Friday, May 9, 2008

The incredible hunch that told me I'd met my sperm donor father


4th May 2008

The Sunday Mail

My hands were shaking so much that I could barely hold the letter containing the results of my DNA test.  I knew this could be the moment when two years of increasingly desperate searching for my father came to an end.

I'd braced myself for yet more bad news, so when I read the words "99.9 per cent probability" in among the medical jargon, I could hardly believe my eyes.

"Does this mean Peter Browne is actually my father?" I stuttered, my throat tightening with emotion, to the social worker who was sitting with me. When she nodded, I started crying uncontrollably.

I rushed home, still feeling like an emotional wreck, but utterly euphoric and determined to phone all my friends to tell them that at last I knew who I was, and where I came from.

Finally, I felt the missing part of my personal jigsaw had fallen into place. At last I felt like a complete person, able to face the future with confidence instead of uncertainty and anxiety.

As a child, I always believed a man called Darrell was my real dad. His name was on my birth certificate, just as it was on my older brother Adam's and my sister Kristy's.

Darrell was there when Adam was diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was just four. Adam died just before his sixth birthday, when I was three months old, so I don't remember him.

I know Darrell found the loss very hard, but in the early years at least he still managed to fulfill his role as a father to me and Kristy, who's three years my senior.

But Darrell and my mum had problems in their relationship and split up when I was four. When he took me into the kitchen and told me he wasn't going to live with us any more, but that we'd still see each other at weekends, I accepted it, as children do.  In fact, he virtually disappeared from my life and I was pretty much raised by my mother.

But as the years passed, I began to wonder why it was that my mum and sister were so similar in looks and personality, whereas I looked more like Darrell, with his olive skin.  Mum and Kristy enjoyed being indoors, reading or doing crafty things, while I loved sport and being outdoors.

Increasingly, I became aware of feeling like the odd one out in the family. I was never treated that way - but inside I felt there was something missing, though I couldn't put my finger on it.

As we grew up, Darrell contacted us only every few years. I often thought of him, though, and wondered why he'd chosen to walk away from me.

The older I got, the more I felt I had to ask him why he did not want to spend more time with me.

At 16, I knew the time had come to see him again and ask him all the questions that troubled me.  Why didn't he want to keep in touch? Had the death of my brother made him scared of bonding again? If I wasn't like my mum and sister, did I have more in common with him?

I searched the electoral roll and found the address he was registered at, but when I got there he'd moved.  I managed to find another address for him through a family friend, and wrote him a letter asking why he wouldn't see me.

He replied by writing: "I am the father of no child."

The message couldn't have been more blunt but I just didn't take it in. I had no other reason to doubt he was my natural father, and thought he was just being unpleasant and trying to drive me away.

My mother Carolyn is a thoroughly honest woman and had taught my sister and me to be truthful people, so I never for a second suspected she might have been hiding something about my parentage.

I was so hurt and angry by Darrell's words that I backed off for a couple of years, but deep down I refused to give up. Eventually I wrote to him again and insisted we should meet up.

By then I was 19 and sharing a flat with a friend. Very reluctantly, Darrell came round to visit, and because I was on the phone when he arrived, he chatted to my friend for a while.

When I rang off, he and I talked for a while but he didn't really offer me any explanation for the way he'd behaved, and was non-committal about the future.

I found him infuriating, but try as I might to ask him all the questions I'd had in my mind, I didn't feel I'd got anywhere.  The atmosphere was tense the whole time, and after he left my flatmate went very quiet.

Eventually, though, she told me what was wrong. She admitted that while I'd been on the phone, Darrell had told her that he wasn't my real Dad.  My immediate reaction was: "Oh yea, that's typical of him - he just wants to disown me," and that night I phoned my mum to tell her his latest lie.

Just as I was saying "What an idiot he is", the phone line went silent and then my mum started crying. Mum continued sobbing as she explained that Darrell was right - he was infertile, and that as a result they had decided to use three separate donors to have all three children.

She explained that 20 years ago, parents were sworn to secrecy, and the hospital advised them never to tell their children they were conceived with the help of a sperm donor.

I was totally stunned, and flooded with feelings of anger, betrayal, hurt and disappointment. Mum had never lied to me in my life, and I couldn't comprehend the enormity of what she had confessed.

Everything I had believed in was taken away in an instant. It was completely bewildering.

I had flashbacks to when I was little and family friends said: "Don't you look like your Daddy."

Now, I could see that my childhood was a lie, and there was a gaping hole in my identity - not to mention the fact that 50 per cent of my medical history was missing.

The only reason I looked like the man I'd thought was my father was because the hospital made an effort to match his physical traits with those of the sperm donor.

In the days following that first anguished confession on the phone, my mum told me that every time she wanted to tell me the truth, she just couldn't bring herself to do it.

When, after a few weeks, my shock slowly subsided, I started to see the glimmering of a silver lining.  Perhaps I had a father out there who would want to know me, who could fill in the missing pieces of my life, and with whom I could have a meaningful relationship?

Determined to find out everything I could about my birth, with heart pounding I phoned the clinic my mother told me she had used 20 years earlier and explained who I was.  They told me the donation had been anonymous, and all records dating back before 1985 had been destroyed to protect donor identity, as was the law back then.  I was devastated at this news, and feared I'd never know who I was.

Kristy comforted me and suggested I contact a group she had found on the internet - the Donor Conception Support Group - for advice.

They gave me some really helpful counselling and support, although I still couldn't come to terms with never knowing who my father was.  After some time, I was invited to one of their meetings to help lobby for a voluntary donor registry.

It wouldn't help me because a register would not be retrospective, but I didn't want anybody else to go through the same experience as me.

The first person I saw at the meeting was a sperm donor called Peter Browne, who was hoping to trace his offspring - one son and one daughter. I had a strong, instant reaction to him.  Something told me I had to speak to him, and I had a bizarre feeling we had a connection. When I introduced myself, I noticed I looked like him, but I told myself I was just being silly and clutching at straws.

Discovering that he had donated sperm in 1980-1981 made my heart beat faster - I was born in 1982 - but I told myself to put him out of my head. After all, the odds of him being my dad were literally millions to one.

Weeks later, I still couldn't put him out of my mind and asked the support group to ask Peter if he would agree to a DNA test. Looking back it seems absurd, but a sixth sense urged me to do it.

To my relief, Peter, an accountant, readily agreed - I think he had sensed a connection, too - and while we waited for the results he appeared on a television discussion about donors.

The presenter asked him: "What would it mean to you if you were to find your donor offspring?" Peter replied: "It would validate my whole existence."  That comment really floored me, and I hoped against hope he was my real dad.

When, six weeks later, the social worker invited me to the hospital where I was conceived to give me the DNA results, I reminded myself they hadn't matched a single parent and child in the past 20 years of testing.

But that was about to change. Reading those magical words "99.9 per cent probability" changed my life in an instant.  Peter - the stranger I'd bumped into by chance - was my natural father. It seemed incredible, but there was no way in the world our DNA would match so precisely if I weren't his child.

The social worker gave me Peter's phone number, but it took me several days to pluck up the courage to ring him. Despite hearing what Peter had said on TV, I think part of me feared rejection again.

When I finally phoned him, I said something like: "This is a bit weird, but I think you're my father" - to which he replied: "I know, I've been waiting for your call."  I guess he'd come to that conclusion himself, having learned about my date of birth and met me for himself, but he hadn't wanted to pre-empt the test results.

It was such a relief to hear him say that, and we chatted for two hours. I had a million questions to ask him.  I discovered he'd had a long-term relationship that broke down in his 30s and had never had the opportunity to have children, so being a donor was his way of making a difference to someone's life.  He'd lost both his parents and was keen to become part of another family, which was wonderful news.

To my delight, I discovered we had loads of shared interests. We both love tennis and volleyball, we both play the piano by ear, and he had been in the air force, something I had considered doing before I went into the travel industry.

More and more of my identity started making sense, and by the end of the call we had agreed to meet up a week later.

Peter came to meet me at my home, and though I was really nervous and shy, he is such a warm, friendly person that he made it easy for me.

When we met he immediately hugged me, and then we walked on the beach and had a coffee.

In one way, it was like chatting to a stranger I'd just bumped into, and in another it was like I was in a dream. I had to keep reminding myself the person before me was actually my father.

Physically we look very alike, which helped, and I kept sneaking sideways glances and comparing our noses and the way we smiled.

From that day on, I felt happier than I ever had before. Not only did I know who I was, but I got on with my father really well.

He stayed in the area for a week and we had dinner together a few times, then kept in contact by phone after that.  Slowly but surely he started adopting the fatherly role, making sure I had car insurance and had paid my bills, which was lovely.

It's now five years since we first met and we're very close. Knowing who I really was gave me the confidence to spread my wings without worrying about my identity all the time.  I was finally free to be myself and follow my dreams. I'm a stronger and more liberated person than I was before, and have so much more confidence to go out and grab life with both hands.

In the beginning, Peter was reluctant to meet my mum, but in time he has got to know the entire family.

I don't blame my mum at all for what has happened, and my initial anger at her was short-lived. She did what she thought was right and had my best interests at heart. We're very close.

She remarried last December, and Peter came to the wedding. It was one of the proudest moments of my life posing for a photograph with the two of them.

Now, I have a new ambition. Peter's donation led to one other pregnancy, and we would both like to trace my half-brother.  The hospital has his name but won't release it to us because of privacy, but we'll keep fighting the red tape.

I believe all donor offspring should have the right to know who their father is.  It shouldn't be left to chance the way my life was. I'm just grateful for the day I bumped into a stranger named Peter.

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