The 23andMe kit welcomes me with a bright, lime green card. I stare at it like friends of mine have stared at newly purchased pregnancy tests. The box is lightweight, the product delicately packaged, but still, it feels like something I shouldn’t have in my possession; like some sort of contraband. I turn the kit around in my hands, trying to remember if it’s been thirty minutes since I last ate or drank anything. I wasn’t sure, so I used my doubt to buy myself some time to think.
I don’t want to spit in the tube, I thought to myself, or perhaps I even said it aloud for the walls to chew on. I turn the man-made vessel around in my hands, pondering the hunk of plastic itself. This tube was distributed by a fancy, FDA approved company that claims to help its customers better understand who they are. I appreciate good marketing and nice clean branding, but do I trust the people behind this product? Not really. Can a tube of my own spit actually change my life?
When I was eight years old, I abruptly caught onto the fact that a father figure was absent from my life. As a child who spent plenty of time glued to the TV, you think it would’ve hit me sooner; but it is what it is. As far as I was concerned, I only ever had one parent — one female parent. I knew little about fathers other than what I saw on the screen. I watched movies about kids who hated their parents, particularly their fathers, and heard similar stories from friends. Alternatively, I knew friends who relied on their fathers for everything, their mothers preoccupied with other things. But this was different from the reality I found myself immersed in. Not only was my father not a part of my life, but I had never so much as met him.
How does a child of little courage surface the idea that a father figure has been missing from her picture for the entirety of her existence? I worried that my mother would find it rude if I brought it up. It was so obvious, the elephant in the room my mother had gracefully ignored for ages. And there I was — catching on. Did she expect me to live my life in ignorance? Because if she did; she certainly fished her wish. One day I finally worked up the courage to bring it up to my mother, only to be shut down in half the time it had taken me to get my sentence out…
“You’re too young.” She told me.
And that was the end of that.
The clean white box sits on my lap and screams of all things sterile. It practically reeks of Purell and rubbing alcohol. What would my mother do if she knew I was holding this adorably packaged DNA kit in my hands?
I continue to spin the plastic tube around in my fingers and ask myself: “Is this really necessary?” I’m an adult. If this is something I’ve gone my entire life without knowing, what difference will it make? Do I need to know the details of the man who shares my actual DNA with me? This tube wishes to provide me with something that I lack, it assumes that there is such a something. I do not believe that human beings are capable of missing something they never had. Yet I wonder about the source of my brown eyes and olive skin tone — not to mention the entire other half of my medical history. When the topic of my Missing Father surfaces, I can’t help but revel in the surprised looks on the faces of others. Because it’s shocking, a-typical, and just to name it, uncommon in the community I now consider myself a part of. People don’t know what to say. What’s the correct follow-up question to “what does your father do,” when the answer is “I seriously couldn’t tell you,” or “your guess is as good as mine.” Of course I tend to spare most people this kind of attitude.
I’m continuously surprised by how much more off-putting this concept is to my friends and family than it is to my sister and myself.
It’s just my truth, and I don’t feel any urgency to undo it.
The 23andMe kit comes with easy instructions that anyone could understand. The box is decorated with multiple pairs of X and Y chromosomes, the type of image I haven’t seen since my days of developmental psychology classes. What do my 23 pairs of chromosomes say about me? Each set is colored in with a different bright and enticing color; my curiosity is captured. Could this thing really know who I am better than I do?
This little plastic tube doesn’t care about the reason it’s landed in my hands. It doesn’t know about my life or my background. It doesn’t know about the things that keep me up at night, none of which are the Missing Father thing. Is this invasive? Some lab will take my spit and run it under a plethora of tests — and then my life will be changed forever. Does this thing even work? Maybe this isn’t so fun anymore.
I laugh at the viscous and sarcastic comments that run through my thoughts as I grow angrier and angrier at the little plastic tube. If you were me, would you do it? Would you want to know? I pack the plastic tube back into its perfectly designed box. I leave the kit, now partially disassembled, sitting neatly on my bed next to me. This thing can’t actually find the guy. It can only unsettle me. This tube will teach me about my roots, my heritage, other places in the world where my blood has been sprinkled. I’ll receive numbers, percentages, statistics. But what good is that?
I won’t learn about a human being, I’ll only learn about his DNA. There’s nothing personable about DNA. An ancestry composition chromosome painting won’t tell me if my father is kind, or giving, or allergic to something obscure. I’m not interested in numbers, I’m interested in humans. The world loves research. We love hard data, numbers, and charts. But the type of information I’m looking for doesn’t come from a spit sample and a lab report — it’s purely anecdotal, it’s living.
I live in a world where I can trade spit for numbers. I can slip this tube into its custom made plastic bag, and ship it away free of charge. When it comes back it’ll tell me what it wants to tell me — what science can tell me — what “real” research can tell me, all without telling me anything at all.
The 23andMe kit was a gift, a harmless attempt to help me uncover a long sought after missing piece of my identity. I agreed to do it, to entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, a plastic canister of spit can know more about me than I do. I swish my tongue around the inside of my mouth and flick the top of the tube open. Try me.