I told my biological dad goodbye — and it made all the difference

I thought getting to know him would answer my questions. But I found my confidence in telling him not to call again

Published June 15, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)

A photo of the author with his son.
A photo of the author with his son.

I was 32 years old the first time I heard my biological father's voice. “Brian Patrick C––– D–––,” he said on my voicemail. Bellowed, really, a slick of tears underlining his too loud, tar-stained voice. “My son, I've been looking for you a long time.”

I had imagined this moment might in some ways be like a homecoming, but it had the opposite effect, and for a dizzying moment I split in two: myself, Brian Gresko, wondering who this other Brian, the one bio-dad addressed, might be, or might have been. I'd felt like two men most of my adult life, but never had that other part of me been given a name and thus, as according to the magic of fairy tales, been made real. There was the Brian Gresko who appreciated quiet nights at home, enthusiastically cooked, cleaned and puttered around the house, loved his girlfriend, and didn't think that having a family sounded like such a bad idea, and then there was the other Brian, this Brian C––– D–––, who enjoyed traveling along and long boozy nights in bars with, hopefully, a bit of dancing on a table at some point, and who hated the thought of having a child who might hinder his pursuit of pleasure.

My biological father bridged these two selves in a figurative sense, or at least that was the origin story I had come to tell myself. I didn't know the man at all, hadn't even heard of his existence until I was 6 years old, when, one night after "Webster" ended, my parents sat me on my bed, back against the wall, and in hushed tones told me that John, the man I thought of as “dad,” was not, in fact, my real dad. That guy was out there, somewhere, though who he was and why he didn't want to be a part of my life, they wouldn't say.

As they talked, my parents' faces became strange and unfamiliar: expressions pinched, eyes wide yet guarded, like windows at night whose view onto the outside world has been eclipsed by the reflection of the interior. Obviously the subject caused them distress, and I, never one to seek the heat of conflict, or perhaps too young to even know exactly what to say or how to express my confusion, swallowed my questions. After that discussion, the subject never came up again in my childhood.

I thought about the revelation frequently enough, though, especially as I entered adolescence. When people pointed out how I took after my dad, I'd put on a pleasant mask while I roiled inside. He's just playing the role of my dad, I thought. Who was my real father? I imagined a man opposite the one who raised me, a footloose bohemian intellectual in the mold of my literary hero Henry Miller, too bursting with ideas and vitality to settle down with a family, to be laden with the mundane responsibilities of fatherhood. I aspired to something similar — a life free from the humdrum, from the boring monotony of the nine-to-five grind, from the fenced-in suburban prison, from emotional commitment, an unending party where everyone talked of art and philosophy and no one worried too much about money. Who needs a wife and kid? Only the sentimental and the weak.

Beneath this hard-boiled exterior I ran thick with insecurities and anger. Why didn't my real father stick around? Why did no one talk about him? And what the hell did it even matter? My parents had worked hard to provide me a good childhood, and though I wasn't his blood and kin, a man I called dad loved me enough to raise me as his son. Simply wondering about my biological father gave me the queasy sensation of betraying my parents. I berated myself for being ungrateful, disloyal, selfish.

These two parts of me did not play well together, and by my senior year in college I was a fractured man, working hard during the day on my schoolwork and at jobs to pay tuition, then drinking heavily every night, increasingly to the point of blacking out; craving connection and the comfort of friends and yet alienating people with an increasingly callous, depraved view of human relationships. To put this more plainly: I made a lot of creepy dick jokes. This makes sense now, seeing as my penis provided pleasure and could be used to make a family, and the fact that it could do both made it an uncomfortable locus for my split personality. I even wrote and illustrated a short story called “Disassociation,” in which the staid protagonist's penis breaks up with him, running off to live a wild and crazy life of its own before being mowed down in a bizarre accident at a baby's bris.

If that wasn't a plain enough sign, my last week at school, a friend called campus security and filed a report for harassment, after I verbally assaulted her at a party while deep in a pit of drunken rage. So, after graduating, on the eve of moving out of my parents' house for good, I mustered the courage to ask my mom about that little talk from all those years ago. She thought that I had forgotten all about it.

In a voice taut with emotions, not all of which were clear to me, she revealed the bare bones of the story. Over the next 10 years she added dimension — an anecdote here, a detail there — but the picture she painted was pointillist, and I couldn't quite connect the dots. One windy summer night, she gave me a photograph of bio-dad, taken when he was maybe 13 on the beach in Cape May, New Jersey, where my mom and he had first met. As I looked at it, I reverse-attributed the features. He has my nose! My chin! Really, of course, it was the other way around. Once everyone went to bed, I stripped naked and wandered weepy through my parents' back yard, my body buffeted by a strong hot wind. Even as a 28-year-old I felt heavy with secrets that weren't quite my own. Ever the listener, the hungry recipient of a story doled out piecemeal by a stingy narrator, I craved authority. I raised my arms to the black sky and wished I could slough off my skin and start fresh as no man's son.

Again I found myself dancing around the conflict, keeping my feelings to myself. The two parts of me had come to a truce based on silence, and while that worked, I still did harm to those closest to me. I waffled on and off again with my girlfriend, who made it clear that she wanted to marry and start a family. I wouldn't say yes, but every time we approached breaking up I'd convince her to stay and be patient with me. Eventually, I ran off to China by myself to teach for a year, following once more in the footsteps of Henry Miller, who had found his voice as an expat in France in the 1930s. It was there that I decided the only way forward was through the flame. I promised to be the responsible, committed father I had but also the artsy, passionate, fun-loving father I never had, though first I'd put flesh on that skeleton and find out who that man really was. I demanded bio-dad's full name, along with any other information my mom hadn't revealed about him.

No wonder my parents didn't want to talk about the circumstances around my birth — they tapped into lines of tension buried at the heart of their marriage. My mom had an abusive, alcoholic father and a paranoid, depressive mother. Her affair with bio-dad in her early 20s was a way of blowing off steam from the suffocating pressures of her upbringing. When she became pregnant, bio-dad wanted nothing to do with her or me, which he expressed to her in the worst possible terms. He sounded a bit like the man I had flirted with becoming in college.

My mom turned to her former fiancé and high school sweetheart for support. They rekindled their friendship, and later romance. He was with her the night I was born. Yet even after they married he worried what might happen if bio-dad came back on the scene, and sometimes, he later told me, he wondered if he hadn't just been there for my mom at the convenient time. Whenever the two of them talked about these things with me in their presence, they became enmeshed in heated deliberations about events from decades ago, and once more I'd find myself quietly listening as they talked about people and things that were central to the shape of my life, and yet in which I was too young to play an active part. Their scars had never fully healed, and so, perhaps, I bore them too, if not as deeply inflicted.

In my early 30s, I became a father. A few weeks after my son's birth, I located bio-dad's address and sent him a brief letter. I wanted information, nothing more. I anticipated that he might have a family of his own, that my contacting him might seem a threat to his life. I didn't anticipate that he might be overjoyed to hear from me, that I might have come to hold some meaning in his life the way he had in mine. I realized this the moment I heard his gravel-flecked voice addressing me with C–––, my mom's maiden name, and D–––, his own family name, and referring to me as “my son,” and I recoiled. The nerve of this man, implying I was his son when we were complete strangers, calling me by foreign names, as if I'd been walking around all these years a long-lost member of his family, as if I were the prodigal one.

When I called him back, he blubbered with happiness. Some Henry Miller, I scoffed to myself, thinking of how my old hero's hard intellect tempered this kind of unchecked sentimentality. Though perhaps here was the Henry Miller I didn't want to consider, the drunk weeping in his beer after the party guests left, railing at life's great unfairness in language less highfalutin and more hangdog. Beset by financial problems, bio-dad had had a tense relationship with an emotionally distant father, was twice divorced, and had sired three other kids — my half-siblings, who hadn't quite believed him when he came clean to them about me a couple years before. He said he'd been trying to locate me for years, which struck me as somewhat ridiculous, given how easy it had been for me to find him, and he claimed my phoning was Christ answering his prayers, offering him redemption for past sins.

After that initial conversation, he called often, more often than my parents did, even. If left unchecked, he'd rail on for up to an hour about his problems, financial, romantic and otherwise. I learned that any show of affection on my part — sending him a Christmas card, say — made him come on even stronger. He'd ring me late at night, slurring his words, rambling unintelligibly. Lonely and regretful, he'd talk about how he wanted to move closer to me so I could help take care of him in his old age. He'd ask me to give my wife a kiss for him, or tell my son Pop-pop said hi, though he never asked much about them or even me; he seemed only to want an ear, someone to show him kindness whenever he needed it. I ended up being the one, after all those years of wondering about him, to tell him to cool it. These days, we hardly talk.

Growing up, I had thought that knowing my biological father would be this great big deal; that putting a name and a face to him would answer deep questions that I had about who I was; that he would help me reconcile the conflict between being a selfless family guy and pursuing dreams of personal fulfillment. It didn't do that at all. Rather, deciding that I would be the one to fill in the gaps in this secret history, and making decisions — to demand answers from my parents, to start a family despite my anxiety about fatherhood, to call bio-dad and later tell him to stop calling — helped me to find a footing that I lacked as a young adult, a surety and confidence.

From that calmer, more secure vantage point, I see that there is no dichotomy with me; there's a duality. I can dance on tables at night and spend the next morning playing in the park with my beloved son. I can be the bastard son of an irresponsible bastard, and the good son of the man who scrimped and saved and sacrificed to raise me, and who showed me how to be a good father, and who I proudly call Dad. I can forgive my parents, biological and adoptive, for being fallible and sometimes confused, even as I wish that weren't so. I can discover answers and still find the questions lingering, and feel strong in my doubt. I have many parts, some of which conflict with one another. I find unity and surety in those divisions.

By Brian Gresko

Brian Gresko is the editor of "When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood." He has written for Poets & Writers Magazine, Guernica Magazine and the Brooklyn Rail, and online for the Huffington Post, the Atlantic and numerous other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and son.

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