23andMe Sisters: Finding a Sibling Through DNA Testing

A Troy mom of two shares her story of how one of her adopted daughters discovered a sister she never knew she had through 23andMe.

I was standing in line for the pirate ship ride with Suzi at Cedar Point when my phone rang. It was my other daughter Patti, also in the park, but in line with my husband Bill at a much scarier ride. The words tumbled out of her in a joyful scream. Her biological sister, from China, had emailed her. Her 100 percent biological sister is Rachel, she’s 18, and she lives in Florida!!!

We couldn’t believe it!

Bill and I adopted Patti and Suzi from China in the early 2000s. Unlike with most domestic and some international adoptions that are open, China’s are closed. Abandoning a child is illegal, so parents did it anonymously. Patti was found in a police station; Suzi on a town square. There was no easy way to find their biological families. We knew that.

So when Patti wanted to get her DNA analyzed by 23andMe, with the possibility of finding a family member, I happily agreed. But I also worried about getting her hopes up. What were the chances that her probably impoverished family in China had sent their DNA to this American company? Not good. It hadn’t even occurred to us that she would have a sister, also adopted, here in the U.S., but it probably should have. A week doesn’t go by without a news story about DNA matching blowing away yet another family’s secrets.

On that summer day in 2017, we all vowed to meet Rachel and her adoptive mom as soon as possible. We returned to our day at Cedar Point and then to the regular rhythm of our lives.

But Patti and Rachel got to know each other. They texted and FaceTimed. Patti learned that Rachel is just a year older, that she lives in Florida but attends The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and that her mother is the same rowdy, political-type mom as me. How amazing, my husband and I thought!

For Suzi, though, this new biological sister has been understandably unsettling. How can Suzi, after years of sibling squabbles, compare to a shiny new sister? I’ve asked people to be sensitive, but Suzi often overhears folks ask Patti, “What’s it like to find your ‘real’ sister!?” But Suzi is OK. She’s dealing nicely with it.

Rachel’s mother moved to Maryland to be closer to her only daughter at college in D.C., so this year we hoped to take a vacation, meet Rachel and her mother and see my sister in Virginia. It was a chance to hang out with family new and old, biological and not. But the summer of 2019 was not what we expected. Suzi was diagnosed with a frightening illness that we are still treating. She could not travel. We could not leave her. And suddenly the only way Patti could go to meet Rachel would be to go alone.

And so she did.

Patti flew to and from Washington, D.C. alone, stayed with my sister, and drove herself through D.C. traffic every day for a week to hang out with her new sister. Patti reports the experience was weird and wonderful. And it made her incredibly happy.

And while I know that’s true, the meeting has brought some sadness to Patti. I believe the biggest fight of Patti’s life has been to convince herself that her abandonment, the loss of her biological family, and growing up thousands of miles from the land of her birth meant absolutely nothing to her. I think it was never true. And it certainly isn’t true to her now. Patti likes and loves Rachel, the sister she met at 18. But Rachel is also exigent proof that she has lost a great deal.

Some day in the future, our whole family will meet Rachel and her mom. I’m really looking forward to it. But I think it may have been better that Patti met Rachel the way she did. They hung out in and around the city, just the two of them, without us around to dilute the experience.

I’m sure she learned far more about Rachel than she has told me. But that’s fine. They are sisters who by human politics, economics, laws and decisions made were never meant to find each other. But they did.

Rachel and Patti’s relationship is precious, and belongs just to them.


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