Headlines from First Thoughts

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Meeting 37 Years in the Making

Pictures from My Trip

Three weeks ago, I received an email that opened a new chapter in my life. It's a journey of discovery that has been 37 years in the making for me. For my family, this has completed a puzzle that is part odyssey, part reunion, and part mystery solved.

My father lived a rather interesting and varied life. His was no scripted novel for the family bookstore section. After some time at the University of Florida, his world changed and turned upside down. His relationships were no different. In the late 1950's, he and his wife Hilda had a son named David. My dad's siblings knew him. Dad, Hilda, and David stayed with one of Dad's brothers for awhile. But Dad and Hilda divorced after a few brief years, and my dad had little contact with his son. Hilda remarried. And the rest became a well-kept family secret.

My Dad was working in his brother's accounting practice when he met my mother. They married in 1970, and I was born in 1972. I knew very little about my half brother. I found his picture in a photo album after my dad passed away in 1983. The buried secret became an open secret. By the time I was in college, this boy named David became the subject of much discussion and speculation. Dad's brothers and their wives began looking for him, but every road turned into somewhat of a blind alley. All of them were into genealogy, but none of them could find David.

When I moved to Knoxville, I decided to take up the search myself as best as I could. Living closer to family of origin, I assumed that this might be a chance to locate the long lost half brother. In a strange series of coincidences, I told the story to my church one Sunday morning during the Advent season. I shared a bit of Dad's past and my own family odyssey as a way to explain how God's providence works with divorce, redemption, and healing. I shared that many of us have family members we had never met but hoped to meet one day.

Many people responded to this sermon. I discovered others on a quest to find lost siblings and relatives. Some shared the painful and promising discoveries from their past. One of my church members, Dr. George Schweizer, offered his genealogical skills to help me find David.

Two weeks later, I received a phone call from North Carolina. Some relatives from my paternal grandmother's family heard that I was in ministry. One of my Dad's great uncles was almost blind and was facing death. He had become a Christian and wanted to locate someone in his family who was a minister. I spoke with his wife. They shared that they had pictures of my half brother, Dad, and Hilda. They promised to send the pictures.

Since this was the Christmas season, I thought the call was some sort of gift from beyond. But I was extremely busy and could not go to North Carolina to visit. Two weeks later, he passed a way. A few weeks afterward, his wife passed away. The pictures never arrived.

But I took this incident as some sort of strange signal that I was getting close. Even though it was a literal dead end, the experience reminded me that I needed to be faithful.

The next step was Facebook. I found a group on the social networking site called The Shiell Clan. There are relatively few of us in the world. Even though none of the folks matched the description of my brother, I posted some basic family tree info and waited. Occasionally, I googled my last name, checked ancestor.com. My genealogical friends occasionally reported their lack of findings; but generally I just wondered, hoped, and kept his myth alive.

On the week of my birthday, I received an email early Friday morning, October 2, which read, "I am most certainly your half brother David, son of Hilda, our father's first wife." After years of searching, he found me.

We talked that day for about an hour, shared stories that neither of us knew. David's mother Hilda is still alive and well. He grew up in Miami and returned there to become a Pathologist. He is 51 and married to Isabelle de Gaulejac Andrews. He has two sons, Thomas and Vincent Andrews. Thomas is on the development staff at McGill University in Montreal. Vincent is a student and sailor at Cornell.

David has been an only child his entire life and has quite a story to tell. But it's his to share in his own way.

Today I am boarding a flight to Miami to meet David and Isabelle. Thanks to a gift from Matthew Evans for my birthday, I am going to be able to meet my brother today. He, Isabelle, and Thomas plan to visit us for Thanksgiving. The Shiell clan-- at least the ones closest to me-- are planning to welcome these new members of our family at a big Turkey dinner at my cousin's house in Crossville.

Over the last few weeks, I have been overwhelmed with reflections on family, God's providence, blind alley's, and mystery. If David had not reached out to me, he would have never been found. And somehow I think if we had not looked faithfully, he would not have found us. Or at least, right now that's all I can put together.

But I do know this, some things come out of the blue and touch life in ways we never imagined. And when we they happen, they are even better than we ever hoped. This is one of them. Because I just became a new uncle, for the first time last night, I addressed birthday cards to my nephews that have been waiting 20 years to be sent. It's a new chapter for all of us.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

Bill, what a story! There are so many themes: faithfulness, searching, reaching, finding, knowing, discovering, missing, longing, pieces being reunited, surprises, and the fully human and fully God in it all. Thank you for allowing us to share a bit in this wonderful day and the days to come. We welcome David and his family to your extended faith family and friends and look forward to help bring him "home". Have a great day! Sandy

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