Why did they break up? “Just differences and gossip and high-school jealousy,” Jason mutters, with the dismissive tone grown-ups save for adolescent melodrama. “He liked somebody else,” Heather says, for the second or third time. I notice that Jason doesn’t ever admit that she’s right on that point, possibly because, well, you’d have to see Heather. But when they were both just kids at Southeast High School and Jason had just broken Heather’s heart, he thought her pregnancy was probably a ploy. He started dating someone else. Heather didn’t; she told everybody she was carrying Jason’s child. “It was 16-year-old love,” she says. “There was no one else. Despite the rumors, I’m not a cheater.”
When the baby arrived, Jason elected not to sign the birth certificate, but Heather named the child Cheyenne Nicole Morgan Siebert — wedging Jason’s surname in, just because she was certain.
Jason played along. His family kept Cheyenne at their home on weekends, and they all fell hopelessly in love with the little girl. “I loved having a grandchild,” says Jason’s mom, Vicky. “Jason would play with her, and it was great, because I saw him growing with her and getting attached.”
“She was pretty much my daughter,” Jason admits. So it seemed almost like a technicality when the Illinois Department of Public Aid asked for a DNA test. Heather’s cousin drove them all to the Springfield Armory, where a lady sitting at a picnic table snapped Polaroids of Jason, Heather, and Cheyenne — then almost 2 years old — and swabbed their mouths with Q-tips. A couple of months later, they received test results from National Legal Labs Inc. It looks like an unintelligible list of alleles and variants and decimal points, but it ends with a statement that’s crystal clear: “Mr. Morgan is EXCLUDED from being the father of Cheyenne.”
Because Heather was out of town when the letter arrived, her mother took on the task of delivering the news to Jason’s family. “Heather’s mom called me, and we cried on the phone together,” Vicky says. Suddenly the memory overwhelms her, and Heather, and Jason so intensely that someone has to run and get a box of Kleenex. “Heather said we could keep Cheyenne in our lives, but I said no, that would be too hard,” Vicky sobs, “so we just stopped right then.”
For Jason, the test told him all he needed to know. “Hey — DNA is DNA,” he says. “My dad’s a correctional officer. People get sent to prison because of DNA. Obviously she isn’t mine.”
Heather, on the other hand, was mystified. “I didn’t know what to think,” she says. “The test was wrong. I was not lying about this. If it wasn’t Jason, it was God — that’s the thing I kept on saying, for years and years and years.”
Heather and Cheyenne moved to Chicago. Jason graduated from high school and became a carpet installer. For several years he was involved in a serious relationship that produced two children, now ages 6 and 3. He discovered that he really relished fatherhood, and that revelation made him worry about Cheyenne. “I’ve got a daughter now, and it was hard realizing that another little girl was being told I’m her father,” Jason says. “I can only imagine what she’s thinking — why doesn’t my dad want to see me? Why doesn’t he want to be part of my life? All she knows about is a test separating me and her. It was weighing on me.”
He would hear from Heather about twice a year, and she would update him on Cheyenne. When the little girl was 5, Heather told Jason about Cheyenne’s Christmas wish: She asked Santa Claus for a dad. Jason decided to do what Heather had been hoping — take another paternity test. It took some time to work out the logistics; to save up the fee, almost $700; to find a lab. Heather got the results on Jan. 26: Jason is definitely Cheyenne’s dad. Since then, they’ve been noticing clues that were there all along: Cheyenne has Jason’s jaw, Jason’s ears, and her fourth toe curls in just like Jason’s and Vicky’s. Last Friday, while Cheyenne was spending the weekend with the Morgans, Jason called Heather with another piece of proof: “Man, all you had to do was bring her around me to eat,” he said. “Cheyenne hums when she eats, and I do the same thing.”
Now he’s got her every weekend, along with his four other kids from other relationships. “We have a blast,” he says. “We do it all! Daddy bakes cakes, we make brownies, we get movies, games. . . “
They’re making up for 10 years of lost love, a decade of missing father/daughter time, a gaping hole in their family. On Monday, they were planning to go ice skating, and sledding, and play football, and baseball, and . . . well, how’s that for a belated Valentine?
Contact Dusty Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.