Before my mom disappeared from the streets of Sacramento in 1995, I used to pester her about who my father might be.
“I don’t know,” she usually replied. She wasn’t lying. She’d met the man who fathered me on a balmy summer night in 1979 and, after one night of nameless passion, conceived me.
Part of my wondering came from the fact that I felt so different from my mother. She was a drug addict who dropped out of school, and had been in and out of trouble with the law. I was an overachiever, someone who scored at the top of her class, and was terrified of getting in trouble.
I wanted to believe that I was more like my dad than my mom. The truth is, I didn’t want to be anything like her. As a baby, my mom abandoned me in an apartment. No one knows how long I was left alone, if it was hours or days before I was found. By the time I was 2, I’d lived with three different caretakers, eventually staying permanently with my mom’s brother and his abusive partner, only visiting my mother on occasional weekends.
By the time I was 15, I was angry at my mom. I'd grown up in a toxic home and placed the blame squarely on her shoulders. One afternoon, my mom called to ask her brother for money, something she did often, but I was the one who answered. In our brief conversation, I unloaded a lifetime of pain on her, questioning why she didn't abort me, accusing her of never wanting or loving me.
“Not everything you’ve been told about me is true,” she said. Her voice was unusually calm and clear.
“I do love you. I did want you. When you were a baby and they took you away, I came to find you. I went to the door and they wouldn’t let me see you,” she said.
“Liar,” I yelled before hanging up.
It was the last time I ever spoke her. Six months later, while living in a motel and working as a prostitute in Sacramento, my mother vanished. Police believe she was murdered, her body hidden.
I wanted to believe that I was more like my dad than my mom. The truth is, I didn’t want to be anything like her.
Without my mother around to blame for my dysfunctional, abusive living situation, I resorted to finding a way to escape. I dropped out of high school and had my first child at 17, giving birth to my second at 19. Desperate to erase my past, I spoke very little about my mother and thought even less about who my dad might be. With my children’s father by my side, we created a family that resembled something healthy and normal.
But my mom was never far from my mind. Whether it was the hurt of her disappearance, the anger of my childhood or the pain of believing that I was unwanted, she was there, carrying the bullseye of my pain.
She came to me a few times in dreams: once telling me she missed me; another time telling me she’d be near when I had my second child (in a bizarre twist, my son ended up being born on the four-year anniversary of my mom’s disappearance). A psychic once told me that my mom loved to watch me in the kitchen, cooking for my children—a passion I’d developed later in life. The supernatural experiences allowed me to believe that even in spirit, my mom was near and that perhaps, we shared a connection, no matter how invisible. Although I can’t say I forgave my mom, I began to feel as if she understood, in death, how she failed me in life.
Believing I’d finally come to peace with my past, in 2013 I took a DNA test to learn more about my identity. Along with wanting to know my ancestry, part of me toyed with the idea that I might find my father.
While I did find out my ethnic heritage, I was never matched to any relatives that could reveal my father’s identity.
In late 2017, I decided to take another DNA test, this time from a company that also provided genetic health information, helping me fill in the missing pieces of my medical history.
In the early morning hours of New Year's Eve 2018, with my results finally available, I clicked through my health reports, later noticing a link for DNA relatives. Once populated, the first person connected to me was a woman named Colleen who was matched as my grandmother. It took me a few moments to come to terms with what I was looking at—my father’s mother. I was looking at the first clue to one of the biggest mysteries of my life: who my dad was.
I emailed her immediately, unsure of how she’d react to the news or if she’d turn me away. Thankfully, 15 minutes later, I got my answer. Colleen welcomed me instantly and explained that she was the mother of six boys, making it difficult to know who might be my father.
After a dozen email exchanges that morning, we narrowed it down to three of her sons, with one, her second child, a man now in his 60s who’d never had children, coming in as the top contender. His name was Joseph, a prior service member who put himself through law school, rising through the ranks in his career to become a judge.
Joseph didn’t remember my mother, but lived in the area where I was born around the time I was conceived and, admittedly, had been a bit of a ladies’ man in his youth.
After five weeks of nonstop emails between Colleen, myself and Joseph and one more DNA test (his), we learned the truth: He was my father.
My children, husband and I agreed to meet my dad's family on my grandmother’s birthday in May, at her home, not 15 minutes from where I was born.
Wrecked with nerves for weeks before our big reunion, on the drive to my new grandma’s house, a strange sense of calm came over me.
As we turned onto the last of two streets before we reached my grandmother's house, “Sweet Child o' Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, my mom's favorite song, blasted on the radio. My throat tightened. I asked my husband to pull over so I could collect myself. As tears welled in my eyes, I looked out the window and saw a butterfly pass by.
I felt my mother and knew, without a doubt, it was her who’d led me to this moment.
The reunion was all I’d hoped, filled with more new faces than I could count and so many hugs that my arms were sore by the end of the day. Deciding to stay in town for a week to get to know everyone, I also made a point to reach out to an old family friend who’d known me my entire life.
It’d been years since I’d seen Cindy. Seeing her was comforting amid all the newness of my discoveries.
We talked in great detail about the past, with Cindy confirming many of the memories I’d had as a child while sharing things I’d never heard before.
“I remember when you were first taken away. You were in bad shape,” Cindy said. She talked about the disgusting conditions of the room I was kept in, how my mom’s neglect was hard to witness.
“I don’t know why she had me,” I said, shaking my head.
“You know, believe it or not, she loved you,” she said. “It wasn’t her, it was the drugs that made her do those things.” Then, Cindy dropped a bomb.
“After you got taken away, I remember her coming to me and begging me to tell her where you were. She wanted to find you. I just didn’t know where you were, so I couldn’t help her.”
“So she tried to get me back?” I asked.
“Yes, she did.”
Sitting at the diner, in front of a crowded restaurant, I broke down in tears. My mom hadn't been lying.
Again, that sense of calm flooded me. It was as if my mom were there, wrapping her arms around me.
A day later, I said goodbye to my dad, my beautiful new grandma and all my wonderful new relatives who welcomed me, my husband and our children into their lives as if we’d always belonged. Heart filled, I headed home to embark on the next stage of my life, not only knowing my father and his family, but also, the truth about my mother.
This Father’s Day will be the first in my life when I actually have a dad, a man I'm still getting to know. Along with sending him what I hope will be one of many annual gifts, I’ll also be thinking of my mom, who, in death, helped pull a few strings so I could have a second chance at being loved.