Today we conclude our first Essay Week, featuring the work of a new writer each day. We hope you enjoyed the series.
by Joseph Ellison Brockway
On Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at approximately 7:00 pm, I found out that the man I called “dad” for 34 years and 323 days was, in fact, not my biological father. The discovery was completely unexpected. I’d never considered that my dad wasn’t my dad, yet I was the instigator of my misfortune; I purchased novelty DNA tests for my family. That traumatizing discovery consumed me. Why me? Why now? Nagging questions infiltrated my thoughts and multiplied uncontrollably, leading to an amalgam of emotions—confusion, doubt, anger . . . a nascent hysteria gaining momentum inside me, threatening a vicious explosion that I subdued only by consuming enough alcohol that I passed out.
That evening was the germ of a cataclysmic identity crisis and prolonged period of depression which festered, overcoming me in the shower the following morning. I felt as though I did not belong to a family, as though I no longer knew who I was—the former me no longer existed . . . my self had been fragmented. For thirty days I reflected on the fragmentation I felt, the changes in my genetic identity, my emotional and physical changes, and the perceived changes in my relation to various family members. Here is my reflection on the eleventh day.
Day 11 of the Afterpoetry – Five Children, Four Five Fathers
Five children, five fathers. Five children, five fathers. Five children, five fathers.
I think if I repeat that phrase enough times to myself it might start to feel normal. Five children, five fathers. It has only been 34 years and 323 days of saying five children, four fathers. People don’t understand why I am so devastated. Why does it feel weird to say that my brother and I don’t share the same biological father? After all, it’s only been almost 35 years of that lie. Five children, five fathers. Nothing has changed. I am still me, and my siblings are still my siblings. I should be able to get over this.
Imagine if you spent the first half of your life believing a lie.
I used to tell people, “My older brother and I are the only two siblings with the same father.” Now I have to stop and rearrange my statement. Damn it! For nearly 35 years I was so proud to say that. I used to joke around with my little sister and call her an OTFT (pronounced ot, like “ought,” foot): One-Time Fling-Thing. She was a one-time fling-thing and my older brother and I were one-hundred percent brothers—like a pure-bred is better than a mutt, like saying pie à la mode because it sounds better than “pie with ice cream,” like whole-wheat organic is healthier than bleached enriched, like tofu bacon just isn’t bacon . . . it’s tofu! Ironic that after almost 35 years I find out that I’m an OTFT . . . I’m tofu. I have to rethink everything I have come to say about my role in my family.
Now I say:
“My brother and I ‘used to be’ the only two with the same father.”
“There are five children and five fathers.”
“While my mother was married to my ‘dad’ she had me with another man.”
I don’t even know what to say about my dad. Do I say:
My “adopted father?”
“The name-of-the-man-on-my-birth-certificate father?”
“The man who ‘raised’ me as his son?” (But he didn’t even really raise me.)
“The guy we thought was my dad?”
What do I say?
What the hell do I say?
To the one who tells me that nothing has changed. To the one who says my family is still my family. To the one who can’t understand how deeply this has affected me. You. Tell me now, after almost 35 years, how am I supposed to refer to the man I thought was my biological father?
I keep hearing phrases like, “It will get better,” and “It will be all right.” Of course it will. I know that.
But for now, I still don’t see the same person in the mirror. My green eyes don’t belong to “the man who didn’t, but kind of did, raise me,” my “dad who’s on my birth certificate,” my “non-biological father” . . .
What do I call him?
Joseph, I feel your pain; you described it so well. I don’t have an answer for your question, but I hope you will find one soon.
Great piece of writing — a gripping story you tell, in a tight and vulnerable way. It makes me hurt, which, in writing, is a good thing. Thank you.