I never knew my father, and I had little hope of finding him.
My mother alone held the truth, and it was, at best, clouded by her schizophrenic filters and distortions. She was pretty sure his name was Frank, that he was a professional basketball player with whom she’d shared a blind date and a bottle of wine. Frank had no idea I was conceived, and I assumed that he would not welcome my finding him, if I ever did. I still wondered through the years: what does he look like? Do I look like him? Did I get my writing ability – or my health challenges – from him?
Throughout the years, I’ve used the internet to look for any clues, and I have come up with nothing. I searched as recently as last year, and then I gave up. By now, he would be at least in his 70s, if not older, and he could very well be dead.
In February, I began a search for more information on my mother’s family tree. In truth, I was looking for more than any family tree could tell me: I wanted to feel connected with my family roots, to understand more of where I come from and the meaning of my life. I knew on some level I would not find that on Ancestry.com but still continued my search for immigration, birth and death records.
I looked up various records for all the family I could find, and at one point, I stumbled onto something curious: someone had posted my mom’s high school graduation picture on his family tree. I didn’t recognize his name, and I sent him a note asking how he knew my mom. Since I’d found no living relatives to date, I was curious. I had no idea whether this person I contacted was family, a distant cousin perhaps, and if his being family would be a good thing. My family was an entity I needed to approach with great care, given the history of abusers and mental illness I knew of from my mother’s stories.
Several days later, I got a message back from “Larry.” He said he’d met my mom on a blind date, dated her in 1957-58, and that he’d loved her and wanted to marry her. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life that he missed that opportunity.
Honestly, at this point, I was a little intrigued but not terribly so. My mom dated a lot of men, and a few had asked to marry her. I didn’t much like my mom’s boyfriends, and I didn’t know what he could tell me that I didn’t already know. However, he said he had things to tell me about my mom, and I was about to shut down my free trial membership to Ancestry.com, so I gave him my email address, “friended” him on Facebook, and I let go of my ancestry search for the time.
Now Larry is 75 years old, typed in all caps, and didn’t write a lot of detail in his messages, so over subsequent weeks, I gathered clues about who Larry was and what his significance was to me. It came in layers, and each layer made me rethink the previous understanding I’d had of what he’d said and who he was.
First impression: Larry was one of my mom’s boyfriends in 1957-58, which would have made her 16-17 years old. He’d posted her senior picture from high school on his Ancestry page, so I assumed that confirmed that they’d been together in that time period. How sweet, I thought, and dismissed any chance that he would have much I wanted to hear.
Next layer of the archeological dig: Larry sent me a note that he felt a shock after seeing the color of my hair. It’s a lot like his, he said. At this point, I started to feel mildly confused: who is this man, and why was he shocked about our similar hair color? They dated 10 years before my conception and birth. I let this comment slide.
Next layer, a few days later: he messaged me on FB to say I look more like his child than his own children do. Now at this point, Larry finally got my full attention. I had to ask: are you saying you think we might be related? I was under the impression that all of this information was dawning on him as slowly as it was dawning on me, or just a step ahead of me.
It took another day or two for him to respond: he’s looked at his records, and he was in Pennsylvania on business trips 1965-67, not ’57-58.
With that message showing on my computer screen, I stopped and felt my reality shift beneath me. Here’s someone who could possibly be my father. That would mean my mom’s story was either the best she knew; a mistake on her part; or a lie to keep me off the track. And any of these possibilities could be true. If she had intentionally avoided Larry and a future relationship with him, it might be his best recommendation yet: my mom married a couple of awful men, and she often missed recognizing the good people and subsequently alienated them because of her paranoia.
At this point my husband, John, and I talked about the situation. John was the first to note that no one puts a picture of an ex-girlfriend on his family tree unless he thinks they may have created progeny together. It began to dawn on me in little snippets of phone conversation and emails and Facebook messages: Larry had known about me because he visited my mom once after I was born; my mom never told him I was his, and he also didn’t pursue the line of questioning about who the father of the baby in the next room might be; and shortly after I was born, my mom moved away. By the time I was five years old, she had been married twice and changed her last name one more time for good measure. In the age of the internet, my mom would have been a challenge to locate; before the internet, finding her would have been nearly impossible.
As our conversations continued, it turned out, Larry tried to find my mom over the years. He mentioned that he searched for her and even spoke to my grandmother in the mid-‘80s. Now I realized that not only did he know Mimi had had a baby and that he’d wondered about his role in that, but that he’d also tried to find her. My story about my father shifted with each revelation he made. He was in love with my mom. He wanted to marry her. He regretted not asking her to marry him, not asking her whether he was the father. He tried to find her. He posted a picture of her on Ancestry.com, hoping.
All of this blew my assumptions about my father and about my mother’s story out of the water. A powerful current of emotion ran beneath each unfolding bit of story. All day, I thought about this new person in my life, looked at his pictures and noted we have a strong resemblance, pondered my mother’s story and motivations for telling it and the implications for the future with this new person. I ended every day exhausted.
We ordered an home DNA test through Ancestry.com. It would tell us if we were related, and it would also show us any DNA matches to other people who might be relatives.
“I hope you’re my daughter,” he told me the very first time we spoke on the phone, the point at which we I had to pause and look at the phone. I didn’t know him yet to know if I wanted him to be my father, but I was moved that someone in the world had actually had that thought. And at this point in the conversation, I thought he was someone who was just as surprised as I was to consider we might be connected. It looks pretty obvious from this vantage, but we were still turning over the puzzle pieces on the table, let alone putting them together. To his credit, Larry was probably moving cautiously about what he revealed. He didn’t know if I was his, and he didn’t know how I would receive his speculation that he might be my father. When he looked at my pictures, he was looking to see if I was his child. With the unfolding revelations, I began to see what had been working in his mind for all these years.
I sent a quarter teaspoon of saliva to the lab for testing. My stomach flipped and flopped constantly over the next several days: was Larry my father? If he was my father, I realized, I would probably have different questions for him than if he were just my mom’s old boyfriend. Larry’s wife supported him and was excited for him; John was both excited for me and protective. Both John’s and my dreams were filled with father images and hopeful anxiety about the results. We spoke in code around Isaac: we’d found someone who might be a relative, we told him. Telling him I’d found my father would wait until we knew for sure.
Larry and I messaged one day, and he said, “I’ll claim you regardless, if that’s what you want.”
I hate to admit I was so slow on the uptake, but I was still putting the pieces together. I still hadn’t figured out that this man knew I’d been born and wondered from that moment if I was his; that he’d been waiting for 45 years to find out; that he’d wondered for nearly half a century if Mimi’s little girl was his. I still hadn’t figured out that Larry had been, on a level that is deeper than DNA, the father who’d always wanted me. He was the father who regretted not being there with my mother and with me. I have “adopted” friends as family before: “Gramma Joan”; my “sisters” Sarah and Laura Lee; Kathy “Mom,” my foster mother. I, of all people, should know that family of the heart is profoundly family, and a DNA test cannot reveal who those people should be.
I cried as my heart let it in: I have a father who loves me, regardless of the DNA test. I told him that I would be honored. I wrote back saying that I would take him as my father, if he wanted to take me as his daughter, regardless of what the test results showed. “I was already there,” he said. Yes, he was. He’d been “there” for 45 years, and I just needed a couple of weeks to wrap my head around who he was, what I meant to him, and what he meant to me. It took a little while for the story in my head to surrender to the story that was dawning in my heart.
We had several more weeks to wait for the test results to come in. But my anxiety about the test passed. It didn’t matter: I’d found my father.
My mom died in 2006, shortly after Isaac was born. I’d become an orphan at that point. I was both freed from the complications of loving a schizophrenic parent, but I was also more adrift without her.
I’ve now been given a rare gift: the opportunity to be a daughter again. The first time around, I took it for granted. It wasn’t until my mother drew her last breath that I realized it: every day of my life, my mother had breathed, and with each breath, she loved me. There was an eerie silence in that absence of the familiar sound of her breath and her always-present attention on my life, the attention only a parent can give.
And now there’s someone else, for whatever period of time we have together, whose love has followed me from a distance and cared for me, and I have the honor of being a daughter to that someone now.
We spoke on the phone yesterday, and at the end of the call, he said, “Love you.”
Love you, too, Dad. I’m so grateful to have found you, and I’m so grateful that you were looking, too.
When I first wrote this, the DNA results were not yet in. They have come in. I’m choosing for now not to reveal the results because they aren’t relevant one way or the other to whether Larry is family. Happy Birthday, Dad! Love you.