Each of us has a few days, in the long view of our lives, that transcend and shape us. The glowing smile of our better half, standing across from us on our wedding day. The birth of a child ushering us into parenthood. There are also the days that rattle us to the core. The haunting, soul-shaking moments of 9/11 come to mind, as we watched not one, but two iconic towers come tumbling and burning to the ground.
I remember where I was on that day. I’m sure you remember where you were too. The images are locked there, in crystal clarity, in a mind that probably can’t recall what it was fed yesterday. It’s in the nature of our brains to remember the things that don’t fit our routines. The irregular. The shocking.
These events cause stress or excitement in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, where memories are encoded. Perhaps that’s why you can remember the call where you learned that grandma had passed away, but you can’t remember what you had for breakfast.
What shocks you shapes you.
September 20, 2017 is such a day for me, now etched into my soul like the name ‘Berry’ is tattooed to the inside of my left bicep. And here’s where the story picks up.
It’s a Wednesday night. In Miami, a typical sticky evening. I have just finished a sweat-filled boxing session at my boxing gym in Wynwood, quite literally punching through tests of skill – and stress.
Tonight, the stress is palpable. Nearly six months ago, I’d done what 15 million other people have done before me – spit into a plastic vial, capped it, and mailed it into Ancestry.com to learn more about my origins. My results didn’t make sense when they’d first arrived six weeks later. They’ve made even less sense in recent days. I’ve become a research hound in the underbelly of the consumer DNA testing world. I’ve asked my parents for insight.
Yet no one around me or on the Internet can explain how I’ve wound up more than 50 percent Jewish – without any known relatives having Jewish heritage. Ancestry.com also revealed an unknown relative who is close enough to be an aunt, a first cousin or a half-sibling. No explanation for that either. But yesterday, things became more clouded in mystery. This once-unknown relative (her name is Morgan) and I had hoped to shine light on a situation that had become muddy for both of us – given our DNA commonalities, she believed me to be the link to uncover the identity of her biological father.
On Monday, we’d come across a website called GEDMatch.com. We’d learned that if we both uploaded our raw data from Ancestry.com, this site would process it and let us know if we shared maternal or paternal DNA – a common link being from our mother or father’s side of the blood line.
On Tuesday, after 20-plus hours of processing, the answer to that was still unclear. But what was clear was the discovery of another stranger who shared as much DNA with us as we did with one another other. A guy named Tom*. Some quick Facebook stalking revealed something that hit me like a practical joke – all three of us were born in Rochester, NY. All within 11 months of each other.
Which brings me back to tonight. September 20, 2017.
I’m walking out of the boxing gym. The satisfaction of having done well, in combination with the gravely sounds beneath my sneakers feels like a scene out of a boxing movie. It’s quiet. The dim lights of the lampposts illuminate the street, with just a single building among its four corners. The hum of machinery winding down at a concrete factory is typical even for this hour, but there’s not a sound tonight. It’s not a Rocky 2 training montage, but something simpler, where the fighter learns that maybe there’s something more to his story — more to what he’s made of — after all. But then, my phone buzzes, and the moment is gone. I’m not a fighter anymore. More than likely, I’m just a guy who got an email from one of the hundreds of subscription lists I’ve ended up on.
I slide my damp fingers into my pocket to retrieve the phone. Normally it’s a reflex, but at least the buzzing gives me a prompting that justifies the habit, if just for a moment.
The screen lights up, and I can see who’s reached out. The clock on the phone shows 7:03 p.m., and it’s my dad. I click the green message box icon on the screen to see his message. “Call me when ur home.”
Immediately, silent alarms clang through my mind. I think to myself, “Or you could just call me rather than send a message. That’s how these devices work.” But my father is a simple guy. He’s a man of few words, and subsequently, also a man void of nuance.
I pick the phone up to try him myself.
“Hey,” he says flatly. This is not a tell one way or another. My dad’s phone voice never gives an indication as to whether he’s in a good mood or not.
“Hey, saw your text,” I reply. “Everything okay?” But I suspect everything is not okay, based on all of the discoveries from the past few days – discoveries I’ve shared with him and my mother.
“Yeah,” he says, but too quickly. “Uhhh, are you home?”
I let out a nervous laugh. “No, your text said that too; what difference does it make?”
But he’s adamant. Adamant that I wait until I’m home, in a way that’s not like him. He’s telling me “I don’t want you to be in public or behind the wheel of a car when I tell you this…but everything is okay.”
There’s a pang in my chest, and for a second, I feel my body chill, even in 90 degree temps. I’m at the driver’s side door of my car, quickly sliding inside and firing up the ignition.
“Dad, what? I have Bluetooth. I can put both hands on the wheel. What’s going on?”
He sighs, a hint of dread.
If you’ve ever wondered how you’d feel to discover your father isn’t your (biological) father, here’s where the story starts.
Next up: Click here for my next post, which is written from the experience of the night I learned that my father is not my biological father. It’s called ‘September 20, 2017.’