Dad and I are driving to meet his friend, Debbie. He tells me not to mention my mother at all. He tells me Debbie has a son around my age. I have a little brother named Devin, he’s one-year-old. He tells me not to say anything about him either.
I also had a brother, Brandon, who died when I was five. He doesn’t give me strict instructions about him, but I decide it’s best to stay quiet about my whole family since I’m young and I don’t understand. I don’t want to mess up.
We pull over at some condos, Debbie and her boy, Michael, get into the car. Her skin is tan and she buffs her nails as we drive.
I slipped once. Michael complimented me on something I was wearing, and I said “Thanks. My mom got it for me.” Dad turned around and gave me a look. My chest felt heavy. But it never made any sense. Where was my mom supposed to be? Was she “dead?” Had she “abandoned” us?
This is the first time I meet my dad’s mistress. I am nine years old.
I didn’t know what the word mistress meant then. But I knew something was strange. I watched Dallas. I knew about “affairs,” but on TV, it was all so glamourized. What I was witnessing wasn’t glamorous. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in real life. Even JR Ewing didn’t involve his son in his affairs.
My father would eventually divorce my mother, marry Debbie, and have a baby with her. This happened in the span of three years and it’s a little jumbled in my mind but one moment I can see, clear like a window pane, was the cold look my dad gave me when I mentioned my mom in front of Debbie.
I know what you’re thinking: My dad is a monster. I thought so, too. But as I’ve put the pieces together I think it was something different. It was pain. He lost a son, and he spiraled out of control.
I really wanted to hate my dad. It has taken me a long time to forgive my dad for everything he put my family through, and even longer to forgive him for what he put me through.
Brandon and I were only 16 months apart. We had our own cribs, but we always slept in the same one. My parents noticed these spots on his body called petechia, a red or purple rash caused by a minor hemorrhage. The doctors said Brandon, about 20 months old, was suffering from a blood disease called Aplastic Anemia. The disease causes your body to stop producing red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
In the beginning, it seemed that Brandon had to go to the ER almost nightly. I would wake up in the middle of the night and my parents would be gone. My grandparents or aunts and uncles or neighbors would be there. I would assume my parents were at the hospital with Brandon. Well, my mom was there. I would later learn my dad was with his secretary, Julie, his other mistress.
Brandon had a lot of bruises and he wore a helmet because if he ever bumped his head, it he could have gotten internal bleeding. I knew he was sick, but I never remember him crying or acting “sick.” He was always happy; laughing and making jokes.
The doctors told my parents that Brandon needed a bone marrow transplant. A nurse took me into a room to take my blood and see if I could be a match to help save my brother. I wasn’t.
After that, my dad started the “Life for Brandon” Bone Marrow Registry. We used to have these big parties to raise money. We found a match for Brandon, but she had breast cancer, so things fell apart.
On June 26, 1987, just six days before Brandon’s fourth birthday, my mom was packing up Brandon’s things. He was supposed to go home that day. He wasn’t suddenly cured, but he was doing well enough. But suddenly things took a turn for the worst. Meanwhile, I was at day camp. My dad and grandparents rushed to the hospital to be by Brandon’s side. The last thing he said was “zadie.”
That’s what we call my dad’s father, it’s Yiddish.
When I got home, my family was sitting in the living room. They looked sad. My dad said Brandon “passed.” I didn’t know what that meant. For a second I thought maybe it was good news. But then my mom clarified. “Brandon died.” After his funeral the next day my cousins tried to explain that Brandon was in heaven. I kept saying “I want to go to heaven. I want to be with my best friend.”
A little less than 3 years after my brother’s death, my parents had a new baby, Devin. Devin was healthy. Everything was wonderful. We were all happy.
When Devin was around one year old, my dad took me to meet Debbie for the first time. Soon after that, I found out my mom was pregnant again. I was so excited, I almost forgot about Debbie. I was young. I knew something weird was going on, but I was going to have ANOTHER brother or sister, and I still I couldn’t fully wrap my head around exactly what my dad was doing.
During my mom’s pregnancy, my dad continued to see Debbie. He almost missed the birth of my new baby brother Logan’s because he was at a Valentine’s Day party with her.
When Logan was born, the doctors knew right away that he was sick. He had the same illness as Brandon. My mom and Logan were helicoptered to another hospital so that my mom could give him a blood transfusion.
Mom knew about Debbie and eventually threw dad out when Logan was just a few months old. A year later they announced they divorced.
A few months later, a relative said they saw my dad at a Beach Boys concert with a pregnant woman. It was Debbie. Even though I was speaking to my dad during this time he never mentioned that Debbie was pregnant. In October, 1993, my parents’ divorced was finalized. In November, 1993, my sister, Taylor, was born. They married a few months later.
In the months before the wedding, I had mixed emotions. I had fun going out and shopping for dresses, but I couldn’t shake the overall feeling of betrayal: how my father my betrayed his wife, how Debbie was complicit in all of it, and how I also felt like I was betraying my mom by being a part of Debbie’s wedding to my dad. So, I’ll admit it, I tried to stir the pot a little.
I’d mention The 10 Commandments and how adultery was a sin. I went to a Jewish Day School, but I was never super religious, and adultery IS a sin, but I only mentioned that 10 Commandments stuff to remind Debbie that she was instrumental in destroying a family.
For the next couple years, my mom was constantly taking Logan to various doctors in New York and Boston, seeking treatments for his illness. My dad would sometimes meet them there but kept his distances saying that it was giving him flashbacks to when my parents lost Brandon. The “Life for Brandon” registry my dad founded wasn’t successful in finding Brandon a match, but it did help and ultimately cure Logan.
There were moments when I’d tell my dad “I hate” him, but I never truly meant it. We’d fight a lot throughout the years because I always wondered why he did what he did to our family but also why he did it to me. Throughout my dad’s marriage to Debbie, he was still a good dad. He took me to visit New England College to make sure it was the right fit, and when I graduated, he drove me back home to my home in Detroit.
He proved countless times that he loved me. But our relationship was strained. I could never fully let go of what he did. It wasn’t even that he cheated on my mom. It wasn’t even that he broke up our family. It was what he did to me: Dad instilled this fear in me. He lied. He made me lie. He made me deathly afraid to tell the truth. I had to carry that lie about Debbie for years and it ate away at me.
My dad and Debbie’s relationship eventually fell apart. She started drinking and getting violent and my dad decided it was time to leave.
That’s when things started to change.
Near the end of 2005, my dad started calling my zadie, his father. We started meeting at Deli Unique on Sundays, my dad, grandparents, brothers, sister, and even my mom. She hadn’t forgiven my dad. But she knew it would make us all happy. And we would all soon learn that dad and Debbie had filed for divorce. My dad divorcing Debbie was the ultimate sign that he loved me.
It sounds silly and selfish, and I’ll admit, I had this evil satisfaction knowing their marriage had failed. At the time, I felt guilty for my sister’s sake. But this was the vindication I needed. My dad made the worst mistake of his life the day he took me to meet Debbie and her son and told me not to mention my mom or brother. And now he was finally rectifying that mistake. It has taken years, but my dad has proven himself to the people he loves. The first step was actually admitting he was wrong. The next was doing everything he could to fix it.
For most of the people he hurt, he just had to prove how much he loved them. But for me, it was a lot different. The only way to make things right was to divorce Debbie. That may sound childish and selfish. And who knows what I would be telling you if they were still married?
No matter what, I could never hate my own father.
When I was three, Brandon was in the hospital, and my dad and I were about to go home. We were saying goodnight and Brandon asked for my shoes, the ones I was wearing. He loved those shoes, black, patent leather.
So I took them off, and he put them in his bed with him like a teddy bear. I kissed him goodbye and wondered how I was going to make it to the car. My dad picked me up, and carried me barefoot through the hospital parking lot.
My dad, the monster, is also my dad, the hero.