It was the evening of the day I had called my birth father for the first time. My birth mother had called and we’d spoken as long as we could support the emotion of it. Just a short time.
She was astounded that my adoptive mother had kept the name she’d given me in a fleeting attempt to leave a thumbprint on the infant she’d birthed. The name was the same as hers. We’d acknowledged the overwhelming quality of talking on the phone and vowed to see each other soon.
In a daze, I’d made dinner for everyone and eaten a bit here and there, too excited to be hungry. I had put the baby to sleep after a long singing session and her dad was putting our four-year-old daughter to bed.
The phone rang. The voice was unfamiliar, yet somehow known. A voice deep and rich with the sounds of the educated class of the East Coast, a voice familiar like that of some well-known actor whose name is poised somewhere just outside the reach of memory. He said,
“This is your brother—your second oldest brother. I’ve always been in the middle of things, one way or another. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice. I’ve thought about you ever since Mom called us all into the kitchen the day you turned eighteen and told us you existed. I’ve worried about whether you were okay. I’m so relieved to find out that it sounds like you’re doing really well. I’m even surprised by how I’m relieved”
A brother. Someone whose existence I’d never dared to imagine until my phone call earlier with my birth father, yet who had been out beyond the bounds of awareness, thinking of me, concerned for me, for all those years.
I had planned and imagined and been anxious about this day since my childhood. I had waited until my life was well under way and I’d delved deeply enough into my soul to be sure I needed nothing from my biological parents, not their affirmation, not their love, not to be included in their lives, only to know what they were, to see and hear and touch my connections to the matter of the earth. It could keep me from spinning in the void like Alice down the rabbit hole.
I had consciously blocked my mind from imagining any siblings, even planning as I had for all the contingencies of what might have happened to the two people who conceived me. Instinctively, I knew it was going too far to anticipate the existence of people who represented other rolls of the same genetic dice.
In the moment of hearing the voice of a brother, I felt a resonance unlike anything else I’d yet experienced–as if some vibration was resounding back to me in a huge echo chamber. His impulse seemed one of genuine curiosity, maybe even of connection. Deeply moved, we chatted briefly. We laughed about his relief that it had turned out I wasn’t a conservative and seemed to, in fact, be of a similar political persuasion as “the rest of the family”. I cried silently and perhaps he did too.
When I finally got into bed that night, I slept deeply, dreaming, as I woke in the morning, of all five of us siblings tromping along together in the countryside of some European land. Their faces were not yet clear, but we were like some band of pilgrims, telling stories as we went.
Two months later, we all come together for the first time. It was at the family home in rural upstate New York, a big three story rambling old farmhouse in the midst of beautiful English style flower and vegetable gardens that seemed to spread everywhere. It was full spring when we arrived–Easter. The fragrant flowering trees were in bloom. Long stemmed purple and orange and yellow and red tulips everywhere, grouped with hyacinths, jonquils, and pansies in more profusion and style than I had ever seen.
The grass was greener than it needed to be. The birds were singing and there were another mother and father at the front door to greet us. And then, there in the big kitchen opening right into the entry were my three brothers and the youngest, my sister. Such laughter and hugging and joking and tears. The flood of emotions was like the rivers of lava extruding in spurts from a volcanic explosion. That eruption went on for years within me.
There were two little girls, cousins, for all practical purposes the same ages as my two. Cousins. Five-year-olds and two-year-olds. Grandchildren. They ran in the gardens together. They painted in the basement at the easel their grandmother set up. They died elaborate Easter eggs in the big old farmhouse kitchen with a floor sloping slightly with age, under the guidance of the grandmother they called Tootsie, my birth mother. The woman who had given me her own name. They hunted eggs the next morning, scores of them the women had hidden early, early.
The youngest girl was found on the front stoop in the midst of it all, chomping on her eggs, shell and all, a mass of flaxen hair and happiness. A day of ineffable beauty, bursting unstintingly, immoderately with the joy of a family finally fitting together.
When the energy of the egg hunt had died away slightly, the five of us siblings lined up in our finery for a photo, oldest to youngest. There I am, the farthest to the left, short haired as never before or since, flanked by my oldest brother. Then the middle brother. Then the youngest brother, the attorney. And then my sister, so beautiful and so young–ten years my junior.
A little sister. She and I spent long hours that day and the next, talking in the garden, walking in the woods to the reservoir behind the gardens. All of us together had shared sensibilities we had never found in any other. We knew each other in ways that were unknowable through the regular channels of communication. We were funny together in ways we never experienced in the wider world. Our shared wit had a taste for the dryly bizarre, an attraction to the way words slide.
The five of us in the photo are so clearly a matched set within a set of fixed parameters that the fact alone brings tears to the eyes of most viewers. Looking at the pictures of us as children is another giveaway. In those black and white photos, it’s something in what looks out through the eyes of each of us at age five or eight. It’s the same innocent knowing I can trace back in the thread of my own consciousness.
I got to know my middle brother pretty well over the next years. As the one who had called me that first day, I was drawn to finding out more. There was a sardonic, somewhat prickly exterior, made sharper and more grey with infusions of alcohol. There was a tender interior and a deep and complex intelligence and sensitivity wandering around inside in a kind of darkness.
We took long walks in the city during our visits and spent a couple of dinners sharing a bottle of wine and talking for long hours. He visited me on the west coast and saw something of my environment. I went to his wedding when he married a Korean-Swede at a Buddhist Temple in Queens. I saw him little after that. After 9/11 in 2001, he disappeared from the family’s view for many years.
When he began talking to his parents after all that time, it turned out he had been working in one of the World Trade Center Towers that morning. He had just reached the ground outside the tower on an errand to get coffee for himself and a couple of office mates. As he began walking away from his building, it began to fall behind him. I have never learned more about what happened in those minutes, hours and days.
He and his wife lost the thread of their lives. The initial crash and the contamination in the air around the area for days and weeks ruined both the new art gallery he and his wife had just opened close to the site and her health. The second effect has lasted through all the years since, dogging them both in unknowable ways. When he began seeing the family again, the darkness and the sharp prickles seemed to be overcoming him. He and his wife struggled and then held on to their love together. I no longer felt able to meet the common ground within. Lines were drawn.
My sister and I knew from the first moments we sat together on the grass that Easter Day that there were countless ways in which our senses experienced the world in ways familiar to no one else. We were transfixed by the way the light touched things. We noticed the same kinds of details in a face, a forest walk, the view of a lake.
With no inkling of each other, we had worn the same kind of button down Levis for years, fashionable only for men by then. We had the same sort of awkward grace, long legs, same nearly six-foot height with fuzzy proprioception. Bull in a china shop types. Difficulty keeping our feet on the ground. Same ability to savor emotions like wine.
She had evidence in a journal from the time of her first serious infatuation that she wanted to name a future daughter the same unusual name I had chosen a few years later for mine. We could look into each others’ eyes and see the same spirit that had peered out at us from the mirror all our lives, hers looking out through the sparkling blue-green waters, mine through deep brown pools.
We spent hours talking about our childhoods, our thoughts about life, the family, the world. Our interactions have stretched out over the thirty years since we met, a symphony of instruments that sometimes play in unison, sometimes in perfect intervals, sometimes in octaves and sometimes rush off the stage in the hands of a furious musician to be smashed violently against the wall. We have stood by each other while the rest of the family was heaving and breaking apart.
The day after calling my birth father for the first time, I called my oldest brother. As the eldest all the years of growing up, he’d presumably been endowed with the most responsibility and the most power to rule the flock. I called to ask him how he felt being deposed by an older sister. He said,
“God! Go ahead, take it! I’m relieved!”
No hard feelings, he insisted. I have never gotten very close to him. We perhaps avoid intimacy instinctively. He married twenty-some years ago and moved to a town east of London with his British wife.
My youngest brother seemed to see an ally in me when we met. That has changed over the years when, again, lines were drawn.
Like me, he was the one who had taken a more direct career path, had married and had children. He was outwardly prospering. We were in a stage of life when practicality and responsibility to others were paramount. He had a big, new and beautiful home.
Raised by a Jewish father whose aunt had established the first Kibbutz in Israel and a lapsed Protestant mother, he had inexplicably become a Catholic when he married. He had walked into a huge extended Southern family, culturally and politically very different from his own. They sent their girls to private school. His wife had a good business head and ran their complex social life. They threw extravagant and fantastic parties slathered in alcohol, combining the two families. They felt, for a time, I understood their position better than the others in a family where our siblings were still choosing where to steer.
When we all first met, it was as if I had walked into a fairy tale. It was the story of the child who had been taken away and given to a family to raise in a nearby town who then when she is grown, finds the family she never knew existed and is magically reunited with her mother and father. There it is, the love of parents who have preserved their thriving kingdom and have forever left a place at the table for the one who was stolen away. There is a group of brothers and a sister who swarm around at her return and welcome her back into the flow of their lives, recognizing her as the missing link to elusive happiness.
I had been sober when I walked through the door, but the intoxication was overwhelming. The sense of finally knowing where this collection of mind, bones, cells, nerves, ego and spirit fit into the puzzle of the world was a potent drug. I could look at it all and see the balance between what we carried in the cells and what had happened to each of us through our rubbing up against experience. It was rich. It was heady.
It was not a magic kingdom. My birth-father was as flawed, large and magnanimous as Mark Twain’s King Arthur and as well loved. When he died–having lived for several miraculous years after a massive heart attack–the seismic plates moved and steam and lava rose up from all the cracks. No one in the family survived unscathed. His wife, the mother of the family, the grandmother, was left standing in the middle of the devastation. Since I was of the family but not of it, I managed to escape most of the worst effects, having my own family, my own culture stretching out around me.
Family is complicated, untidy. It is all the things that life is made of, horrors and pleasures, disquiet and joy, all traveling in the air through the corridors of this rambling house, full of many rooms.
There is no one without a family. Some families live in a house entirely inside us. Some come face-to-face with us day after day. Some are people we have chosen to love. Some are not.
In my life as a therapist, I had the privilege of seeing into the hearts of so many families of so many different flavors, so many different forms. There were peerless, rare moments when, out of all the suffering, the pain, the anger, the frustration, we all felt love descend into our midst and settle gently.
I have my own children, my own grandchild, my beloved partner –the person in life closer to me than even genetics can create–my own complicated configurations. Navigating the delicate traceries of love is so much of the job we’ve come to do. What I thought to be a very special case is only one of the infinite variations of stabbing, corrosive pains and surpassing joys. I’m glad. There is so much to know. I’ve been handed another lens through which to see all this life.