“There is something I have to tell you before I die,” she said.
This is a statement that, when said by someone in pain, in anguish, struggling before you to find the strength to communicate something that will forever change your course of events, will bring you into what I call a biological state of emergency.
I have only experienced this state a handful of times in my life.
I was 20 the first time it happened. I was driving on the Long Island Expressway with a girlfriend. We were coming back from a winter trip to the beach, and ahead of us cars began swerving and spinning all over the road. They had hit an ice patch.
I was maybe 1/4 mile from 4 cars that were zigzagging across the three lanes. One went off the road and flipped into a snow bank. Another hit the center divider and then began doing 360’s in the lane I was in. I was approaching fast.
I felt it kick in then – I became incredibly focused, aware, sensitized. My instinct told me not to hit the brakes. Instead, I accelerated. I drove the car 75 mph through a small opening between the spinning cars as my girlfriend screamed “what the HELL are you doing??”. The car behind me tried following my path but didn’t make it. I looked into the rear-view mirror at a five car pile up. It happened so fast that my girlfriend was for a moment both enraged and stupendously impressed with my execution.
In that moment my brain analyzed the weaving patterns for an opening to drive through.
And it was happening again. A biological state of emergency might only last a few seconds, but the brain is in high gear. All the scenarios of what I might be told were blazing through my mind.
“You probably already know this,” she said. “It was a different time back then. I don’t want you to judge me…”
I think a few minutes may have passed with her repeating those three sentences. I had no idea what I was being told. And then, from “it was my first time”, and “his father was dying”, and “I didn’t think it could happen”, she wound up finally saying, “you have a brother…a FULL brother.”
So my parents were dating before they got married and my mother got pregnant. She flew to California and spent about four months in a home for unwed and pregnant women. She gave birth and then flew home. She never spoke about it for 44 years.
I went into work the next day and couldn’t focus at all. I spent three hours imagining which of my enormously quirky characteristics he might have, whether he looked like me, sounded like me, thinks like me.
I’ve seen the similarities between my sister and I. We have many mannerisms that are very similar. Whether this is because of nature or nurture or a combination of the two I can’t say. I might have more insight into this in 72 hours, after I meet my full brother for the first time.
There is so much about this story that when I tell it to people I never know really where to begin. I guess for me, the beginning is my mother telling me about the brother, because until then, from my point of view, there was no story. And each person in this story has a completely different point of view, and that’s one of the first things that dawned on me.
“I just don’t want you to judge me…”
She was crying. “I don’t want you to judge me.”
How could I judge her? She was visiting her 36 year old single son in San Francisco who plays in a band called Erogenous Jones, her son who says of his songs, “music that humiliates my mother but makes my uncles proud.”
My biological state of emergency was guiding me through the situation. I knew that there was only one thing to do.
I hugged her and told her I love her and said, “You did the right thing then, and you are doing the right thing now. It’s all going to be OK.”
She smiled and thanked me and I knew then that we had both done the right thing and that everything was going to be OK.
My mother had given me enough information about my brother for me to find him. It was quite easy, in fact. The next day at work, I impulsively decided to hire someone to find him so I could stop wondering what he might be like. I couldn’t think about anything else, I was obsessing on it and it was driving me crazy.
I called a “reunion” specialist at noon. By 1 PM I had his name and number. I googled him.
I’m not going to post his name, but I will tell you that the first two results on Google were:
- IMDb.com (Internet Movie Database)
I was thrilled. He’s a movie star!
IMDb listed no fewer than 10 movies he was in.
I looked closer. Ok, he wasn’t a movie star — he was a percussion player. But still, cool!
I was thinking, “I KNEW it! I knew one of us would make it as a musician!”
Suddenly I had to call him. I had a full brother who had made it as a musician. Unbelievable.
He was living on the east coast – New Hampshire. I went outside to call him.
But I couldn’t do it. Every time I almost called him I stopped.
What if he didn’t have a happy childhood? What if he was abused somehow? I couldn’t just call him up and tell him that he had a full brother and sister who had gone to college and were doing just fabulous. Would he feel abandoned and angry?
There are events that happen in life that tell you about yourself, because they have high stakes and you have never been in them before. These situations demand that you find a compass to navigate through them with – whether the compass is moral, philosophical, instinctual or otherwise, you must find one. The compass you choose, and the direction you find from that compass, tells you so much about who you are.
What I learned about myself then is that I believe strongly that life is for living. I wouldn’t and couldn’t not embrace this reunion for whatever might happen. This was a story that needed to play out.
I made the call. I heard the phone ringing. I heard a male voice pick up.
It was 7:30 PM EST.
I asked to speak to my brother (omitting his name).
“Who’s calling?” the voice asked. Words were being slurred.
“It’s kind of a long story,” I said. “I’m not sure where to begin.”
“What do you want?” the voice asked. He was drunk. Very, very drunk. It was 7:30 PM on a Tuesday.
I thought of hanging up. Would I want to suddenly have an alcoholic brother who might want to borrow money?
But I had made a decision that I would let the story play out. Life is for living.
“Who are you?” the voice barked again. He was angry. No one likes to receive phone calls from someone who refuses to identify themself. Even fairly mild-natured people will become firm in this situation, politely demanding to know who is calling.
But who was calling?
“I just found out that I’m his brother,” I said.
I repeated myself several times. I then said, “my mother just told me last night that I have a brother. I think I’m his brother.”
Suddenly the drunk’s hostility was replaced with a sense of purpose – like he was now a central figure in a teary Hallmark after school special.
“I’m not your brother, but let me tell you, I’ve been BEST FRIENDS with him for a LONG TIME! He’s a GREAT guy! He’s a smart guy, that brother of yours. And strong as an oxe.”
“Is he there? Can I talk to him?”
“You said a brother?”
“Yes, a brother. Full brother.”
“Do you like beer?” he asked.
“Yea, I do,” I said.
“Well, your brother LOVES beer!”
“Interesting,” I said. “I worked in a brewery for two years.”
“No shit,” the drunk said. “Maybe you are brothers.”
“I think I have his number here somewhere, let me call him.”
When the reunion specialist gave me my brother’s name and number, I asked her what I should know.
“How do these things typically go? What should I say? What might happen?”
“Have a picture of yourself handy,” she advised me. “Most often, people want proof that what you are saying is true. Usually pictures will show enough resemblance – that will be all you need.”
I didn’t have a picture. Not one. Crap, how could I not have any photos of myself? And shit, what if someday I were a grandfather trying to prove to my grandkids that I was once young, too?
But then I realized I did, in fact, have a photo. It was on the Erogenous Jones website. Music that humiliates my mother, but makes my uncles proud. What it would do for a full brother, and how nature vs. nurture played into the equation, I eagerly feared.
My phone rang.
He asked for me by name.
“I think I’m your brother,” I told him. I recounted the story of my mother crying and telling me she had something she had to tell me before she dies. He listened quietly.
He told me that he was indeed adopted, but how could I be sure we were brothers?
I told him his birth date and where he was born.
“Yea, that’s when I was born. Yea, that hospital sounds about right.”
I asked if he was sitting at a computer. He was.
I decided to spell the URL. Saying it aloud suddenly felt completely inappropriate.
I heard him laugh.
“Ok,” he said. “The screen is coming up, I see a lot of orange. Ok, there is a picture.”
I showed him several pictures of me.
“I see the resemblance,” he said.
The thing about a conversation like this is that you open up, because the more you do, the more you not only learn about the other person, but also yourself.
How much of me would be like him? Well, the only way to know would be to explore.
We talked about a lot of things – work (to see if we have similar skills), hobbies, habits, physical appearance, everything. In fact, in that first conversation, we told each other things that I would not feel comfortable posting on this blog. I mean, things I tell maybe a handful of my friends. And here I was telling someone who was what? A complete stranger? A brother?
Finally, we stumbled onto perhaps the greated issue in reunion stories.
“Well, I don’t know what all of this means, or what to make of it,” he said. “But…WOW.”
And that is really the tough question. What do you make of it? And again, I found myself looking for a compass inside to tell me how to navigate through an experience that was new and profound.
“I don’t know what it means,” I said, “I just know that I thought about it and realized that life is for living and I just wanted to call.”
We’ve spoken a few times since then.
Today is Tuesday, February 6. My brother is flying to San Francisco this Friday. I will spend the weekend with him.
People have been asking me if I am nervous. I’m not sure how I feel.
But the other day it occured to me that as weird as it will be for me, it might be even more strange for him. He has never met anyone genetically related to him.
He will for the first time in his life look at a full sibling and see the power of genetics.
And as someone who studied genetics, who cloned thousands of tiny bugs in order to extract DNA so I could look for genetic markers, I am looking forward to exploring the nature vs. nurture issue. How many of the mannerisms that my sister and I share will he have? What if he has all of them? Or none of them? Wow, this will be really interesting.
I decided to start this blog today because I’ve told this story to both strangers and close friends, and I’ve been surprised by the reactions I’ve gotten. On no less than five occasions, I’ve been pulled aside by people who’ve said, “I heard about your story, and you have to tell me! Tell me EVERYTHING!”
And when I started having people I don’t know email me for updates, and when I started giving in-depth and frequent updates to these people, I realized that email was not the best way to tell this evolving story to the growing number of people who have proactively been seeking updates.
And so if you are one of those people who has been asking me for updates, well, this blog is meant for you. Feel free to ask me questions or add comments. If you are one of the people I know who wants frequent updates, you can subscribe to an RSS feed (see the link below this post).
My blog posts will jump around. There is no way this story can be linear. For some, the story starts at the end of a 44 year old secret. For others, this is a 44 year old story that now has new characters.
I’ll try to be true to the story as best I can.