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She was the closest she'd ever been to meeting her biological father. Then life dealt her a blow

Anne Marie Cavner recently connected with the siblings she never knew she had, thanks to a DNA test kit. (Anne Marie Cavner) Anne Marie Cavner recently connected with the siblings she never knew she had, thanks to a DNA test kit. (Anne Marie Cavner)
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It was springtime in 2023 and Anne Marie Cavner was the closest she'd ever been to meeting her biological father. Then life dealt her a blow.

Cavner, a 56-year-old Thunder Bay resident, was adopted from Timmins, Ont., as a baby and raised in Toronto. This is something she has always known. The mystery was who her biological parents were. Until last year, the only clue Cavner had gained about her biological parents' identities was that they were both 16 at the time of her birth – information she'd gleaned from the Timmins Children's Aid Society in the 1980s.

"It made it easier to accept why I was adopted out," she told CTVNews.ca in an interview over Zoom on Monday. "I mean, 16 years old, I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have been ready to raise a kid at 16."

Then, in early 2023, a new relative appeared on her daughter's Ancestry.ca DNA profile: an uncle she'd never heard of. Spurred by the prospect of meeting the sibling she never knew she had, Cavner submitted her own DNA sample to Ancestry and was, herself, matched with the new relative: a younger brother with whom she shared a biological father.

"It kind of felt like winning a massive lottery," she said. "It's unexpected. It's out of nowhere. It's super exciting and you're in disbelief about the whole thing."

'Grieving the loss'

Once she'd connected with her brother – whose name she opted not to share out of respect for his privacy – and earned his trust, she asked for his help arranging for her to meet their father. He agreed, but said he wanted a chance to speak with him in person first.

That spring, with Mother's Day approaching, Cavner's brother planned a trip to Thunder Bay to visit his father and share the news that he'd connected with her. But he never got the chance. Less than two months after Cavner first made contact with her brother, their father died.

"I just wanted to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him … to make a connection, even if it's just for an hour, once," she said. "And then I found out he passed away. Grieving the loss of not being able to have that conversation was hard."

Though Cavner lost the opportunity to meet her biological father, she's grateful for everything she has gained since the day an unknown uncle appeared on her daughter's DNA profile.

Cavner has learned she has a total of three siblings through her father – a sister she sees on a weekly basis and two brothers who live out-of-province. And although approaching one of those brothers as a stranger on Ancestry was a little scary, Cavner said getting to know her siblings has been thoroughly rewarding.

"They have been just so incredibly warm and welcoming while dealing with their own grief," she said. "Getting to know them gives me a really good sense of who my birth father was. They've been just so genuine and so caring, and I give their parents a lot of credit, with how they raised them."

Cavner even managed to track down her birth mother last summer, after obtaining paperwork from her adoption. Cavner was surprised to learn she also lives in Thunder Bay. It wasn't long before the two connected over the phone, and despite their initial nervousness, Cavner said talking through things with her mother has been illuminating.

"That was incredibly emotional and terrifying … but we had a really good open discussion about what had happened," she said. Cavner now has some insight into her mother's experience: that of a teenager who wanted to give her tiny daughter the best shot at a happy life.

"We have maintained contact, so that's been exciting. I'm learning a little bit more about her family and her life after me and it's really interesting how it's all going."

A growing family tree

In addition to the three siblings she shares a father with, Cavner learned she has a brother and a late sister through her mother. She's also connected with cousins on her father's side and plans to visit them in Winnipeg with her daughter next month.

Her biological family tree – which once only consisted of Cavner, her husband and their children and grandchildren – is branching out in all directions.

"Now I'm able to go up five, six generations through Ancestry," she said. "So that's been amazing."

Cavner describes the last year as an "emotional rollercoaster." She took a chance, accepted the risk of rejection, suffered a loss and gained a family – and she'd do it all again.

"I may regret not having done it sooner … but otherwise no, absolutely zero regrets," she said. "I think everybody should do it." 

CTV News asked readers to share their discoveries after using 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage and other genealogy websites. These websites surfaced stories of uncovering family secrets, locating long-lost relatives and exploring family trees. More than 100 people responded to our callout.

Visit CTVNews.ca Monday mornings to read the latest in our DNA Diaries series.

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