by Christopher Lott
My 'biological father'1 lives in the same small town of 75,000 that I do, the same small town that I have lived in for most of my adult life, but I have yet to meet him. This is particularly strange when you consider that the population of the core part of town here, the part where the reasonably normal, regular bathers live is much smaller and more concentrated than you might think. Fairbanks is the kind of town where you are guaranteed to run into those you have snubbed or those you owe money at least once per week, usually in someplace small and confined where escape is impossible.
At any rate, he is here, probably working for the same soda pop and junk food distributing company that he has been every time I've thought to ask my mom about him over the last 15 years. I know his street address and his phone number thanks to the web2 which I've driven to and called respectively. I saw no one at his house, a result, most likely, of the high speed at which I drove past in my nearly terrified, sweaty-palmed state, and his answering machine, which indicated that he has other children, had a message recorded by a woman whose identity remains unknown, but who I take to be his wife.
For the Independence Day holiday3 I took my children camping by a small but popular lake about 65 miles out of town. In keeping with my part-time father role, most of my time there was spent unceasingly seeing to my childrens' every need, desire and thirst for entertainment and distraction, a job much intensified by the beautiful outdoor scenery and the fact that I had them for four nights and three days by far the longest I have had them at one time since my wife and I separated.4 The time was well-spent though, and the children were probably better behaved than I was. They seemed completely satisfied with the hours canoeing, cavorting in and on the water, walking, reading and eating to various degrees of satiation beneath the nearly flawless blue skies.5
I came away from the weekend having learned a number of things6, the most pertinent being that I don't want my children to grow up. At all. Ever. One moment from the excursion will remain even in my decidedly non-eidetic memory, even when all else has faded away: sitting around a table with three other friends my age, discussing with no small degree of nostalgia and longing some of the contretemps of our youthmost of the "don't ever tell your mother, even now" variety7while watching my kids frolic happily on the small section of beach just in front of us. I realized with the sudden clarity and direct insight of a kind normally reserved for religious experience that I never wanted my children to age, never wanted them to go through and do the things I did, never wanted them to lose the innocence and beauty of their childhoodqualities that I suddenly and at that very moment felt in them.8 Of course these are all things that are equally certain to happen. One has to realize that this was a very trying realization for me, a person who already feels about as gifted in the fatherhood department as Helen Keller was for paintball and who regularly suffers deep depressions over the whole affair!
Now I was becoming depressed because my children are doing so well and are developed enough that they have accomplished the difficult transition from remarkable Animatronic9 pet to a fully realized, though admittedly very small, human being!
It all comes down the simple fact that people can be broken down into types10: those who enjoy things like, say, a vacation and suffer (or don't suffer) regret and sadness regarding the end of their trip only when they return, and those whose sadness contaminates their vacation experience because they know they'll have to go home and be sad when it is all over.11 I'm definitely of this latter "the glass is half full and even if it isn't, it will be" variety.
I'm not talking here about wistful nostalgia about children and their little child lives that populates greeting cards and letters to grandma, nor about fears over what I am going to have to go through when they become the tormented pubescent teen I once was, but real gut-twisting testicle-shrinking fear and Kafka-esque anxiety over what it to come/become of them over the next two decades.
I'd like to think, though I'm both difficult to convince and a pretty poor liar,12 that this is the fear which motivates my own biological father and has kept him from contacting me even when I specifically ask him, such as the time I sent him an invitation to my high school graduation. I hope that at some point, even if it came as a function of recollection and distance, my BF had the same kind of realization I did and that in addition to things such as fear, anxiety and nervousness,13 that my feelings for and about him are equal parts curiosity, fear, and primal angerthe same recipe that drives small boys to pull insects apart (slowly) and larger ones to ooh, ahh and then pepper squirrels with pellet guns, among other juvenalia) he also just wants to remember me the way I was as an innocent child rather than deal with the inevitably complicated and demanding adult that I must now be.
Ultimately, ironically,14 and due in no small part to the cross-currents of my own insecurities and love, resentment and possessiveness, it is the strength of my feelings for my childrenwhich are questionable in composition, sometimes, but never in intensitythat allows me to understand my BF's decision even if I can't exactly like it. Even if it tends to make me feel more and less overtly at different times, that such an exit, by one means or another, could be the best thing for my own children as well.15
I've not yet mentioned The Man Who Raised Me, my father from the age of ten, My Mother's Third Husband, the man whom I'll just refer to as my Real Father. Just imagining the complications he shouldered in the process of becoming presumptive father to myself and my sister, daughter of My Mother's Second Husband,16 makes me dizzy.
My RF just wanted to marry my mother and begin a new life, which both of them deserved. I think, and I mean this with only genuine affection, that he initially viewed my sister and I as particularly unwieldy possessions of my mother's that he didn't really understand the sense of keeping but that had to be carted around and cared for as if they were his own.17 I feel genuinely sorry, in retrospect, for the things I put this man through18 and am filled with admirationin retrospectat the way he handled them.
In an obverse manner, it is because of my ownb struggles with being a father that I also understand my RF. He, too, had to feel as I often do, that he should just cut bait and flee, an urge that had to be magnified by the lack of biological responsibility,19 leaving him to face such temptation with only his mettle a quality I find myself sorely lacking in. He stuck out the entire operation despite 1) not realizing his own gifts as a father and 2) receiving little encouragement and, in fact, much resentful "You're not my father and never will be" discouragement from me.
It's impossible not to admireand feel that I fall short ofsuch an example.20
I imagine standing on a foreign doorstep with my son standing next to me fidgeting and twisting. I ring the doorbell and wait for my BF to answer with the nervous anticipation of a date waiting to meet his girlfriend's father for the first time. My son has no idea what is happeningthe basic idea of grandfather already a little too complicated to fit his mind around, though he gladly accepts gifts (And this is not even to get into it with him wrt the fact that I have a Mother and a Stepmother as well as a BF, RF and the barely aforementioned Adopted Father who all have some claim to a relationship).
My BF opens the door and stares at the man who looks like him and the young boy who looks like them both with a recognition that is at once déjà vu and instantaneous shell-shock.
"I'm Chris. Your son," I' say, then immediately think how cheesy and melodramatic that sounds.
He will say nothing. I don't feel triumphant or angry or anything really, just out of place, the physical gap now a larger mental one, and the fifteen minutes of uncomfortable conversation on the porch will have the quality of speakers of closely related, but still different, languages speaking through thick glass.
We part with vague, empty promises of future meetings that sound as reassuring as the peppy guarantees of job interviewers or the tired promises of one night stands while they look for their socks.
When my son asks me later, perhaps much later, just who that guy was and what we were doing there, I will have no idea how to answer.