Many years have passed since the day I got a call from my sister telling me my biological father had just had a massive heart attack and might not survive. Much of what happened in the days and weeks after that call has vanished from my memory, if ever it settled at all.
I do remember where I was when I got the call. I remember how there seemed to be no pause between the words I was hearing and the visceral reaction. My body knew how to react before the actual words registered in my brain.
It was somehow so different from the moment long before when my then-husband came to me in our bedroom where I was settling to sleep with my infant daughter and told me my adoptive father had died. In that moment my mind had intervened in disbelief, shielding me from the shock. It was only after he repeated the words several times and assured me more than once it was not a joke that I was sent reeling.
Father. Biological father. Mother. Biological mother. Birth parents. Over the thirty years I have known the parents whose genes I share, it has never felt right to call them my mother and father, despite the depth and complexity of my love for them both.
There is no word that is not awkward, ungraceful. I have always thought of my adoptive parents as my real parents. Even after those parents have been dead for years, I still have not been able to call the parents of my birth by anything other than their first names, Marvin and Toni.
Sometimes when I talk with my sister–the younger one I was never there to protect from those three brothers–I’ve been able to occasionally talk myself into saying “our mother”. It is reserved for those moments when it is clear that for her sake I need to acknowledge the stubborn actuality of that link in our basic biology. When I do say it, the impact of the words sinks quickly like a stone into some dark pool down in my interior. I can feel the concentric rings of the splash reverberating between us. Some vow has been exchanged. I have strengthened some sacred bond. That I can do.
After that call from my sister and the response of a friend in the office next to mine who held me briefly while I cried, then pulled myself in for the next effort, the next scene that appears from the fogs of my mind is walking through the giant maze of a Washington DC hospital, flanked by my grown daughter and son, tall beside me, into the hallway of the cardiac wing.
I must have been allowed a glimpse into the big room where, in my internal picture of it now, he lay right in the center on a high bed, that father who had given me something of the essence of his cells, tipped slightly forward, hooked to tubes and monitors. Or maybe I’ve gotten it confused with some scene in a Sci Fi movie when the camera pans down a hallway and you’re given a furtive glance into the secluded room where some extraterrestrial, retrieved from a UFO, is being readied for the investigations of secret government scientists.
My father himself was a doctor. He had had a thriving practice as an internist for many years in the town where they had settled in Upstate New York. He taught classes at Harvard and his brilliance as a diagnostician was renowned. Shortly after I found him and the rest of the family, he had been forced by cancer to sell his practice. He had a recovery that was considered just short of miraculous and had gone on to become the Medical Commissioner of the county where they lived. He was widely loved and respected. But there he lay, at the mercies of a medical system he could no longer influence, all his accumulated knowledge and wisdom useless to diagnose and restore his own body.
He was in and out of consciousness. My siblings were all there, having arrived from nearby, from New York on the train and somehow from England. My brother the attorney was talking with the attending doctor. Things were not looking good. Despite the fact he had initially seemed to be rallying well, his condition was worsening as each hour passed. His vital signs were deteriorating and his hold on consciousness becoming more tenuous.
I must somehow have purchased airline tickets with my two children. We must have all gotten to the airport in Seattle and navigated together across the country. I remember they were magnificent during the whole journey, proving their maturity and grace at every turn. There they were with me as we hugged the uncles and aunt. We looked to each other as things rearranged in the hallway with our arrival. We somehow exchanged the sense that an atmosphere of contention had eased a bit at our arrival.
My birth mother came out briefly, under the arm of my middle brother. We all embraced. She was pale, her eyes registering the depth of her shock even while she rallied to greet us, as ever, not wanting to show too much weakness.
The scene that appears out of the fog before it closes in again is the moment that I was somehow in the room with Marvin and Toni. My daughter and son were nearby in the room. He was conscious, but barely.
I stood on one side of him, grasping a hand pricked with IVs, smiling with the relief of seeing him alive, my birth mother stood on his other side, holding the other hand. We must have been beaming at him, intent on igniting his engines with the warmth of our love.
It was clear he held his eyes open only with great effort, but all that was needed was for them to open a little more than slits to let seep out some luminosity of emotion that had been brewing like tea as he drifted.
He looked first to his wife, then to me. It took a few heartbeats for it to register. Then he croaked,
“My God! You’re really here!”
His voice sounded like that of a man who been crawling through a desert for days.
He looked back to his wife and then to me and back again, a sparkle emerging from the depth of the clouded brown of his eyes. As he turned from one to the other, as if watching a ping pong match, he said,
“Toni… Toni… Toni… Toni…”
“The same… Different… “
“Amazing. Toni and Toni. Amazing!”
Although no sound came out, we knew he was chuckling. Wit was life to him. Family was life to him. He closed his eyes in exhaustion. Toni and I were laughing softly, uncontrollably from somewhere deep in our chests while tears dripped down onto the hands still grasping his.
Able only to take small darting glances, sipping the intensity of the joy, we held on to him as she reached across to silently ask for my other hand. He was the one that embraced as if he would completely encompass you. She the cooler puritan.
We stood like that for a long moment, a complete circuit. I think my children had come up behind me to see him. I think I remember their embrace around the two of us, standing there, holding hands. It was soon close to the boundary of maudlin. Even then we felt the limits.
She said, “We’ll let you sleep some more. Sleep.”
These were moments that, like some others in life, become infinite. They are an opening into that wellspring which can then contain everything else you experience for the rest of your life. It becomes an ocean you reach into and set sail the sight of a goldfinch darting in the golden evening light, the oh-so-human moment of ecstasy when your granddaughter runs from the car to hug you tightly around the legs, the pain of leaving your son far away after a visit, the sound of your aging in the pulses of your blood, the deep comfort of dinner at home with your dearest friend. These moments float forever on that boundless ocean.
Later that day my uncle the famous nephrologist somehow miraculously appeared at the hospital. After hours of negotiations with the head of the hospital and some political wrangling, the medication that was causing my father’s kidneys to fail was finally discontinued. He recovered slowly but surely, his damaged heart pumping on valiantly.
Although his finances had been drained, his body wracked, it turned out he had about eight more years on that heart. He was glad to be around. There was a lot of life still to experience together, both joys and intense pains. I saw him once more when his body was emaciated, his feet numb but his mind and wit as sharp as ever.
Things pretty well collapsed in the family after his death. He had perhaps travelled as far as he did in that body just trying to sort things out. The heart is often determined to stick with it, even as it knows there are few things a parent can really fix. But the circuit we created that day fixed something in my own wiring.
Now that he’s gone I can call him father. I have two.