Technically Family

Blankets of rain and wind assaulted the seaweed riddled beach in Cancun, Mexico all week, transforming our long-awaited vacation into a staycation. I shook my head, giving my husband, Patrick that look. The brilliant sun sparkled through the open archways taunting us as we waited for the van that would take us closer to home. He sauntered over to the concierge, releasing our luggage to the attendant before joining me on the oversized lounge chairs facing the mammoth entrance.

I shot off a last text to my daughter through the Facebook Messenger option while I still had hotel Wi-Fi, then nestled my cell on the sofa next to me.
“There are messages in there you’ve never opened,” Patrick said, squinting at my phone.

“There are not,” I fired back, toying with him. Truth was, technology scared me. I not only felt incompetent with all the options out there, I savored the week away from constant interruptions. I blamed social media for a long rap sheet of problems with our world.

Proving me wrong, Patrick pointed to the highlighted spot in the corner of the screen. I grabbed up the cell, intent on showing him a line of meaningless advertisements. My cursory glance transformed into a stab of panic once I focused intently on the content. I leaned forward gasping for air.

“What’s going on?” Patrick asked.

I had no idea where to begin. I had never told him the story. I flashed my palm in the air and refocused on the words with the intensity of a pilot attempting an emergency landing. After a few calming breaths, I turned to a worried husband and told him about Shannon.

My older brother’s daughter had been adopted thirty-five years ago. Since we had no way of knowing her last name, discovering what had happened to her sounded like an impossibility. That likelihood had sharply decreased seven years ago when my brother died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-six. Could this be her?

I fired off a reply once I buckled up in the crowded passenger van. As we bounced along the pocked roadway, I relayed the rest of the details to Patrick. “Larry had a child when he was eighteen, serving on an Air Force base in California. After he and his wife split up, he lost track of her for years. Somewhere along the way, she was adopted by her stepfather.”

“But why didn’t Larry ever mention that?”

“He didn’t want to talk about it. I remember the last time I brought it up. He told me he didn’t know if she was really his daughter.” I stared out the glass window at the Mexican landscapes of Queen Anne Palms and cactus reaching over dark soil and surmised that it would be a miracle finding a family relationship now. My family tree resembled a jagged stump without parents and my brother. I sent up a prayer that this could be true.

When we landed in Nashville hours later, I held my breath while opening a new message. A picture of a beautiful woman with long, dark hair and deep brown eyes snagged my heart. Her widow’s peak and the hazel flecks in her eyes mirrored the man I had idolized most of my life. Patrick leaned into my shoulder and said, “Be careful. You are looking for something that might not be there.” Always the realist, his words echoed in my mind for days.

Our first conversation took place five days after I returned home. Her soft voice and myriad of questions pulled at my heart. She longed for answers to missing pieces in her life only biology could explain. She explained that her mother had died fourteen years earlier and she had not searched for her father out of devotion to the man who reared her into adulthood. Recently, she had found the courage to explore the gaps in her life only to find that it was too late for a father-daughter connection.

She asked what he was like and I told her, “He was a gentle, kind man with a deep love for nature. He grew a lavish garden, explored rivers in his canoe, and hiked through state parks. He took pictures of the people he loved and the landscapes he found in every corner he explored. He created furniture and could build almost anything. His fascination with computers helped him earn his way in life and his excitement over the constellations and the mysteries of the world made him a unique soul. I will always remember his deep respect for the planet long before it was the cool thing to do.”

We planned a visit to the Biltmore in Ashland, North Carolina to meet for the first time. Once I arrived, I paced along the town square as nightfall descended, checking for her description. Hardly able to breathe, I checked my repertoire for the appropriate way to meet a long, lost relative. I came up with nothing. She unmistakably came into view and we embraced there in the park as if we had known each other a lifetime.

She shared with me how her career focused on computers and technology, her hobbies included photography and film making, and her favorite movies were Star Wars and all things spooky and space oriented. It was shocking to hear the similarities in two people who did not know each other.

Then came the hard part. “Did he ever talk about me? Did he want me?” she asked.

I honestly had questions about his early life myself. The answers that I came up with were based on the man I knew as an adult. I told her, “Larry would have loved you more than anything and would have been so proud of the woman you have become.”

I presented her with a scrap book of the family she never knew. The pictures of my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles brought tears to her eyes. She handed me a set of professionally framed photographs she had taken of unique buildings and famous locations. Her eye for the camera lens mirrored Larry’s so closely, it seemed as if she saw the world as he did.     As we prepared to return to our own corners of the country, we promised to consider ourselves aunt and niece no matter what the DNA exposed. She was, after all, my brother’s child according to her original birth certificate. We posed for a picture and the image we carried home gave us more mental evidence of our heritage. Our smiles looked eerily similar, at least we thought.

Once home, Shannon pillaged through her mother’s belongings, uncovering her baby book. She called me in a panic. “Aunt Sharon, I don’t know what to think. The family outline in this book doesn’t make any sense. The blank for my father is layered in white-out with a different man’s name written on the line.” She texted me a picture and I had to agree that it was a mystery. I wondered if Patrick had been right all along. Was I seeing things I wanted to see?

The answers would be only a click away within days. Each update about our results with Ancestry served to ratchet up my nerves and send my thoughts swirling. Putting my trust in the One who designed Shannon and myself was my only sense of peace.

Saturday afternoon I received the notification that my DNA results were ready on Ancestry’s website. I sat at the computer clicking through the steps while my heart thumped wildly. I opened the final page and discovered nothing. No close matches. I stared at the screen deflated. Then I texted Shannon and breathed out in relief at her reply. Her results were not available. The answers would not appear without her genetic link reporting in.

The next morning, I rode beside Patrick along our typical route to church when my phone belted out a tune. Shannon’s number flashed across the screen and my heart pounded all over again. My hand shook trying to slide the green button and as she spoke, I could not understand her.

“Are we a match?” I blurted.

“Yes, you are my aunt!” she announced. I screamed in the church parking lot, feeling very much like she was just born. Larry had a daughter. I had a niece.

Once the excitement waned, I considered the deeper meaning. Larry and Shannon may have missed one another in this world, but the blessing was clear. This new and special person in my life reminds me every time I look at her what a wonderful family I have, thanks to science and yes, I admit, social media.

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