Nicole Vane won our member-created "DNA Test" challenge in February, 2020.
We sat down with Nicole to talk about life, projects, and words. You can read our interview on our blog: Interview With a Writer
Water and Blood
It arrived on a Thursday. Considering the information held inside, you would think the envelope they would send it in would be a little fancier. I hadn't waited for my sister Ashley to open mine since I was so sure of what the results would say. It was about 7 pages long, with various sections broken up with colored headers. It made it easier to skip around to the parts I really wanted to see. Like how apparently grandma had been wrong about the family coming from Ireland. According to my little map, we were from Eastern Europe around Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. All the years of having to get dressed up and celebrate in green, white, and orange sure made me feel silly at that moment. I skipped ahead to the section where it had family members based on your genetics. The list wasn't huge, but I noticed a glaring error. Ashley's name wasn't on the list. I didn't think anything of it at the time.
February member challenge:
“I swear I hate that class more and more,” Ashley said, putting her book bag down by the door around 5 o'clock.
“Well, at least you are getting it over with” I replied bringing over her envelope still sealed and ready for her. Her face lit up, ripping into it. She had the same stack of stapled papers I had. “I already looked at mine.”
Ashley started to dart her eyes through the paperwork. I probably had the same look, scanning the differences between family stories and what was on the page.
“Not surprising...” She said, flipping past the map page. Not surprising?!
“How is it not surprising? Grandma was wrong about where we were from.” My voice came out a little harsher than I had wanted, judging by how Ashley's head jerked up to look at me.
“What are you talking about, Cass?” I could see that it was confusion on her face this time, not upset at my voice.
“The green map section. It was so different from what we were told. Eastern Europe is a little farther away from here than Ireland. I mean, the same big migration happened, but... what?” I paused. Ashley was looking at me like I had gained two heads.
“Cassie. My section says Ireland and England.”
My whole world came crashing down around me like trees trapped in a raging hurricane. The truth was there in nearly a dozen color-coded pages. We were not sisters by blood. I think it took a couple hours for the initial shock to wear off. I had never imagined in a million years doing this stupid test would give us anything but hilarious results. Now it stood to rip my family apart. Did Dad know? Had I been adopted? What was the truth? My fingers hovered over the house number on my phone, but I didn't have the guts to hit call. What would I say? The test was supposed to be a surprise. Now it was going to be awkward.
I managed to avoid both my parents for the rest of the week. They had to know something was up. Mom always said I avoided talking to her when something heavy was on my mind. To her credit, Ashley hadn't revealed we had taken DNA tests, so it was still our terrible secret. Secrets had a way of eating me alive. I was a terrible liar, and the heartburn from keeping the words close to my chest was too much. Monday, after class, I pulled into the driveway determined to end my suffering. Mom was in the kitchen. Was it right to still think of her as 'mom'? What else would I call the woman who raised me.
“Oh, good! I was hoping you'd stop by.” Mom turned to kiss my cheek just as warmly as she always had. “I know you are under a lot of stress with class and where to go after this, so I made your favorite.” She stopped stirring the pot of soup and turned toward me. “what's going on in that head kiddo?” Burning pain seared my chest and throat as I tried to hold back the words. Hold back...
“I know I'm not your daughter.” They spilled out into the air before I could stop them. The weight in my chest lifted instantly. Regret flooded the space it had vacated. Mom looked stunned and hurt. She turned away from me, resting her hands on the counter. Wow, I had never realized there were so many spots on the ceiling before.
“How did you—” A piece of my soul broke with her voice. I should have burned the paper. I should have pretended my results had been identical to Ashley's. I never meant to hurt anyone.
“Ash and I took those home DNA tests. Our results didn't match.” I said, throat still feeling raw from the acidic words I had been holding. There was no relief from the truth like I had thought. Waiting for her to say something felt like it was taking years off my life. Why wasn't she reassuring me the results were wrong. A mix-up. The longer she stood there, the more I realized I had been right. After a lifetime, she pushed away from the counter.
“It's true. I'm sorry. We were going to tell you when you turned 25.” 25? That seemed like a random age.
“Why then? That is three years from now.”
“I know. We agreed at 25 when you were given to us.” Given...
“So, I'm adopted.”
“In a way,” She said, arms crossing in front of her body. My psychology professor would have said she was protecting her heart by the action. I would believe it from the tension thick as a knife. Time to cut it.
“This really isn't the time to be cryptic and aloof. You spent the last twenty-one years lying to me about who I am.” Heat was beginning to flood to my head. “I deserve the truth. Who am I? Where are my parents?” It was less request and more demand for answers. The flood gate was opened. There was no return.
“It's not that simple, Cassandra.”
“Why?” I said. I knew the truth! Why keep it from me for another three years.
“Because it's not the time.”
“Frack your timeline!” I snapped. Even if she wasn't my birth mother, I still couldn't bring myself to cuss in front of her. I was angry but not that angry.
The paper sat on my desk for a few weeks before the siren call drew me back to looking at the last page. The one where names were listed. Names of my family—my real family. The list was about six different people with a paragraph disclaimer underneath. The company wasn't responsible for contacting relatives or for poor outcomes of attempted re-connections of blood relatives. Wow. It must be pretty common to take one of these things and figure out your whole life was a life. Starting with the top, which listed most closely related to most distant, I plugged the names into ye olde Google. Right away, a Facebook profile popped up. Rachel Westwood. She was two years older than me, and the resemblance was scary. Mom had always said that genetics was the reason Ashley and I looked so opposite, which had been backed up when genetics had been explained in Biology Class. But looking at Rachel, it was more evidence my results hadn't been a fluke. Heart in my stomach, I sent her a message.
Cass Bennett: Hi, Rachel. You don't know me but I am sending you a message because I just got one of those Tree Leaf DNA kits for my sister and me. Turns out, we weren't sisters. Your name was listed as a close match. If you want to pretend you never saw this...I understand. I just couldn't forgive myself if I didn't try to reach out. I hope you are having a good day.
I hit send. A good day? How lame was I? This person was related to me, and I sounded like a complete loser. Wait. She was replying!
Rachel Westwood: Hi, Cass! I am so glad you reached out to me. I have to say I'm not surprised to hear from you. We've been looking for you for a long time. I didn't think taking the Tree Leaf test would land me this result. I took it for a class to be able to write a paper on the immigration of family across continents. Have you reached out to Mom and Dad? I can let them know you found me if you want?
She knew about me. The words processed in my head over several minutes. I hadn't known anything, but Rachel knew about me. Fingers to keyboard, I let my mind speak.
Cass Bennett: You knew about me? You were looking for me?
Rachel Westwood: Did they not tell you anything?
Cass Bennett: No? What is there to know. My mom was really super vague about whatever surrounded me being adopted
Rachel Westwood: Here. This should explain more.
The link leads me to the New York Times article Stolen from Daycare: The Search for Cassidy Westwood. I felt sick. I was the little girl taken from her daycare. The daughter of Clint and Margaret Westwood missing since 2001. Was this why Mom was so adamant that they weren't going to tell me about who I was until I was out of college? Were they hoping I'd never find out the truth? Questions spun from questions. I had simply thought my parents didn't want me or had needed to give me up for adoption. This horrific alternative had never crossed my mind in a million years. Of course, I had never heard the case. They had moved me out of the state right after taking me. How could they take me and then have Ashley. How could they live with knowing I was stolen. That part didn't make sense. I had seen my baby pictures. Were they even me? Had they just taken some random kid's photos? I didn't know what I was going to do about my so-called parents, but I did about Rachel.
Cass Bennett: Can you put me in touch with them?
Skipping class was like second nature at this point. It wasn't like there was a test or anything. Pulling into the parking lot with enough time to spare, I flipped the mirror down to check my face. Stray tears on the three-hour car ride left tracks. Enough time for a quick touch up at least. The car pulled up beside mine as I slide my sponge back in my purse. Rachel was in the backseat. I got out first.
“Hi...” I started to speak, but the dark-haired woman from the front seat engulfed me in a hug stopping me.
“I know.” She cried, arms tightening around me. My mother. She didn't say anything about me not hugging her back. Probably because she understood that, to me, she was a stranger still. She let go, wiping at her face to stop falling tears. The smile said they were of joy. “Look at you. You are beautiful.” Her hands went to my face.
“Mags give the girl some breathing room.” My father said, joining us on the other side of his car. “Hello, Cass.” He gave me his own watery smile. He held himself together much better than mom was. Rachel stayed back slightly to let our parents have their time.
“Hi. I'm happy to get to meet you two...again, I guess? I don't remember-” He held up his hand.
“We know. You were really little when you were taken. What's important is we found you. We don't know if the family you ended up with were the ones who took you or if you were illegally adopted.” His hand rubbed my shoulder. “We contacted the police after Rachel told us she found you. They are opening your case back up.”
“They'll want to talk to me, I guess?” I said, walking beside them into the diner.
“Most likely. But we want you to be comfortable. We know this is a lot.” Clint said, slipping into the booth first, then Margaret. Rachel sat on my side. He was right. It was a lot to take in at once. Talking to the police was necessary, though, to rule out that I had been with my kidnappers for 20 odd years. Based on the article, I had been taken before I was 2. I had no memories of what happened that day. My whole life was an article and a DNA test at this point. So many years gone. Over three plates and several glasses of soda, we bonded. To be honest, it felt like we had never been apart. Rachel and I had a lot in common, even down to the way we chewed pen tops. This whole situation would make some scientist's mouth water at the implications of nature versus nurture. Finally, I had to make the trip back home to my apartment, but I left with their numbers and a commitment that we would stay in touch as this whole thing continued to unravel. I was only partially satisfied. I had to know what my 'parents' knew.
I didn't say I was coming over. The surprise would make it easier to catch them off guard. Mom was in the kitchen alone when I walked in. Her face paled slightly, seeing me standing there.
“I didn't know you were coming over.” She said, putting the spatula down. The tension was thick.
“I had to take some time to think.” It wasn't a lie. I did need to think about where to go since I knew the truth. “I wanted to talk about the test.” Her shoulders slumped forward. “I know what you meant by me not really being adopted. You can't adopt a stolen child. All I want to know is, did you do it, or did someone pass me off.” She wasn't facing me. That was pretty unnerving.
“Twenty-one years ago, I had a daughter.” Words finally came after a pregnant pause as she turned to face me. The woman who had been my mother now was a complete stranger standing in front of me. “Her name was Cassandra Bennett. She died two months before—”She stopped hand reached out for me. “Before you came into our lives. I didn't steal you, Cass.” I had no reason to believe her, but I did. Why would I have been treated so well if they had been the ones to kidnap me away from my blood family.
“But you know who did?” The distance between us felt like the Grand Canyon.
“Your...”She stopped herself. “My mother. We all grieved in our separate ways, but she brought you home.” Justice was hard to obtain when the guilty was six feet under. Grandma Carter had died six months before the test was taken. That explained the unwillingness to tell me the truth but didn't explain why they were planning to wait until I was twenty-five. It didn't matter anymore.
“I don't understand. Why were you going to tell me in a few years?”
“By then, anyone working on the case should have retired, and with my mother gone, there was no case. It happened so long ago. We raised you as best we could Cassie. We loved you. Isn't that enough? We gave you a good life. Why can't you just understand she thought she was doing what was best for everyone.” I nodded my head acknowledging her and the truth she said before turning back around. “Cassandra!” She called only after I had almost made it to the door.
“My name is Cassidy Westwood. I am the daughter of Clint and Margaret Westwood. The little sister of Rachel Westwood.” I turned to lift my shirt showing the wires taped to my stomach, “and you just confessed to knowing about my kidnapping and keeping a crime a secret.” The living room windows lit up with red and blue lights flashing from the police cars parked in the neighborhood, waiting for me to get the information they needed. Unfortunately for my other mother, there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping. The past had finally caught up with my family. All because of ads for ancestry DNA tests that unlocked something much more profound than water and blood.