DNA science reveals hidden family connection

By Michael Ellis Langley

Photography By Michael Ellis Langley

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Sandia/California systems engineer never imagined an email would change his life forever

Don Bender and his sister
FAMILY HISTORY — Sandia/California systems engineer Don Bender, right, hosted his sister, Freedom Baird, at his home just months after discovering their connection.  (Photo courtesy of Don Bender)

Imagine waking up one day, certain that you knew everything you needed to know about yourself and your family, only to discover you actually have a sibling you never knew of, with whom you share an almost mystical number of similarities.

Donald Bender was born in New York City in October 1957, and was immediately put up for adoption. In December of that year, he arrived at his adopted parents’ home.

“Adoption was a terrific thing for me,” Don said. “I was raised by people who loved me and were ready to raise a child.”

Don grew up in Lagrangeville, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1979 and a master of science in 1983, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He now works at Sandia/California.

Surprising test results

As an adult, Don said he was not particularly interested in finding his birth family. Then late last year, he took a commercial DNA test to learn his ethnic heritage. He got the results on March 9.

“My ethnicity wasn’t particularly interesting. But the shocking thing was it identified Freedom Baird as an immediate family member,” Don said.

Without meaning to, he had found a sister.

“So I looked her up within minutes of getting the results and emailed her immediately,” Don said.

At her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Baird received Don’s email minutes after receiving one from the commercial DNA company they had both used.

“So I read that and my first thought was, ‘Well this is a goof. Someone’s just messing with me,’” Baird said, adding that she responded politely, but asked if it was a prank.

“He emailed me back and said ‘no, this isn’t a prank, this is real,’” she said. “He gave me his name and address, and I said, ‘Would you mind sending me a few photos?’ He sent me photos of himself and his sons. That was when my mind was completely blown.”

For Baird, the similarities were incredibly personal.

“He looks like everyone in my family,” she said. “Don looks like me. He looks like my grandfather. There’s no question he’s a relative. I kept staring at his picture. I just couldn’t put it together.”

Don understood her reaction.

“This caught Freedom completely by surprise,” he said. “She did not know I existed and was getting this information that was kind of unbelievable.”

“I guess it’s the emotional trajectory you take when you experience any big shock,” Baird said. “So at first, as I was sitting on my couch looking at these photos, and Don and I were exchanging emails, it was almost like a state of alarm. I kept asking myself, ‘Is this real?’”

More than just physical similarities

Don and Baird immediately began to exchange long emails and Skype video calls. Don said he was astonished by the number of things the two had in common.

“Obscure things,” he said. “Movies that no one else would like that we had each watched 10 times, that kind of thing. The sheer volume, in every different aspect of our lives: we watch a certain type of news program every day; we order the same dish at a Mexican restaurant consistently; we have the same shape of toes, which are a little unusual. It just hasn’t ended.”

Baird agreed.

“We actually started making a list of all the things we have in common, and it’s just crazy,” she said. “We are both outdoorsy. He hikes and I am a rock climber. We both enjoy winter sports — no one else in our families did. And we both read the same three newspapers every day.”

Don Bender as a toddler
MEMORY LANE — Don grew up in Lagrangeville, in the Hudson River Valley of New York.  (Photo courtesy of Don Bender)

Baird had also graduated from MIT, earning her master of science degree 14 years after her brother, so when Don shared with her his birthdate and birth name, which was Daniel, she went into research mode.

“I took those two data points, and I went into the New York City birth records,” Baird said. “I searched for all babies with the last name Baird in his birth year, 1957, and I found him. There was ‘Daniel Baird’ and his exact date of birth. I knew it was him. I took a screenshot, highlighted the record in yellow and sent it to him and said, ‘I found you.’”

The meeting

After that, Don needed to meet his sister in person.

“By the beginning of May, I flew to Cambridge to meet her and her family in person for the first time,” he said.

“We had a wonderful time getting to know each other,” Baird said about that meeting. “We had a big meal with lots of cousins and shared a lot of stories about both families.”

A few weeks later, Don flew back to Cambridge, and the siblings attended the MIT alumni reunion together, walking across campus pointing out areas that were important to each of them.

Don later took Baird to Lagrangeville to show her where he grew up.

“Then over Labor Day, she and my niece and nephew came out to the Bay Area,” he said. “I showed them my house and took them on a tour of Northern California. In a few weeks, Baird and I are going to meet in New York City and she’s going to show me where she grew up.”

Adoption reunions: Different for everyone

The process Don and his sister have gone through has been deeply rewarding for both of them, but both recognize that may not be everyone’s experience. Baird recommends getting as much information as possible before moving forward.

“Adoption reunion is a process, and everyone goes through it in their own way,” she said. “One of the things that helped a lot was that once I realized Don was my brother, I did a bunch of research about these reunions, got a couple of books and talked to a dear friend who is adopted. All of that helped me shepherd myself and Don and everyone through this experience.”

For his part, Don keeps finding experiences that take a deeper meaning than he would have thought possible.

“At my doctor’s office recently, I brought my entire family medical history for her to enter,” he said. “There had been one word under family medical history: ‘adopted.’ I just brought her the information, she typed it all in and then deleted ‘adopted.’ So I’m at the doctor’s office experiencing the feels.”