If someone close to you has died, you’ve probably had the experience of thinking you’ve seen that person out in the world. You’ve been at the grocery store, maybe, when you spied someone who looked just like your loved one from the back. You held your breath for a moment, but then that person turned, and their profile didn’t look anything like you hoped, and you might have sighed and pushed your cart down the aisle and maybe cried a little when you grabbed the Pepperidge Farm thumbprint cookies you used to eat together.
Research has shown that as many as 60 percent of grieving people have “post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences,” when they think they’ve seen their lost loved ones. I’ve had several moments like this where I’ve seen people who reminded me of my dead parents — my dad gone two years, my mom gone eight — but the moments lasted only for a flash. This past summer, however, an encounter didn’t end when one of these doubles turned his head.
In June, my husband and our 8-year-old drove from our home in Lake Tahoe, Calif., to the Families Belong Together march in Reno, Nev. We joined throngs of people in the city plaza, then walked past life-size whale sculptures — a mother and baby made of stained glass — and across the bridge spanning the Truckee River. As we waited for the closing speakers, a man came toward us, and my breath stopped in my chest.
It was my dad — a shorter, younger version of my dad, who had died at age 96 but had always looked young for his age. The resemblance was uncanny — this man’s profile, his slight build, his facial expressions, his kind eyes, the way he stood, were all deeply familiar. He told us he liked our sign, an anti-swastika image on one side, Lady Liberty weeping on the other, and we started to talk as tears burned behind my own eyes.
We learned that this man, Gary, had just moved to Reno from New York to help campaign for candidates in the midterm elections. He was in his early 70s, an author and psychologist and a longtime activist. We also learned, to our amazement, that he was developing an app for progressive organizing very similar to one my husband and I had for years talked about creating but hadn’t had time to develop ourselves. Out of the hundreds of people at this march, we somehow bumped into someone who not only looked like my beloved late dad but was working on a project we had also dreamed up. The moment felt like one of my dad’s favorite Hebrew words — “bashert” (“meant to be”).
As we drove home, I kept shaking my head in awe. “I can’t believe that just happened,” I must have said a dozen times during the hour-long drive.
“I think we’re kin,” I said of my father-double.
My husband had exchanged numbers with Gary, and we met him the next day at an art festival, where he taught us swing dance moves and we helped him remember song lyrics from musicals. My heart kept pounding Dad Dad Dad Dad Dad.
Shortly afterward, my husband started to help program Gary’s project. Gary stayed with us a few days in August, and it was wild to have a man who looked like my dad in our house.
We had bought the cabin when my dad was dying, and as much as I love it, it has been a great sadness to me that my dad would never see it or step inside it. Now Gary was there, and while I knew he wasn’t my dad — my dad, for instance, never would have opened a stinky can of sardines in my house — and while I knew I shouldn’t project my feelings for my dad onto this man, I had moments when I looked at him and felt as if my dad was truly standing in my kitchen.
My husband and I decided to give Gary my husband’s 23andMe kit, one he had ordered for himself but hadn’t used yet. I already had a 23andMe profile as part of a research study, and this seemed like a good opportunity to see whether Gary and I are truly related. He spat in the vial and we sent it off for testing.
He recently received the results, and we learned that we are, in fact, distant cousins with eight identical segments of DNA.
I was beside myself with excitement, but Gary seemed nonchalant, texting that our connection was based on our social activism more than our DNA.
I agree that dedication is important, and it is part of what makes him feel like kin, but I still find it deeply satisfying to know I was right in my instinct that he is family. We are still not sure where the branches of our family tree converge — 23andMe says our connection runs at least five generations back, and my husband calculates it’s probably seven, based upon the percentage of shared genes. It’s likely that we have a common ancestor from Radomyshl or Zhytomyr, the two Ukrainian villages I’m aware that my dad’s family hails from.
I hope to uncover that connection after further digging.
Who knows how many relatives we walk past in our lives, unaware that we share some measure of blood? I have 1,029 DNA relatives at 23andMe, and, of course, the number walking this earth is far greater than those registered on the site.
Would something deep in me stir if I were to see one of these DNA relatives at a grocery store? Do our genes wave at each other at some atomic level? That is the case for certain animals — Jill Mateo, head of the Adaptive Research Lab at the University of Chicago, writes that “odors are used as cues to familiarity or genetic relatedness in mammals, birds, amphibians, fish and insects.” Perhaps we have something similar buried deep inside our human bodies.
When we see doubles of our departed loved ones, it is almost always a product of grief, of course, not genes. My experience just happens to be a strange, lucky (perhaps bashert?) combination. But even if 23andMe had told us Gary and I share zero genetic material, I know he would still feel like kin, this very singular double of my dad.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of “The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.”