Sit Down, Kids...
or...How I Met My Father
I know my Dad. Or at least, I know his name. I’ve heard his voice. I know what he looks like. We’ve had a conversation. The first time the two of us have spoken ever. I’m 45 years old.
I thought I knew my Dad, at least until I was 13 or so. Kid logic (with a side order of conscious or unconscious manipulation) is weird. My parents were not in the picture much when I was very young. My aunts and uncles were. My grandparents (mom’s side) were. But my Mom was in the Air Force and I only saw her a couple of times a year. It never occurred to me to ask about a Dad. There was a man in my mother’s life, and for a while he was whatever a toddler thinks is the man in his mother’s life is. He was L, or “Curly” as my mom called him. They got married in 1981, when I was 4, and settled in Michigan.
I can remember one night, it couldn’t have been long after. My grandmother said to me “you’re going to have to start calling L ‘Daddy L’”. As kids do, I assumed that meant he was my father (logical, considering he was married to my mother), and from that point on, he was “Daddy L” and eventually, when I moved in with them in 1984, “Dad”. There was a personality shift around that time, too. Pre-moving in, Dad bought me records, cracked jokes. Post-moving in, Dad became withdrawn and eventually abusive. I can still see his nostrils flaring mid-beating. He grew up in the South, and he thought corporal punishment would straighten me out, definitely in terms of behavior (although I wasn’t an especially bad kid), and probably in terms of mannerisms/sexuality. That last part didn’t take.
Things didn’t last with me and my parents, and in 1987, I moved back into my grandparents’ house. In between, there were things that someone older might have recognized as signs. I had my mother’s last name, for one. My siblings had my dad’s last name. Rifling through papers in the garage at my grandmother’s house in the summer of 1985, I found my birth certificate. There was nothing written where the father’s name would have been. I didn’t question either of those things at the time, because I was 9 and didn’t know any better. And also because I wasn’t raised to question things.
At some point in late 1989, my grandmother, in a fit of anger, dropped a bomb on me. I don’t know what I did. It could’ve been a bad report card. I could’ve stolen a piece of cake out the fridge. Either way, I was getting a spanking/beating, and I heard something to the effect of “L is not your real father”. This was thirty-two years ago, so I can’t tell you what I felt in the moments after I heard that statement. Relief? Frustration? That revelation made sense, and allowed me to create some cognitive distance between my image of L and the Cliff Huxtable/Jason Seaver version of what a Dad was supposed to be. But it left a question hanging in the air…who was my father?
I moved out of my grandparents’ home in the spring of 1994, maybe a month and a half before I turned 18. I’d graduated high school the previous summer, and was already working full time. At some point that spring, my grandmother handed me a number and told me to call it. I was a sickly kid (the details are still unknown/forgotten to me), and I’d spent a lot of time in Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Dr. Herschon (I’m probably mangling the spelling) was a name that rang familiar in my head. She must have been the main doctor during the time I spent hospitalized. I was to call her, Grandma said. Preoccupied with living on my own, and being a typically thoughtless, self-centered 17 year old, I never made that call. It’s only now that I realize why that number was given to me.
Let’s fast-forward to 2008 or so. I’m living in Boston at this point. My mother and L are in town for some kind of convention. While my parents have never been particularly nurturing or affectionate people, my mom’s coldness towards me is jarring. After they leave, I stew and that anger turns itself into a letter I ultimately send to my mom, criticizing her for not revealing the identity of my birth father, but letting a man who has no blood relation to me beat the shit out of me on a regular basis. The letter, as of November 2nd, 2021, is still unanswered.
Let’s fast forward again, to 2019. There have been significant upgrades in technology. There have also been significant upgrades to my financial status. Not long after my grandmother passes away, I decide to join 23 and Me. By this time, I have a slightly less fuzzy idea of who my father is. My aunt, the staunchest ally I have in my family, shares the little bit that she knows. An uncle fills in a few minor details. I have a name, and a bit of backstory on why he and my mom are not together. But that’s it. 23 and Me might fill in some details.
I spit in a cup, mail it in, and check the website for details. The site reveals a bit about my background (I’m 9% Ashkenazy Jewish?) but doesn’t offer up significant matches to anyone else on the site. I email a couple of low single-digit connections- 3rd and 4th cousins- to no avail. Ultimately, I put 23 and Me on the back burner after a year or so.
Earlier this past spring, I was ending my work day and cycling through my personal email. I realize I haven’t checked 23 and Me in months. On a lark, I decide to see if any new relatives have joined the site. Sure enough, there’s some new people, and the first thing I see is someone who is a 25% match. Without fully considering how close a person has to be to share a quarter of your DNA, I click into the person’s profile to get more details. Just based on the photo, this person is related to me. Same facial structure. Same complexion. Same glasses. Same facial hair. It’s my half-brother. Needless to say, I’m stunned. Excited, but stunned. I hurriedly email this stranger who’s not so strange at all on the site. Then, “wait, who actually checks e-mail on 23 and Me?”, I wonder. I attempt to find him on social media. I Google him. No dice. Finally, I go to LinkedIn. Yes, he’s on LinkedIn. Matter of fact, we’re already connected on LinkedIn. What the fuck? I message him. He messages back that night. We talk on the phone the next day. Things are moving fast.
Turns out that my brother and my birth father are in contact. Matter of fact, they live in neighboring towns. I get more information about my father in a handful of phone calls with my brother than I’ve gotten in the previous 44 years. I’m named after him (our first and middle names are reversed). My brother sends me a picture. Sure enough, that guy looks like me. Then he sends me a baby picture. Well, more like a toddler picture? I think it’s him. It’s actually me. I was maybe two years old. My dad has had that picture on his desk for years. I’m confused. Did I actually meet him?
In addition to my brother, I find out that I have four sisters. I talk to one of them on the phone a couple of times. Brother and sister FaceTime me on the 4th of July. I’m on my way to Prospect Park, and we get disconnected, but not before I catch a glimpse of my father in the flesh. Seeing him as a living, breathing thing knocks the wind out of me. I’m getting closer and closer to the idea of this person being real to me, but I’m not ready to make the full plunge yet. We’re in one another’s orbit at this point, but we haven’t connected.
Labor Day comes and goes. My brother flies up to New York to meet in person. We have a fun weekend together. By this time, we’re conversing via text or phone on an almost daily basis. Shortly after he flies back to Georgia, he asks if he can give his father-our father-my number. Internally, I’m a bundle of nerves. Internally, I’m also aware that I’ve already started to open Pandora’s Box. No point in opening it halfway. I say “sure”, and brace myself for the unknown. Even more of the unknown.
It’s early October. I’ve just gotten my COVID-19 booster. Along with my flu vaccine. Along with my pneumonia vaccine. Needless to say, I am fucked up. I’ve been in bed for 48 hours straight with a variety of chills, sweats and aches. My phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I recognize the location. It’s him. I don’t know that for sure, because I don’t pick up, but it’s gotta be him. Right? Did I not pick up the phone because I was afraid/anxious/nervous? Or did I not pick up the phone because I figured that my first conversation with my birth dad shouldn’t take place while I’m semi-coherent and bedridden? I’d like to think it was the latter, but it was probably just as much the former.
Several days go by. Days turn into weeks. I haven’t even listened to the voice mail that was left. I’m frozen with the aforementioned fear/anxiety/nerves. Finally, I decide to rip off the Band-Aid and I start to listen to the voice mail. I get about two sentences in before I stop it. “Um…Mike Joseph…so…my name is Joseph Michael (redacted)…I’m your Dad”. Thankfully, I’m able to read the rest of the voice mail via transcription. This surreal experience appears to have reached the point of no return. He has my number. He’s called me. He’s probably expecting a call back. He’s probably wondering why I haven’t called back yet.
Another couple of days go by. I’m not a fan of phone calls as a general rule. Do I want the most important phone conversation of my life to be a cold call? Maybe not the best idea. So…I text. Formally. Something like “I got your voice mail and I apologize for the delay. I’d like to set a time for you and I to talk.” A few hours go by-it might have been a full day-and I get a response. We set a date and a time to talk. “I’ll call you”, he texts. Is that more pressure or less pressure than me calling him? I don’t know. My head is swimming.
The night of the call, I rush home from the office. I’m actually doing a guest lecture for my friend Shake’s NYU class. It ends about ten minutes before I’m expecting the phone to ring at 7:30. I turn Zoom off, take a couple of deep breaths, and at 7:28, the phone rings. I stare at it for what’s probably 2 seconds but feels like a minute.
And then, I talk to my birth father for what turns out to be the first time ever. Again, I am 45 years old.
It’s a pleasant conversation. My brother warned me that our dad was a charmer, and he is. He cracks jokes, laughs easily, appears to be carefree to an extent that my brother and I (who share many qualities, depressive and anxiety disorders being among them) can’t access. He’s also apologetic, understanding. “I understand if you want to punch me in the face,” he says. “But don’t do it. I’m an old man now.” We both chuckle. Years of anger, of actually wanting to punch this guy in the face, start to dissipate. We talk about our lives. Well, mainly he talks about his. He confirms a lot of what I’ve learned from my brother. Tells his side of the story of my conception and birth. Admits to being young and stupid. I mainly listen. A conversation that I’d occasionally pictured as me screaming at him turns out to be me mainly saying “I understand” quietly. “I didn’t know if you were dead, if you were locked up,” I note. “I’d rather be dead than locked up,” he responds.
He wants to meet. I demur. First of all, there’s a logistical issue. He’s in the South. I’m not. Also, I want to take things slowly. Furthermore, there’s the issue of his entire family being concentrated in one place and being dropped into that situation without having a nearby safe space feels…well, unsafe. “I’m not saying it’ll be five years,” I say. “Or two years, or even one year. But…in my time.” He understands, says to give him grace if he seems too pushy.
We talk for over an hour. We exchange “I love you”s, and afterwards I question whether I really mean it. After all, we don’t really know one another. Then he calls back. “That was quicker than I expected,” I comment, wryly. He rapid-fires questions at me.
“Man, I am alone.”
Does he know I’m queer? Am I going to have to start the coming out process with my Dad? Is he ready for this? My head is flooded with thoughts and then, just as quickly, the conversation is over. For now. I’m immediately filled with…relief. Gratitude. Do you know how it feels to have the most important question in your life answered after thirty-two years? When, barely a year ago, I’d sort of resigned myself to the possibility that the question would never be answered? Let me tell you, folks. It’s a fucking trip and a half. If I believed in God, I would thank Him. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this good fortune. Although some might say that having to live into your mid-forties without knowledge of who one’s father is (and being mistreated by the person who you thought was your father) is the exact opposite of good fortune.
It’s been less than a week since I spoke to my birth father for the very first time (I’m 45, btw. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that yet.) We’ve exchanged a few texts since. I’m excited-but not in a huge rush-to talk again. He friended me on Facebook (my mom, who I’ve not shared a single word of this to, is also on Facebook. I wonder if/when those two will cross paths.) In light of how quickly the world moves, I’m not sure how I’ve processed this. Or if I’ve processed it yet. It all feels surreal. Like I’m standing outside myself watching a movie, kind of. But it also feels like a load off of my shoulders, and off of my brain. A door has closed. And another one has opened. And I’ll walk through it when I’m ready.