Driving home the other day I heard Bruce Springsteen‘s song “The Rising.” I hadn’t heard it in years, so as I felt the goosebumps rise on my arms, I turned up the volume and tuned in my mind to listen. Read more
When I was four years old, my mother and her first husband divorced. Her first husband is my biological father. Since about age seventeen, I’ve referred to him as The Sperm Donor (TSD). Until two months ago, I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years.
When I was six years old, my mom and I moved in with the man she ultimately married, who raised me and who is my sister’s and my father. The man who became and who is my dad. The man I call when I need advice. The man who picked me up from the playground pavement, knees bleeding and unable to walk from the pain after the chains broke on the swing I was riding and I fell from what felt like a height of a hundred feet but was in reality probably 8 or 9 feet.
My dad is the man who helped me with my homework, who listened and gave me advice when I’d had a particularly rough tangle with my mother as a teenager. My dad is the man who intimidated my high school and college boyfriends and who stood proudly applauding when I accepted every one of my diplomas. My dad is the man who taught me that it was okay to stand on my own two feet and speak my truth, even if my voice were nothing more than a whisper when I did that. My dad taught me that even if started out whispering if I believed in myself and kept speaking my truth, eventually I would be shouting it so loudly that the world wouldn’t be able to ignore me.
My dad helped me move out of the house I shared with my first husband after that husband, who had sworn to me and my dad that he would love me and care for me forever, scarred me. My dad, along with my mother, walked me down the aisle when I married my darling Ernie in a fairytale wedding.
But I digress. I divorced TSD when I was seventeen. I was told that he and his second wife were divorcing, and I was told why. Based on that information, I developed an instant and intense revulsion for him, white hot, that followed me through my life. I never knew anything different from what I was told, and it was only the last time I saw TSD in the early 1990s that I even tried to find out his interpretation of events.
Until last fall. Then curiosity and some deep rooted need of which I was not even aware took over my heart and brain. It might have had something to do with the depression into which I’d fallen and couldn’t shake, or the prescription my doctor wrote me to help alleviate my symptoms, or even the therapist I started seeing every week, but I prefer to think of the mystical rather than the logical explanation. Thinking that way makes me feel a little less like a control freak who willed herself into doing something against all common sense.
My entire adult life I was determined never to acknowledge TSD, never to allow him entry into my carefully constructed and protected world, and since my child came along, never to allow him any access to The Boy. I haven’t changed my mind about my son. I have, however, decided that I am strong enough to allow TSD entry into my life, at least in a limited way.
I reached out to TSD. For years, I had kept tabs on him. I was fearful of him, of what he might want from me, what he was capable of doing to me. After all, I had been told he was a monster. I knew from my own observations and experiences that he had not been any kind of parent.
One early memory I have is sitting on his lap in the front seat of a car, I think it was a convertible, driving through a campground, and I had my hands on the wheel and was steering the car. I have no idea how old I was, but I don’t remember my step-sisters being there, so it was in all likelihood before the age of five. Another memory has me riding shotgun in his convertible on Route I-95, southbound from Boston to Willimantic, Connecticut, Jimmy Buffet blasting, TSD holding an open beer bottle between his legs, gulping as we sped along. I recall riding in the back of a pickup truck he owned at least once until my mother got wind of the riding arrangements and put the kyebosh on it. So from then on I rode in the crowded cab with TSD and his second wife while my step-sisters rode in the open bed. Until that summer everything fell apart, I thought they had cashed in the winning lottery ticket as to fathers.
I remember being left with his older sister, my aunt, on her farm. As an adult, I was told that her then-husband later did some bad things, but I just barely remember him, and only that I didn’t think he was a nice man. I recall that the dog TSD had bought me, a Siberian Husky I named Blue because he had one blue eye and one brown, was clipped by a car, and that we couldn’t get him to the vet because TSD had left me there for an extended period of time and my aunt’s husband had siphoned all the gas out of the second car so that he could go off somewhere, so as a five year-old child I watched my dog die a painful, horrible death. I’ve never owned another dog.
There are a lot of ghosts that have accompanied me through life, but TSD was the pink elephant. I didn’t know what would happen if I extended a branch to TSD. I just knew for certain that no longer could I ignore his ghost. So I picked up a stick and handed it to him, not sure if he would take it or if I would be bludgeoned over the head with it. I was shocked when he took it.
That was several months ago. Since then we’ve communicated via e-mail on an every couple of weeks or so cycle and had an in-person meeting once, at his mother’s funeral. That was the other thing that shocked me. At age 44, I discovered that TSD’s mother was still alive at age 95. Better yet, my request to see her was met with generous welcome by two of my cousins and TSD.
I was fortunate and was able to see her twice between the time I found out she was alive and when she died on July 21. Surprisingly, she recognized me and was able to understand that I had a son. Selfishly, I was glad that she seemed unaware that more than twenty years has passed since I’d last seen her; I didn’t want to have to attempt an explanation of my ghosts with her. She lived a long life, and from what I’m told, suffered her share of trauma and insanity. It’s all hearsay since I never heard any of it from her, but if even a fraction of what I was told is accurate, she deserves every happiness she found in life and more.
When my cousin gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself crying; not for the life that was lost, but selfishly, for what I missed out on by not having her in my life. I never felt I could have her – or any of TSD’s family members – in my life without also having TSD, and I was always afraid of him, and what he might do or be. I never experienced my grandmother as my cousins and their children did. I never knew her the way they did, never heard all the stories they did, never got to learn anything from her the way they did. Although it would be easy to place all the blame for that at TSD’s feet, I realized too late that the fault lay partly with me; only partly because none of them reached out to me, either. Perhaps my fears were irrational, but they were based on what I was told, not on anything concrete that I knew for myself. I never thought about what I knew myself.
Ernie accompanied me to the funeral on July 31. I have only just begun to process what it was like to see TSD and his family after so many years. I was at turns terrified, guilt-ridden, shocked, and heartbroken. I saw bits of myself in those people, and I couldn’t process it. For nearly my entire life, I have observed and been told that I am just like my mother and her mother. On my mother’s side, we were a family without boys until my cousins and I had children. My cousins and I, while various circumstances and geography and other things separate us, are alike in more ways than we may care to admit or may even be able to see.
Yet here I was, confronted with the unalienable fact that I was like the women on TSD’s side of my family, too. TSD’s three sisters, my first cousins, and his mother. My grandmother apparently was a lifelong writer, a lover of books and music, dedicated to her friends and family. She also had a spine of steel and an indomitable spirit, if even a fraction of what I’ve heard about her life is true. She was widowed in the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties and had four children. As far as I know, she was not college-educated and did not have a career on which she could fall back. Some of her children were adults at that point, some were still young and at home. She raised those younger children alone and never remarried. I think she was a remarkable woman who had a fantastic life, and that is what I heard echoed in the sentiments expressed at her memorial.
I held myself together admirably – at least according to Ernie – while at the church, but after we had left … well, all bets were off. I began crying in earnest as we crossed the parking lot, and Ernie pretty much carried me to the car. I often joke with Ernie that he is afraid to drive my car (we call her Christine), but he had no choice that day. I sat in the passenger seat and howled while he struggled with the computer-driven controls. I continued crying all the way home, just continuous tears down my cheeks, the waterworks occasionally escalating into sobbing so convulsive that Ernie had to pull over so I could vomit on the side of the highway. I was sick at my own misinterpretations, my own failure to know, my own uncertainty. My body simply could not hold in the evaporation of the past in my mind.
When I was able to hear Ernie over my crying, he commented that he was glad I’d wanted him to accompany me to the funeral. For most of the time he has known me, I had told him that under no circumstances would I have anything to do with TSD or allow TSD any access to my life or family, so, needless to say, he was a tad surprised when I revealed recent events to him. He was, however, fully supportive, and after it was all over, he expressed that being with me in the bosom of TSD’s family allowed him a window into me that he had never known existed and that he felt closer to me for having seen through it.
I haven’t yet been able to process the whole experience fully as I cannot get too far into thinking without dissolving into a puddle on the floor. Part of me wants for everything I have been told about TSD to be untrue; that part is the four year-old girl who desperately wants all the bad experiences with her father to be nothing more than a bad dream. Another part of me believes all the bad things I’ve been told, but that part is the angry, sullen teenager who does not understand – and doesn’t want to understand – the nuances of a very adult situation into which she was thrust. Still a third part believes that there must be a middle ground somewhere, but doesn’t know yet where to find it or even how to begin searching.
The ghosts of my life haunt me. I have found them at last, but now I need to confront and banish them into the flesh and blood people they are, no larger or smaller than life.