Learning the Truth
Silver Spring resident Dorie Hightower thought she knew everything about her family. Then she took a DNA test.
Karen told Hightower some of the details she’d learned about their biological father. She found his obituary in a newspaper and sent it to Hightower, who shared it with a friend in Boston who is fascinated by genealogy. The woman went to the archives at Robert’s alma mater, and pulled photos of him from old yearbooks.
The man had raised several children of his own, and a few of them, like Hightower, are singers. Two had taken an Ancestry DNA test, so she messaged one of them through the company’s website.
“I will be honest and tell you that I’m the only one of my siblings who has any interest in this matter,” the man replied. “My sisters are totally weirded out by this news, and my brother couldn’t care less. So you are corresponding with the only [person] who will give you any information, and I’m not going to be much help since my sibs don’t want me giving out much detailed information. I hope you understand; we know who our father and mother were, and my sibs don’t particularly care to meet any people that may have been conceived using our father’s…genetic material.”
The response upset Hightower, who was less interested in getting to know Robert’s kids than in learning more about his personality. “I also think it would be nice to have more information for health reasons,” she says. “I was [recently] diagnosed with hypertension. They said that’s genetic. I think some of it’s from my mother, but it would be nice to know.”
Even if one branch of her suddenly burgeoning family tree had no interest in meeting her, High-tower was eager to get to know another. Karen and Nancy weren’t her only new half siblings. There was another: Kevin Wigell. The retired engineer had taken an Ancestry test after his 23andMe test revealed surprising results. Nowhere was the name of his father, Wayne, who died in 1974. With his mother suffering from dementia, there was no one he could turn to for a definitive answer.
“I started getting emails from Dorie, and she was asking me these weird questions like, where was I born and who was my mother’s OB-GYN back then,” he says. “I kind of dismissed her as an internet kook.”
But Wigell couldn’t stop thinking about his father’s poor health. The man had suffered from diabetes and tuberculosis, and Wigell wasn’t born until seven years into his parents’ marriage. “That’s when this started making sense,” he says. He pauses to chuckle—it’s the laugh of a man who still can’t believe what he’s about to say is true. “There was absolutely no resemblance between me and Wayne.” (When placed side by side, photos of Wigell and Robert when they were both roughly high school age look strikingly similar: their cheekbones, the cut of their chins, even the look in their eyes.)
After taking some time to process the news, Wigell agreed to meet Hightower in Howard County, where he and his wife would be traveling to attend the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival in May 2018. “It’s hard to put into words,” he says of that first encounter. “We gave each other a big, warm, tight hug. Imagine meeting your sibling for the first time after 60-some years.”
Siblings. That’s what the four of them now consider themselves. Last July, they all met at Karen’s house, where Nancy was visiting to watch her son play at a bluegrass festival. Hightower arrived at the get-together at the same time as Wigell, his wife, and one of their daughters. When Karen opened the door, Nancy was already there. Hugs abounded.
Over the next five hours, they laughed and shared stories about their lives and the journeys they’d taken to discover the truth about their bloodlines. They marveled over their good fortune to live at a time when technology allowed them to find each other. Karen brought out a cake that read: “A remarkable day through the magic of DNA.” Around 5 p.m., Wigell suggested that they all go out for pizza, but Hightower was exhausted. She had been too excited to sleep the night before.
“It really felt like a family reunion,” she says. “The husbands thought that we had some mannerisms and gestures in common. We all walk with our feet facing out.”
The brother that Hightower grew up with hasn’t taken a DNA test, so there’s no way of knowing if he and Dorie have the same biological father. She says he isn’t interested in a new family—but she is. Hightower has gotten together with Wigell at his home in Pennsylvania, and would like to visit Nancy. She continues to check Ancestry.com from time to time to see if someone else has gotten tested and popped up as a half sibling.
All of this has changed the way Hightower thinks of family, but it hasn’t fundamentally altered the way she remembers the man who raised her. She still looks back fondly on baseball games he took her to in Milwaukee, and trips to Wrigley Field in Chicago, where he taught her how to keep a scorecard. She warms at memories of watching the Marx Brothers on TV with him.
From Caplan, she received “unconditional love.” He was, she says, a wonderful father.
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.