Monday, July 31, 2006

Origin myths and explanations

My father died something like six weeks ago of causes unknown.

I found out Friday.

This is not to say that my actual father died, the man who raised me and cared for me and did all of the things that fall under the usual definition of father. He's sleeping, presumably, in his bed, the ceiling fan cooling off the heat of an unusually warm South Dakota summer.

To be adopted is to know these things -- the wide gulf between traditional ideas of parentage and the actions that make one a parent. This is not to say that my biological father did not make contributions to my life, genetics being what they are, but it is to say that most of those had to do with specifically those things: biology, genes, chromosomes.

I have met my biological mother, who is a kind and gracious woman. One can see that genetics are more tangled up in our very beings and personalities than we like to admit just from meeting her, from sitting her down next to me and doing a side-by-side comparison. We have met a few times, talked through letters and e-mails, but I am not an integral part of her life as it is now, nor is she an integral part of mine. People who ask me if I have met my birth parents always assume when I tell them that I have met her that she and I have forged a quick relationship, that my adopted parents feel deeply threatened by her. But that is the province of Oprah's book club novels, and this is real life, where things are messier and less guaranteed.

(Here I must make mention of a fact: I don't know if my biological father's family knows I exist. I know members of my biological mother's family don't know I exist. I am not bringing this up to suggest that I am angry about this -- far from it. I'm bringing this up to suggest that I'm going to vague up a lot of details in here, so if you expect specificity, abandon all hope, ye who enter here. I certainly don't want any family fallout to occur thanks to an ill-timed Google search.)

But even as I close them off to you, specifics are what I long for. The obituary for my father is maddeningly unspecific, dancing just in front of any sort of detailed storyline, leaving so much to the imagination that it made me slightly ill, like a bad writing exercise in a college creative writing course. Fill in the blanks from the information provided here.

In full, it reads (identifying details changed):

John Smith, aged 47, of mid-sized Western city, formerly of Midwestern suburb, passed away in May. He was preceded in death by his brother, Jim and niece, Betty Jones. He is survived by his children, Sam and Abigail of mid-sized Western city; parents, Ralph and Dorothy Smith of Midwestern suburb; sister, Mary (Anthony) Jones of small Midwestern town; several nieces and nephews. John was employed by computer company in mid-sized Western city.

You can learn a lot from that, but not enough. You can even draw conclusions, but those conclusions leave even more obscured. The closer you get to answers, the more questions unfurl.

How did any of these people die? How did they feel about each other? Were they angry? Did he move to mid-sized Western city to escape his Midwestern suburb and family? Or did he follow his work? And what happened to change him from the wannabe doctor of the equally unspecific narrative given to me by the adoption agency that matched me up with my parents to the computer company employee of this brief narrative? Was he simply not cut out for medical school? Or did he just not like anatomy, dealing with skin and guts?

In America, of course, we have such a narrow definition of what makes a family -- a father and mother and children, linked by a perilous spiral of DNA, drawn together by chemicals that speak to each other and give me my mother's nose or you your father's chin. We place too much emphasis, I think, on the role of genetics in all of this (as I was surprised to find in third grade, when a teacher informed me that I did NOT come from a nuclear family, all sitcom-perfection evidence to the contrary, simply because I didn't REALLY have any of that VanDerWerff DNA), but that's the way things are.

And so, in a way, I've gained a specter of a family from those few, short words, one I can see clearly only when they are obscured by shadow. I knew, of course, that somewhere out there were people who had bits of my genetic code floating around in them, but I didn't think about it constantly or anything (another faulty assumption most laymen make about adoptees). Now, it's all I can think about, going so far as to find the kids on MySpace, letting myself be borderline creepy in my hunger for answers.

Of course, the next step is a letter, writing to the still-living sister, letting her know that I'm curious to know more, to gain medical histories and pry open memories and see photo albums, giving her the chance to slam that door in my face. Because let's face it. It's all a bit Dickens -- the prodigal son who was never really prodigal at all returning home to stir up trouble in the wake of the father's death.

It's hard to believe that I've started to avoid bad plot devices in my writing only to become one.

And now I grieve, not knowing, really, how to do that. I had stopped looking for my father because the address he provided the adoption agency was an old one (the apartment complex he had lived in had actually been torn down), and his name was quite common (not quite to John Smith levels of popularity, but common enough that there was one of him in every state).

And, let's be honest, I was mad at him.

We focus so much on the role of the mother in adoption narratives because we must. She's the one who must carry the child, bring it into life, hear that first cry, give it up. She's making a commitment to her choice. The father is just some sperm and a few penstrokes on a couple of legal forms in far too many cases.

And, from the sounds of things, my case was no different. Plus, he made no effort to be found. It became immediately evident that he didn't hate the idea of being found, but he wasn't going to make it easy. The adoption narrative we all hold has both parties wanting to be found but unsure of how to go about such a thing. I was angry at him for violating storytelling convention as much as anything.

The idea atrophied, tucked away in a corner of my brain until this summer, when I began the long process of figuring out how I might find him. I had begun to work on procuring the information of his current whereabouts from his alma mater when my biological mother provided me with the above information (and let's pause for a moment, shall we, writers, to think of how odd spotting that clipping in the paper over morning coffee must have been for her).

I was at work when I found out, and somehow, I made it about a half hour without having any sort of emotional reaction (though, to be fair, these are not the situations that we prepare ourselves to have emotional reactions to, so distant are they from what we consider everyday life). Then, I went on lunch. Placing a phone call, I began to spell out just what had happened and dissolved into tears.

I am not a crier by nature (as I've said, it's all that Midwestern stoicism), so I was surprised by how much I cried, by how easily tears flowed for a man I never met, a man I didn't much like when I looked hazily at him from a distance.

And I don't know if I was mourning him or the oddness of the situation or the door of possibility being slammed in my face with some degree of finality. I suppose that deep down, I was crying because there would be no chance to meet him, to confront him, to ask him what happened and get some sort of half-hearted apology and then have coffee or something equally masculine and non-confrontational.

I think we never realize how much we want to have relationships with people until they are taken away from us. As good of a relationship as you have with a parent or a spouse or a friend, there are always more days when you could have done something kind for them or went for a walk with them or made them laugh. There are never enough days in any lifetime for any of us. The narrative never ends as cleanly as we would like. Inevitably, it ends with a slow slip away, a final tug into some new plane.

When I was a child, I would sit on the floor of our living room (complete with hideous shag carpet) and scatter the pieces of a puzzle all around me, drawing them together into a whole. It's a completely obvious metaphor, but that's what I'm going to try to do now, to take the sentences of that obituary and the few, fleeting hits on Google and MySpace and pull them together into a coherent storyline. I'm going to find the narrative spine of my father's life and hope that's enough for now.

Needless to say, I need to be away for a little bit (both for this and to meet a deadline on another project). So I won't be posting at SDD for two weeks. I'm hoping to get some of the other contributors to turn in some pieces, but for all I know, the site will be dead until August 14. If that's the case, I hope you'll all welcome me back then. If you would like to contribute something in the meantime, please e-mail me, and we'll see if we can work something out.

For now, keep his family in your thoughts and prayers. I know it's been a while, but these sorts of things never get easier, you just think about them less and less until something reminds you of them, rips the Band-aid off.

His daughter, my biological-half-sister-I've-never-met, won a photography contest at her school for a photo of a church, its cross framed against a backdrop of sunlight that was, itself, being devoured by a cloud. I can't be certain, of course, but I like to think that somehow the creative spark, carried in a chromosome or two, jets out across the dark Western night sky and connects us.

If only for our peace of mind.

See you soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I hope you're feeling better now, Todd.

"So I won't be posting at SDD for two weeks. I'm hoping to get some of the other contributors to turn in some pieces, but for all I know, the site will be dead until August 14. "
Just in time for the MISS TEEN USA PAGEANT! Yay!