Jun 15, 2021 - Stories

A Father and Daughter Meet for the First Time

Stephanie McKenna

Tom Chaney was the kind of cop who was married to his job. During his more than two decades in law enforcement, he’d grab shifts on holidays, fill in for other officers to work Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, or Thanksgiving. 

“I was single and didn’t have any kids, so I figured I might as well,” Tom said. “Holidays were never really a big deal for me.”

Earlier this year, due in part to 23andMe and a call from a woman he’d never heard of before, Tom’s perceptions about kids, holidays, and Father’s Day in particular shifted, dramatically. 

The call came from Stephanie McKenna, a 34-year-old operations assistant at the Museum of American Art in Arkansas. She stunned him with some news. Stephanie thought she might be his daughter.

Once they determined this wasn’t just a wild guess but an actual DNA match, the first thing Tom said to Stephanie was:

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Decades of Searching

For Stephanie, it was a good sign. She’d feared rejection.

When at 16, she’d reached out to her biological mother, it had been a harrowing experience. Her birth mom didn’t reject her; she simply wasn’t interested in establishing a relationship. But that disappointment and hurt didn’t prevent Stephanie from looking for her birth father.

Stephanie was an adoptee with loving and supportive parents, but she still wanted to know more about her origins. It took receiving 23andMe as a Christmas gift — that Stephanie got from her mom and dad — to connect her to Tom, or more precisely to Tom’s dad, Tom Sr. Both Stephanie and Tom Sr. had opted into DNA Relatives. After making that connection, she then quickly connected to Tom himself.

Tom Chaney early in his career as a police officer.

“It was a meeting 34 years in the making,” she said.

First, through a series of phone calls and then video calls over Zoom and texts, the two got to know each other.

Tom didn’t know he’d had a child. He and Stephanie’s birth mom dated for a few weeks while they both were stationed in Alaska. Tom was in the Marines, and Stephanie’s birth mom was in the Navy. The relationship was brief, and then Tom shipped off to another billet in Hawaii. At the same time, Stephanie’s birth mom wound up on a base in Virginia. Tom never even knew she’d been the pregnant. 

A First Meeting

Finding out he now had a daughter pushed Tom to learn more about Stephanie and do his best to establish a relationship. After all the calls, texts, and Zoom chats, Stephanie  came to Arizona in early June to visit him. The first time Tom greeted her at the airport he was wearing his Marine Corps t-shirt and holding a sign that read:  

“Stephanie, here is your father.”

A flood of emotion, tears, and laughter came out of them as they embraced for the first time. 

When he and his wife, Krissy, brought Stephanie home, there was a sign that read: 

“It’s a girl.” 

Getting to Know Each Other

What followed was a visit to get to know each other. Tom introduced Stephanie to his family and friends. The two shared old photos of themselves. They did everything they could to go from being strangers to being a daughter and a father. 

“It’s uncanny how many things we share in common,” Stephanie said.

From mannerisms to personalities to even the kinds of things they each find humorous. 

“Even the way we talk, there’s a similar cadence and similar facial expressions,” she said. 

Meeting him helped explain some of her own characteristics. Like her, Tom was an extrovert, someone who seemed to thrive with many people around him. And there were little things that were similar too, like Tom’s involvement with a motorcycle club for retired police officers. Stephanie is involved in a horse riding club on the side.  

Ironically perhaps, is that the two also shared something else in common. Neither Tom nor Stephanie wanted to have kids. Stephanie said it’s just not something she’s focused on right now.

Stephanie visiting Tom at his home in Arizona.
A Bigger Family

For Tom, it was his focus on his work. Something he’d picked up from his father. Like Tom, his dad had been a Marine first, and then a career police officer, and Tom followed in his dad’s footsteps in all ways but one. The one exception was that he never wanted a family.

“I didn’t want to put a kid through that,” he said.

That’s why he never had kids. He was fine with the decision, or at least he thought he was. 

But in sharing the time with Stephanie over a few days in early June and looking at old photos of when she was a little girl, Tom felt a pang of regret. It’s hard for him to even talk about without getting emotional about everything that he missed out on. On the eve of her visit, he couldn’t sleep. When they looked at old photos of her growing up, he felt that tug of emotion even more.

“It’s all those things that I missed, that I wasn’t there for and couldn’t share with her,” he said. “That hurts inside, but it’s in the past, and now I want to make the most of it.”

So does Stephanie. He’s coming to visit her and her family in a few months.

“They (her parents) are so awesome. They want to share this with me and see it more like bringing someone else into the family,” she said.

Father’s Day will take on a new meaning this year, but more importantly, it’s part of this new chapter in Tom’s life.

“I’ve got 34 years to catch up on,” he said.

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