The voice of your dad, with your mother announcing herself at his side, echoes through the Bluetooth speaker system in your car with some smattering of a back story. “I know you’ve been digging into this DNA stuff, and I know you’re trying to learn information about your name, Berry, but…you’re not going to find it.”
In an instant, you’re confused. For the past six months, your DNA novice parents have acted both oblivious and maddeningly detached from these alarming, in-your-face truths. Now, the are sudden insiders to what you will or won’t find on the other side of this research you’re a half-year into.
Your dad explains once more the difficulty he and your mother had in conceiving naturally. Year after year with no luck. Trials of different kinds of therapy, but to no avail. “My sperm count was just too low,” he will say, though you already knew that. “But we so badly wanted to start a family, David. We wanted you so badly.”
And despite every feat of human strength you can muster, to push back the words being driven over you, there’s no longer any stopping what you’ll be told next.
“We got the help of a sperm donor, honey. David, you are not my biological son.”
In an instant, all sound and noise will evaporate. As if the air has been sucked out of your world, the floor removed, giving way to a free fall. A plunge into nothing.
You’ll go slack-jawed. Almost in the that’s what they do in the movies kind of way; genuine shock. It’s bewilderment but it feels like blunt force trauma. The tears — your tears — are there in a torrent, flooding your eyes to a blur. The salty wet drops topple over your eyelids in a cascade that lands then lurches off your reddened cheeks, landing on your shirt. Your right hand is now clasped around your jaw, as if the whole structure would fall out in an instant if not for the support of your palm. Your left hand grips the wheel and slides through a counter-clockwise rotation, producing a left turn that would’ve resulted in a crash if not for rote memory. The familiar lights of the Rolls Royce dealership dot the landscape, but they dance past you in a haze. Blood pulses through your temples, bringing along a surge of energy, like the left hook that never landed at the boxing gym.
This doesn’t happen to people like you.
You’ve been bold enough to imagine the secrets of others. You reasoned that your father or uncle had donated sperm, or that your mother had deceived your father by way of an affair. Hell, you’d wondered if your own dad’s dad was someone else altogether. You never entertained the idea that it was your own dad who was harboring classified family intel, hiding plainly in front of you.
Your mind will form but a fleeting thought of being side-swiped. The white lights of a truck hit you like a follow-up right hand, knocking you out of your stupor and demanding focus.
Your ears receive sound again. Then your father—he’s still your father—will cut through the eternal seconds that have elapsed, constraining his onslaught of tears, and tell you that his greatest joy and greatest achievement has also been his greatest secret for more than 30 years.
“You always have been and always will be my son,” he’ll manage, but barely; he’s in full-fledged hysterics.
He reassures you, or rather himself, that you’re his son. How did you not see this? The hints have been there. It was Occam’s Razor, a principle in philosophy, which once posited that in an instance of two explanations for an event, the one that requires the least speculation is often the right one.
Mom and dad struggled for five years to start a family. They’d seen a fertility specialist. You don’t look a ton like your father. Of course this was the secret. And yet, even the exposure of the truth, and a backward rationalization that you should’ve seen it coming, does nothing to deafen the hollow sounds of shock inside you. The clichés of taken-for-granted realities echo through; the sky is blue, the grass is green. Nothing’s surer than death and taxes. Your father is not your biological father; that was never meant to be one of your life’s maxims. But it always was, and that’s what’s jarring. That’s what shakes you. You’ve walked through life with whatever assurances are built into self-identity, many of them rooted in the existence of the man whose name you carry, and all the intrinsic inheritances that come with it. His struggles. His abilities. His shortcomings.
Then, another unexpected punch lands — Sarah, your sister, your closest confidante. You ask your dad if this is true for her too, if she was conceived through a donor. “Yes, honey,” he confirms. And you’re immediately thrown under a second, unrelenting wave, this one inducing nausea at the very thought that anything — anything — could come between you and the soul you are woven to, your baby sister.
You close your eyes and open them again, tears moved to the sides by your eyelids like windshield wipers. The lights are violent in their discord. You’re not from this man’s flesh. Your blood is not his blood. Your sister’s blood connection to you is now – potentially – just that of a half sibling.
Your father is a part of you, you are a part of him. But now, in a physical sense, you are not. You never were.
But you are his. This man is yours.
Rudyard Kipling’s words, which you’d only recently re-opened, will find you twice over.
…watch the things you gave your life to, broken…
you’ll be a Man, my son!
Sensical patterns and simple hues return around you. He gave up his biological kinship to you just so there could be a you. This is what he gave his life to, broken. And then, through gobs of tears and hysteria, you will find it in your gut and somewhere near the tip of your lips; the reassurances that come out as distorted wails to comfort the broken man.
“You always have been and always will be my father.”
But I sense — I know — that he fears I think or feel otherwise. That’s what this is about, what this has always been about. Fear. How many times have we uttered to ourselves the tired platitudes of self-indulgent self-help; “It’s the thought that counts” or “it takes more than DNA to be a father.” They’re trite comforts to others until their ours to inherit; then they feel like the store-bought armor of the fearful. I have been and always will be your father is one part fatherly protection, and one part self-protection. The simple fact that he has to articulate such a statement pains me more than the biological revelation on its own.
For my entire life, he has dreaded in varying degrees that this biological revelation might unseat him as a father, with the catch-22 of knowing that such a revelation would also unseat my own identity.
“Honey,” he continues, through more tears, “we never meant for this to hurt you. We love you so, so much. We just did what we had to in order to have a family. We wanted you so badly, honey. Your mom and I, we tried so hard. We thought many times of telling you, but every time we did, we asked ourselves if it was the right time. And it was never the right time. And then last night…” His voice trails off. More tears, wails of agony.
The call I’d made. The website I’d nonchalantly mentioned that revealed another DNA match. The gauntlet I’d laid before him, an unintentional boxing-in of a man who’d been dodging detection for close to 40 years. It was never disinterest or ignorance on his part. It was pure terror, day-by-day, for six months, culminating in an altar call to himself the night prior to reveal the truth.
“We are so sorry, honey. We love you so much. We never meant for you to find out this way; we wanted to fly down to tell you ourselves, but we were just so afraid you’d find out first; you were getting so close.”
“It’s okay!” I say, and I repeat it, adding a punch.
“We have always been a family, and nobody can take that away.” The words are drenched in his sorrow. “You are our son, honey.”
I imagine what the visual is on the other side of the line, and frankly, not being there in person is the only mercy granted me in this moment. My father is in this instant a sobbing, broken mess, and his voice echoes all around the inside of my car; what comfort could I wish to be as the one wielding the weapon that has left him at his knees?
These are the sounds of a man destroyed. And that’s to say nothing of the storm of tears on my own side of the line.
It’s four days before my 33rd birthday, and in the moment I have learned what changes who I am—or never was—I am listening to the crashing down of a man I’ve heard cry twice. I understand that he has feared what that information might do to our respective worlds.
And so, I feel as if his tears have come with an assignment, an obligation of reverse parenting, to protect him. It’s now clear to me why this wasn’t known, why he’d been evasive, dishonest even. He thought he had everything to lose, and now, he was in the very epicenter of the thing he’d feared most—being found out.
“Dad, please don’t confuse my tears for sadness or disappointment,” I say. My face is a wet mess. My hands, soaked from wiping at tears, are all over the steering wheel as I work to maintain control of the car. “I love you so much. I am not disappointed at all. I am so lucky that I have you and have always had you. You are my father, and that has always been true. It hasn’t changed.” I say it with as much conviction as exists within me. “You are my father.”
But it’s out now; I know his secret. And with it, this axiom upon which he’s built his family, has been given a Howitzer-level demolition job by me, the person he’s been protecting it from.
I know there’s more to wade through, and in the coming days and weeks I know that we will. I assure my father once again that I am okay; we are going to be fine.
And as the line drops, I know that I have never loved my father more than I do in this instant.