The first time I saw the man was in my mother’s living room.
[And here is where the qualifiers begin.]
The first time I saw the man was in my birth-mother’s living room, not the living room where I spent hundreds of Saturday mornings watching cartoons, or where I practiced piano for one hour every day. This was a living room that was only vaguely more familiar to me than it was to him in the autumn of 2005, when we met. I was twenty-two years old. If he hadn’t been so uncomfortable that day, I don’t think he would have left an impression on me at all.
But it was clear from the way he adjusted his glasses. How he remained standing when everyone else sat. His laugh so tight that it could have been a cough. He was uncomfortable. And his discomfort became graver when his daughter who was also my sister smiled into the pages of an old photo album, seeing for the first time her features displayed on the faces of her ancestors. Something her adoptive father could never give her. Where once he had gained a daughter when I lost a sister, the poles of that event were now reversed. At twenty-two years old I lacked the capacity to appreciate the similarities of our situations. I couldn’t believe that an adult might be just as confused as I was by the way adoption can spin your emotional compass.
I suspected, from the beginning, that he wasn’t wild about me. But he could have just been nervous. I didn’t really know him, after all.
After our reunion, he told my sister that he didn’t want her to see us again. He didn’t understand why she would want to—she’d met us, she knew where she came from. Her questions were answered. He was her family and that must be enough.
The realization that this man did not like me stung my twenty-two year old ego. And because weak people get hurt and strong people get even—a truth that had been planted in me from youth—I decided that I didn’t like him right back.
I didn’t see him again until my sister’s wedding. I was thirty years old. I had grown taller. I wore heels.
I was surprised that my sister not only invited her birth family but that she incorporated all of us into her wedding. Two of our sisters were bridesmaids and one played the ceremony music. Our brother’s son was the ring bearer. She listed our birthmother in the program alongside her adoptive mother.
When her father couldn’t make it to the wedding rehearsal– he was getting over the flu—my (adoptive) father stood in his place. Everyone said how nicely it had worked out. How handy that the nature of our fragmented family created back-ups. I couldn’t help feeling that our presence there might have been part of what kept my sister’s father away that day. But the rehearsal went off well. And the wedding too. And he asked me at the end of the reception if I could help him download the photos from his digital camera. I don’t know how these things work, he said. And I felt useful, and I felt sorry. And it seemed that time maybe had wrought more graceful improvement on both of us than any direct conversation could have.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011.
I watched the updates on my sister’s facebook timeline.
Doctors found a tumor, she wrote.
Her father had gone to the same physician for twenty years. Then he happened to see a substitute when his usual man was on vacation. The substitute doctor found a tumor the size of a football in my sister’s father’s abdomen. It must have been growing for years, my sister told me. Her voice crackled with frustration.
A month later she wrote Chemotherapy. Prognosis good. Thanks for your prayers.
Then, later still, beneath a photo of a candy-red motorcycle Dad’s handling chemo well; took me for a ride this afternoon.
Then for many months, nothing. Until the news that the chemo hadn’t been effective as they had hoped. Doctors were looking into surgery, she wrote.
Then there was a second surgery. Longer this time because of scar tissue from the first.
Then radiation, when the surgeries didn’t get everything.
Then hospice, after his body took all the radiation it could handle.
Below each update my sister’s friends typed smiley faces, hearts, said we are praying, you are in our prayers. It was a phrase I had often said myself when I was a fervently entrenched Catholic. Because you’re in my prayers has a nicer ring than that’s horrible and there is nothing I can do about it.
That’s horrible and I am glad it is not happening to me.
At cocktail parties in Los Angeles I tell people, now, that I am a “reformed” Catholic, a person who no longer believes in such magic. We share a chuckle and I feel flush with cleverness. I don’t say that during earthquakes, I still whisper Hail Mary’s under my dining room table. I don’t say that while I no longer believe in much of the dogma, I miss the comfort of hymns, of a cache of memorized prayers.
Yesterday afternoon I was in downtown Los Angeles when my phone jangled with a text message from my sister.
He’s gone, she wrote.
I couldn’t call her back at the moment. I didn’t want to intrude and I was at work, folding napkins in preparation for the Friday dinner rush. So I wandered into the walk-in refrigerator to text her back.
Then I spent the next seven hours pouring white burgundy and describing plates of Farmer’s Market fare to a room full of strangers wearing sport coats and backless dresses. When I had to explain to my boss why I accidentally opened the wrong bottle of India style Saison at table 43, I said I mis-heard, that I grabbed the wrong thing from the fridge. Because what right do I have to be weird about my sister’s father dying? I know the way that loss can hollow a person. I would not wish that feeling on an enemy. But what right do I have for any part of my sister’s grief?
I did not know her father. I did not know him, and I spent many years being angry at him for his discomfort at my very existence. And I am grateful that he loved my sister. Though his loving her could only have happened because I lost her.
And now that she has lost him…..a related loss (A greater loss….?).
I don’t know what to say.
And an old part of my soul flexes with the reminder that these are the moments for which prayers were created.
So, reformed Catholic though I am, I genuflect to my apartment walls and I say:
Eternal Rest grant unto him, O Lord.
And may perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.
About the Guest Author
Mary Anna King was adopted at the age of ten and grew up in Oklahoma City. Her memoir, Bastards--a chronicle of her separation from, and subsequent reunion with her six biological siblings-- is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co in June of 2015. www.maryannaking.com