How much does DNA change our life story?
- As my father lay dying we decided to find out.
May 14, 2019-
Most of us have had moments when we’ve fantasized about having different parents, people we imagine are closer to our true nature. But few of us have a name for our fantasy parent.My father did, though: Kale Binder.
That’s the name his mother gave him in 1983, when my father was 50. After decades of whispered rumors, my English grandmother, Diane, finally admitted that Kale Binder, an American medical student she met at a party, got her pregnant shortly before she met her husband.
This mystery sperm donor could have been the perfect wish fulfillment for my father, Rex, a once-sensitive boy who came of age in London during World War II with a father—or the man he believed was his father—who was cruel and critical. He mocked his son for being too smart, too soft.
By contrast, Rex imagined his real father would have talked with him about Russian literature or taken him hitchhiking across Europe. He might have occasionally given him a hug.
But by the time my father learned of his alternate provenance, he had moved on: to his second life in America, his wife and children, a career in decision science. He had no idea how he would find the man behind the name anyway. In 1983, there were few ways to find out. Kale Binder remained an ethereal concept standing in for all that could have been.
Until 2016, when my father’s doctor told us he was dying of pancreatic cancer. With the internet’s capacity for ancestral research and the boom in DNA testing, my sisters and I decided it was time to give my father the gift of genomic closure. First we hired a Swedish genealogist. She quickly found records of an American medical student named Kale Binder who was visiting Western Europe around 1933. From there, she followed a trail to California, where Kale later lived, got married and died in 1959.
The file also included names of descendants. We sent out several emails and heard back from two women in their 70s—Judy, who was Kale’s niece, and Sandy, who was his daughter, born 10 years after my father. Both were excited to hear about our search and happy to connect our family branches. Sandy had a particularly poignant reaction: “Yesterday I was an only child!” she wrote. “Today I have a brother.”
That set off a few whirlwind days of group emailing, as we discovered more second cousins once- or twice-removed and a bizarre coincidence. Judy’s son lives in the same small town in Western Massachusetts as I do.
My ailing father didn’t seem nearly as taken by all this as the rest of us. He was more interested in news about a longtime friend who was in the hospital with heart trouble. He kept asking about how his twin grandchildren’s college search was going.
Nevertheless, we pushed on with a reunion, and soon nine of us—Judy, Sandy, sisters, cousins, my mother and father—were sitting at an Indian buffet in Northern Virginia, exchanging family histories and old photos.
The similarities were uncanny. Kale and Rex had the same nose, the same knobby knees. They were both kind, funny, intellectual. Both liked dancing in public and spoke several foreign languages. They each took their daughters to see the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters, albeit 30 years apart.
Did we really need genetic proof that our families were part of the same cosmic story? After all, before DNA testing became commonplace, our investigation would have stopped with this family narrative.
But today, you’ve got 23andMe, Ancestry.com, HomeDNA, Living DNA and several other companies. According to MIT Technology Review, 26 million people had taken a DNA home test by early 2019—up from five million two years earlier.
A genetic test would cost us less than $100, so we figured: What the heck? I took a cheek swab from my father and sent it in. Sandy did the same.
As we waited for the results, I interviewed my father in his sickbed at home. I wanted to know how much emotional satisfaction would he get from solving this genetic mystery?
As it happens, very little. He patiently explained that he had already loved all the people he would love, blood-related or not. As for the damage his coldhearted father had done in childhood—well, no DNA test was going to reverse that.
So while Rex was happy to give his grieving children the gift of a new bloodline, it was too late to make much of a difference to him.
This made me pause. You hear stories of genetic tests linking, say, a house cleaner in Des Moines with Abraham Lincoln, or a famous actor to a 19th-century slave owner. But is this glut of connectivity really helping us understand who we are and where we belong?
Three weeks after we sent in my father’s cheek swab, the results came back. There was no genetic match; Sandy and Rex did not appear on each other’s profiles. So cousin Judy sent in a saliva sample—and her only match was to Sandy. Then my sister did it, and her only match was to Rex.
Unless the testing company was totally incompetent, our families were not connected by DNA. Perhaps my grandmother had more than one liaison in late 1932, or Rex was raised by his real father after all.
And just like that, the Kale Binder mystery, which was part of my family’s lore for decades, was gone.
Yet by now, we were attached to the Binder family. When my father died, Sandy and Judy sent heartfelt condolences. They didn’t care that he wasn’t their long-lost brother or cousin. They cared that he was a lovely man and we had all become friends.
I would not be getting new blood relatives, but I took comfort in something my father must have already figured out. He spent much of his life fantasizing about the family he could have had, but in the end he got the one he wanted.
— © 2019 The New York Times
Published: 14-05-2019 10:57