It’s been over a month since I shared with you that I am on a journey—a journey to recover the lost pieces of myself; to find a solid footing in the roots of my ancestors; to take back the story that was stolen from me by an absent father and a buried heritage.
It’s been three weeks since I dropped my DNA collection kit in the mail, sending it off to a lab to be analyzed and interpreted. Three weeks I’ve impatiently waited, uncovered old photographs–and tried to figure out where the knot of emotions in the pit of my stomach came from.
The more I think about it, I’ve decided it’s fear. When you’ve lived so long in the not-knowing, there’s a fear that rises up when you think about finally getting the answers you’ve been waiting for. Up until now, my identity has been scripted, a rehearsed speech I give to people when they ask what my background is, where I came from. “My mother was born in Scotland, and my father was Italian, so I’m pretty much half and half.” …Except I’ve recently learned that may not exactly be true.
A while back, I started asking my mother questions about my birth dad. I knew his name, what he looked like, but I wanted more, wanted answers she couldn’t give me. At first, I thought maybe she was holding out on me, trying to protect me, maybe, as mothers do for their children. The more I pushed, the vaguer she got. And then one day, admitted it.
She doesn’t remember.
She doesn’t remember details about the man she made me with nearly 35 years ago. She doesn’t remember the early years of my childhood, before he left, when he’d sit cross-legged on the floor and look down at me. She doesn’t remember, because my mother is a recovering addict, and years of heavy drug use have stolen her memories away. Stolen parts of her story, as well as mine. There are things I may never know about the man I could have called a father and that, to be quite honest, is a terribly bitter pill to swallow.
One piece of information my mother does remember, however, is that he was adopted. This is a fact I literally had never known. This means that my Italian grandparents, who I thought had given birth to what I thought was my full-blooded Italian father, actually never passed on any of their DNA at all to him after all. He could have come from anywhere. Which means that things I thought I knew about myself, things I’ve believed about my very identity for more than three whole decades, could, in an instant, be revealed to be a lie. When I get my DNA results, I could find out…well, anything. And that terrifies me.
Mostly, I’m afraid of the possibility of letting go of things I’ve held onto my entire life. I grieve when I realize there’s a chance I’ll need to rebuild parts of myself that help define me. And grief, as I’ve said before, is a complicated beast sometimes. It’s both necessary and dangerous. Recently, I heard someone say that it’s impossible for us to have hope if we haven’t first grieved well, and that sentiment has stayed with me, ringing true in the deep chambers of my heart. Grief is part of the story, but it’s only a chapter. We enter dangerous territory when we read the same chapter over and over again without ever turning the page.
I started this journey because I desperately wanted to know more about where I come from, and despite the fear and the almost-mourning, that is still true. But what I’ve learned as I walked this process is that we must always remember our past, much like our grief, is only a chapter in the story. It’s only a fraction of a piece of the intricate, mysterious, beautiful, complex creatures we human beings are. My ancestry report will be able to tell me where I come from, but it can’t tell me where I’m going. It can tell me things about my biological makeup, but it can’t tell me about the biology of my heart, my passions, my dreams and hopes. It doesn’t tell me who I am as a believer, as a wife, as a mother, as a writer, a creative. It won’t answer questions like “When is the right time for me to go back to work?” or “Do you think we should have more children?” The researchers who read my DNA report will learn about my lineage, but they won’t be able to learn about how my eyes change color with my moods, or how songs sometimes make me weep because they touch something deep inside me that aches, or how my cheeks get tight when I laugh because I do so with my whole being. They won’t know about the thousands of kisses I’ve placed on my son’s forehead, or what living in Liberia taught me about God, or about how my greatest fear is being misunderstood and never fully known.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Who you were doesn’t have to be who you are.
Did you hear that? Who you were doesn’t have to be who you are.
There are always going to be people who try to define you by your mistakes and poor choices, by words you wish you’d left unsaid, by old relationships and mindsets you have long outgrown. You may feel marked, like no one will see past all the surface stuff to find the real you.
I get it. And I see you.
And I still urge you to take back your story. Reclaim it as yours, not belonging to those who hurt or disappoint you. Tell it, and live it, and do it with courage, and without apology. You never need to say sorry for being who you are. And if there are parts that are painful, or you’d rather not remember, it’s ok to put them aside for now until you’re good and ready. Just don’t leave them too long, for ghosts of the past often have ways of coming back to haunt us until we’ve put them to rest. And if there’s fear, or there’s grief, it’s good to acknowledge it; just don’t forget to turn the page. And remember: who you were is not who you are, even if it feels that way sometimes. I promise.