The man I call my Dad is not the man who gave half his DNA to create the zygote who became me. The DNA donor didn’t even hang around until my first birthday. The man I call Dad actually married my mom when I was almost 3, and I have no memories of the other guy- actually didn’t know he existed until one day, over a game of Monopoly, I asked my grandma why I was born before my mom and dad got married.
What I remember, and I don’t know exactly how old I was, is the tender look on my grandma’s face, as she picked up the phone to call my mama. Hiding under her dining-room table, I peered out between the woven fringe on her yellow tablecloth, while she pushed the buttons on her goldenrod desk phone, and said “It’s time. You need to talk to your daughter…” I was older than 8, but I honestly don’t know how old. Old enough to hear the hitch in my grandma’s words, and know she was shaken, and that she loved me.
Grandma took me home, and my mom sat me down in the big tweed recliner in the living room, with the TV off (that meant Serious), and told me about the DNA guy. I don’t remember many specifics, but I do remember holding a book over my head, as if I could hide from this unpleasantness by making a house and walls with the pages. While I may be vague on the specifics of exactly what went down, to say this changed my life is pretty accurate.
On one hand, I went along after that day as a regular kid. I had two parents who loved me and a regular kid’s life, populated by good neighbors, hide and seek, bike rides and swimming lessons. But I never looked at the world quite the same again. I remember watching my Dad with suspicion, with confusion. I wondered if he loved me as much as he did my brothers, who were suddenly only “half” and that frightened me. If Dad was half mine, and my brothers weren’t real, and grandma and mom had kept such a secret from me, what else in my world wasn’t true?
Looking back with the wisdom of years, I understand what happened, and why my parents made the choices they made. I don’t see my siblings as anything less than my blood, and I have tremendous compassion for my Dad and my mom. But as a kid, it was unfathomably confusing. It turned out all my parent’s friends knew my “secret” and not only knew it, but knew DNA guy, and some even had contact with him. Once, he showed up at a big camping picnic, and I walked into a tent to find him doing lines of cocaine. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I knew it was bad. That was my first (but not last) remembered interaction with DNA man. I ran and told my Dad. I don’t know what was exchanged, but DNA Man left shortly thereafter.
My teenage years were rocky. I’ll never know how much was normal teenage angst, and how much I manufactured in suspecting my dad didn’t love me as much, since I wasn’t Real. What I know now is, a great deal of what I considered offensive was simply my naivete and lack of understanding of a complicated and painful situation. For everyone.
When I was seventeen, I decided I would drive two states away and meet DNA man. I had this idea that if I could only get to know him, things would smooth out in my life. I had arranged to stay with DNA Man’s parents, who had always kept track of my life through photos and cards my mom and other friends would send. (If nothing else good came of that trip, it was getting to know two really wonderful people who were also caught up in a sad set of events.) DNA Man was remarried, and had two children, but his new wife would not allow me to visit them at their home. I had to meet his children at his place of work. It was awkward and sorrowful, and I felt terrible. DNA Man tried to excuse his new wife as simply protecting her own children, but even at seventeen I could see that for rubbish.
I wonder now how my Dad felt about my searching. We’ve never talked about it much. My attempts over the years, and there have a been a handful, to make contact with DNA Man have been ridiculously disappointing and sad. If anything, it underscores the wisdom of my parents in removing him from my life and protecting me as long as they could. They knew it was inevitable that someday I would ask questions. They also knew the answers I’d get were going to suck.
DNA Man is alive somewhere in the west, but I don’t even try to make contact anymore. His parents died several years ago, and he took the wedding ring his mother left me in her will and sold it. That tells you just about everything you need to know.
There’s a country song about a man who marries a single mom, and the boy grows up and thanks his Dad for being a Dad when he didn’t have to be… this pretty much sums up my feelings for my Dad. He was a young man, and he loved my mom and adopted me, and became the Father I would not otherwise have had. He did his best to protect me and raise me, and while my younger self could not understand the complicated curves live throws at you, the me of today certainly does.
Now I’m going to go bake treats and skip church today, because my kids don’t need to even know it’s Father’s Day. My most earnest prayers is to let them be protected from the insane things their DNA Man has done… May we be so lucky to find a man who will love them the way my Dad did me.