Deanna didn’t know what to expect when she met her father, Gus, for the first time a year ago. She didn’t know how he would react. She didn’t know what it would be like for him either.
“I know it doesn’t turn out well for some adoptees when they first connect with their birth parents,” Deanna said. “But for Gus and me, it was like a fairytale… (it) was the greatest miracle of my life.”
Happy Father’s Day
Deanna first met her birth dad a few weeks before Father’s Day in 2022. Gus was 91. He’d never married, had no children, and thought he was alone in the world. Deanna found him after connecting with a cousin using 23andMe’s DNA Relatives feature.
“There’d been no hope of finding him otherwise, outside DNA… and God,” she said.
Gus was in a nursing home in Virginia. The former ballroom dance instructor and competitive dancer had fallen at home. He’d been found on the floor by the authorities, after his doctor had requested a welfare check because she became concerned after not hearing from Gus. In the nursing home, bedridden and alone, Gus awaited the end. Then Deanna called him.
“One day he woke up thinking he was alone in the world, and by that afternoon, he had a daughter, a son-in-law, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren,” she said.
“I’m not alone in the world anymore,” he told her.
“No, you’re not. You’re not,” Deanna said.
My Daughter Loves Me
Not a crier, Gus was hit with a wave of emotion in their first phone call and started crying. Deanna had years to think about and prepare for the moment they would meet. It all came out of the blue for Gus, and it was a bit overwhelming.
It was the greatest early Father’s Day gift Deanna could have given him. Gus knew he didn’t have much time. So as they talked and she said she hoped to visit him, he asked her:
“How soon can you come?”
Only a short time after they talked on the phone, Deanna traveled from her Florida home and visited him in person in Virginia. She spent Father’s Day with him on their first and only Father’s Day together. She gave him a shirt that read, “My daughter loves me.”
But her time with him wasn’t confined to this one visit. She stayed for more than a week, getting to know him, letting him get to know her, and peppering him with questions about his life and family. She kept coming back. Sometimes they’d sit and listen to music together; his favorite was Frank Sinatra.
Deanna asked Gus if he wanted to live with her and her husband. He said yes right away and wanted to know how soon they could go. Deanna helped care for him in her home in the last months of his life. He got to know her and her family. He became part of it.
A Long Wait
They had seven months to get to know each other. Gus died at the end of last year.
“We tried to cram a lifetime into a few months,” she said.
Like many stories about adoptees connecting with biological families, Deanna’s has layers of complexity.
She was born in Virginia, adopted at two months of age, and raised by a couple in Maryland who couldn’t have children of their own. They adopted Deanna and her sister, who is not biologically related to Deanna. While they were good parents, Deanna had been searching for her biological parents ever since she stumbled upon birth records that showed her birth name, a name different from her own. She knows that not all adoptees are like this, but for Deanna, a part of her felt missing. Sometimes Deanna felt as if she came from a building instead of people. It wasn’t until her first child was born that she thought of the profound connection of an actual blood relative.
Over the years, in searching for her birth family for so long, she’d developed a network of friends who were also adoptees doing their own searches. From those friends, she understood that these journeys don’t always have a happy ending. Sometimes the birth family rejects them or refuses to connect. Sometimes the relationship sours.
Knowing that, Deanna is doubly thankful that she found Gus and that they were able to get to know each other.
“I had to wait for the longest, but best ending,” she said.
The Weight of Not Knowing
Through her network, Deanna shared her story on social media — something she leans on heavily for her work as a pastor in Florida. She documented her first embrace with Gus and their joy in creating a relationship.
#findingmrgreek. That was because, for a long time, all she knew about her birth father was that he was Greek. Eventually, it was picked up by CBS This Morning’s David Begnaud and featured on the show late last year. This spring, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar detailed Deanna’s experience as part of a wonderfully written story about the emotional legacy many adoptees carry from being cleaved from their birth families.
A quote from Deanna encapsulated the feeling: “In order to be adopted, you first have to lose your entire family,” she told MacFarquhar.
Turning to DNA
Not all adoptees feel the same, but that loss is profound for many and never goes away. It’s what sustained Deanna’s search for all these years. She found her birth mom almost 30 years ago. They built a wonderful relationship before she passed away about a decade ago, but the one thing that produced a strain was asking about her father.
Her relationship with Gus so embittered her birth mom that she would never share his name with Deanna, telling her she’d take his name to her grave. That was in 2013, and when Deanna told her that she could use DNA to help find him, Deanna’s mother got angry.
Although that hurt Deanna, she understood the devastating impact of the pregnancy on her mom. She was 20 when Deanna was born, 16 years younger than Gus. It was a scandal within her family. Even after giving Deanna up for adoption, her life was not easy. The only detail she’d offered Deanna was that her birth dad had dark hair and was Greek.
So, Deanna tested with 23andMe in 2013, almost a decade before she got matched with a cousin that helped her find Gus.
A Genetic Mirror
Deanna said she lived without knowing her birth parents and where she came from, and making that connection helped relieve some of the emotional pain.
It didn’t erase her love for her parents or solve all her problems. She is very open about her struggles with depression. Yet she was seeing someone who looked like her and even had expressions like her own, and this grounded her in some way. It lifted a weight from her; it fascinated her as well. How could she be so like someone she’d never met?
It wasn’t just physical appearances, either. Some of the similarities between Deanna and Gus were uncanny.
“It was mind-blowing; I was so much more like him than my (birth) mother,” she said. “Even some of the unique phrases we used. When I get upset, I might say, ‘Let me enlighten you,’ or when the kids get into something at the house, I would say, ‘All right, call the cops!’ He used those same phrases.”
They both liked to sit on their porch swing and even liked the same types of food, Deanna said.
Before she found Gus, she used to look at herself in the mirror after she found her birth mom. She could see some of her birth mom. But in her mind, she sort of “photoshopped out” the traits she thought came from her birth mom. What was leftover, she thought, must be from her birth dad. She tried to construct what he would have looked like in her mind. When they finally met, she saw herself and parts of him in her children.
“All of those that immediately clicked, why I look the way I do, and so many other things,” Deanna said. “It was like looking at a genetic mirror.”
Fathers and Families
Maybe if Deanna and her birth father had met earlier, she would have had time to probe about why he did what he did and why he hadn’t supported her birth mom. Then, maybe she could have been more critical.
“I didn’t have time to dwell on the negative,” Deanna said. “We only had so much time together and I wanted to maximize it.”
Her connecting with her birth mom three decades ago and then finding Gus changed some of the dynamics within her adopted family. But her relationship with her father didn’t change. She said she and her father are very different people. Still, he accepted and encouraged her to search for her birth family.
“Nothing changed between my father and me,” Deanna said.
Love is not a zero-sum game for Deanna. But, finding Gus and finding love for him didn’t negate her love for her father.
“My relationship with Gus is very, very different from my [relationship with my] adopted father who raised me,” Deanna said. “They’re so different. They are different as people and so different in how they relate to me. So I see them both as a father, but they give me very different things if that makes any sense.”
As Father’s Day approaches, Deanna has time to process all that has happened in the last year — finding Gus, meeting him for the first time, and helping to care for him until his death. But instead, she finds solace in what he gave her and what she could give him. A friend told Deanna what Gus said not long before his death.
“He did tell one of his friends that the last year of his life that we were together was the greatest experience of his life,” Deanna said.