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Your Life: I met my sister for the first time after 57 years.. John Rice thought his sister died at birth. But more than half a century later, a letter dropped on to his doorstep and started the journey of a lifetime.

Byline: By Tanya Russell

John Rice's hands shook as he made the phone call that was about to change his life.

After half a century believing his little sister was dead, John was about to speak to her for the first time - and he was terrified. But as soon as she began to talk, John's nerves faded away.

"Just hearing Sheila's voice finally made it real," says John, 68. "The conversation just flowed.

"We gabbled away as though we'd known each other for years."

John had spent all his life thinking that his younger sister had died at birth. In fact, Sheila had been adopted.

But after receiving a random letter 57 years later, John became bitten by the bug to find out what actually happened to her.

"As a child I envied friends with brothers and sisters, and longed for a sibling to play with," adds John. "So I was thrilled when my mum Myrtle announced that she was pregnant."

Taboo subject

When Myrtle went into hospital to give birth, John stayed with an aunt for a few days and there he found out he had a baby sister.

But his happiness was shortlived.

When John's mum came home empty-handed a few days later, nine-year-old John assumed his sister had died.

"The day Mum came out of hospital I was excitedly waiting for her. I couldn't wait to meet my sister. But when she walked in empty-handed, a bad feeling filled the pit of my stomach.

"I remember Mum whispering to my nan: 'He looks sad I haven't brought his baby sister home.' "That was it - no one mentioned her again. I didn't even know her name and I didn't dare ask. She became a taboo subject."

Over the years, John, who now lives in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, often wondered about his younger sibling but his parents never said a word.

John's dad died in 1972 and when his mum passed away 10 years later she left him a touching goodbye note. But she never left an explanation about his sister.

Then, in 2005, John, who was happily married to Mary with two children, received a letter from a woman asking if their father was still alive. John says: "I got a short note asking if our dad, Eric Alfred Rice, was still alive. It was a real bolt from the blue. I wasn't prepared for anything like it."

At first, John thought it was a scam. But when his wife Mary, 54, pointed out that the woman knew his dad's full name, John's curiosity got the better of him and he got back in touch.

"It turned out she was my half-sister My dad had an affair and I had three half-siblings in total. I was dumbstruck."

Being traced by his half sisters made John even more curious about his younger sister, and he became determined to find out the truth.

In early 2006, John contacted hospitals and trawled cemeteries near where he grew up in East Ham, London but he couldn't find one for a baby girl with the surname Rice for November 1949.

John then contacted nearby Stratford Register Office but with only a date of birth and a family surname it was a long shot.

However, the registrar came up trumps and provided a reference number. So John sent off for what he believed would be his sister's death certificate.

But what turned up was a birth certificate with his mother Myrtle's name on it and a line scratched through the father's name. At the bottom "adopted" was typed in large letters.

"For the first time in years it gave me hope that my sister was still alive," he says. "I started to believe that I would finally meet her one day."

John got in touch with adoption charity NORCAP and by June 2007 they had found his sister Sheila, who was living in Vancouver, Canada.

They emailed Sheila, who says: "I was very curious, surprised and a little guarded when I got the email from NORCAP.

"I had no idea who they were so I replied, saying: 'I might be this person, who wants to know?'"

The next day, Sheila received more information from the charity and realised it was authentic.

Sheila, now 59, had lived just 20 minutes from John's home in East Ham until she was five. Then she and her family emigrated to Canada after her adoptive father joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

"I was 14 when my parents told me I was adopted. They said that when they collected me a social worker said I had an older brother but I never thought much else about it. Mum admitted that she always lived in fear that Myrtle would want me back one day."

John and Sheila first made contact with each other via email a month later and, six days later, John finally phoned.

"I was terrified as I waited for him to call. I couldn't help wondering if John wanted money - or a kidney!" remembers Sheila.

"But as soon as we started talking we got on. He was so easy going. It was very natural."

After a few phone chats, they were eager to meet face-to-face.

John says: "My wife Mary said we should book tickets to Canada straight away. Within weeks we went for it and booked them."

In August 2007 John, Mary and their daughter Anna, 14, flew to Port Moody in Vancouver, to meet Sheila for the first time.

John says: "I spotted her immediately. She has our mum's brown hair, blue eyes and beaming smile. It was a very emotional meeting. We hugged for a long time."

Sheila adds: "Within minutes we realised we have the same laugh.

"We also noticed that we have similar mannerisms, we always cross our arms or rub our fingertips when we talk."

In July, this year, Sheila and her husband Hugh, 60, flew to Britain to stay with John and Mary, and they went back to their East Ham roots, visiting their mother's grave, the hospital where Sheila was born and even her old school.

"Our trip was fantastic. I knew instinctively where everything was. It was like I'd never left and it was very emotional," she adds "John is the perfect big brother, so laid back and gentle.

"Meeting each other has been wonderful and we're planning on spending Christmas 2009 together."

John says: "We now speak to each other for about 20 minutes a week and I always look forward to our chats.

"I'm so happy to finally have the sister that I always longed for."

She looks just like Mum - we hugged for ages


GROWING UP ALONE: John and his mother Myrtle on holiday in Margate, Kent, 1947; INNOCENT: Sister Sheila, aged four; TOGETHER AT LAST: John and Sheila; HALFWAY ROUND THE WORLD: John, Anna, Mary, Sheila and her husband Hugh in Canada
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 26, 2008
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