The current pace of individuals having their DNA analyzed through consumer tests suggests that these companies could hold genetic data on more than 100 million people within the next 24 months. While the marketing of these mail-in kits encourage people to find out more about their ancestors, some are discovering outcomes that couldn't have been predicted. That is the situation a local woman found herself in when a DNA test unearthed completely unexpected information, and a man was soon to discover he had fathered a child he knew nothing about.
Barb Friesen, formerly of Conquest and now living in Saskatoon, is a Christian counsellor, speaker and teacher. At 10 days of age she became the youngest of four adopted children in a family in British Columbia; a family she was blessed to have. "I never had any issues with being adopted," Barb remarked. "We were told we were chosen children, that we waited for you. It was all awesome."
She had no information about her birth parents, nor did she feel a need to search for any since she describes her adoption story as extraordinarily special. "I am so thankful for the decisions that were made and for the family I have. I never looked for anyone because my cup is full and I'm blessed beyond belief. I never had a need to seek out any information at all." Although she didn't go actively looking, some pretty amazing information was discovered when she submitted a DNA test about a year ago.
As a Christmas gift, her husband Perry gave her a 23andMe kit since they often joked about ethnicity in Barb's background that could provide clues to their son Ryder's wild hair! So in a quest to find out information about nationality, she sent in the kit in January 2019. About five weeks later she received an email that stunned her and opened the door to a relationship with a biological father who had a daughter he didn't know existed.
When she opened the email from 23andMe she found a picture of a man and a name, accompanied by the statement: He has 50% of your DNA. We predict he is your father. The information was so unexpected it was hard to know how to react initially. Barb said, "It was just like boom! Here it is."
Paul, the man she was genetically linked to, was also adopted as a child and in his search for biological relatives was in the 23andMe data bank. So even though this was not at all what Barb was expecting, she suddenly had a name and a way of contacting her birth father.
As the reality set in, Barb started a social media search. "I creeped him on Facebook," she said with a laugh. Seeing some of his pictures and posts gave her a good feeling and she decided to reach out and make contact.
Paul, who lives in Edmonton, happened to be on a train with his wife in Montreal, when he received an email in which Barb shared what she had learned as a result of a DNA test. She assured him there was absolutely no expectation or pressure, she just wanted him to know she'd had a great life. "I tried to be light and humorous," she said, "and I wanted him to know I understood that he may not even know about me. But if this is in fact correct, I wanted him to know I have had an amazing life."
The information was stunning to Paul, but after a phone call to an old friend it was clear that this timeline made sense. Just 24 hours later he contacted Barb, saying he was drawn to the warmth in her email, and stating he was open to communicating with her. They started emailing back and forth, got on the WhatsApp right away and found communication was easy and natural for them both. A short time later they had their first phone conversation—one that lasted more than two hours—and a couple of weeks after that were preparing for a face to face meeting.
On March 17, 2019, Paul drove to Outlook from Edmonton to meet up with Barb after church. Barb had told her pastor what was going on and he invited her to share the story with the congregation that morning. "He was so excited for me because there'd been such an amazing connection already," she said. So she told her story and as people laughed and cried along she mentioned, "He might even show up here this morning." He did.
Barb will never forget that first meeting. "So we finished singing and we were getting mics put away and Pastor Gord was keeping his eyes open. When a man arrived he said, 'I think I know who you're looking for.' So he starts walking down the aisle and I look up and it's surreal. It's just so surreal. I'm an emotional person but you just can't prepare for this. It was like we loved each other already."
A quick thinking member of the congregation jumped up on a pew and recorded it, something Barb is so grateful for. "I can't believe he got it. He filmed our first meeting! It's so cool."
Barb's husband and adult son, as well as Paul's wife and adult children, have all been supportive of what has taken place. They have met, they take part in group chats, and feel so blessed that their lives now include even more siblings, uncles and grandparents. But the process of getting everyone together brought a poignancy that, again, no one could have predicted.
Plans were made for everyone to meet at the beginning of June, but Barb's father had a massive stroke so she flew out to B.C. to be at his bedside. He passed away May 28 and the biological family get together was postponed. They rescheduled for August but Barb got a sense that something was not well with her mom, who had been experiencing health challenges. She headed back to B.C. and five days later her mom passed away, just 11 weeks after the loss of her father. When Barb let Paul know what was happening she remarked, "Well, it appears the Lord saw fit that I end one chapter before I begin another."
They were able to get together this past fall in a weekend described as a homecoming as Barb met her brothers and their spouses. "It was all hugs and welcoming. Not one drop of discomfort." A month later they attended a brother's wedding where they were listed and spoken of as family and it was clear all the cousins and friends knew who she was. "I know this is all so crazy," she said, "but it's worked out so well. Not everybody gets this story."
Indeed, her story is unique considering the support groups that are multiplying as more and more people grapple with unanticipated, even painful, information that is uncovered. Ancestry, one of the largest DNA testing companies even includes the statement: You may discover unexpected facts about yourself or your family when using our services. Once discoveries are made, we can't undo them.
Barb cautions people to consider the ramifications of this kind of testing. In her professional life she has worked with people who know the pain of rejection when things don't turn out as hoped. "Be aware that anything can happen," she said. "Not for one second did I think this would happen. I remember laughing and saying maybe some distant relative will pop up but I did not think that a parent could pop up on the screen. So you better think of everything. You want to be cautious."
It has been a year since this all began and Barb is amazed at the connections that have been made and the relationships that have developed. It has also given her a chance to see herself in someone else. "Growing up, no one looked like me or acted like me," she shared. "Now I have these people who do." Her biological grandmother, Paul, Barb and Ryder (Paul's first grandchild) all share the same eye color. In fact, when Ryder saw a picture of Paul for the first time he said, "Oh my gosh, I look like him."
Beyond physical characteristics, Barb shares other similarities with Paul including the way they speak and emote, as well as the career paths they have pursued. He has a social work degree while she is a counsellor. They both love working with people and are employed in fields where they nurture and mediate difficult situations, and their expressive natures have certainly been compared. Barb's sister even told her, "First of all Barb, there's no one like you, and now there's this guy and he's even more like you!"
Genetics play a role in who we are, but our upbringing helps shape the people we become. Barb agrees, adding, "I could never predict this nature versus nurture thing would feel like this. You know there's genetics involved, but there's so much more, too. Like I told Paul, 'My parents were the perfect nurturer for your nature.' It was the perfect combination."