it. Probably some guy in his mom’s basement sending weird messages to girls. Gross. I almost hit delete, but got distracted and just closed my computer instead, and promptly forgot about it.

A couple months later I signed into my 23&me account. And there he was…a stranger...in my gene pool. Who is this guy and why are we 12.5% related. And then I remembered the strange message from earlier. I decided to reply with facts about these tests being horribly inaccurate and who knows what they really tell us. And as I started typing I looked at the next closest related person to me…0.6% related, is my next “relative” on 23andme. 12.5% well that’s first cousins…and I knew I had to know more. Even if it was some guy in his mom’s basement.

Hi David, Yup-- this is super weird. I thought that I knew all of my first cousins because I have a fairly small family. Where do you live? -Fiona

Hi Fiona, I live in Canada just outside Toronto. I thought I knew all my first cousins as well, but now that I think of it, I do remember hearing a few years back that one of my Uncle's (who is now in his late 60's) got a girl pregnant in high school and she was "sent away" somewhere to have the baby. Not that I think that plays into this circumstance, but it just reminded me of the fact these things were kept hidden in the past!

Oh Jesus Christ. Is that baby me? Have my parents concocted some really convincing and elaborate story about having me? And also why then do I have my Dad’s forehead? Being some secret love child didn’t really appeal to me. Unless I’m a princess, then I’m game.

Our conversation went on over the coming weeks. Sometimes we just asked each other more about our lives, and sometimes we dived deep into the nitty gritty of our families. We imagined secret affairs and adoptions and immigration stories of all kinds.

Hi David,
My mom's parents do live in England, but they were displaced german jews and relocated from Germany after WWII. My dad's dad still lives in Scotland and he has three children, my dad, my Uncle Mark and my Aunt Kirsten. My uncle Mark actually lived in Toronto for a while.
-Fiona

Hi Fiona,
The only new thought that has crossed my mind today is that my maternal grandfather fought in WWI and would have been in Europe for a few years at that time. Does that somehow play into it? This is kind of exciting! take care, David

And just like that, we were both hooked. We looked up old newspapers and online archives trying to find a relative we might share. I was in full on detective mode. And David was right, this was kind of exciting. I only did 23&me for extra credit in a genetics class I took during college. The class was boring and I didn’t really find 23&me particularly interesting….until now that is.

And then one day, while lying in bed, trying to fall asleep. I knew. 

David lives in Toronto. The same city that my Uncle Mark went to grad school in. David and I share 12.5% of our genes. First cousins. First cousins share a set of grandparents. First cousins have parents who are siblings.

It became more and more clear to me—and perhaps you may have already figured it out—how we are related. But the thing was….David hadn’t.

How do you ask someone how sure they are about their mom and dad actually being genetically related to them? I just couldn’t do it. I stopped answering his messages.

While I was taking a break from our now 17 page long conversation thread. I called my Dad.

Does Mark have a son?” I asked him.  Because I think I’m talking to him and his name is David and he’s 36 and he lives in Toronto.”

I can’t remember exactly what it was my Dad said. But I’m guessing probably some explicative coupled with shock and an “are you sure” thrown in for good measure.

David kept sending me messages about his family. His British grandparents in WWII. His father’s family who have lived in Canada as far back as anyone can remember. On and on into marriages and births, the Great Depression, the Cold War. It was the most epic history lesson I have ever had.

I plied David with occasional messages back. I told him about a half uncle I have. The 4th child of my grandfather. I told him how much I love Canada and how attractive their Prime Minister is. And I asked him what he did for a living and about how high the snow drifts get in the middle of winter where he lives.

Hi Fiona,
I am an anesthesiologist. Maybe medicine is in our genes!-David

Anesthesia you say? In our genes indeed. And somehow him being a doctor made things a little easier. He knows how it works. He knows genes. He knows science. I tell him about school. He replies with “Don't worry it gets better after med school.”

Oh, he’s such a Canadian. And so so nice. So after much debate and a large glass of wine, I sent him a long and rather cryptic message suggesting that perhaps my Uncle Mark might be his father. He wrote back with a longer and more confusing message about how I might be the daughter of his uncle. I asked him about his forehead. My grandfather, my uncle, my dad and me…well we have a serious case of forehead going on. And I bet David had it too.

Hi Fiona,
Regarding my forehead I would say it is normal size.- David

I sent him my LinkedIn profile so he could see a picture of me. He wrote back…

 Hi Fiona,
Your forehead is not that big. David 

And then a few days went by…and I got this message.

Hi Fiona, Are you able to call me?

Oh God. He figured it out.

I called him from a friends house, excusing myself from the libations to talk to him in the stairwell of their condo. He had driven across the city to ask his mom about who is father was. And there in his mother’s living room on a freezing winter night in Canada, a 36 year old learned that his father was not a genetic relative, his sister—actually a half sister. His parents were unable to conceive children, so used a sperm bank. My Uncle Mark had been a donor.

The last message David and I exchanged on 23&me reads,

Hi Fiona, It was great to chat with you tonight. I guess the mystery is solved. We started off thinking about secret love affairs in the distant past, never in my wildest dreams did I think the true story would hit so close to home. take care, David


David and I still keep in touch with the occasional email. He was actually able to meet my Uncle Mark and my Dad at the wedding of my half Uncle. David has a loving family of his own, and his parents are still just as much mom and dad as they were before. And I guess if I’ve learned anything from this experience, apart from reaffirming my love of Canadians. Its that we are all related. We are all family. We're all cousins. David and I just like to think that now he has a bonus family. A slightly crazy, overbearing, large foreheaded bunch of British people who really don’t care what percentage of genes we happen to share.

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