Finding the family I never knew I had

Sheena Hastings with her dad Sean on her wedding day.
Sheena Hastings with her dad Sean on her wedding day.
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For Sheena Hastings 2015 was the year that she said goodbye to a beloved father - and in the same year found a sister and 19 cousins. Here she talks about her emotional journey.

MY darling Dad is gone. It’s been five months, and still he is my first thought in the morning and last thought as I slip away into dreams where he often features - telling one of his myriad yarns, prefaced by “Did I tell you the one about...?”

He rarely waited for the answer, and even if I’d heard the tale before I was still usually entertained, but would sometimes slip in a question to send him scurrying off down some side street of memory before returning to where he’d left off.

Descended from a long line of yarn-spinners born and bred in the west of Ireland, Dad was a well-read, newspaper-obsessed, wordsmith of the first degree. An interest in the world, curiosity about people and a passionate love for his family - these were the pillars that underpinned his life.

He left his village, got a job, and found the love of his life as she spun past him, a ravishing blur of pink on a bicycle. They wed, four children came along and they emigrated to England for a better life.

In 2003 we lost Mum and thought Dad would never get over his grief, but eventually he picked himself up. He took up his pen again - and the natural habit of saying what he thought to friends near and far, CEOs, presidents and prime ministers (who all replied) undoubtedly helped. The heartrending letters about his inner loneliness are in my kitchen drawer.

By his 90s, Dad was frail in the legs, his heart and lungs were dodgy at times, he cursed his old man’s bladder, but mentally he was still completely himself. Happiest when chatting or writing, we sometimes thought he’d go on forever.

Then he was gone. Having travelled to a worldwide gathering of the clan back in Ireland, he was in a comfy bed with a glorious view of his beloved mountains when he had a heart attack and left us in seconds. It was the kind of death we all dream of, really. We all deal with grief differently, and I think I’ve only just set one foot down that road. I spot things in the newspaper all the time and think “I’ll send that to Dad”. Then reality kicks me, hard.

As it happens, Dad wasn’t my natural father. More than 20 years ago, when we were planning our wedding and getting together the required paperwork, it came to light that I had been adopted after my parents had had their own three children.

Mum was annoyed that I’d found out and determined not to talk about it. Dad stood between us, asking me not to upset her. I was stuck in limbo, but pieced the basic story together with help from relatives. It turned out that all of my 50 first cousins (and siblings) knew my story. The facts were these: Mum’s younger sister, whose health was delicate, fell for a man who was working temporarily in her town. She got pregnant - and then found out he had a wife.

They were both Catholic and divorce was impossible, so my mother was sent away to a mother and baby home in England. To avoid the stigma of being an unmarried mother, I was given to and later adopted by her older sister and husband.

I knew my birth mother as “Auntie”, saw her all the time and adored her. She later married another man and had a second daughter - but died shortly afterwards during heart surgery. Finding out later that it was my mother who had died caused fresh grief and other problems - and for a while drove a wedge between my parents and I. Only once could I make Mum talk about it.

I turned to an agency in Leeds called After Adoption, who gave me guidance and applied for my adoption file. I read all the reports written by social workers about Mum and Dad’s suitability as adopters, and a sorrowful letter from my birth mother, explaining that she was not well enough to keep me.

Unlike some adopted people, I had no feelings of rejection. In so many senses this is a happy story - although for a long time it was very difficult to understand the reasons behind the silence.

Of course I was curious about my birth father, but for years I talked myself out of trying to trace him, because I already had parents I loved and who loved me. Did I really want to hurt them or seem ungrateful? Did I really need to discover another complicated family? What if I found him and he didn’t want to know? What if he was in prison for murder or child molesting? These things do happen.

Then, in April this year, a man with the same name was in the news and a switch in my head and heart was finally thrown. The man was too young to be him, and my father was almost certainly dead, but still something told me it was time...

Around an hour or so spent searching the web turned up an interesting sounding man of the right kind of age to be a cousin. He lived only 40 miles away. He had a public-facing job and web page, so I sent him a guarded email about researching a branch of family history, mentioning the name and birthplace of my father.

Within a couple of hours I received an answer, saying (amazingly) that he was going to the very town in Ireland the next day. He would talk to relatives and be back in touch. A week later, his email began: “Hello cousin!”

There followed a torrent of exchanges, with him supplying vivid childhood memories of my birth father - a handsome, charming, Jack-the-lad who was the youngest of six and the black sheep of the family. He’d died in 1988 and frankly, I felt relief that I could not meet him.

My birthday came, and I received greetings from 19 new cousins across the globe whom I had not yet met. I was overwhelmed by their warm welcome. In early May I met the cousin who’d answered my email and his sister. We talked and laughed for hours. They told me I had a much older sister living 70 miles away. Shock quickly turned to excitement.

You can’t force these things, but so far I feel everything has happened at the right time. My ‘new’ sister never had a sibling and lost her mother at six years old. She has two children and four grandchildren. We share a father who was probably a troubled man in ways we’ll never know. We now have each other with whom to share feelings only we know.

I’ve been to Ireland to meet more cousins and it’s thrilling to be part of a kind and interesting bunch of people who’ve adjusted quickly to my sudden appearance.

Shortly afterwards I decided to tell Dad. My overriding feeling was that I wanted to be honest and make it clear that for me these new connections would never affect our close relationship.

I’d also surmised that Dad had always been uneasy about the secrecy. Holding my breath I showed him the emails. He read them and then, with an emotional catch in his voice, said: “I’m so delighted that things are finally right…” - before pulling me to him for a hug. A few weeks later he died, but I knew everything that needed to be said had been said.