When Oprah Winfrey recently announced that she had just learned of the existence of a half-sister, she described it as news that "shook [her] to [her] core." I understood what she meant. Two years after my father's death, as I was going through family documents, I discovered that he had been divorced before marrying my mother. I was stunned. Under questioning, my mother revealed that he had a daughter, who was about 10 years older than me, from his first marriage, which had ended several years before he met my mother. Asked why they had kept this from me, my mother shrugged: "People didn't talk about things like that in those days."
I felt betrayed by my parents -- but not quite ready to go looking for my sister.
A few years later, she found me. We talked on the phone a few times before meeting in person at the spiritual study center where I was a resident student. Friends waited with me for her arrival, curious if there was a family resemblance. There wasn't. She is tall with blond hair and blue eyes. I'm medium height with black hair and brown eyes. Looking at each other, the whole situation seemed strange.
I showed her around the campus, and we shared what we knew about our common family. I appreciated her open curiosity and easy laughter, though I could tell she was nervous. Unlike me, she had always known there was another daughter. My mother and I were part of the reason she'd only had sparse contact with our father over the years.
At one point she asked, "Did Dad leave any money?"
"No, he died in debt from medical bills," I explained. She nodded. My monk-like quarters at the retreat center confirmed that I was not living in inherited luxury. Still, I felt a twinge of discomfort. Did this woman want something of me, other than connection? What if he had left me money? Would I owe half of it to her?
I remembered that moment when I heard about Oprah and felt grateful I didn't have billions to be envied or resented. It's been simpler for my sister and I, though still not always simple. It took me a while to remember to say "our dad," instead of "my dad," as I had always thought of him. It took me a while to call her "my sister" instead of "half-sister." It took a while to say "love you, too" at the end of our phone calls, which along with visits have continued intermittently over the 18 years since we first met.
Many gifts have come from this connection. We each knew a piece of our father, but not the whole. I knew he had served on a destroyer sunk during the Normandy Invasion and that he had saved another man while treading water in the freezing sea as Germans shot at them. My family described him as a war hero. My sister's family described him as a gambler and a drunk, an image that made me wonder if we should get DNA testing to make sure we were talking about the same person.
As we put our separate pieces together, however, a new more whole picture emerged: my father was a war hero who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when he came home, back when "people didn't talk about things like that," as my mother put it.
Learning about her husband's role at Normandy seemed helpful to my sister's mother, who never knew about his wartime experiences, though they probably haunted her marriage. I think airing the secrets was also healing for my mother, who got to have lunch with my sister on one of her trips through our town before both of our mothers passed away, within six months of each other.
The connection has been a blessing for me, too. Raised as an only child -- without a sibling who shares early memories the way my two children do -- I'm grateful to continue to get to know my sister, who like our father, is a survivor, prospering after a childhood that was harder than mine was. I see glimpses of him in her -- in her height and sometimes in the things she posts on Facebook. It's an added pleasure that her Facebook wall is now shared with cousins whom I introduced her to at last summer's family reunion.
Apparently, all the cousins knew about her -- even our second cousins -- but they had been instructed not to tell me until my mother did. There was a family-wide sigh of relief when the secret came out, which often happens with secrets.
Ironically, I feel grateful to Oprah, knowing that her show and the culture of revelation she helped to create probably helped my sister and I bring our family's secrets into the open. After more than a quarter century of seeing guests talk about issues that used to be taboo, our generation is more comfortable with messy truths than our mothers were. My hope for Oprah is that she can feel some of this freedom herself, despite her fame and fortune, and enjoy the gift that a surprise sister can be.
Follow Eileen Flanagan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eileenflanagan