Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Death of a Birth Father


Lorraine Dusky (c) copyright 2009

This isn't contiguous in the book, but this answers the question left by the following post: Did my daughter's birth father ever meet her?


January, 1991. A friend from Newsday phoned, and she was not her usual cheerful self. I’d known Judy since we worked together as reporters in Albany—it fact, she had been the friend I’d driven over to see in a daze the evening Brian called and informed me we were a no-go. Now here she was, two decades later telling me Brian had died, probably of a massive heart attack, that’s all she knew. He might have been dead for a day or two before he was found in his bed, she said, he hadn’t shown up for work and she wasn't sure how long it had been before the paper sent someone to check on him.

Oh. That means that he was dead for a couple of days before…. And now it’s too late for Jane.

Jane was back in Wisconsin then, living with her parents.. We were in touch, but not often. I felt no particular urgency about making the call—after all, Brian had been dead for a few days before anyone knew. Did it make any difference when she knew? She was not going to be going to the funeral, and I dreaded calling her with the grim news that she would never meet the father whose DNA she carried. I waited a whole day before I phoned.

Remember my friend, Judy? I began. The one who works at Newsday? She called a day ago to say that Brian died.

Silence.

Probably of a heart attack in his bed, I continued. He hadn’t shown up at work, and the paper sent someone over, eventually.

Then: Why did you wait, why didn’t you call me right away, she asked, accusingly.

You might wonder why the time lapse of a day before I called her mattered—it wasn’t as if I had been on the automatic call list when he died—and if Judy had not been an editor at Newsday, the news would not have gotten to me for quite a while. But from Jane’s perspective, she was, no matter how you slice it, family. And family gets called right away. Family gets the telegram with the news, family doesn’t hear about a death casually, a day late, doesn’t hear, Oh, by the way, did you hear your biological father died? What right had I not to call her the instant I heard? None at all. Why had I controlled access to information that was rightfully hers? Why had I treated her like a child?

I apologized profusely, but the deed was done. She didn’t cry on the phone, but she cried plenty after, she later told me. Now she would never meet the father she never knew, the guy with the large head like hers, someone who shared her love of pub life, the man who made her legitimately Irish, the man with whom she shared half her DNA. Now that opportunity was lost for all time.

He was sixty-two years old. Newsday ran a great photograph of him in a fedora with the obituary. He was still a good-looking guy with an engaging smile that reminded me of Jane.

Some years later when we talked about Brian dying, she said, “I spent two months in mourning, trying to figure out how I felt about him, trying to create some kind of picture of what he was like,” she said. “It kinda pissed me off that he never picked up the phone. He decided I would never know how I was like him. All I wanted was a stinking lunch.” She paused. “He was the loser,” she said, bravado morphing into bitterness.

She spoke of Gary [her adoptive father] being upset that Brian’s death bothered her so. But you can understand his hurt—What was this man to her, anyway? Gary had done all the fathering in her life. He was the one who had to live with Jane’s round-the-clock drama. There is only so much grand opera that the people around someone like Jane can handle before they become saturated. After a while, the tap of empathy runs dry.

Brian’s wife, Bonnie, called me a week later and in a gesture of largess, asked if I would like to go to his apartment and see if there was anything left I would like to take for Jane. She said in going over Brian’s papers, she came across my letter with Jane’s picture, the letter we had composed together, as well as a letter from Jane that I knew nothing about. Did they ever meet, she wanted to know.

No.

That was so like him, she said. He couldn’t handle anything emotional, he just walked away.

Right.

The following Sunday there we were—two unexceptional women having coffee at the Walt Whitman Mall on Long Island, two mothers of Brian’s children. When he was living with me and Kristen [his daughter with Bonnie] he fell asleep with a lit cigarette on the couch, she said. The whole couch burned, the fire department came, it was a disaster.

Oh, I say, thinking, he fell asleep with a lit cigarette because he passed out after one too many, didn’t he? I simply nodded. No need to point out what we were both thinking.

I could not live with him and my daughter, she went on, I didn’t want the whole house to go up in smoke with us in it. That’s why I insisted he move out.

Right. Who wouldn’t?

If he dried out for awhile, it didn’t last, and he went back to drinking.

Uh, huh. I nodded. It must have been one of these times when I called, and he said the timing was off, he could not deal with meeting Jane now.

Bonnie wasn’t bitter, she was just flatly stating the facts about someone we both had loved. And no longer did by the time he died.

What we did not say is that we knew how he needed that drink, depended on it at the end of the day. When you work on a newspaper you become one of a tight little club, membership dependent on being someone who enjoys chasing the truth—especially when it’s hard to get to—and the smack of adrenaline that comes with daily deadline and front-page bylines. When the paper has been put to bed, when the presses are at last running, you hang out together afterward at a nearby saloon, you let off steam, you tell war stories, that’s the way of the world, for your peers understand you like no one else can—not even spouses or lovers unless they too are in the same business. That was Brian through and through, the consummate newspaperman.

I followed her in my car over to his place, turning left, turning right, knowing exactly how weird this was. We ended up in a modest basement apartment in a neighborhood of modest middle-class homes in middle America. Bluish fluorescence from an overhead fixture supplemented the grim February light that managed to sneak in through the small windows, the kind common to ordinary basements everywhere. We kept our coats on. You could tell that without a steady stream of heat the place would be musty, the faded linoleum floor cold. A central room had a space off to the side for a single bed and a closet. The vest-pocket kitchen, if you could call it that, was a small unfinished space where you could make coffee and heat up a can of soup. A small bath with a shower led off the “kitchen.”

This was a not-quite-seedy bachelor’s pad suitable for a young man starting out or an old man winding down. Brian had been a man with a first-class gift for prose, with a good education well grounded in literature, the ability to easily and readily quote poetry, and the Irish gift of blarney. But he had also been someone who loved the bottle too much, and at his death he had been reduced to coming home every night to this cheerless space in somebody else’s house. The apartment was orderly, for Brian was ever the neat Virgo, and consequently there was a place for everything—his considerable wardrobe of blazers, sport coats and ties; a couple hundred LPs by all the jazz greats and then some; a good-sized pile of books that included, most surprisingly, Wild Spenders, a breezy novel that had the singular distinction of being written by a friend of mine, stuck there like a foreigner among his jazz biographies, art books, World War II histories and Hemingway/Faulkner/Steinbeck novels, the hip writers of his generation. I felt weird being there with his wife, yet I was also glad to have this shared moment to partake in some sort of remembrance with someone else who knew him, someone else who knew the best of him. I had loved this man so much once; he had promised that we would be together, and he had deserted me when I needed him. Yet that day it was impossible not to feel sad. If I shut my eyes, I can still picture him sitting there—as I did that day—a snifter with an amber inch of Hennessy VSOP in one hand, the light low, smoke curling from a lit cigarette. It’s two a.m. From an old phonograph record, Lester Young on tenor sax is playing between the mournful lyrics Billie Holiday is singing. Yes, now I can even hear the song: I’ll Never Be the Same.

So here’s his stuff, take what you want, Bonnie said matter-of-factly, jolting me back to the here and now. His brother John came to the funeral and took a few things, she went on, Kristen didn’t want anything, and the rest? I have to clear the place out and I’m giving all this stuff away, so anything that is here now you can have. Brian’s other children had not even come to the funeral, she added, now with a brittle edge in her voice she made no attempt to hide.

Where was he buried? I asked, for Jane would want to know.

The military cemetery at Calverton. One of the boys said that he was coming, but then he didn’t, probably talked out of it by Erin, his oldest daughter, I’m sure of it.

I nodded, recalling what Brian had told me, that Erin had only reluctantly visited him and his new family once, that she had taken on her mother’s anger at the divorce and made it her own personal stash. That I knew this I did not mention. So Erin’s resentment had stayed intact all those years, she never forgave her father for his failings, for her uncomplicated life being upended when she was not yet in her teens. Maybe some transgressions can not be forgiven. I know about those.

I picked out a simple wooden chess set, a few LPs of Billie Holiday and Count Basie, a Herbie Hancock album; some art books that Brian had signed his name in—Jane might like to have his signature—a small collection of well-used metal toy soldiers that must have been playthings from his childhood, two leather jackets, a couple of vests, and a gray felt fedora. I knew the hat was likely to fit Jane, or be close, there was that. I knew she might even wear the vests.

Bonnie talked about how Kristen was probably never going to be close to her sister, and since she, Bonnie, was not going to have more children, maybe Jane and Kristen could be friends one day. But Kristen’s only twelve, she doesn’t know about Brian’s other daughter yet, I’ll tell her when it feel right.

Sure. Great, I thought, Jane would like that. To know a sibling.

I put the stuff in my car, and then it was time to say goodbye. Bonnie and I stood outside, next to Brian’s red car—I don't recall the kind, some modest Chevy, I think—parked in the driveway. Erin was only interested in the car, Bonnie said, she wanted to know, Was it worth anything, when was I going to sell it? Bonnie raised her eyebrows, turned down the corners of her mouth disgustedly, it felt as if—if it weren’t so tacky—she might have spit on the ground in disdain. The car was worth a few grand at best. I stood as if planted, not quite sure how to say goodbye, not hurrying the moment. Do I lean over and kiss her, do we shake hands? I was flashing on the time I had been out jogging one afternoon the summer before and a red car just like this had turned onto the narrow street where I had been running. With cars parked on one side of Elizabeth Street, there’s only room for one-way traffic at that point. Somebody has to pull over their car so the other can go by. The sidewalk is uneven and cracked there, and so I was running on the street like I always did. There’s little traffic on Elizabeth, so it usually wasn't an issue, but no one behind me could pass until I got out of the way, and quite suddenly, I sensed a car inching up on me. I stopped and turned around and I swear to god, I saw Brian was at the wheel of this very same red car. I stood there perplexed, squinting to make sure it really was him, and was just about to walk up to the car, say, Hello Brian, don’t be embarrassed, do you want to talk? when the driver hastily backed up into Hampton Street, a busy state road, nobody with any sense does that. Then he was gone. Now, looking at this little red vehicle, car, I was sure it had been him that day. This also I did not mention.

“He did love you,” Bonnie said, apropos of nothing. My eyes teared up. Oh Lord, please don’t cry, Lorraine. Do not cry. This is a man who did not marry you when you needed him, this is a man who did not have the courage to meet his daughter, this is a man who let you down.

But I had loved him. I had. Completely and utterly and for a long long time, all through my first marriage and even after, even despite myself, despite all good sense and self-preservation. If we ever met for lunch, and we did, over the years, there was never a slow spot in the conversation, the attraction was immediate, I’d walk away dreamily thinking about star-crossed lovers for the sexual attraction had never died. Bonnie put her hand on my shoulder and we stared into each other’s eyes as tears congealed into a hard lump at the base of my throat. “He did,” she said again, now nodding slightly for emphasis. I let the silence speak.

I drove home to Tony without the radio on and was there before dark.

Jane’s legacy from her father—all she would ever know of him—fit in a single cardboard box that I got at the UPS store. It was a good size, to be sure, but it was one box. With a copy of his obituary, I sent the package off to her and insured it for a couple hundred dollars, as if money could have replaced what would have been lost.

That time she showed up in the town where I lived when she wasn’t going to call me? She was wearing one of Brian’s jackets, the gray suede one, and his fedora. I was wearing a man’s black felt Stetson that day, I remember thinking that anyone would have seen that we were mother and daughter. My mother, my daughter and I—we all wear hats well, I thought, but keep your mouth shut about that because that might piss Jane off. I had to watch my step for I was on probation once again. Why—who knows why? Because she wants to show me that she can walk away whenever she feels like it

When she took off the hat and put it down beside her, our eyes met the way eyes do. I did not pretend to understand how she felt.

Some years later, when she came back with her daughter Britt, who was not yet three, Jane asked to visit his grave. It was about an hour's drive away. We stopped for flowers, stopped to get the exact location in a field of identical and orderly military gravestones. Jane placed the flowers on his grave, Britt picked up a stone and placed it next to the flowers. "That's what he deserves," Jane said, her voice barely above a whisper. "A stone."

But still, his daughter had come to pay her respects.

5 comments :

  1. Well, did Jane ever met Kristen? Did they become friends? Did she ever met his other kids?

    This is such a sad story. the story of so many adoptions.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is my favourite entry yet, beautifully written, honest, poigant. Thank you so much for sharing these excerpts with us, L.

    Death takes so much out of us not only in the sense of depletion but because sort of dangles ourselves in front of ourselves. You have captured that so well. Brava.

    ReplyDelete
  3. And may I add that the observation. . .

    "There is only so much grand opera that the people around someone like Jane can handle before they become saturated. After a while, the tap of empathy runs dry"

    . . .is so apt.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Each small moment of your story, of Jane's story, is so touching Lorraine. I read your words and feel your pain. I know your pain of adoption, however I cannot know the pain of your loss, your writing let's me see a glimpse of it. Thank you for sharing something so precious with us. Bug Hugs from Illinois!
    Kristy

    ReplyDelete
  5. Reading your posts, L, is better than chocolate – I relish every word, and long for more.
    You bring me right along in your/Jane’s journey. I feel everything – thank you.

    In our case, my first call to the bf did not go well but in time he softened and came to his senses
    So my daughter met him and her half-siblings and has on-going “relationships” with all.

    ReplyDelete

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