It’s been almost a year since my birth father died. I’m still grieving.
The day I found out he died started no differently than any other Monday. I started my day running into a meeting just a few minutes late because I wanted to make sure I walked my daughter into her classroom and we hardly ever got to school right on time. For the past few years, that was the one time I each day I knew I would have uninterrupted time with her, so I held that time as sacrosanct, even if it meant being late to a meeting or two.
My two meetings wrapped up by 9:45 and I was at my desk, downloading the data I needed to complete my part of a report that went to our vice president each Monday afternoon. As I was waiting for a spreadsheet to download from Twitter, I decided to sneak a peek at my Facebook account. Scrolling down my timeline, I was dumbfounded by the post I saw from my birth father’s cousin, the cousin I had connected with a few months earlier in an effort to contact him.
Honestly, I cannot remember what the post said except that my birth father had died from pancreatic cancer. I sat staring at my screens for a few minutes, numb to everything around me. With tears welling up in my eyes, I forced myself to finish the report. When it was filed, I reached out to his cousin, saying that I was sorry for her loss and asking that she let his family know that I would still love to meet them when the time was right.
I got up from my chair, fully intending to go out to my truck for a few minutes to cry but as I stood, the last 24 years of my struggle to make sense of my feelings and need to meet my birth father hit me with every emotion imaginable. I felt an immediate void open in my heart. I was so close to meeting him and now would never have the chance. I would never get to know him, to share any of my life story with him, to catch a baseball game with him, to grab a beer with him, or to introduce him to his wonderful daughter-in-law and amazing granddaughter. All of it, gone.
So many familiar emotions came to me. Anger for the way I found out, incredulousness that he could just walk away from his son before I was even born, wondering if he ever thought of me, sadness that he had died from the same cancer that took my beloved Grandpa Carpenter from me, and fear that my own stubbornness had cost me the chance to meet him. There was a finality that I had not expected, and it hurt more than anything I had experienced in my life.
I tried wiping away the tears, but there were too many of them. I managed to choke out to my manager that I had to go. I don’t think he understood what I was saying at all until I managed to get to my truck and text him, but he responded in the best way imaginable. He told me to take my time and to not worry about work, and that he was sorry for my loss. That simple kindness was everything I needed to hear in that moment.
I sat bundled up in the cab of my cold truck, not wanting to start it because I wasn’t sure if I was ready to drive yet. I tried calling my wife but ended up texting her so she could understand me, too. My counselor and I texted, making plans for me to come in the next day. I cried until nothing seemed to be left in my tear ducts. I put my key in the ignition, fired up the truck, gave myself a long pep-talk and drove home so I could nap. Maybe, I thought, this would all make more sense after a nap.
Napping helped me feel better physically. If anything, it made the emotions stronger because I was more fully present with all of them. It was just as intense as the night I found out who my birth father was, but the emotions were not as angry as they were then. I better understand now who I can rely on to be present for me and now understand who participates in my life only because they desperately want me to know their version of my truth. I have a stronger support network, which includes supportive friends, a faith tradition to stand with, and good counseling. I know how to cry now, which allows me to feel sadness without letting it turn to anger. I have a better understand of myself, when I need to reach out for help and when I need to have time to myself.
I picked The Kid up from school that afternoon. Her embrace was everything I needed. Whenever a grown-up problem hits our family, we try to explain it in terms she will understand rather than shield her from it. This time was no different. I explained to her that my birth Papa died and I was going to be sad for a while about it. She knew I was sad because we have talked about our birth families before, and she did her best to make sure I was okay.
A phone call that night allowed a sliver of joy to creep into an otherwise profoundly sad day. My birth father’s oldest brother left me a voicemail while we were having dinner, letting me know that he wanted to talk. When we finally did connect, I knew that I still had a chance to get to know my birth father, just in a different way than I had imagined.
My uncle and I talked several times since, and I have met him and several family members I never knew existed. My grandmother is still alive and kicking; I am overjoyed that I have had the chance to learn about my birth family from her perspective. I was even able to be at the memorial the family had for my birth father, including meeting his wife. It was a beautiful experience for me.
Being the family secret is an odd position to be in. Piecing together tidbits of information of why you were a secret, hoping you have the right interpretation is exhausting. So is feeling betrayed, feeling like you cannot trust the people who should be closest to you, not knowing who knows and who doesn’t, being told is was my fault that I wasn’t told before my 21st birthday, being unable to get a copy of your original birth certificate, being told that it’s crazy that you want to find your birth family, having relationships end because you won’t search for your birth family, and having people dictate to you how you should be feeling about your existence.
But I am through it and I am healing.
I have a few requests of everyone reading this. If you ever become an adoptive parent, be honest with your child about how you came into their life. Even if you think they are too young to understand, it is important that you start the dialogue early with them, so they know they have a place in this world. If you found out the way I did, reach out for help. These emotions can be too big for you to handle alone and you deserve better, simply because you are a child of God. If you are a family member or friend of someone who is adopted, be supportive. Ask how you can help instead of assuming you know all the answers, and remember, sometimes all that is needed is to sit in silence with your loved one to provide the support they need.