Monday, August 29, 2005

The greatest men I've never known

It occurred to me that although you know much about my past, there are some very important things you might not be aware of. Such as the fact that I met my father and brothers when I was 23 years old. For my father, it had been about 20 years since our last meeting. It was my first time meeting my brothers, or even having any knowledge of their existence.

Back row: Grammy Eleanor, Grampa Dennis (died 1989), stepmom Linda, Daddy.
Front row: my brother Eric, my brother Shawn.

It was the early spring of 1994. I was working for a temp agency, filling in at a local factory on an assembly line. I had gotten a call from my cousin Amy the night before and was working through my feelings on the subject, using my friends at work as a sounding-board. I'd told them all about the horrible things my mother had told me to keep me from wanting to meet my father. Did I wake up to the lies or succumb to them? My cousin had told me my father was dying (not entirely true, but she thought so at the time) and I was still unsure about meeting him.

My friends told me to try while I still had the chance. The problem was, I had no idea how to contact him. I ended up calling "information" and getting the only number I could find under that last name, which turned out to be my paternal grandmother's. She was ecstatic, gave me my father's number and told me to call him right away.

My first conversation with my father went on forever. All the lies and stories were clarified. All my life my mother had said one thing, and her parents (who'd raised me during the early part of my childhood) said another. I was Alice, and the rabbit-hole was as deep as the sea. My father was the lifeline holding me to reality: He'd not been subject to the stories for 20 years. His was the foundation I could base whose story against whose. He gave me back reason and truth.

My mother was 16 when she dated Daddy. My father was just back from Vietnam, Naval military police. My mother was a car-hop (roller-skating waitresses at the drive-ins) for a local A&W burger joint. After I was born, my mother had cheated on him. In order that he not find out, my mother aborted the baby. This child was at 7-8 months gestation. It wasn't a situation my mother could lie herself out of. The baby's father was named Stefan. He was a West African soccer player. It wasn't the first time I'd heard the story, it was a much-disputed family legend: I had dreams while growing up of a sister with copper-golden hair and coffee-cream skin. She would have been beautiful.

My father found out about the tryst and was furious she'd cheated. Out of revenge, she told him she'd make sure he never got to see me. She was successful for twenty years, but her ultimate failure was one of my life's biggest gains. No, four of my life's biggest gains: I had my father, two brothers and my step-mother. My father also has two girls, older than I, whom I've still never met.

This also happened to be one of the four times I left my now ex-husband, prior to smartening up and leaving his abuse of me for good. Daddy sent my brother Eric to Wisconsin to help pack my two-year-old son and I up and move us back to my hometown in Indiana. The first time I met my brother was supposed to be one of those "Oprah" moments with lots of tears and hugging. It was supposed to be deep and meaningful. I'll always regret that it was as stiff as it was. I was so hellbent on getting out of that house and away from my ex that I pushed away any thought of emotion or feeling. I was afraid of breaking down in a crucial moment. I couldn't let myself cry for fear of breaking down.

My brother Eric came in with a look that said he wanted the teary-eyed meeting i had hoped for just as much. And in my quest for strength in simply getting through this daunting task of leaving, I probably appeared more cold and stiff than anything else. I somehow had no idea what else to do. I could see the disappointment in his eyes, but just could not allow myself the luxury of a breakdown. It broke my heart inside. And I could see it breaking his.

It was surreal being back in Indiana for those eight months. I was on freedom overload. My ex had given me little chance to be myself. I had no idea who I was anymore. And especially in this place where i had been so beaten down and tormented as a child. Now here I was again with my own child of 18 months. I submersed myself in working at a local Pizza Hut. I went to all the places I remembered, trying to find some of the good memories to relive.

My son at around one-and-a-half years old and me.

My father and my stepmother took care of my young son while I worked. I didn't spend much time with my brothers, although I wanted to. I was still feeling like an intruder in someone else's life. My brothers were so stable, so secure in themselves. So different from who I was in the sense of family and self worth, but yet so much alike in so many other ways. It was like the set of a strange film. Their world was so different from mine, and I couldn't help wondering how different my life would have been had I been with my father instead of the world of violence I became so used to with my mother.

Eventually, the old wounds of my hometown came back to haunt me. It became more and more difficult to cope, and I began hiding deeper and deeper within myself. As much as I knew in my heart that it was a mistake, I agreed to have my son's father pick me up and take us back to Wisconsin. The fighting started almost before the moving truck was packed.

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