Chatting as I do to the guy who works in the Nespresso shop in Stratford about books and writing, we always get onto the subject of magical realism in fiction. Next stop is for me to read Hemingway, apparently.
Anyway, I was inspired to use this as a lens to consider another aspect of my adoption – the dead end that is my birth father. I use ‘dead’ in a rather throwaway manner there, but he did pass away some (6?) years ago now.
I have met my birth mother, and the people that I share my genes with most closely on that side – grandparents, great grandmother, cousins, uncle. Some of their counterparts, too. One side of the jigsaw puzzle is detailed, elaborated with information I didn’t anticipate getting.
On my father’s side, I’ve met my half brother, and his mother.
But the rest of that side of my family tree remains, and to some extent will always remain, a mystery to me.
A part of me knows that if I just ask the right people the right questions, I’ll get a much clearer picture of the man I never knew. And I’d write the stuff down this time, because how can I remember what someone said to me about a man I’ve never met in person? As strange as that may sound, that applies even if it’s my own biological father. But through my own interactions with him – which have been entirely by phone – and my inquiry so far, I have learned quite a lot about who he was. And not much of it has been positive.
There came a time for me when I decided I had uncovered enough history. History is messy. Usually covered in dirt, blood, politics (big or small ‘p’), and other unpleasant substances. And to some extent, I don’t want to slander the dead. He can’t defend himself. But, by all accounts, this man was an abusive, cheating, alcoholic, impulsive, adulterating, high-speed emotional trainwreck of a cowardly man who denied his connection to me, then accepted that it would ‘be alright’ for me to think of him as my father ‘if it matters’ to me, and threatened to take that gracious charity of his back when I refused to indulge his drunken phone calls to me.
But I prefer to think that, even though my own experiences of him were brief, limited by virtue of being long-distance phone calls, and I heard little about his caring, nurturing, passionate, inspirational side – that doesn’t mean I can believe it didn’t exist.
And it doesn’t mean that I have to believe that he was an irredeemably dark soul, a psychopath. Many of us make poor choices, which lead to more poor choices. I don’t want to excuse him, or forgive him. I just don’t want to hate him.
I’ve carried a lot of that hatred for many years. I’ve felt tied to a man I never truly understood, hearing nothing but negativity about him, as if he were a cautionary tale I was being told – the world doesn’t need more of him, so we can only hope you have enough of your birth mother in those genes. That, and my upbringing.
But upbringing is like the software. A computer might know how to calculate pi to a billion decimal places, but it will never toast bread. Ever since I met my birth mother and learned just how alike we were, I realised just how much that was true for me. My parents – the ones who raised me – are like angels who took me in to give me the best chance. They gave me my moral compass – a piece of software that one, I believe – and they advised me, and continue to do so. But I am not an angel.
Perhaps everyone realises this to some extent – that we are not our parents. There is a trope in comedy about turning into one’s parents. “Oh no,” cries Generica with her eyes wide, in that popular naughties sitcom ‘Haven’t You Seen This Show Before’; “I’m my mother!!!” Perhaps I am lucky to have three, and a fourth I can pretend things about. I will only be a little bit of all of them.
I have my mum’s pragmatism, but also her sense of feeling old before she really is. I have my dad’s ability to chat to randoms, but also the quick temper he used to have. I have my birth mum’s sense of humour, but also her sense of humour.
And I have my birth father’s… what? And so I worried. About the Other Side – the side that had to exist, because that’s how genetics works.
Perhaps this first side of the jigsaw of my background should be considered separately, like a diptych. A diptych in which the left half – my maternal background – is well-defined and full of knowns, and the right half – my paternal Other Side – is abstract, shifting, difficult to describe, dreamlike.
And so it shall be, that my birth father can always be a little undefined. Like a drama student attempting to be Hamlet. We can make different choices for him, and each time he’ll come to the stage a little different.
But maybe that’s an opportunity.