I’m having an affair with my sister. One of our recent rendezvous was in Charleston, South Carolina, where I happened to be traveling for a writing gig. Laurie slipped away from her home in a nearby state and we picked up right where we’d left off. That particular evening, we were headed to my work-related happy hour, where we sipped cocktails and introduced each other to random strangers: “Hi, my name is Laura and this is my sister, Laurie.” This has become one of our favorite party tricks because people almost always respond to these introductions with some version of “Seriously? Sisters named Laura and Laurie?” Now they’re curious, which gives us what we were really after all along: an opportunity to tell our story.
Laurie and I say we’re having an affair because she sneaks away or lies to her mother every time we get together — just like our parents did. Many years ago, Laurie’s mom was devastated to learn that her husband and father of her three children had been having an affair with his 22-year old secretary (my mom). Laurie’s mother reportedly found out about the relationship because she discovered a note in her husband’s pocket that said, “We’ll raise this child together.” He denied everything, but she remained skeptical.
Laurie’s parents stayed married for another 18 years before divorcing, but her mother never got over the betrayal. Telling her about me now — and confirming her decades-old suspicions — would summon a world of unresolved pain. How do you explain to your fragile, octogenarian mom that her ex-husband’s mistress actually did have his child, and now that child is one of your closest friends? Short answer: You don’t. You just don’t.
The story I was told from the beginning was that my mother’s first husband was the father of both my older sister, Leslie, and me. Our mom said he didn’t want us after their divorce because he only wanted sons. But the truth is that I was the product of an affair my mother had had with her boss, while her husband was deployed in Guam. She’d found a doctor to induce labor a month before I was due to make it appear as though I could have been conceived while her husband was home on furlough, and she put his name on my birth certificate. They’d gotten divorced shortly after I was born. Shortly after she remarried, her first husband terminated his parental rights and her new husband agreed to adopt Leslie and me.
I believed the false narrative, all evidence to the contrary, until Leslie finally told me the truth when I was 21. Images ran through my mind with the whir and click of an old slideshow projector. I’d seen pictures of her father, and I looked nothing like him. There were our baby pictures: She was towheaded and freckled; I had thick dark hair and olive skin. I remembered the time our mom left us on the beach all day without sunscreen. Leslie’s back was covered with blisters, while I was a little pink but mostly bronze. I thought about how much I envied her porcelain skin and petite bone structure when we were teens, wondering why I didn’t get any of those genes. I was nearly a head taller and often felt like an oaf next to her. How stupid could I be?
At the time, I didn’t know which was worse: that my mother intentionally lied to me for more than two decades, or the fact that I was literally the last person to know. Everyone in my family — my older sister, my younger brother, my adopted father, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and even family friends — knew years before I did. That they were all in on the secret only intensified my lifelong suspicion that there was something so terrible about me that it had to be hidden. As kids often do, I blamed myself and absorbed the shame.
Even though I was an adult by the time I learned the truth, I often fantasized about what might happen if I ever showed up on my biological father’s doorstep.
“I’ve been searching for you my whole life!” he would exclaim, joyously.
In that fairy tale, I would discover that I was wanted after all.
But deep down I knew that — given the circumstances — the chances of this were slim to none. For that reason, I never tried to contact him. I didn’t think I could survive feeling abandoned by my father a second time.
I finally resurrected the idea of finding him when I was 48 years old and my mother was dying of cancer. He at least owed me my medical history. My husband, Craig, offered to be both detective and mediator, shielding me from whatever reaction my father might have. It had taken me 25 years to gather the courage to reach out, but Craig found him in under a week. Or rather, he found his obituary. He had died two days prior.
After breaking the news, Craig messaged me a link to the obituary. I stared at it, hesitating, overcome with a vague feeling that I was about to do something naughty. I’d spent my whole life hidden from my father and his family. Reading the tribute felt like a weird invasion of their privacy, as though I wasn’t worthy of the intimate details of their lives. Before tapping on the link, I resolved to remain composed and detached, determined not to let this man — and his lifelong absence — affect me emotionally.
But when I opened the page, tears started slowly dripping down my cheeks. I looked so much like him. We had the same deep-set eyes, the same square jaw. I read about his life, wondering what it would’ve been like to grow up in his perfect-sounding world. He was a successful banker, a mentor, and he volunteered his time with hospice patients. When I told Craig that he sounded like a good guy, he replied, “Maybe so. But have you ever read a bad obituary?” Come to think of it, I hadn’t. Though being introduced to my father via his obituary was a somber moment for me, I felt an odd sense of relief. He was real, which meant I was real. And I wouldn’t have to give up the fantasy that he could have loved me, because now I’d never be proven wrong.
As soon as I saw my half siblings listed in the obituary, I thought of contacting them, but I wanted to wait a while before doing so. If I got in touch right after the funeral, the family might think I was after his money. So I shelved it. One day about six months later, I typed Laurie’s name into the search bar on Facebook.
Within two seconds, I found her, but her profile picture was extremely blurry. I could see that she had dark hair and was smiling, but there wasn’t much else to go on in terms of comparing similarities. I had hoped to begin my first message with an observation that we looked alike. I went back and studied my father’s obituary photo. Then I scrolled through my own profile photos to find the one that looked the most like him. I settled on a black-and-white close-up where my smile, particularly the way it framed my teeth, resembled his. I opened Facebook Messenger and typed her name. I had discovered her profile only minutes before, but somehow I knew that if I didn’t pull the trigger right away, I would talk myself out of it.
“Dear Laurie,” I began. “Wow — my heart is pounding as I write this note. I believe we are related, though there’s a great chance you don’t even know that I exist; therein lies the awkwardness. About six months ago I came across your father’s obituary.”
I went on to describe what I knew.
“I realize this may come as a complete shock,” I continued, “and can only imagine what must be going through your head. Laurie, I’m truly sorry for what this news may bring up for you. For many years I have weighed the benefits and risks of doing this, and want you to know that really all I am after is my medical history. And if you aren’t comfortable with that, I understand.”
That wasn’t entirely true. What kid — even if she’s 48 years old — doesn’t wish to be acknowledged and embraced by the family she’s never known? I was after the medical history, and thought I’d be lucky if I got even that. But somewhere deep down I still longed for more.
Laurie’s reply came through a mere 14 hours after I’d messaged her. She lived in a different time zone and had responded early the next morning. Her first four words changed my life: “I am your sister.”
No suspicion. No hedging or hesitation. Just immediate, unconditional acceptance.
The first week that we corresponded, Laurie and I traded no less than 15,000 words. Years later, when I pasted them into a Word document and scrolled through the content, I often couldn’t tell which of us was talking because our writing voices were so eerily similar. I sent her some pictures, including one of me in the eighth grade. She was so startled by how alike we looked that she drove to her storage unit and retrieved one of herself at the same age. We looked like twins that were born in different decades.
She remembered my mother. She told me that her mom had often wondered if I was out there somewhere and that my mother was likely the first of her dad’s many affairs. She wanted to take our friendship as far as I was willing. As far as I was willing? Was this a dream? It felt as though I’d won some sort of love-child lottery.
Laurie said she was going to tell her brothers about me one at a time. The oldest brother, John, promptly opened the door to his heart and pulled me in. Three months after our first email, he and his wife, Cathie, invited Laurie and me to California, where they hosted what ended up being an all-out celebration to welcome me to the family. I met my father’s adoring sister and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins. That trip remains one of the single greatest experiences of my life.
Their younger brother, however, wanted absolutely nothing to do with me. He was very troubled that I had surfaced, not only because it tarnished the image he held of his father but also because he was worried that their mom would find out.
About a year later, Laurie arranged a meeting between the younger brother and me, and it ended up being an extremely painful experience. She meant well; Laurie is an older sister to us both, and a peacemaker. But every fear I’d ever had about how my father might treat me, had we ever met, was realized in this brother.
“My father’s relationship with your mother didn’t mean anything to him,” he said, matter-of-factly, when we finally met face-to-face at a family gathering at his house. We’d ended up in a neighbor’s blueberry field, alone, to talk.
The pause was lengthy. What productive purpose could that declaration possibly serve? Was the affair easier for him to stomach if he framed it as meaningless? Was he making sure I knew that my mom was a slut and his dad was just doing what boys do? It sounded to me like he was throwing my mother under the bus so he could maintain a sanitized view of his father.
We started walking back toward the house.
“You know the difference between you and me?” I asked, as we neared the patio.
He looked at me but didn’t respond.
“Where our father planted his seed,” I said. “You ended up in the woman he married. I ended up in the woman he discarded. Beyond that, there is no difference.”
We continued the last 50 yards in silence. By the time we reached the others, I was near drowning in a deluge of anguish and rage. When Craig saw my face, he said, “It’s probably time to go.”
Months later, the brother wrote an apology and mentioned the possibility of trying again, but I didn’t trust it. Since then we’ve peacefully coexisted at family events, but we still have no relationship. And maybe that’s for the best. Our parents’ affair was decades ago. Both of them are dead. And yet here we are, more than 50 years later, still dredging up all of each other’s biggest parental insecurities.
Now that I know what I know, I’m grateful for the bizarre timing of it all. I suspect my biological father would not have welcomed me if I’d shown up while he was still alive. When you’ve spent your entire life trying to build a reputation as an honorable, charitable man, the arrival of an abandoned child kind of wrecks the whole brand. Of course, with the proliferation of home DNA tests, he couldn’t have denied me. Though Laurie and I knew it the first time we connected, Ancestry.com later confirmed that we are definitely closely related.
It probably never would’ve worked for me to be a part of my father’s family while he was still alive; it would’ve been too messy. That seems to go with the territory of being a secret love child. The irony of my warm welcome into the family after his death — timing that I didn’t plan — isn’t wasted on me. I often wonder if he’d be mortified to see me at family gatherings, milling about with a glass of sauvignon blanc in hand, chatting it up with his closest relatives. I never intended to expose him when he didn’t have the ability to speak up for himself. Sometimes things just come back to haunt you, even when you don’t expect them to.
I wouldn’t be here if the betrayal of my parents’ affair hadn’t happened. So obviously, I’m glad it did. They were broken, imperfect people just like the rest of us. But if given the option, I wouldn’t have chosen to be the “Exhibit A” of an extramarital affair. It’s a cumbersome role. I’m the embodiment of something my mother and father desperately tried to hide and distance themselves from. I was, both practically and experientially, their dirty little secret. I took on that stigma for decades, but it doesn’t define me anymore. Every close family member associated with my father knows I exist, with the exception of Laurie’s mother, who is 87 and in bad health. I feel oddly protective of her because she didn’t ask for this any more than I did. I keep up with her through Laurie. I pray for her sometimes. And though I’m otherwise done with keeping my parents’ secrets, I still hide it from her, simply because it’s the kindest thing to do.