He had never thought much about his roots, his ancestry, the young woman who released him for adoption a week after his birth in Albuquerque. Ken Woods was a happy guy who knew who he was and was satisfied with that.
“Everything was good,” said Woods, 59. “I was raised with lots of love and always felt wanted by my adoptive parents.”
But the curiosity of his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Nicole Bridges, was not as easily placated. As a Christmas gift in 2015, they bought him a DNA testing kit, which provided the means to unlock his genetic code, trace his ethnic roots and connect him to new relatives, all with a sample of spit.
“We wanted to know about his biological family more than he did,” said Lisa, Ken’s wife of 35 years.
But oh, be careful what you wish for. Digging for Ken’s roots also unearthed a deadly secret in the genes that forced them all to contemplate the fragility of life and the foreboding of death.
“You expect you’ll find out things in your DNA about why you have red hair or blue eyes,” Ken said. “But you don’t expect something like this.”
Results from the kit arrived in February 2016. Ken’s DNA workup was added to the company’s database, which includes more than 5 million people. One, a cousin, was a match.
Identities remain private until both parties agree to share their information via email. Ken, still in no hurry to learn about his ancestry, decided to wait until the cousin reached out to him. She did in November 2016.
The cousin, who lives in Kansas, eventually connected Ken to her uncle Billy Hoffman, brother to Jack and Mac Hoffman, the latter being her father.
Billy was in the Navy from 1955 to 1958, a year before Ken’s birth in 1959. But no one knew the woman who gave birth to Ken, and no one knows whether the woman ever revealed the pregnancy before traveling to a home for unwed mothers in Albuquerque.
Billy, who married in 1961, had worked in the telecommunications field for 36 years before he retired. Ken, too, has worked for a telecommunications company for 38 years.
That’s not the only thing both men share.
In February 2017, the cousin dropped a bombshell – a “genetic issue,” she called it. Billy and brother Jack both suffered from Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder that causes the debilitating breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, affecting muscle coordination and leading to cognitive decline and psychiatric problems and, eventually, death.
It’s a cruel disease that picks apart its victims, laying waste to body and mind, sometimes taking years, sometimes far shorter, before it takes everything.
“It’s like getting Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s all in one disease,” Lisa said.
Signs and symptoms often appear in a person’s 30s or 40s, but the disease can emerge later or earlier, including in children.
Although medication can help manage the symptoms, there is no cure.
Billy was 70 when he died in 2009, the last decade of his life tortured by the disease; brother Jack died at 69 in 2004. In addition, one of Jack’s sons is in the early stages of Huntington’s, the cousin said.
Every child of a parent with the disease has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene that causes the disease. A genetic test is available to determine the likelihood of the gene’s presence.
It was nearly a year before Ken took the test. The results confirmed he had the gene.
“It was devastating,” Lisa said.
Now, every twitch, every stumble, every evaporated memory is fretted over. Is it a sign that the disease is bearing down? Is it just growing old?
“I lived nearly 60 years of my life not knowing,” Ken said. “But now I know. And it does make you think differently about everything.”
Daughter Nicole, who turned 30 this year, has taken the news hard, not just because she worries about her father but because she, too, has a 50 percent chance of carrying the gene and may have passed it on to her sons, ages 4 and 2.
For now, she has decided not to be tested.
“When we found out that this was a possibility, I immersed myself in learning about Huntington’s and I regret doing that now that it’s in my face,” she said. “I know too much.”
She and her husband, Justin, have decided not to tell their sons. Not yet, anyway.
“My dad hopes by the time they are old enough to know, that maybe there will be a cure,” she said.
So they hope, and they live and they think of what is now, what is good, what is left.
Ken and Lisa have booked a Mediterranean cruise, something on Ken’s bucket list – a list he never had until now. Nicole and Justin bought a camper and use it as often as they can.
“I enjoy each day more, though I also experience anxiety and stress,” Nicole said. “I learn to believe that each day is a gift.”
Each day, Ken said, still brings lots of love.
“You learn quickly what is important and what is not important,” he said.
For that, for now, he is satisfied.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.