Heartbreak

Finding My Father On 23andMe Left Me Heartbroken

Photo: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock
upset woman

In January 2019, I received the email that would change my life forever. It was from 23andMe and the subject line read simply: “You have new DNA relatives."

I wasn’t particularly surprised. DNA ancestry kits have become popular holiday gifts so I was used to the influx of new third and fourth cousins at the start of a new year. 

Upon logging in though, I realized this was unlike the countless times throughout the previous five years I’d been logging in before. This time I had the closest DNA match I’d ever had on the site — a great-aunt. And she had a Middle-Eastern last name.

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Immediately, I felt relief that the greatest search I’ll ever embark on in my life was coming to a close. 

The entire reason I had joined 23andMe was to aid in the search for my biological father. I’d been searching for him since I was 15, long before the existence of such websites.

My search had begun in Jacksonville, Florida where I was born, and throughout the years had ranged from periods of obsessive web searching using the few details I had about him to times to moments when my life was too busy and I felt fulfilled enough to temporarily suspend my search.

But I never stopped searching entirely. The need to find the person that made up half of myself was always a primal one.

The only facts I knew about my father were that his name was Cameron and that he had arrived in the United States after fleeing his home country of Iran following the revolution. In 1987, he was working as a kitchen staff at the local Holiday Inn where my mother was a receptionist.

They were both in their 20s and immediately found the distraction they both sought within each other. The relationship lasted about a month — short enough to apparently not bother with last names — but long enough to conceive me.

By the time my mother discovered she was pregnant, they both had long moved on from the Holiday Inn, and it never occurred to her to look for the man who fathered me.

I was given to my maternal grandmother to be raised, and so as a result, not only did I lack the love and care of my father, but also of my mother. This sense of parental abandonment has made a profound impact on my life, and at no point was stronger than when I became a parent myself.

And at the time of receiving this email, I was 12 weeks pregnant with my first child — not a stellar time for making big, emotional decisions.

And, yet, because this new relative had listed her full name, I was able to quickly find her on Facebook. It took me approximately two seconds to locate a “Cameron” in the list. The resemblance to myself was uncanny. 

I knew this was the man I’d been searching for for half my life.

I spent the evening researching everything I could find out about him online. He was a lawyer living in Washington, D.C — married, no kids. I browsed photos of his family — my family. In photos of my grandparents, I could spot features from my own face for the first time in my life.

Perhaps I should have waited a while, and just sat with this information. I almost know for certain I should have waited to be guided by a therapist, but none of that was happening. We’d lost 31 years together. I was determined not to lose another minute as long as I could prevent it.

I sent the email. Playing it cool, I wrote, “My name is Melissa. My father’s name is Cameron and he worked at the Holiday Inn in Jacksonville, Florida in 1987 where he met my mother. Might you be his aunt?”

Nearly immediately I received a response, “Yes, I am,” she replied. “I am so happy to know you.”

She offered me my father’s email address and I wrote to him directly. I summarized my entire life in two paragraphs. It felt almost like writing a resume. I mentioned where I’d gone to college, *humble-bragged* that I’d gone to grad school in London, referred to my vocation, and mentioned that I now lived with my French husband in Paris.

I left off that I was a somewhat broken person, scarred by years of childhood trauma and loss that no amount of therapy will ever fully heal. I refrained from mentioning my lifelong battles with anxiety and depression. It was like a job interview — and if this was to be the first impression my father had of me, I wanted it to be perfect. 

Cameron replied, seemingly excited by the prospect of having a daughter. He seemed genuinely interested in me and offered any information about himself, his family, and his medical history. For the next several months, we emailed regularly. We shared our interests, and our many common traits and we made each other laugh.

By the time we officially ‘met’ via Skype one month later, I felt as though I’d known my father all of my life.

His relatives welcomed me. Suddenly, I was part of this big, close-knit Iranian family, spread out all over the globe. My daughter was ensured the loving extended family I had always desired for myself. My new uncle in Florida FaceTimed me. I visited my other uncle in Germany.

I became so close to my uncles and their wives that I didn’t see — or perhaps I just didn’t want to see — signs that the relationship with my father would never be at the level that I secretly desired.

Even though I’d said early in this journey that I had no expectations for a relationship, it was a lie my head had told my heart. There were always going to be expectations and there was nothing I could do to ease them.

Throughout the first six months of our virtual relationship, we discussed my coming to visit him in Washington after I’d given birth. In hindsight, it was me who first proposed the trip, and I never questioned why Cameron wasn’t coming to see me in Paris instead.

I also didn’t question why the bulk of Cameron’s calls to me were done in his car, even outside his house. I heard what I wanted to hear and tuned out all the rest. I lived for the moments he’d text me asking for updates about his growing “grandchild” and when she was born, he was among the first people I called from the hospital. 

“To Emmy,” his card read, “Grandpa loves you and will be watching out for you.”

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In the weeks following, we stayed in touch constantly. We video chatted as usual and texted regularly.

It was during one of these video calls that Cameron introduced me to his lifelong friend and mentor, his former schoolteacher, a Roman Catholic priest. The two men chatted like old buddies and I was swept into the rapport. Jokingly, I asked the priest, “Were you surprised to find out Cameron has a daughter?”

“No, I wasn’t surprised,” he replied. “Cameron told me a few years ago that he had a daughter out there.”

It hit me like a ton of bricks. 

He obviously had known about me all along.

I had doubts. When I was younger, my mother, often not the most reliable source, told me that we had bumped into my father’s brother at a local gas station when I was three years old. The serendipitous meeting took her by surprise and for whatever reason, she had chosen to introduce me to my uncle as his niece and make plans to return the next day, but she never did.

I will never understand the motivations she had behind keeping my father from me, just as I will never understand his reasons for not searching for me.

Throughout my adult years, self-preservation made me tell myself this meeting simply couldn’t have happened. We lived in a large city. What are the odds of bumping into a stranger who looks somewhat like an old boyfriend and it actually being his brother? I soothed myself further, residing that if it had occurred, Cameron had simply not believed this story.

But hearing these words come from someone in Cameron’s life that he clearly respected enough to confide in, proved to me that he had known about me for nearly all of my life. And yet he had not returned to the Holiday Inn to look for my mother, and in all the years since, had not done even as much as a DNA ancestry test to locate me. 

It’s a wound that cuts as deep as any.

And still — we made plans to visit him in Washington. My daughter, Emmy, was one-month-old. We could finally book the trip we’d been discussing for eight months. This was going to be the opportunity to know and bond with my dad. My questions would be answered and for the first time in my life, I might feel completely whole.

I wrote Cameron with the news that I’d booked our flights for a mere six weeks later. And then — silence.

I did not hear from my father for nearly a month. I felt as though I’d done something wrong, though I could not be certain what. This feeling of rejection from a parent once again, coupled with raging and unforgiving postpartum hormones slid me into depression.

I nearly canceled the trip but less than two weeks before it was scheduled, my two uncles happened to be in Paris themselves. We had dinner at my home and they convinced me to go ahead. They almost seemed apologetic for Cameron’s avoidance of me. 

On the day of our arrival, Cameron met us at the airport. We hugged tightly, the first time I’d felt my father’s arms around me. At that moment, I had peace and was glad I’d made the trip. We met with Cameron later that evening, and also with his wife, who was only four years older than me. 

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Throughout the week, I did not see my father each day, as we’d planned.

One day he was too busy. Another, he’d stayed up late the evening before and couldn’t make it out. We stayed at a hotel in Virginia and we spent much of that trip wandering the aisles of Target. I’d been to our nation’s capital several times before but this wasn’t a usual site-seeing trip. I had come for the distinct purpose of getting to know my father and I was let down.

I’ll always remember one of our last meetings. It was at a Starbucks downtown. There had been so much left unsaid and I was eager to finally catch up with my dad. I’m a people person, usually able to hold a conversation with almost anyone I meet, but there was just too much distance between us. We could not seem to hold a natural conversation. Cameron’s eyes were focused on my newborn. 

“Can I hold her?” he asked. I handed him the baby and my husband took a photo. I had pride in my eyes. Perhaps if my father did not care for me, at least he seemed to take interest in my baby.

“Let me ask you a question,” he said. Now we were getting somewhere. Perhaps we would finally scratch the surface of the past thirty years. “How was your pregnancy?” he asked. “Did you have morning sickness? How are the nights going?”

The tone of his questions was of someone conducting inquisitive research, not that of a concerned parent.

Over the years I’d fantasized about meeting my dad, I’d imagined our first conversations thousands of times. I’d always imagined him asking me about my accomplishments, the fact that I’d graduated high school at 16, the various jobs I’d had, the traveling I’d done.

I never once thought that his sole interest in me would be as a woman who had been pregnant and given birth.

As I sat in that Starbucks I never felt so rejected in my entire life.

And that feeling of rejection furthered my growing depression. My father had confirmed that he was not interested in me and as hard as it was to admit, his apparent adoration of Emmy was less out of profound love or desire to be a grandfather. She and I were simply assured that he could father (and grandfather) children who might turn out to be semi-functioning people.

He did not seem to notice my intense heartbreak. After a short time, clearly bored, he excused himself to return home. My husband suggested we take a walk around the District but as we crossed the park in front of Pennsylvania Avenue, my face flooded with tears. 

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“I just want to go back to the hotel room and cry,” I said. 

My father’s second daughter was born almost exactly nine months from the date of our trip. Cameron later told me that I was the inspiration for his decision to have another child. “I met you and saw that my genes checked out,” he said.

We did not talk much after that. Almost a year later, I wrote him the email I had not been brave enough to write before. I explained how I felt about our meetings. I was honest about my expectations for our relationship. We embarked on a series of video calls to address all of it.

They were the most painful and uncomfortable calls of my life. On our last, I finally asked him the question I’d wanted the answer to for over two years: “Why didn’t you ever look for me?” 

“I assumed that any daughter of Susan’s would be a waitress still living in Jacksonville,” he replied, completely unashamedly. 

That was the last time I ever communicated with my father. 

One year later, I sometimes wonder about the version of me that never sent that first email. I wouldn’t have spent a considerable chunk of my daughter’s first year of life depressed. I would never know the pain that comes from being rejected by both parents.

But I also would not know the love and kinship of my uncles and aunts. I would not have my complete medical history. I would not feel connected to a lineage and people I can be proud of. Sitting on the other side of grief, I am grateful for the ways the journey has shaped me into the best parent I can be to my daughter — the parent I deserved. 

Melissa Dixon is a freelance writer, mom, and foreign-service spouse.

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