Holding the sealed envelope in one hand, I pushed it into the mailbox and listened as the package dropped inside.
I was sending off my DNA kit because I’d always been fascinated by genealogy. I’d spent years delving into past generations on both my mum and dad’s side, mapping a family tree of over 13,000 ancestors.
Once my sample was received, it would be crosschecked with other people in the database to find any matches.
It would take at least six weeks to receive my full DNA profile and I couldn’t wait to see the results.
But when they appeared on the Ancestry website in October 2016, I was stumped. The test found I had Italian and aboriginal heritage – not Irish like I’d thought.
And when I crosschecked my matches in the database against my family tree, I couldn’t find any that matched. That’s weird, I thought.
I checked my wife Lynn’s DNA matches against her family tree and sure enough, there were names that matched. I couldn’t get my head around my DNA profile and what it meant.
Then one day, I received a message on the website from an Italian woman in Sydney. I think we may be related, she’d written. She explained that growing up, she’d always thought she was adopted.
I checked her surname against my family tree, but I couldn’t see where she could possibly fit in. I was determined to get to the bottom of it. But gradually, as I checked back over the results, a thought began to nag in my mind.
It grew louder until I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Am I looking at this all wrong? I thought. Am I the one who was adopted?
It would explain the mystery around my unfamiliar matches. But, at the age of 59, my parents were all I’d ever known. I knew I was born at the Salvation Army Bethesda Hospital in Sydney, so I typed it into Google and clicked on a link.
As I started to read, the hairs on my arms stood up. I delved deeper on the internet, until I was sure.
Then I ran into the bedroom, turned to Lynn and said, ‘I’m adopted.’ ‘Get out of here, no you’re not,’ she replied.
I explained that I’d found several mentions of forced adoption at the hospital where I was born. Suddenly, it all made sense. The woman who had contacted me wasn’t adopted – I was. Still reeling, I sat down at the computer and typed out an email.
You’re my sister, I wrote to her. She didn’t believe me at first, thinking her test results were wrong. But there was no denying how closely matched our DNA was.
As the reality dawned on me, I realised everything I thought I’d known about my identity was wrong.
The family tree I’d so painstakingly researched for years didn’t belong to me at all.
Confused and shocked, I felt betrayed by my parents. It shocked my grown-up children, Jade, Jasmine, Natalie, Belinda and Steven, too. But when I saw my parents a few days later, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything just yet.
They knew I’d been looking into my DNA and they’d even done tests themselves. Even though I felt hurt and angry, I couldn’t bear to upset them. Instead, I focused on finding my birth family.
Identifying the most common surname in my DNA matches, eventually, I came across a man called Graham who I suspected was related to me. He had filled out his mother Ruth’s side of his family tree from both of her marriages but there was a gap – a child born without a father.
I had a hunch that child was me.
After sending him a message with my contact details, the next day my mobile rang. ‘You’re Ruth’s son,’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘And so are you.’ Just like that, I’d found my half-brother. But I wasn’t the only one looking for someone.
He explained that just three weeks earlier, our 83-year-old mum Ruth had suffered a stroke. Fearing she would have another one and that she could lose the ability to speak, she’d confided in Graham about a child she’d been forced to give up for adoption.
She’d kept the secret for 59 years but now she wanted to track me down. I couldn’t believe it. He passed on her number. Holding the phone to my ear, I didn’t know what to expect.
‘It’s Peter, I’m your son,’ I said, when she answered the phone. ‘I never wanted to give you up,’ she explained. ‘I was forced.’ I felt a lump in my throat. ‘I know,’ I replied.
We then arranged to meet in person two weeks later. In the meantime, the sister I’d grown up with agreed to tell our parents that I knew the truth of my adoption. Afterwards, we all sat down together.
It was a painful conversation as my mum and dad explained they’d burnt my adoption papers because they didn’t want to lose me.
But by keeping it from me, they’d left me feeling like my life had been built on a lie. Soon after, I travelled to the Gold Coast to meet my birth mother. Walking up the path with my daughter, my stomach churned with nerves. I spotted her in the window and then the front door swung open.
Before I could say anything, she grabbed hold of me at arms-length and studied my face. ‘I just want to hold you and look at you,’ she said. Tears filled my eyes as I stared back at the mother I never knew I had.
It was so overwhelming.
We spent the day together with my siblings, and I learnt about my mum’s story. After becoming pregnant at 24, when she was newly divorced and without any support, her grandmother had sent her to Sydney to give up the baby.
She felt she had no choice and at the hospital, she was forced to give me up against her will. Even though I had a great time getting to know my new relatives, it wasn’t always easy. After all, I was a total stranger to them.
With one side of the puzzle complete, I also wanted to find relatives of my father – an Italian man who’d died in the ’80s. On his side, I found a sprawling web of Italian relatives in Sydney and Melbourne. I discovered I had eight siblings in total – three on my dad’s side and five on my mum’s.
In time, I was reunited with the sister who’d first contacted me, and I met aunts and uncles who told me of my father’s story. After the war, he’d left his village in Italy and moved to Canberra where he started a hairdressing business.
He’d never known I’d been born or put up for adoption. I travelled to his village in Italy, meeting more family. I was welcomed with open arms and there was a lot of food and wine and laughter.
Now, I speak to my birth mother on the phone each week and plan to return to Italy in the future. I’m involved in advocacy work too with Adoptee Rights Australia, supporting others and campaigning for changes to the adoption law.
I hope my story inspires others to search for their truth, because in the end mine set me free. I learnt never to take family for granted – now every moment with them is precious.
Discovering at 59 that I was adopted turned my life upside down. But given the option, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
For more, see this week’s that's life! – out now!