“You are helping me deal with losing my father. I am having so much trouble letting him go though I know he has accepted his diagnosis. He and my mother were very young when they had me; and he walked away. I didn’t know who my father was until I was sixteen. We didn’t get to know each other until a few years ago when I graduated college. Like you, he was recently diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin lymphoma and has months to live. I want to have him longer now that we have finally connected. This seems so unfair—but you are helping me deal with it. Thank you,” LeAnne.
LeAnne, we share another bond. I was forty when my mother told me, “Your father isn’t your father.”
I didn’t think much about my biological father until I was diagnosed with cancer. Then I wondered: Did members of my other genetic family die of cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin lymphoma? Would knowing that have helped me? Who was my biological father in DNA terms?
Since Mama was 41 when she gave birth to me, I didn’t have a chance to find the birth father; and I thought it didn’t matter anyway. Daddy had always been my father. He took me to the library on Saturday mornings; indoctrinated me into the religion of St. Louis, devotion to the baseball Cardinals; never refused to drive me and my friends where we wanted to go; told me, “You don’t have to go through with this,” in a church vestibule before he walked me down the aisle; and most important of all, said—
“Susie can do anything she sets her mind to do.”
Do you know how much that means to a daughter?
I learned that he came to the hospital after I was born and put his name on my birth certificate so I wouldn’t be a bastard nor my mother a wanton woman. They’d been divorced, no sex with the ex, for six months before I was conceived. Yet he took responsibility for me and won her back. They re-married when I was six months old. My grown sisters kept mother’s secret until she spilled it. Lucky for Mama that I look just like her.
When I asked Mama at 81 who he was, she said, It’s none of your business.
It was my business after all. Too late I realized that.
When I am not writing and spending time with people I love, I am sorting out what matters from what doesn’t; and most of it is very easily put in one big box or the other. Knowing that I’m dying has given me clarity of vision and I see the little people—and I am not speaking in the Marie Antoinette sense of the phrase—for who they really are. Think how much time we all waste in caring about the machinations of little grudgers and haters, in trying to impress posers and pretenders, the superficial, supercilious and shallow—time that could/should have been spent with family and the few real friends any of us ever have, in trips to Paris and movies in the middle of the day, and shopping for sexy heels, in having incredible sex.
I watch that lost time whizzing backward in the rear view mirror where objects are no longer larger than they appear. They are, in fact, smaller than I imagined—Tiny blips. Whirling lights from mini carnival rides. The shine of wet pavement in the rain. Ultimately, fog, I’m guessing. Nothing.
Visiting this week with my nephew and his family in southern Illinois, I see them and simultaneously me when I lived back here, raising a son. So much energy expended on family squabbles, gossip, aimless ambition, fruitless connections, dinners and drinks with idiots. What remains when I burn all that away?
The memories of wrapping presents and sipping hot chocolate on Christmas Eve with my sister Jenny and the nieces—I was an aunt at age five—waiting for Mama to return from her last minute shopping trip to the St. Louis department stores; a bowl of apples on my kitchen counter, the October sun shining through the sliding glass door and bouncing off their polished red skins, my son and a playmate coloring at the old oak table I’d refinished in the garage with a little help from my friends; Mama’s cloud of soft pure wide hair floating regally around her head in her last spring, a bowl of lilacs Ellen had picked at her bedside; the first time I received cunnilingus from a man who knew what he was doing—on a worn chenille bedspread at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel; the big erect black penis that dick-matized me just a few years ago in a sleek Harlem co-op—so many things I can see and smell and taste and hear and touch, memories that I didn’t realize at the time would stay so vividly in my mind.
The things I didn’t know and can’t remember taunt me now. Should I have asked more questions? Looked harder for the truths? Mama and Daddy, my sisters, a niece, all gone, took secrets with them, secrets and lies. Did I always think there was time until there wasn’t anymore?
My nephew’s wife found my oldest sister’s birth certificate after her death and said, “Your mother had another child, a ‘live birth’, before Ellen. Did you know that?”
No, I did not. She and Daddy were married thirteen months before Ellen was born. Do the math.
In my extended family, some lucky winner of the Hidden DNA Sweepstakes seems to discover every decade, Your Mama’s not your Mama or your Daddy’s not your Daddy. (Lately we learned a Great-Great Grammy was a mulatto slave. That explains the portraits of dead relatives who looked vaguely Sicilian.) The secrets and lies are all about sex. Keeping those secrets and hiding the lies leaves collateral damage. The gay child is an adult, in and out of his revolving closet, confessing, retracting, afraid to “kill” his parents with certainty. The abortions are burdens carried quietly, with stoicism. The affairs and the buried first marriages are terrible secrets the children must never know. (I once shocked my nephew by casually mentioning his father’s first marriage.)
Do I write about sex because in my family only Jenny could talk about it?
My grand-niece, 15 and wearing a purity ring, is talking—and asking questions. She and her best friend filled me in on the high school sex scene: four pregnant sophomores, public make-out sessions and blow jobs, boys who are sweet and boys who are pushy, coercive, even scary. (Teen dating violence has caught the attention of Vice President Joe Biden who is speaking out on “The View.”) A girlfriend had sex; and everyone knew about it within the hour.
In the Bible Belt, sex education is reduced to this primary message: Keep Your Knees Together For Jesus. So many girls don’t plan for sex; being swept away by “love”, i.e., a tide of surging hormones, like being caught up in a tidal wave, seems to be preferable to choosing (or not) to have sex. How is that working out? The U.S. has the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the Western world.
To her credit, my nephew’s wife flies against the wind in her conservative community and talks straight to our girl about sex, including informing her of the STDs spread by unprotected oral sex. We both want her to choose, to become sexual when she is ready, not because she was coerced by some callow youth who will text his friends as he’s pulling away from the curb. We want her to protect her sexual health at all times. When I was ready, I told Jenny who took me to her gynecologist to get the pill—and warned that condoms were also necessary to protect against disease. Because I chose and was prepared, I had an uncommonly good first experience.
I won’t be here when my grand-niece is ready to choose, but I know she will go to her mother; and she will be prepared. I hope her first experience will also be uncommonly good. May her memories of me include shopping for her homecoming dress last weekend and may shel always see my eyes light up as she did her model walk in dress after dress.
People email and call asking how I am doing--and the answer is; well. No major pain yet, though I realize that could change faster than the weather out here. The swollen left arm, lymphodema, is annoying, but now that my lungs are clear, maybe the docs can do something to reduce that.
Some readers say they enjoy reading about Carolyn, Marilyn and Lorraise and Mel. You will hear more about them in the weeks ahead. They are the greatest friends.
And so many ask: What can I do? What do you need? Where can we send cards or little gifts? You can keep writing to me, tell me your stories, send me interesting or amusing links to articles, suggest your favorite books. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you want to do something more, please make a donation to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. They care for children with cancer; and no child is turned away because the family cannot pay.
Dying, The End Game, Part Six: A Quickie on Questions People Ask
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