Natalie Friedl is positively beaming as she sits outside her family’s Huntersville home next to her older half-brother Ryan Krok, who barely an hour ago walked off a flight from Ohio and met Friedl’s family in person for the first time.
Looking at her, you can just tell: The 40-year-old elementary school art teacher can hardly contain her excitement over the fact he’s actually here, in the flesh, breathing the same air as her, about to spend the next three days letting her show him all of her favorite places around the Charlotte area, and the next three nights crashing on her family’s sleeper sofa.
Ever since the morning back in April when Friedl tracked him down online — after 20 years during which neither had the foggiest idea what the other was up to — these two half-siblings have been in contact. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes via a running thread of text messages, oftentimes by getting on the phone and actually having a real-live conversation.
With rather alarming frequency, they say, they keep finding things they have in common, and keep discovering weird everyday-life coincidences involving the two. And they’re constantly looking for more.
As they sit together in the driveway, Friedl is starting to offer a few examples when she interrupts herself to mention that she recently saw a documentary called “Three Identical Strangers,” in which triplet brothers separated at birth find each other as adults.
“We were sort of falling in love,” one of them says in the film, describing the early days of their new relationships. “It was, ‘You like this thing? I love that!’ There was definitely a desire to like the same things and to be the same.”
“That’s what it feels like,” Friedl explains. “It’s so just like that. ‘What do you like to eat?’ ‘Let’s take this personality test.’”
Krok brings up the time a couple months ago when he made a music playlist for her, and how — before she listened to it — she sent him a link to a song she wanted him to check out. It was a song on the playlist.
Friedl continues: “Or like, ‘Oh, what are you having for dinner tonight?’ ‘We’re having chicken tacos.’ ‘Shut up, we’re having the same!’”
“Yeah,” Krok says, “I mean, if we would try and boil it down I’m sure we’d run into more stuff.”
“Probably for a lot of people, especially people who have siblings,” Friedl says, “it’s easy for them to be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s funny,’ or whatever. But (for us, having grown up in one-child households) that is huge. You know, your whole life, it’s (just you), and then all of a sudden, you get somebody else, and they want that same thing — it’s just crazy.”
Of course, that Friedl was able to track down her long-lost half-sibling in April after all those years is not that remarkable. Thanks to the internet, the kind of sleuthing Friedl did wasn’t terribly sophisticated.
No, what’s remarkable is the fact that their paths crossed so many times when they were high schoolers, before they knew they shared the same father; that they found out they were related after he turned 21 and when she was 20; that they vanished from each other’s lives right after discovering that fact; and that while there are a hundred different ways things could go when a person reaches out to a long-lost relative, in this case, things turned out better than either could have imagined.
The strange way they first met
Friedl and Krok were born to different mothers nine months apart — he in January of 1980, she the following October — at the same hospital in Warren, Ohio, just over an hour east of Cleveland.
Friedl says her mother raised her “basically as a single parent,” first in Warren and then eight miles north in Cortland. She knew her father, but she says he was a very small part of her life. Krok, like Friedl, grew up an only child, but was in a more-traditional nuclear family situation in a home five miles away from Warren and 11 miles due south of Cortland.
He attended Niles McKinley High School. She was a year behind him at Lakeview High, just over 10 miles up State Highway 46.
And for a period during high school, they were both among the many teenagers employed part-time by a company called American Vending Incorporated, which made prepared foods for vending machines. She worked on an assembly line, he worked in waste disposal.
Her impressions of him, as best she can recall: “He was super-nice. Outgoing. I thought he was good-looking.”
His impressions of her: “I mean, she was cute. She was a nice, tall, cute blonde girl.”
Yes, they know, it’s slightly horrifying to consider that they could have conceivably wound up, say, unwittingly going to the prom together. They’re equally relieved that the extent of their relationship at the time — though they saw each other at work pretty much every weekend for more than a year — was just to say hi to and smile at one another in passing, with maybe some occasional small talk.
They’re a little irked at the adults who put them in that situation in the first place, for keeping the secret, or for being oblivious to it. But they can also laugh about it now.
“That would have made for an awkward picture later in life,” Krok says, chuckling.
After graduating from Niles McKinley, Krok started working toward his associate’s degree in electrical engineering technology at ITT Technical Institute’s nearby Youngstown campus. A year later, Friedl enrolled in the early childhood education program at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, a little over a half an hour west of ITT Tech.
Krok had friends at Kent State, and he frequently would drive over to spend time with them at various popular hangouts near the campus. Krok and Friedl wonder how many times they might have unknowingly been in about the same place at roughly the same time during their college days.
They did not, however, see each other again after their time at the vending-machine company.
Until one day shortly after Krok’s 21st birthday, when the truth came out.
An awkward family reunion
On the day Krok turned 21, the man he thought was his biological father sat him down and told him that he was not his biological father, but rather that he’d formally adopted Krok when he was much younger.
Almost immediately, Krok decided he wanted to connect with his birth father, ostensibly so he could know his medical history, though he was also fairly curious. It wasn’t an easy search, because 20 years ago the internet doesn’t bear nearly as much fruit as it does now, but within a few weeks he was able to find him still living in Cortland.
Krok’s and Friedl’s memories have the haze of two decades hanging over them, but best Krok can recall, his father invited him to his house. At some point before the day of the meeting, Friedl says, her father informed her that — surprise! — she had a half-brother, and her father invited her to be there, too. He apparently neglected to tell Krok that Friedl was coming.
“It was essentially me knocking at the door and her (Friedl) opening the door,” Krok recalls, “and the first thing that goes through my head is, ‘Wow, that’s weird, I worked with her. I wonder what she’s doing here. Then you lead into (my father saying), ‘Oh, hey, yeah, this is actually your half-sister.’ And you’re just wondering, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
“I was just shocked,” Friedl recalls. “Like, OH MY GOD.”
In another context, Friedl and Krok might have clicked. In this context, they did not. It was as awkward as you might picture it, and though they vaguely recall exchanging contact info, after the uncomfortable reunion ended neither ever reached out to the other.
As they both explain it, they were 21 and 20, still immature, wrapped up in their own lives and friends and studies. Their family situations were just weird, and they weren’t interested in continuing to focus on weird situations.
So they went forward in life as they always had: as only children. They only occasionally thought of each other.
Friedl would marry her husband Alan in 2006, move to North Carolina, settle into her career as an art teacher for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, and have two children (Felicity, now 12, and Kent, 3); Krok would stay in northern Ohio and become an engineering technician, marrying his wife Sara in 2011.
What happened with their half-sibling in the past was just a story they would tell close friends after a couple of drinks at the bar.
But as they matured and grew into their 30s, and as the internet became a more-powerful tool, they started to periodically wonder about each other and even did some casual research once or twice. They didn’t get very far, though, largely because they knew virtually nothing about one another — in Krok’s case, he knew only her maiden name, Raiti, and that she had moved to North Carolina; Friedl, meanwhile, was fuzzy on his name, period (his legal name is Ryan Ague-Krok), and so any internet searching she attempted was akin to trying to play darts blindfolded.
It wasn’t until one of Friedl’s close friends gave her a mild tongue-lashing this past spring that she finally resolved to do whatever it took to track Krok down once and for all.
‘I just couldn’t believe that she found me’
“You know, Natalie, I gotta tell you something. It’s kind of been bothering me,” Friedl recalls her friend saying to her. “I think it’s really messed up that you have a half-brother walking around and you don’t even know him.”
The words hit Friedl like a sucker punch to the gut.
After recovering from the blow, Friedl told her friend, “You’re a hundred percent right. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Friedl realized in that moment that part of the reason she hadn’t delved deeper was because doing so would require her to face an unpleasant past: The only surefire way to find a lead was through her father — and she did not talk to her father. But she did occasionally connect with her father’s wife, and Friedl decided this was a big enough deal for her that she gritted her teeth and sent a message to her stepmother on Facebook.
“I need you to tell me everything that you know about my half-brother, because I have to find him,” Friedl wrote.
As it turned out, all her stepmother had was his first and last name.
Friedl’s first stop was Facebook. There were several Ryan Kroks, but none that looked like possibilities. Her next stop was Google. It didn’t take too long for her to find a likely match and use pieces of the internet to confirm she had her guy, but she struggled to locate any contact information beyond a mailing address.
As she started to craft a letter in her head, it dawned on her. Though she wasn’t a LinkedIn person, she recalled that users could message each other through the networking site. So on April 9, she dusted off an account she’d set up years ago and forgotten about, and typed one out.
She hit send at 10:48 a.m.
The clock didn’t even make it to 10:49 before Krok replied.
“I was excited, obviously,” Krok says. “I just couldn’t believe that she found me.”
As he had completely lost touch with his biological dad, Krok was initially afraid that his half-sister might be connecting just to deliver bad family news — perhaps that their father had passed away. He was thrilled to discover when he got on the phone with Friedl for the first time later that day that she simply wanted to reconnect.
To maybe start a relationship.
Less than two months later, Friedl and a close friend were climbing into a car to make the seven-hour drive to visit Krok in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. The half-siblings had spoken or sent messages to each other every single day for nine straight weeks. This, however, would be the first time they’d seen each other in two decades.
‘They almost have that twin vibe’
“She was so nervous, but excited,” recalls Alicia Waters, who was Friedl’s traveling companion on the trip up north.
But the moment they met, Waters says, “you could see Natalie’s demeanor — in a good way — change. Kind of that ahhhh feeling, where your shoulders lower. They were both so smiley and happy to be (together). You could tell that it was something where they both needed each other.”
During the reunion weekend, which Friedl called “the most amazing time,” they went to Kent with a group of her old friends and revisited all the places that they used to frequent when they were in their 20s, and remarked over and over again how likely it was that they narrowly missed each other in those days.
They laughed and said “NO WAY!” every time they realized they had a similar taste in something, or over some eerie coincidence.
They couldn’t believe, for instance, that Krok had bought his wife’s engagement ring at the same little mom and pop shop that Friedl’s husband Alan had bought hers; and they both howled when they both said “Peanut Buster Parfait” after they agreed to reveal what their favorite item on the Dairy Queen menu was at the same time.
“It was kind of a neat perspective for me,” Waters says, “because we were just in the hotel room and they were sitting on the couch and I was kind of sitting (away) from them, and not really interacting that much. I was just kind of letting them be. And they were looking at a scrapbook, like photographs of things that Ryan had brought to kinda share with Natalie. And their actual mannerisms and their interaction and how they spoke to each other — I mean, there’s something to say about genetics in that sense, like, how it just felt like they had already known each other.”
She continued: “Even though ‘biologically’ — and I put that in quotes — they are only half-siblings, you would not think that. You would think that they were just brother and sister, 100 percent the same. They almost have that twin vibe.”
And these half-siblings — or, actually, maybe we should just go ahead and call them siblings from here on out — these siblings have plans to continue making up for lost time.
Where do they go from here?
The next time they will see each other is in the fall, when Friedl will return to Ohio so they can go to a Cleveland Browns game together.
They’ve also talked about Krok coming down again in December for her son Kent’s fourth birthday, and longer-term, there’s been discussion of her family of four going on vacation with Krok and his wife Sara.
But if it were up to Friedl, Krok and her newfound sister-in-law would just move down to North Carolina already.
She’s said repeatedly that she wants to see that happen — and although Krok teases her about it, like a big brother might, once he stops teasing and talks frankly about the possibility, the words that come out of him and the tenor of his voice certainly make it sound like he’s not at all ruling out a move to the South.
“The other day, he sent me something,” Friedl says, as they sit next to each other in her driveway an hour into his recent visit. “What was that that you sent me?”
“Oh,” Krok says. “Big Brother listening in. Indeed (the jobs website), they just send emails like, ‘Hey, look at this job,’ and it’s usually like, ‘Hey, Cuyahoga Falls has this new job.’ And I just clicked on it and it was (for a company in) Charlotte.”
“Yeah,” Friedl adds. “It was not two miles from my house.”
Another crazy coincidence.
But what’s not luck is their closeness in spirit. Again, her LinkedIn message could have landed so many different ways, or led to so many different outcomes. Only the best possible outcomes end up with them talking about one of them moving hundreds of miles to be closer to the other.
Krok, who by his own admission is a private person — someone who never could have imagined himself talking on the phone with anyone as much as he’s talked on the phone with his sister over the past few months — mentions how much she’s changed him. How much happier he feels.
This reminds Friedl of a text message his wife Sara sent to her as she and Waters were driving back into North Carolina on the way home from Ohio in June.
“Is that OK if I read that?” she says to her brother.
“Yeah,” he replies, smiling.
‘Grateful in ways you can’t even imagine’
“So I’m a super-emotional person. I didn’t cry that whole weekend. And on the way home, I’m like, ‘Aw man. I know it’s coming. It’s coming!’ But I didn’t know, what was it gonna be? What was my trigger gonna be? It was Sara’s text. ’Cause I wasn’t really sure the whole time that we were there — you know, you’re just meeting somebody or getting to know them, the dynamics, there’s just a lot that was coming into play. I didn’t wanna step on any toes.
“(In the end) it went really well, but I still was not a hundred percent sure how she felt. I mean, I had good vibes, but …
“Anyway, (in her text) she said,” and here Friedl stops herself, and gives a warning that she might cry again. “‘I have to say, Natalie, I’ve not seen my husband this happy in such a long time.’”
She stops and looks at Krok. “Have you ever read this? Do you want to read this before I read it out loud?”
“No, go ahead,” he says, smiling at her again.
“OK.” She continues: “‘I’m literally tearing up just thinking about it. I think I told you before that he had a hard time when his dad passed away, that he was the only person that he could go to for anything. I mean, I’m always here for him, but sometimes you need to talk to someone other than your spouse. And now that you’re around, he feels comfortable enough to talk to you about anything.’
“’So I’m grateful in ways you can’t even imagine that you’re in our lives.’”
Less than eight hours later, the older brother and his younger sister walked into a tattoo shop in Charlotte together and walked out with matching tattoos on the insides of their left biceps. They’re lyrics from a song by the Ohio-based musical duo Twenty One Pilots titled “My Blood” — a song that is, loosely speaking, about sticking up for a family member.
Now and forever, in his handwriting on her arm, and in her handwriting on his, are these words:
“I’ll go with you.”