The news came to Robert Hatano in the mail. The letter was sent to his mother’s house in Bonsall, his permanent mailing address since his divorce. Hatano, director of dining services at Casa de Manana, didn’t know anyone in Massachusetts. So he assumed it was a thank-you from an eBay seller for making a purchase.
It was a thank-you. But, boy, was it not from an eBay seller.
“Dear Mr. Hatano,” it read, “I don’t know if you remember but, about 20 years ago, you donated some sperm. I happen to be that sperm. I just wanted to reach out, mostly because I want to say thank you for giving me life.”
Josie Brody, 19, was raised by a single lesbian Jewish mother in rural Orange, Massachusetts.
“But there was a side of me that I was curious about,” she tells the La Jolla Light. “I always knew growing up that there was this Japanese thing going on with me, and I just didn’t really know what that meant.”
Josie and her mother, Lise, have traveled to Robert’s mother’s house today — Josie from Stanford University, where she is a sophomore who hasn’t decided on a major, Lise from her home near Boston — to share Thanksgiving like the real-life instant family they have become in a little short of two years.
“I can sort of see her in me,” says Robert, who is 51, as he stares into Josie’s eyes. “She looks like my mom when she was young.”
“Are you kidding me?” adds Lise, 57. “She’s like a copy of him!”
Lise was teaching at a Massachusetts boarding school in the mid-‘90s when the maternal urge struck hard.
“I wanted to share the world with someone,” she recalls. “I was around kids, teaching kids. I wanted to parent someone. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling.”
Lise was partner-less at the time. “And that was the point,” she says. “I wasn’t with anyone and I wasn’t going to wait around.”
She had already cast a net for trusted male friends to donate. Only one stepped up and his sperm resulted in a miscarriage. So she called Pacific Reproductive Services in Oakland, which catered to lesbians — including several she knew.
“The first thing they sent you was a xeroxed list of all their donors by number,” Lise says before stopping her train of thought to address Robert. (“Is it weird for you to hear this?” she asks him. “No,” Robert replies.)
It is only the tenth time Robert and Josie have met in person, the fifth time for Robert and Lise. And you can already see the love in their body language. Josie strokes Robert’s left shoulder as she leans on and stares up at him, Lise holding her left hand.
Sperms and conditions
Each donor was described by criteria including hair and eye color, ethnicity, height, medical history, hobbies, profession and education level. (A PhD in physics was listed as “sold out.”)
Nowadays, with home DNA tests, anonymity for sperm and egg donors is no longer possible. But 20 years ago, it still was. And some of the donors Lise saw were willing to be identified when the child turned 18, others were not.
“That was my number-one criterion — that it be a donor who was willing to be known,” Lise says. “I wanted to give my child the option of knowing.”
Lise chose three finalists, then splurged for $30 more to see their longer profile forms — their answers to questions such as “what’s your goal in life?” and “where would you like to travel?”
“And you got to see their handwriting,” she says. “I read the forms and it was a no-brainer. (Robert’s) answers were down-to-earth, unpretentious. He just seemed like a really nice guy.”
A vial for self-insemination arrived on dry ice shortly after payment was received.
Lise coughs. Then Josie coughs. They all cough. They all have asthma, which Robert listed on his medical history.
“I should have looked more closely at that,” Lise jokes. They all laugh. And cough.
The great challenge in life
It was hardly the $50 that motivated Robert, then a film major at San Francisco State University, to answer the San Francisco Weekly classified ad that stated: “Sperm-donors needed, Asian, black, Hispanic.”
“I did it because I thought I could be helpful to someone,” Robert says. “I always wanted to have children. I thought it’s this great challenge in life — that to have and raise a child is the greatest thing. So if somebody really wanted a child, I imagine they would be really good parents and they should have that chance.”
Josie said her childhood was happy and didn’t feel to her as though someone was missing.
“It wasn’t that I had a hole in my life that I needed to fill,” she says. “I saw that other people had something that I didn’t. People asked, ‘What do your parents do?’ and all of my friends had dads who picked them up and threw them in the air. So I knew. But I’ve been so lucky. I’ve never felt like I don’t have enough support in my life. I’ve never thought my mom wasn’t all that I needed in any way, shape or form.”
Yet there was still that curiosity. So, soon after she turned 18 on Christmas Day 2016, Josie called the center. They provided Robert’s name, but didn’t know his current address, email or phone number. She Googled him and got the address of the house they’ve gathered in today.
There was more to Josie’s letter, by the way. It continued: “Obviously, I know you have a life. I don’t want to intrude on that. But if you’re interested, I would love to meet you.”
Robert folded it up, stuck it in his pocket and asked his mom and dad if they wanted to visit nearby Valley View Casino.
“I was in shock, but I have a pretty good poker face,” Robert says, “so we went off to the casino and I came back and read the letter. It was super sweet. It really got to me.”
Robert describes his parents as “very conservative” first-generation Japanese-Americans who might not have approved. In fact, he didn’t tell them for months. But they were ultimately both overjoyed to hear about and meet their grandchild. (Robert’s dad died last year.)
“Obviously, I knew that I had been a sperm donor, but I had no thought whatsoever that I would hear from a child,” Robert continues. “For all I knew, my vial was just sitting on a shelf somewhere.”
Robert and his ex-wife tried to have a baby, but she miscarried several times.
“Then, after we got divorced, I was 46,” he says, “which seemed pretty late to all of a sudden find the right person and have children.”
The letter couldn’t have arrived at a better time or to a better addressee.
“Robert’s pretty unusual, actually,” Lise says, “because I know a lot of people with donor-conceived kids. Some of them, there’s actually many, many donor siblings, and the donor siblings develop this little community. But the actual donor is kind of not involved or interested, or they’ll meet him and it’s like, ‘OK, nice to meet you, bye,’ and no relationship forms.
“Josie hit the jackpot,” she says.
Love at first sight
Bio-father and bio-daughter emailed back and forth for a month. Robert played it cooler than he actually felt about the blossoming relationship.
“I was nervous because it does mean a tremendous amount to me that she’s in this world,” he says. “It really changed my whole world view. At one point, I just thought, ‘Well, now I can die.’”
“No, no, don’t do that,” Josie interrupts him.
At Robert’s insistence, he met Josie and Lise at the same time. He flew into San Francisco, then drove them to Palo Alto to tour Stanford.
“Josie sat in on classes and Robert and I went to find a glass of wine, which we needed badly,” Lise picks up the story, laughing. “So we got talking, and it was a really lovely way to do it. And then we picked Josie up and it just looked like a family. It was a very surreal moment for me.”
Josie has no reservations referring to Robert as “my dad.” Likewise, Robert calls Josie “my daughter” but he feels a little weird about it.
“Obviously, I did nothing to raise her and it’s kind of uncomfortable when people praise me: ‘Oh, she’s so beautiful’ or ‘she’s so smart,’” he says, avoiding eye contact from the new women in his life.
“You can take credit for the beauty,” Lise replies, “and the smart. You can take credit for both of those. And you can take credit for the asthma!”
Everyone laughs and coughs again.
Lise — who it seems would have the smallest claim on being fundamentally altered by this experience — says she feels it equally.
“There were two things I always wanted,” she says as tears begin flowing from everyone. “One was to say thank you to whoever the man was, and the other thing was the only thing I found hard as a single parent — which was not surviving the flu or making ends meet, but not having there be another person in the world who also thought she was the most amazing child ever born.
“And now I feel I have that.”