Christina was set to have breakfast with her biological father—a man neither she nor her mother had ever seen. Mary Hall was a librarian and single mother of two in 1984 when she became a client of the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley. The nonprofit facility had recently become the first in the nation to offer donors the option of making their identities available upon request once their offspring turn 18—and the donor who helped produce Christina had checked the "yes" box. Mary told her daughter early on about the circumstances of her birth. And from age 10, says Christina, "I kept asking, when can I meet him?"
Though more than 30 children conceived under the sperm bank's identity release program have come of age so far, Christina is the first to seek out her father. "It still isn't a culturally acceptable means of conceiving," says executive director Alice Ruby. "Until the mid-'90s doctors told patients not to tell their children how they were conceived." But as the stigma fades, more facilities are beginning to follow the California clinic's lead. Two offer the same identity release option; a handful of others allow women to choose their donors with the help of letters, photos, even videos. Says Ruby: "Women want to be able to give their children as much information as possible."
That's fine by the donor who made Christina possible. Phillip (his name has been withheld to protect him from an uncontrolled onslaught of inquiries from potential offspring) was 26 and adrift in 1984, an. unmarried security guard, when he spotted an ad in the paper. "It said, 'Help families have children.' When they specifically requested African-American donors I decided to check it out." Motivated by the chance to change lives, he says, as well as the $25 fee, he made dozens of donations over the next three years, checking the identity release box each time. "I was curious," he says. "I wanted to know how this person would grow up." (To lower the odds of siblings unwittingly intermarrying, donors are limited to 10 successful inseminations.)
One of Phillip's donations went to Mary Hall. Then 36 and separated from her husband, Mary was already the mother of a teenage son and a 12-year-old girl. "I was having early empty-nest syndrome, and I wanted another baby," she says, adding that she also wanted the donor to be black, like the father of her other kids. "I wanted my children to match."
Christina was born on March 29, 1985, and grew up in Northern California. And this past May 15 she left a breathless phone message: "Hi, Phillip, this is Christina. Eighteen years ago you donated sperm, and I'm the girl who was born after the donation. I wanted you to know that I turned out really well and I'd like to talk with you and possibly meet you." The call stunned Phillip, now a nurse's assistant in Oakland Hospital's trauma unit. He replayed the message five times. "When I heard her voice," says the separated father of two, "I was elated. My current life melted away and another part of me was born."
Phillip returned Christina's call the next day—and quickly discovered that he and his daughter are in some ways carbon copies. Christina's first question: "Do you have big feet?" "When I said, 'yes,' " he recalls, "she shouted, 'I knew it! That's where mine come from.' Then she asked if my sense of humor ever got me in trouble. I said it did, but I've learned to dial it down."
After four more conversations and an exchange of photos by mail, they arranged a late-June meeting. Phillip couldn't sleep the night before. He made himself pan-seared salmon at 3 a.m., called cousins on the East Coast at 4 ("Hey guys, today's the day I'm going to meet Christina. Pray for me") and his mother at 7 ("I hope Christina likes me"). At 9 a.m. he knocked on the door of room 256 at the Waterfront Plaza Hotel in Oakland, where Christina and her mother waited. Christina says she had a terrifying thought: "Oh, I hope I don't puke on him." She didn't. She and her father simply stared at each other. "I just wanted to touch her face," he says. Initially, he settled for a hug. Then he handed a dozen pink gladiolus to Mary and a bag of chocolates to his daughter. Finally, he stroked her face. They giggled over their identical feet, hands and knobby ears, then spent two hours talking about everything from their families to their mutual love of reggae music.
Phillip was dumbstruck by his daughter's poise and her plans. Christina will attend junior college in the fall; eventually, she told him, "I'm going to be the No. 1 FBI forensic scientist in the United States. Then I'm off to catch killers."
She had already captured her father's heart. After their encounter, the pair promised to keep up their phone chats and visits. "I'm not going to push myself on her, but I'm here if she wants to call or hang out," says Phillip, who hopes some of the other six children he sired will get in touch with him when they turn 18. Christina was equally hooked. "I always knew we would click," she says. "It was better than any of my dreams."
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Oakland