Memorial Day Weekend, 2019: I’ve always loved the idea of being a blogger, or of having a ‘lifestyle blog.’ Whatever the kids are calling it, I finally realized my ticket to storytelling — to being heard by the world — was via my ancestry search.
Arriving at a place where I could say that out loud, though, is a different story. I’ve felt slimy. The notion that I could somehow capitalize on my family’s deepest secret in exchange for likes, comments and web traffic gnaws at me.
Naturally, I’ve spoken to my therapist about it at length.
“I desperately want to be a writer with an audience,” I explained. “I want swarms of people to read my words, and yes, I want the validation. And I’m embarrassed to say that out loud. I’m even more embarrassed that I finally think I have that opportunity — and I have to exploit my own family to do it.”
And there it is. The words finally said out in the open (and, thankfully, behind the HIPAA-compliant walls of my therapist’s office).
I want something that may harm those closest to me, and I want it anyway.
Is that selfish? Well, it’s not that simple.
The irony is that it’s the rest of my family I want to share the secret with. Doing so could bring harm to my parents. And yet, a byproduct of carrying the secret — our secret — is that it’s compromising the relationships I have with my own family.
My closest friends know much of the story. And in Miami, that hasn’t been cause for alarm, since my closest relative lives more than 1,200 miles away. A slip of the tongue — did you hear about David Berry’s ancestry search? — is likely harmless.
But in time, I’ve realized the weight of it. Unintentionally freezing out my uncles and cousins from conversation because of this albatross around my neck — “oh by the way, my dad isn’t my biological father and no one has said a word about it for close to 35 years.”
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” ― George Orwell, 1984
And the truth of that secret is eating at me. My identity, my story, my struggle to endure it and process it — all of it — is inextricably linked to outing my parents, who aren’t prepared for what might come of revealing it to the rest of the family.
Because how would you feel if your kids weren’t biologically yours, and one of them was in a rush to announce it to the world, before you’d had time to process the emotions?
I’m growing resentful, though. Somehow, being a devoted mental health patient and keeping my therapist in business is being held against me. As if being OK with myself, OK with the situation, is somehow license to silence me because no one else had worked through their shit.
I shouldn’t be penalized for someone else’s inability to process this.
But my growing resentment is perhaps evidence that I’m not OK. I have convinced myself I can be made whole by making myself public, by reconciling these emotions with my world. I’m not comfortable keeping it from my family. Or harboring everyone else’s secrets just because I’m emotionally capable of doing it.
And I want out.
No one knows. None of my uncles. None of my cousins. Not my grandfather. We buried my grandmother in 2014 and the secret outlived her. On my dad’s side of the family, things are ironically (and thankfully) easier — two of my aunts and both of my grandparents are deceased. There’s one other aunt and two cousins, and I’ve only kept a relationship with one of them, my cousin Michael. In a literal sense, he’s the only one other than my father that I’d been biologically pulled from, and I told him the truth in the early days.
As months have become a year, my gentle inquiries about gaining permission to tell my family have gained no traction. By spring, I was at my breaking point.
“I understand this is a lot for you, but this is a lot for me too,” I explained to my parents. “This is your secret, but this is my identity. I’m stuck between deeply caring about you guys, and how real your fears are, and being tired of having this weight on my shoulders. It’s not mine; it’s yours. And I love you, but I don’t want to carry it anymore.”
It’s hardly that simple, though. Because I know that telling my family is also license to tell the world. I’m selfish. That is one of my motivations; to trade in nearly four decades of someone else’s grief in exchange for an audience and some likes.
And yet, I’ve convinced myself that wanting an audience for my story — this story — is somehow in conflict with its burden as a secret. Why can’t my selfish gain and bringing myself closer to my cousins and uncles be binary?
Orwell’s quote woke me from that thought.
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
In reality, revealing the truth is the only way to give me both, even though my reasons feel in conflict. I can no longer hide it from myself. Not from my family. Not from the world.
Memorial Day 2019
Finally, in the days before my visit to Rochester at Memorial Day last spring, after months of prodding, my parents removed the block. They gave me permission to tell. “I still don’t understand why it matters so much to you, but I know that it does matter to you,” my dad said. “So you can tell them.”
But the burden to do so is mine, I was told.
So I fired off text messages to my uncles. I called my grandfather. In a matter of minutes, I’d scheduled the destruction of the last remaining wall between my identity, my family secret, and total freedom from its restrictive weight.
Of course, I was coy about my real motivation for getting together, though I’m fortunate to have the kind of familial love that would make way for me regardless of my reasons for asking.
I started with my Uncle Robert on a weekday afternoon. 20 months have passed since I was told.
20 months have passed since I have told others. My then-girlfriend, Jessica. My closest friends. I’ve written about it at length in journals for no one but myself.
The words and the sequence of events have become so rehearsed in my mind that I’m convinced they’re just a story I’m retelling. Something I’m dissociated from.
But as I park in my uncle’s driveway, I’m overcome with jitters. The physical symptoms of anxiousness course through my veins, and I feel the subtle shivers in my fingertips.
“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
I wonder why I’m feeling the nerves. Why I’ve felt them intensely enough that their manifesting themselves outwardly.
And instantly, I know in my mind an answer what my body knew first — I have hidden behind my fear of rejection.
OK, I haven’t feared outright rejection, like I’d be ousted from the family and kicked off the proverbial island.
But I’ve feared, despite my utterances to anyone who’d listen that “everything is going to be fine!” that maybe things won’t be fine. That there’d forever be an asterisk next to me, or my parents.
It’s funny how real your vulnerabilities become when they can be exposed or challenged by someone whose opinion matters to you.
I also don’t have a choice. Not anymore.
I know that my need to rid myself of this load outweighs anything that might cause me to stumble in the final steps.
A funny thing about secrets is that we tend to hold them past their sell-by date by the assumption that the weight of it is too heavy for others. What they’ll say. If they’ll accept you.
Or if they won’t.
But unburdening yourself from those secrets is a hell of a diet plan — you feel lighter once you rid yourself of the weight.
It turns out, I had nothing to fear. My uncle cried with me and held me while I sobbed into his arms. “You don’t have to carry this anymore,” he cried back to me. “I have always, and will always, be here for you. Always.” He dabbed at his eyes again.
“I promise you; always.”
So on Memorial Day 2019, the Berry Chronicles were born. I walked out of my Uncle Robert’s yard that afternoon and breathed deeply, taking in the cool, crisp air of late May.
When I exhaled, I felt the world fall off of me. The burdens of others. The afflictions of a scared little boy with questions of belonging — gone.
I am my father’s son. I am a Berry by name and a Wichman by blood. But I am no longer burdened by a secret.
And yet, this is a story I will always live. Always explore. I can never escape that which I’ve inherited. What I wrestle to understand.
This is why I write.
The Berry Chronicles will go on a two week hiatus after this post. As of this post, the past is now present. Everything that’s been written to this point has been written with the purpose of bringing you up to speed on old news that’s new to you.
Now, I pivot toward what is and what’s ahead.
I go weeks at a time without much regard for any of this. And then like the punch I never saw coming, I’ll be blindsided by questions of identity, and deep, sludge-filled thoughts regarding my role in the world. I wonder about the identity of my biological father, and though I don’t desire to know him, I do desire to know about him. To understand how much of what I am is a product of him. I wonder about his motivations, and any residual thoughts he has about what came of his donations 35-plus years ago.
Similarly, I wonder about the ‘choose your own adventure book’ realities that are facing others who’ve gone through situations like this. Perhaps it’s self-indulgence, but I hope my words and experiences can serve as a way for them to see forward.
From here on out, the Berry Chronicles will be an exploration of the world I have unwittingly joined.
And a humble, earnest attempt to derive meaning from it.