In February of 2021, I received a highly unanticipated text message on 23andme.com, the online DNA testing site. Someone who’d I had never met, or even heard of, sent me the following direct message:
I immediately looked at this person’s account information on 23andme.com to see what prompted this message as I had difficulty imagining why they would reach out to me. My initial impression raised my curiosity as they were listed as my first cousin:
This was interesting. We “likely share a set of grandparents.” But, my mind had already raced to the more logical conclusion, as the only family member I know that was in Panama at that time was my own father. He was there before I was born and I didn’t know if he was married at the time. If he did father a son there, I was very concerned about what impact it would have on him and on my mother, Sharon. So, for over a month, I did not tell anyone about this note or respond to Roy. I just contemplated it.
Eventually, I reached the conclusion that if it were me, and I was looking for my father, I would be hurt if someone just suppressed any helpful information. So I reached out to my older brother, Tommy, and told him what I knew so far. In the next several days, he learned the exact years that Dad was in Panama and that he’d actually met my mom after returning. With that information in hand, I decided to put the matter into my father’s hands.
After a visit with my mom and dad one day, I had my dad walk me out to my truck. I said, “Dad, I want to talk with you about something, but I don’t want to upset you.” He replied, “Son, nothing you say could upset me.” I smiled, “Okay, let’s see…”
After a brief description of the events and communications, he replied, “Well, it could be.” I told him that my brother was the only one who knew and any decision to move forward would be entirely his. Within a day or two, he called a Family Meeting. As a matter of context, I cannot ever recall him calling a Family Meeting before in my life. My brother and I met him and my mother at their house later that week and we went through everything we knew. My mom’s reaction was not entirely positive, as is understandable. She was under the impression that they were each other’s firsts when they married. But, she is a strong woman, and agreed with the emerging plan: I would reach out to Roy to determine what we should do next. So, I replied to Roy:
Roy reached out to me on iMessage and we began texting…lengthy texts…where we both expressed our amazement, caution, surprise, excitement, and concerns about the matter. Of particular note was a part of Roy’s message where he said that “…I asked if he knew the name of his father and all he knew was his first name ‘Layton or Leighton’ not sure of the spelling.” I replied that, “…based on the genetics, the timing, and the fact that my father’s name is Layton, I’d say you are my half-nephew. Quite a development.” He replied:
Roy informed me that his father, Jose, had submitted a sample to 23andme.com recently, but the results were not back. Roy would see them first as he set up the account for his father. He recommended that we wait until we had some more evidence because he didn’t want to give his father false hope. While we waited for the results, Roy and I began exchanging photos via iMessage. When I saw Jose, the family resemblance was immediately apparent. But we still held off in anticipation of the final results from 23andme.com.
We exchanged many more messages and I learned about Jose’s daughter, Aida, and that they had another brother, Gabriel, who had died from complications of Covid in 2020. Roy shared with me that he’d been communicating with his brother, Jose Jr., and his sister, Aida, and they all agreed they saw the family resemblance. We went back and forth with many, many messages of excitement and astonishment.
Per my arrangement with my father, I still kept the secret between this small group. On one visit with my father, I asked how he was feeling about the situation. He said he had talked with some some trusted people at his church and everyone was supportive and that he’d discussed it with a few others as well. I asked, “Who else?” He replied, “My sister Myra, granddaughter Alicia, brother-in-law Tom…” and the list kept going. I realized this secret was out of the bag and that with the pending results from 23andme.com, the communications between the families would soon outgrow the current channel between just Roy and me.
I added Tommy to the text message discussion and he, Roy, and I began texting even more. We shared so many pictures and thoughts about the situation. Frankly, we were all getting very excited about it and began referring to our families as one and stumbling through the relationships….it was so confusing at first! We would say “cousin” one time, then “brother”, then “nephew” as we were constantly trying to “do the math.” We learned that Jose had moved here in the nineties and had tried unsuccessfully to find his father and that the entire family was living in New York.
Then, on Sunday March 28th, I received this message from Roy with information from Jose’s 23andme.com account:
I quickly confirmed on my own 23andme.com account and, as Ron Burgundy might say, “Things escalated quickly.” Now, the Jimenez clan scheduled their own Family Meeting to tell Jose that they had located his father, alive and well in Alabama, and that he had two brothers as well. They shared a video of them showing the results to Jose and, now that he knew, information really started flowing fast. Dozens of pictures from both families were exchanged and everyone on both sides was frantically trying to figure out who everyone on the other side was.
Just about a week later, on Easter Sunday, April 4th, we shared the pictures and videos with my dad for the first time at a gathering at Tommy’s (and his wife Julie’s) house. For the first time, my dad was able to see his 59 year old son that he never realized he had. Of course, everyone on the Jimenez side kept asking about how it was going. We shared a video of my dad seeing all the evidence with them and also relayed that my mom was acclimating to the revelation. By the end of the day we received a message from Jose that he was looking forward to meeting us all when the pandemic permitted travel.
Now, we had to get more people involved. I set up a private Facebook group for the families and distant cousins began posting pictures and comments. Everyone was so sweet and welcoming on both sides of the family. The messages continued on Facebook and in an ever-expanding text message group. Before long, everyone was talking about meeting in person. Within a month, a plan had emerged for the Jimenez family to come to Alabama and visit with the Cox family the weekend of July 31st. So amazing, within 90 days of the first contact we had made plans for the first Family (Re) Union.
As the weekend approached over the next two months, we learned more and more about the families. Jose and my father had spoken on the phone several times and we had sent text messages, exchanged phone calls, and did FaceTime calls many times. It became clear to both families that we would enjoy our time together, but of course we were all still very nervous. A sixty-year old puzzle had been solved, but there was so much to communicate in the meantime. There were still sensitivities and occasionally private messages would be exchanged as each side addressed delicate topics.
By July, the trip was fully planned. Jose and his wife Aida would be coming to Alabama, arriving Friday, July 30th and departing on Monday, August 2nd. Joining them was their oldest son, Jose Jr., his wife Yvelisse, and their two children, Daniela and Vincent. Also coming were Jose and Aida’s daughter, also named Aida, and – of course – the instigator of the entire (Re) union, Roy. My daughter, Riley, also drove in for the trip from Missouri. For the first night, we decided to get the three brothers together with members of their family. We all met at The Club which overlooks Birmingham. Tommy’s wife, Julie, filmed the first encounter:
As the evening went on, we took many pictures as you can see below. By now, most of these faces should be familiar, but Jose’s wife, Aida, and Tommy’s wife, Julie, appear here for the first time.
We were having such fun, the three brothers and a few others decided to continue to (re) union at a local sports bar, The Hickory Tavern.
The next day, Tommy and Julie hosted an event at their house for Jose to meet my (and his) dad for the first time. I am sure everyone was a bit nervous, but after The Club and Hickory Tavern, we already felt like family by this point. The video from the first meeting:
For this event, a much larger group was a present including children, cousins, and grandkids….
The next day, we weren’t entirely sure what to do. It was a pretty day though and we had leftover food from Saturday, so we decided to meet back up at Tommy and Julie’s house. This time everyone was fully relaxed and we all felt like one big happy family. And, on this day, the cornhole went to a new level.
My iPhone summarized the day by creating this video…
On Monday we met up at lunch once again as a family. Both Layton and Jose took a moment to speak and shared what a meaningful event the weekend had been for them both. Layton shared that the faith he holds so dear was only accentuated by the events of the weekend and learning he had a son and that their family shared the core value of his Christian faith: Love One Another. Jose remarked about the loss of his beloved son Gabriel and how he had felt so lost, but that he believed the Architect had placed a new family in his life to help fill that terrible void.
Needless to say, there were tears all around. But so much joy for everyone. For me, it has been such a privilege to meet this new family of mine and to be embraced in such a pure and loving way. I know I can speak for the entire group, on both sides of the family, that we all feel incredibly blessed to make this mutual discovery in time for Jose to meet Layton and Sharon. And, certainly, we are all in great anticipation for the first REUNION of this new mixed family.