I’ve always been different. Not just on the outside, either. For as long as I can remember, I’ve carried a weight, a secret, that’s the very essence of who I am:
My biological father is not the same Dad who raised me.
I always knew there were extreme differences between my blonde-haired, blue-eyed brother and myself, with my olive skin and dark hair. Growing up, I couldn’t verbalize this feeling. I just knew I didn’t belong, didn’t fit in, didn’t feel quite whole.
My parents divorced around the age of seven and my single mother struggled to make ends meet working odd hours and odd jobs along with the usual 9 to 5. She went back to college to better herself, but that also meant we didn’t see her as much as we wanted and needed.
Every other weekend, my brother and I would go to the man I called Dad’s house. But as I grew older, being around him and witnessing his unparalleled devotion to my brother only forced this nagging feeling to the forefront. And while he also thought I was his for years, I believe his subconscious felt all those nagging feelings, too.
After my mom finally broke the news one sunny afternoon in the downstairs of our shabby apartment, I decided not to reach out to my biological father because:
a) I didn’t want to upset the father, Dad, who’d put his name on the birth certificate and raised me.
b) I was nine years old. I couldn’t process the news even a little.
I’ve come to understand my mother’s choice to keep things under wraps and have forgiven her. The details don’t matter anymore, but now that I’m grown with two children of my own I know exactly why she did what she did, why she told my biological father to stay away, and why she allowed another man to claim me.
Years passed and although I tried to accept my life with this big hole in my heart, part of me always felt stuck, unsettled and restless. At the age of 16 and with the support of my mom, I finally made the decision to find my biological father.
One evening, seven years after finding out about him, this man, this stranger, stood in the living room of our new house. Mom had gotten a better-paying job and though we still didn’t have the fanciest clothes or newest electronic gadgets, we survived.
When my father finally came over, I remember looking into his eyes, unsure what to feel. I thought seeing him would make everything better. He was a good guy, after all, and did nothing wrong -- except not fight for me.
We went to dinner, had uncomfortable amounts of silence and conversation, and tried to figure out where to go from that moment on. By the time he left, I knew -- I couldn’t see him again. Having suppressed all my emotions toward him for all those years left me in an arrested state. I couldn’t deal with it, so, I stuffed it down, again.
Years later, around the time my now-husband and I decided to try for our second child, all these feelings came to the surface again. Being older and (somewhat) wiser, I knew my former decision had been a mistake. That hole in my heart felt bigger than ever. You can only run for so long.
I needed my biological father in my life.
I had a lot of time to make up for, so I searched every crevice of the earth. But all I’d found were dead ends and missteps. The man had disappeared — like a ghost. The harder I tried to find him, the more disappointed I was when the results came back empty.
Then one day, while visiting my mother in another state, she stumbled across my paternal grandmother’s phone number and with nervous hands, I dialed. My heart was beating out of my chest when a woman, my paternal grandmother, answered. Though after all this time, the news was not what I was hoping for.
My father was dead.
Worse than that, he’d passed four years prior from cancer.
His obituary listed his only child, only daughter — me.
The pain is something I still can’t describe. It was like being struck with lightning right on the center of my chest, and now there’s a void that can never heal. I cried the whole weekend and beyond and when I finally had the strength to accept his death, I spent every day thereafter writing my grandmother letters.
I wanted to know everything about the man, who he was, how much alike we might be, but when the days melted into weeks, and into months, and finally, into years with no answer, I knew that decision not to have my father in my life that I’d made at 16 would haunt me forever.
Fast forward three years of grieving when, after two miscarriages and lost hope, I’m finally pregnant with our second child — a son. I decide to reach out to my grandmother one last time to tell her I’d planned to name our son after my father. As the birth of my son approached, the more empty I felt inside.
Nearly three years after that first letter, just weeks before my son is born, she responded. Her reasons for keeping her distance were nearly the same as mine at ages nine and 16 -- I couldn’t blame her.
She and my father experienced the loss of me just as I felt the loss of them. None of us could process the circumstances, but I’m grateful every day she finally contacted me, however long the wait was. It is a bond only she, my father, and myself can understand because all three of us were denied the chance to be together.
Now that my son is nearing four and my eldest is almost nine. They know their paternal great-grandmother. They know her because I’m dedicated to preserving the memory of the man I couldn’t know -- the man I should have given a chance at 16.
They know how much he loved me — enough to let me go — that there wasn’t a day he didn’t wish for me, but most importantly, that he actually had been there the first few years of my life, in the shadows, always watching, always hoping. He was there. And that answers more questions than anything.
With the help of my grandmother, I now know more about my father, and myself, than ever. I have an identity — something I struggled with for too long. Aside from documenting the full journey via my memoir, I find solace in writing, hearing my kids’ laughter, and running through deserted cemeteries — the only place I feel close to my father. And when the sun rises, I look for pink in the sky and when it’s there, I tell myself he’s with me; always has been.
And I hope he knows, wherever he is, I was always with him, too.