There are some things simply too painful to discuss or dissect in one’s life, even when a life’s an open book. There are pages too inexplicable, too agonizing to resurrect. We have all suppressed those feelings and though poison to the soul, it is best isolated in the dark recess of the past.
As the adopted child, there are these times; that, beyond our control, we are left open, vulnerable to circumstances not of our doing, not of our choosing yet agonizing.
There were lives lived before we were thrust upon one another. Lives damaged by circumstance and environments foreign to our perception of the world as a child. Inconceivable.
So it was for me, like for many others with whom I have discussed adoption, adaption, alienation with the lives in which we were thrust. As I arrived in the United States with my parents I was unaware of family other than the three of us. As we were transferred westward, ultimately my father retired from the military and the dynamic changed.
I became aware that during the Depression my mother had two children, a son and daughter in her little country corner of western Pennsylvania. Years later she recalled how as a teenager, she had an agonizing delivery. So awful when James (“Jim”) John was born, she rejected having him laid in her arms. “Get him away from me”, she recalled screaming.
Forever regretting that, she worried a lifetime for that son. He had a terribly – physical and psychological abusive childhood at the hands of his father. A year later she birthed her princess for whom that husband felt could never do wrong. And so the dynamic was set in motion culminating in divorce by 1950.
Jim became the perfect 1950s rebel. He rode motorcycles, his hair in a D.A., rolled blue jean cuffs and pack of smokes in his white tee shirt sleeve. He fathered his first baby as a teen as well, for which he was sent for statutory rape to L.A. County, when it was a chain link fence in a cow field.
This was the young man that my father inherited the responsibility to toss cartons of cigarettes over the fence, consoling his new wife. Upon release Jim had another baby daughter with that teenage, rebel loving blonde bombshell. Then she left him, stealing away the two daughters forever.
By the time we made it to Pasadena, Jim was with a second wife, two more babies. Little did I know, because his stays at the California Youth Authority were so numerous, he was a drop out and could not read or write. I had nothing to do with that but in the future it was a source of resentment.
He didn’t have time or talent to craft a relationship with me. He was unable to build healthy relationships with his name sake son and daughter. He was an emotional cripple. Instead he exercised the type of abuse he was accustomed as a child. Then, that wife left with those children.
Sure he tried a couple times to bond. He brought me a case of grape soda as a birthday present in back-to-back years. But he generally was consumed with choppers and Cadillacs – the 1950s editions with big tails. He finagled money from my parents, saying he was doing “X” while buying “Y”.
He was relentlessly teasing me. It was how he “shows affection”, my mother would say. But it continued as I became a teen and it didn’t matter where or when, even in front of his sister, her husband and kids out in public. He called all my rock gods, “faggots”. “Why do you have those faggots on your wall?”
Once momentarily, he confided that he knew what that alligator clip was for at the end of my homemade beads. He said, “I saw pot plants on the roof of Muir” (probably the one week of his freshman year he went to high school).
Maybe he thought he was expressing brotherly concern. We really didn’t have a relationship other than those moments, although we were at his house for every Christmas or holidays. Perhaps I should thank him for creating my thick skin.
As I grew older she apologized for him as if there was resentment for my ambition to preserver through our lower middle class circumstance; that, she “had time with me that she didn’t with him”. She was forever forgiving of him. He was of the Depression. I was a Baby Boomer. He was an itinerate truck driver while I had ambition for college. We had nothing in common but the woman we called mother and she knew we were wholly opposite.
So often when he had run into hard times, he would run to his mother, which usually left me sleeping on the couch. My entire life in California, he was always moving down the block from us. Once he even showed up at our front door unannounced 300 miles away from Los Angeles at Christmas 1975 with a new baby and a third wife. He moved to that little town and stayed. Ten years ago when mother died, it was very hard for him.
At the hospital we spoke daily for the first time in 30 years. He was incessantly asking how mother never knew what a delinquent I was? He had been run out of little Brookville, Pennsylvania for his overt petty behavior but I was golden, even though I had been a topic of all those sheriffs he had breakfast with at the little local diner. Maybe it was a matter of style. Perhaps it was simply a different time. I had no answer.
When we buried her, I gave a eulogy. As I spoke some prepared words regarding how I defied the notion that “you can’t pick family but she had picked me”, I saw him in the back pew, despondent, inconsolable, staring at the floor.
When I walked from the casket, I said to him, “it will get better”. As always he negated my words. I wasn’t going to fight that battle anymore. After that day I considered calling him once in ten years. I also left a message on his machine once or twice. But he wasn’t a conversationalist and I knew those cultural and personal battles would arise, so even though I know my mother would’ve preferred I call him, I did not.
The last few days as his birthday came once again, I continued to think of him. I pondered how I could overcome these feelings to pick up the phone. Then I thought, he never called me. It works both ways.
Last night I slept terribly. I had a long dream in which my mother visited. It had been years since she came into my dreams. She was upset. She was trying to bake some birthday cakes it seemed. And I felt like she was angry at me for fucking them up by putting them in the freezer. Hours after I woke, my step-sister called to say Jim died last night, collapsed at home. Dead. He died on his 77th birthday.
Now I cannot ever tell him it wasn’t either of our fault that we didn’t have a relationship. We were thrust into an untenable situation not of our doing and we couldn’t find the grace or acceptance of our situation to share a laugh at how we ended up here. But I suspect he’d agree with me that it’s better this way.