DNA-test­ing kits con­tain les­son on dif­fer­ence be­tween ge­net­ics and what it means to love

The Arizona Republic - - Opinions - Ran­dall Howe Guest colum­nist

The pop­u­lar DNA test­ing ser­vices have big ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns this Christ­mas sea­son to en­tice peo­ple to give DNA kits as gifts so that peo­ple can find out about their fam­ily his­tory and eth­nic her­itage.

I signed up on one of those ser­vices and took a DNA test more than a year ago, and I learned a lot about my fam­ily his­tory and her­itage. But my ex­pe­ri­ence taught me more lessons than I bar­gained for, lessons im­por­tant for the Christ­mas sea­son.

I was adopted in Ore­gon as a new­born, and my adop­tive par­ents knew very lit­tle about my birth mother and noth­ing about my birth fa­ther. I only learned my birth mother’s name by hap­pen­stance 45 years later when I ap­plied for a pass­port and ob­tained my pread­op­tion birth cer­tifi­cate, which listed my birth mother’s name and ad­dress. The cer­tifi­cate did not list a fa­ther.

When I re­ceived an an­ces­ DNA kit as a birth­day gift nearly two years ago and took the test, how­ever, I was able to find my birth mother’s fam­ily and, with fur­ther sleuthing with in­for­ma­tion on the web­site and talk­ing with my new­found rel­a­tives, I was able to iden­tify my birth fa­ther.

I learned that I was 44 per­cent Nor­we­gian and Swedish, 38 per­cent English, and 15 per­cent Ir­ish. I learned that my ma­ter­nal great­grand­fa­ther, whose for­bear­ers came from Nor­way, em­i­grated to the United States from north­ern Europe in 1881 and wound up in Ore­gon.

My pa­ter­nal great-grand­fa­ther em­i­grated from Nor­way to Ore­gon in 1900 to be a fish­er­man. My ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther built and sold homes with his brother in Eu­gene, Ore., and my pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther ran car deal­er­ships in Ne­vada and north­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

My mother, the daugh­ter of the home­builder, met my fa­ther, the son of the au­to­mo­bile busi­ness­man, while they were stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Ore­gon. They dated, my mother be­came preg­nant with me, and I was born and given up for adop­tion in 1963.

My birth mother had no other chil­dren and had a ca­reer in teach­ing. My birth fa­ther has been mar­ried sev­eral times with sev­eral chil­dren and is a pro­fes­sor at a ma­jor univer­sity.

I learned, too, that fam­ily se­crets are kept close and not read­ily dis­closed. I was a sur­prise to my birth par­ents’ fam­i­lies when I popped up on the an­ces­ web­site as a rel­a­tive. Ap­par­ently, the only other per­son my birth mother told about her preg­nancy was her mother, and whether my birth fa­ther knew is uncer­tain be­cause he re­fuses to dis­cuss the mat­ter.

The dif­fi­culty I have had iden­ti­fy­ing my birth par­ents’ iden­ti­ties and their con­tin­ued si­lence about the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing my birth and adop­tion has ex­plic­itly taught me some­thing that I only knew im­plic­itly from be­ing raised by lov­ing, committed adop­tive par­ents: For all the wealth of in­for­ma­tion about ge­netic and fam­ily his­tory you can get from DNA test­ing, in the end, it is not the hap­pen­stance of blood re­la­tion­ships that mat­ter, but the vol­un­tary de­ci­sions to love and raise and be a fam­ily that re­ally mat­ters. Let me ex­plain.

Of course, I get my looks and what­ever na­tive in­tel­li­gence I have from my birth par­ents. But they did not raise me, they did not see that I got the med­i­cal care that I needed grow­ing up, they did not see that I was ed­u­cated.

Those re­spon­si­bil­i­ties fell to Dave and Marie Howe, who vol­un­tar­ily shoul­dered them by adopt­ing me. They were not well-ed­u­cated or well-con­nected, but they saw to it that I and my older brother, also adopted, were made an in­dis­sol­u­ble part of a lov­ing and committed fam­ily.

They saw to it that I, a child with cere­bral palsy, got the best med­i­cal care avail­able so that I could have as healthy and happy and suc­cess­ful life as any­one. They saw to it that I re­ceived an ed­u­ca­tion in the pub­lic schools, and they did it at time – the 1960s – when chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties were not yet main­streamed in pub­lic school.

With­out their love, hard work and per­sonal sac­ri­fice, I would not have had a 30-year ca­reer as an at­tor­ney and a judge. Al­though my birth par­ents gave me my ex­is­tence, for which I am eter­nally grate­ful, my adop­tive par­ents – my

real par­ents! – gave me my life.

So if you are lucky enough to get a DNA test­ing kit for Christ­mas, take ad­van­tage of it to learn all about your eth­nic her­itage and fam­ily his­tory.

But when you sit around the Christ­mas tree or the Christ­mas din­ner ta­ble with your fam­ily and friends, re­mem­ber that what mat­ters is not what blood flows through your veins, but how much love and car­ing and sac­ri­fice flows be­tween each of you. At least that’s what I learned.

Ran­dall Howe, age 5 or 6, smiles with his brother David Mark (stand­ing); his fa­ther, David; his grand­mother “Granny Tom­mie;” and his mother, Marie (seated).

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