Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 8|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
“Having been involved in cases like these, I think the answer to ‘Is it my kid?’ is irrationally important to the cuckolded husband,” says Carol McCarthy, an officer of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “My own biases are going into this because I’m adopted, so I’m real into ‘your parents are the people who raise you.’ I couldn’t care less who my biological parents are. My parents are the ones who went through all the crap I gave them growing up.”
Why is it that we imbue genetic relationships with a potency that borders on magic? How many among us have trolled through genealogy records in search of unknown relatives or have welcomed strangers into our homes and hearts in instant intimacy simply because a genetic connection is suddenly revealed? Grandpa Harry’s older brother’s grandchild just found us on the Internet! A lovely man! Let’s have him over for dinner! The emotional connection between newly discovered kin is trenchant because we believe the genetic link to be significant, allowing us to embrace a stranger who — if that tie were lacking — we would never otherwise blindly accept. But what happens when we believe a tie exists, as Mike did, and then discover it doesn’t? If betrayal and money are taken out of the equation, would everything look different?
Denny Ogden has thought a lot about these questions. He was 54 when he got a phone call from a woman saying she was his daughter. As a college junior, Ogden had an intense summer romance; that September, the woman told him she was pregnant and planned to give up their baby for adoption. The day the baby was born, Ogden called his old flame from a pay phone on campus and listened, distraught, as she described the beautiful baby girl she knew she needed to give away. He felt confused and guilt-ridden.
In the 34 years that followed, Ogden only rarely thought about that little girl. He married, had three kids and settled into a comfortable life in Connecticut, telling his secret to no one, not even his wife. The three times that his wife gave birth, he felt swoony and in love with their creations, and as he examined each baby’s tiny toes and fingers, he wondered fleetingly how that other girl, by then a teenager, had turned out.
But then the phone rang, and a woman named D’Arcy Griggs said she was calling from Seattle to say she was his daughter. Her birth mother had died of cancer, but Griggs had met the mother’s family, who in turn had led her to Ogden, and no, she wasn’t after his money. Shaken, Ogden called his lawyer. He also ran a background check on Griggs and her husband, a prominent surgeon, to make sure Griggs’s tale held together. It did. Ogden told the whole story to his shocked wife, and over the next several months, Ogden and Griggs exchanged hundreds of e-mail messages, phone calls and photos, quizzing each other on intimate medical histories and marveling at how similar their coloring was, their love of adventure (she’s a skydiver; he’s a private pilot) and their distaste for green peppers and Spanish class. He took to calling Griggs “honey” and slid her photo under his desk blotter at work, alongside those of his other children.
Two months after their first talk, Ogden flew to Seattle to meet her. He and Griggs spent four days, morning to night, catching up on 34 lost years, staring in the mirror side by side, comparing noses and ears and hair. “For the first time in my life, I felt like I totally fit, as if we shared the same personality,” Griggs says.
Ogden was so reluctant to leave that he even stayed an extra day. As they prepared to part, one or the other of them (their memories are fuzzy on this detail) pointed out that they couldn’t be sure they were related unless they had a DNA test, so they found a lab through the Yellow Pages and were tested. Both felt certain it would confirm what they already felt to be true.
When the news came back that Ogden wasn’t the father, he was crushed. “It broke my heart,” he said. “We talked to each other and cried, and I even called the testing lab to say, ‘Are you really sure?’ ” As confused as Ogden had been about how to become a father to a 34-year-old stranger, he was even more confused about how to stop being a father to a 34-year-old daughter he had quickly come to love.
Griggs was devastated, too. Her biological mother was dead, and she had lost the man she thought was her father. She sobbed for days. Even seven years later, she cried as she recalled it: “I had finally found a connection, a family I belonged to, and then I thought it was gone. But he didn’t go away. I think of him as my ‘almost dad.’ I call him before I call anyone else in my family whenever I’m upset. When I was going through my divorce, we talked three, four, five times a day for weeks.
Ruth Padawer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her last article for the magazine was about a dating site for “sugar daddies.”