What Makes a Family? A Story About Unraveling Loose Threads
My father, my best friend, the man I tell all my silly problems to; the man I have looked to; loved my entire life. The one who recently had a major stroke, and can no longer speak effectively, finally gets up and goes to bed. My guilty pleasure, outlasting him so I can Netflix and chill instead of Game Show Network. I sit down, heavily, on his couch, and pour a glass of whiskey, in his glass. Scottish if you must know. Turn on his TV. Escape. I take a deep breath and think:
This is not my cigarette-tinged house.
This is not my normal life.
This is not my biological father.
Bet you didn’t see that coming. Well neither did I. Neither. Did. I.
This is a story about love, anger, guilt, family and healing. This is a story about DNA kits.
My parents divorced when I was one. I was fortunate to grow up with my father a regular and constant fixture in my life. Both parents have been married three times each. Kids and exes everywhere. Life and relationships are complicated in my world, a patchwork quilt of bad relationship choices. I tell people my family tree is a jungle. The one stable force in my life was Dad. His love. His support. Our talks. He grew up without a father and was determined to be a good one to his children. He had two. Both taken away from him in divorce. The irony was not lost on him. These conversations unfold over the years. A salve to your own trials and pain. Your parents parcel out tender morsels of their pain. Their failures. Their guilt. Their disappointment and joy. “Life is a bitch and then you die,” is my father’s favorite saying when I am stuck in woe is me land. And we laugh.
A few years ago, I decided to buy a DNA test. I bought two. One for myself. The other I planned to give my father. I was traveling to what I thought was my motherland and had hoped to literally stand on the same land as my ancestors. I also wanted to track down Dad’s side of the family. His father abandoned his mother with three children when he was a wee lad. My grandmother destroyed all photos of him, rarely spoke of him and Dad was too young to remember. In my 20’s, I stumbled across a photo my cousin inherited from a great aunt of this lost grandfather. I showed my father the very first picture he ever saw of his own — a spitting image. That was an emotional day. We cried and hugged. Dad and I have always been so close. Similar in temperament. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard my aggravated mother scream at me, “You are just like your father!”
So, you can imagine my absolute shock when I clicked on my eagerly awaited DNA results. I wasn’t Hungarian. Wait, WHAT? How could that be? There it was, under the relationships tab: Jim Crake is your Father. NO! My dad’s name is Al. What. The. Fuck. I actually thought I had been sent the wrong results. “Of course, I got the wrong results,” I cursed under my breath, “stupid things like this always happens to me!” How irritating. But wait……there’s my cousin on Mom’s side. “OH MY GOD MOM WHAT DID YOU DO?????,” was my first thought as I threw my phone across the couch as if the explosive information contained within would burn me. My mother, Ramona, and I have a difficult and often temperamental relationship that can be summarily described as she’s put me through some stuff. I immediately messaged my best friend to which she replied “Oh Ramona, you hooker.” We are classy babes. And, so began my journey of figuring out how to navigate a veritable land mine of confusion and family dynamics.
Almost four years later, I still have moments of disbelief. A flood of emotions so strong, I almost drown. They pass. Life goes on. Dad is still my dad. But everything makes sense now. I often describe this experience as finally finding answers to questions I never knew I had my entire life. Why am I so much taller than every other woman in my family? How am I so athletic? How am I possibly related to two people who hate to read and barely graduated high school? How can I be related to such socially inept people? Two people with no lust for experience and travel? So many things about my parents and me never clicked. Honestly, they never really knew what to do with me. When I met my biological father, everything snapped into place. Tall, athletic, silly, avid reader, vivid storyteller, checkered past. The puzzle was complete.
I sent a message to this Jim Crake fellow and when I did not hear back, I dropped it. During those original first months, I was frozen with fear. What if Mom was raped? What if my parents were swingers? Do they know and I just uncovered the deep, dark secret they thought I would never discover?
Eventually, my curiosity bested my fear. It always does. I took to the interwebs. Hunting for my biological father online, I sifted through hundreds of Facebook photos — there is something quite comical about looking for yourself in old men’s faces. One day, I clicked on a Facebook account and the face that peered back at me was my own. Long white hair and a scraggly beard surrounding my face. Yes, my BioDad looks like a fucking wizard, which is surprising to no one that really knows me. Taken aback, I dragged my best work friend into my office and pointed at my screen. When she exclaimed, “Oh my god THAT is your biological dad,” something in me broke. This is real. That man is my flesh and blood and he is a complete stranger.
After some research and Hail Mary messages, I made contact. I had a phone number. “Call me when you are ready to talk.” After much fretting and hours staring at that phone number, I threw back several shots of liquid courage and dialed. And promptly hung up. “Come on, Lucy. You can do hard things!” I dialed again.
Meeting my biological father for the first time felt like the most awkward, panicky first date ever. You can’t just walk out of a restaurant after a stranger expresses that your existence has brought him both profound joy and profound sadness. I am his only child. A child he never knew he had. He missed everything. BD (short for BioDad), which he is now affectionately referred to as, was told he was sterile in his early 20s and could not have children. In essence, I am a miracle. (No pressure to do anything with your life, Lucy.) Since that first meeting, BD and I have had many no-longer awkward lunches. I have met the whole gang, a wily bunch and we fit. My new family. A new family at 45.
During this process, I have spent a lot of time sitting with my thoughts about family. What makes a parent? A sibling? How much do our genes define us? Nature versus nurture ruminations. I have also spent time trying to make sense of my emotions. Guilt and anger have been constant companions through this roller coaster ride on the mitochondria superhighway.
I used to joke with my mother — “Where did I come from?” — I really don’t look like either of my parents. I have Dad’s skin coloring (or so I thought) and Mom’s cheekbones, but you couldn’t pick us out in a line up. My mother used to smile and say it was the milkman. Turns out, it was actually the music man. Sigh. Their short-lived fling was born of a shared love of music, one of the only traits Mom and I do share. It actually is a romantic little story if you ignore the infidelity and horror of it all. Despite discovering my genesis was a Maryjane-fueled romp over tunes spinning on the turntable, I am grateful to know the truth.
After I met BioDad, a few things struck me. We tell stories the same. When I listen to him weave his stories, I wonder which gene controls that feature. We jump into life. His curiosity and lust for life a mirror to my own. I’ve also had my own moments of profound joy and sadness. I wonder what life would have been like with a parent around that actually got me. Someone that did not see my ravenous imagination as a chore. Saw my rebellion as a gift. Someone who did not see my differentness as wrongness and spend life trying to beat me into conformity and submission. I exhaust my parents, mostly Mom.
Caring for my dad after his stroke has been a tangled web of emotions. There are days where I feel like I just dumped out a box of thread spools and my life is rolling across the floor in twenty different directions. Guilt stands above them all. I did not chose this. I am not responsible for this mess. So why guilt? I am hiding a secret from my father. My sister. My cousins. My aunts. Relief from this guilt may come when I can share this with my family. It may never come. I made the choice not to break my father’s heart. My father will leave this earth believing I am his biological daughter. I am his baby girl, his first-born and his heart. We are each other’s confidants. These past few years, he has lost so much. His wife. His dog. His independence. His ability to speak effectively. I will not let him lose his child.
Still, I am moving through this world a fraud. Sitting on his couch laughing with him, knowing what I know. Therein lies the guilt. I am not his biological child and it feels heavy to carry this knowledge. I have to remind myself, that no matter what that DNA test said, this man is my father and I am his daughter. DNA can never change that.
Anger, an emotion I know all too well, has also sat front and center on my mantle these past few years. All the anger towards Mom that I thought was resolved came welling up. Years of therapy erased with one sentence. Jim Crake is your Father. “How dare you judge me!?” runs on a constant ticker tape through my mind. “I am not the one who cheated on her husband!” has heatedly flown out of my mouth on at least one occasion during one of our inevitable screaming matches. Why do we repeat the same patterns?
Generational trauma is a thing. I feel it. I feel my mother’s trauma, her yearning for more than her mother gave. Her mother also a child of an alcoholic. The tendrils of pain woven through our family fabric. My parents lacked the tools to navigate that pain. Raised by the “Greatest generation.” My parents were taught to shove down all unpleasant emotions, put on a brave face and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and fed lie after lie about meritocracy, self-sufficiency and the virtues of stoicism. I am not so willing to wear that “brave” face anymore. I want to pull those emotive loose threads and unravel the veils we so willingly wear.
We humans live to lie to ourselves. We drag the burdens of those lies around behind us like a broken down wagon. The burdens we carry are uniquely ours. But we all carry them. Learning to carry layers of burdens without inflicting more pain is one of my biggest challenges. This experience has taught me to carry those burdens with more grace. More forgiveness. I am learning to forgive my parents for being human. To let go of anger and guilt. Shed some layers. My mother, for all her foibles, is just a human trying to make her way through this fucked up world. She deserves my empathy. Not my anger or scorn. She was only 20 years old. Still a child, really.
When I first confronted her, which is a whole other story, she cried hard. She cried over and over, “I am so sorry, I am so sorry!” “It is ok, Mom. I am ok.” And I am. Because life is a bitch and then you die!
The moral of this story: Don’t buy your parents a DNA kit for Christmas and forgiveness sets you free.