by Dawn Shirk
When I was 40, I met my biological father for the first time. It was only five years earlier that I learned he existed, or that I was even missing a dad. I had had several fathers already: the estranged, supposed biological father, and my “real” dad, the one who had married my mom and adopted me when I was three. This new “real, biological” father, Jack, was apparently a salesman from Chicago who had come and gone in my mom’s life briefly and secretly, in a long-distance affair that ended with the news of my imminent birth. I sat on this information for several years, not sure if I wanted or needed to know him, until curiosity began to seep its way in and I eventually found myself writing a letter to a father I’d neither known nor missed. We were immediately drawn to one another and our daily lives became filled with emails, trying to catch up as quickly as possible. After a few months of our own whirlwind affair of sorts, I arranged for a long layover in Chicago on a flight from Hartford to San Francisco, so that we could meet in person.
I don’t call Jack my real father, because I’d already had one of those, as brief as it was. My real father was Jim, who married my mom and adopted me. Jim was the father who taught me how to swim, to love the ocean and the feel of the sand in my hands. He made me believe that he swam with the porpoises and even now, I look for him in the horizon when I go to the beach. When I think of Jim a playlist runs through my head—songs about three little fishies who swam and swam right over the dam. Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do. You are my sunshine. I have memories like the six-second videos called Vines, memories of running through the sprinkler, my father and grandfather building a playhouse for me in the backyard, my mother complaining because they drank too much and worked too little. I remember the smell of turpentine in his basement studio and the scars on his hands from an experiment gone bad in his parents’ garage when he was a boy. These were the hands that painted the enormous floor to ceiling works that hung in our house, and the smaller pieces that I have carried with me back and forth across the country for all of my adult life. A legacy defined by abstract, geometrical figures, bold colors, and precise lines. These hands brought grace and order to our frantic, chaotic world. They were both drinkers, my mother and father, and at times would be so loud and angry. More than once my mother grabbed my hand or wrist and dragged me out to the car and off to a motel for the night. I imagine my father staying calm, patiently awaiting our return.
Most of what I remember, though, is a happy house with parents who loved each other, were the loves of each others’ lives, and who adored me. I didn’t know about depression and suicide attempts until the morning when attempt found its way to success. On that summer morning the year that I was eight, I awoke to my mother screaming in the driveway, “Is he dead?!” I stood on my bed, frozen, staring out the window of my room that faced the front of the house. I saw the ambulance and strangers moving quickly in and out of my house. My mother stood in the middle of it all. “Is he dead? Is he dead?” My father had shot himself; taken his life, and mine, in the basement office next to his studio where he brought paint and canvas to life. My mother later said that he was so sad that he felt we would be better off without him.
My father’s relatives came from New York and filled our house. In the five years that Jim had been with us, I’d never met one of them. I was sent to a friend’s house, where her mother explained to me that my father was gone and would now live in Heaven. I stood next to the bed in Donna’s bedroom completely surrounded by her family as they knelt around me, as if waiting to catch me if I fell. While those strangers sat in my house, preparing and planning and negotiating, Donna’s family held me and rocked me through the beginnings of this nightmare.
What was a loss for me was nothing short of devastation for my mother. It was as though you could see her heart fall to the floor, and not only break, but scatter, like a game board that has been knocked off a table and pieces go everywhere. No matter how hard you look, one or two pieces have gone into hiding, and continue to elude you. We spent a lifetime after, crawling on the floor trying to gather them up, but in the end, my mother was never made whole again. She tried marriage two more times and had the occasional boyfriend, and all the while, I secretly hoped my father’s death was nothing more than a ruse, a cruel cover-up for his secret agent life that kept him away from his family. I waited and planned for the day that my father would walk through the door.
After decades of waiting, a different father emerged. Not exactly a secret agent, or even a reincarnation, but a father nonetheless. I was 35 years old and my mother had asked me to meet her at the Waffle House because she had something important to tell me. Something important could mean a lump in her breast or a dress she found for me at TJ Maxx, the news delivered with the same sense of urgency. The wood laminate booths with red leatherette back rests, the brightly colored, oversized menus with unappealing photographs of food, the smell of grease, and the feel of it on the table, recalled wee morning meals after college weekend parties. But this, of course, was a different kind of occasion. I was married, a parent, no longer prone to drinking binges and late night eating. Why my mother, who normally prefers upscale, quiet restaurants, chose the Waffle House I cannot answer. But here we sat, with the waitress shouting orders across the room, these orders being repeated by the cook, customers coming and going, loud laughter, a baby crying in the booth at the other end. With undercooked, limp waffles and the signature shredded hash browns sitting before us, my mother took several deep breaths, and with shaking hands and an unusually quiet voice, she began to reveal the truth of my beginnings.
“Before you were born, my life was a mess and I made some mistakes, but I want you to know that nothing about you was ever a mistake. You saved my life and you are the best thing that ever happened to me.” The words came slowly, almost staccato. I looked at her kind of sideways; saving her life definitely got my attention. “In the spring of 1962,” she continued, “my friend TeeCee was visiting from Memphis. We drove out to the beach for dinner, and afterwards sat at the bar for a nightcap. Some salesmen from Chicago sat next to us and we started chatting. We were both married and it seemed like innocent fun, flirting with strange men at a bar. We probably drank more than we should, especially since two women didn’t sit in bars drinking alone in 1962. I found myself talking more and more to one of the men, whose name was Jack.”
She paused here. I watched her face, trying to read where she was going, what this could possibly have to do with me.
“We had this instant attraction. After that night, it started on the phone, and then we began meeting whenever we could. He would come to town, or we’d meet in Savannah or St. Simon’s Island.” She spoke quickly now, like she was trying to get it out before she lost her nerve. “That fall,” she said, “I discovered I was pregnant with you. At first, Jack said it was perfect. We would both leave our spouses and we would be together. I left David immediately and went to stay with your grandmother while I waited for Jack. I’d only been there a few weeks when a telegram came, saying only, I can’t do this.”
My mom went back home and stayed with David for another year. I had always known that Jim adopted me, and that David was my biological father, someone I knew of, rather than knew. The man who had given me up when my mom married Jim.
My entire life story shifted in this moment. If David is not my biological father, then who am I? I’m no longer half Jewish? A part of me belongs to a total stranger?
“Why are you telling me this now?” I asked. I was surprised that words had actually left my mouth.
It turned out that while rummaging through my grandmother’s attic, looking for something to steal, my uncle had come across a shoebox full of letters from Jack to my mother. My uncle had approached my mother with the idea that he would blackmail her for $10,000 in exchange for keeping her secret. She decided it was time to tell me herself, but by this point in the conversation,my mind was reeling and I had taken in about all I could for one day. I had, instead, focused on the people around me, looking for some grounding in reality. A young girl picked the chocolate chips out of her waffle, a man sitting at the counter laughed boisterously as he told his date an animated story. Parents argued through their baby’s cries.
As I watched these strangers in their regular lives, I was brought back to my irregular one when I noticed my mother had stopped talking. She took a small envelope out of her purse and slid it across the table to me. I opened it and found a picture of a man, maybe early 30’s, sitting on the edge of a bed in a hotel room. Black and white, standard edition early sixties look, with a sport coat and tie, short cropped hair, pleasant smile. He could’ve been anyone’s dad. Even mine.
My family history never fit into a Norman Rockwell painting, didn’t look anything like my friends’ families, and at first I took in this information as if it were something we were watching on the news. Girl loses and finds identity at Waffle House, story at eleven. In a way, this was really just one unknown father replacing another unknown father. I had been told that my mom’s first husband, David, had been abusive. He had been controlling from the beginning, becoming more angry and demanding after they had been married for a year or two. Perhaps allowing her to come back, pregnant, after an affair, gave him the idea that he could abuse her, verbally and emotionally. It had been a vase hurled at her while she held me in a chair, hitting the mirror above and shattering glass all over us, that led her to finally leave him. The two times I met him, he was gruff and critical of anything and anyone around him. That I was not related to him was more relief than anything else.
I did have a few questions, was curious to know if Jack ever tried to contact me, but looking across at my mom, still shaking and fragile, I thought it was better to leave it alone. Not upsetting her is my default reaction. I told her, calmly, stoically, that it was fine. Better to have a crazy Southern family history than not. I almost laughed it off, making a joke about not being related to David. “Plus,” I said, sliding the picture back to her, “Jack was a guy you knew a long time ago. But it doesn’t really change anything. I’m Jim Shirk’s daughter and that’s enough.”
And for a while, it was enough. I didn’t go looking for Jack, but my mother did. A few years after the Waffle House revelation, my mother decided to track him down to get his medical history. She learned that I came from healthy stock, people who lived well into old age. She gave me this information along with his address and phone number. Knowing where he was brought him to life just enough to awaken a curiosity. Why shouldn’t I wonder about a birth parent?
I wrote a letter, by hand, and told him a little about myself, not revealing too much, as I had no idea how this letter would be received. I invited him to reply if he was interested. Within a few days, I had an email from him. It was over a page, single-spaced, when printed. He said he was glad I had found him and that it was me who had broken the ice. He told a little about meeting my mother, his family history, and his travels. He ended with an open door: “Feel free to write as often as you wish. It was a genuine pleasure hearing from you and as we go along I’ll fill you in on whatever details appeal to you.”
We agreed to take things slowly, but almost immediately began to email each other several times a day over the next few months. There was so much to learn, so much time to make up, and we quickly got caught up in this strange liaison. We had many common interests, personality traits, and viewpoints. He asked for photos of my daughter, and asked me many, many questions about who I was and how I thought about the world. He told me about his wife, who had died a few years earlier, his four children, two of whom had passed away after his wife, one from a bad heart and the other from suicide. I told him about my father, and we both shared our stories of my mother. He confirmed that he had left her when she got pregnant, but according to him, she was addicted to alcohol and Valium, would threaten suicide when he wasn’t there, and that he had indeed told her he couldn’t do this.
“What choice did I have?” he said to me.
He said he would tell me more about my mother, but only if I really wanted to know. “Our conversations scare me,” he wrote, “not for me but for you. I’m scared for you because I have a vivid imagination and I’m quite empathetic, so I can’t help thinking about the thoughts coming to you.” I was grateful for his concern over my feelings. This is how dads are, I imagined.
He was retired and had taken up photography as a serious hobby. He traveled with a photography club to all parts of the world. After we’d known each other for a while, he sent me a CD of his photos. They were vivid, bright photos of animals in Africa and street people in Latin America, all taken with precision and care, beautifully composed. I sensed a genuine love for the subjects and I could see myself standing by Jack’s side as he shot each one. “Look at the beautiful lines in her face, Dawn,” he would say “Let your imagination use those lines to tell her story.” We shared a love of travel and I started to picture us exploring new lands together as I sat on the floor watching these large photos over and over in a slideshow on my large screen TV.
As Christmas approached, I asked Jack if I might have one of his photos to give to my husband as a gift. He was happy to choose a photograph based on what I told him about Fred’s interests, and mailed it to me, matted and framed, right away. When it arrived, there was a note enclosed, handwritten in large, wild strokes: “Hi, Dawn, I hope Fred enjoys this. Merry Christmas to all of you. Love, Jack.” Love, Jack. I unwrapped the package; the glass was shattered and the photograph scratched. I sent him a gift in return: a printed and bound copy of all of our emails to date. To Jack, with love.
We finally talked on the phone, and it wasn’t long before I was ready for the next step: meeting in person. I didn’t know if he was ready. We were doing so well, but he had made it clear he wasn’t ready to tell his daughter about me; as if I was the mistress he was hiding. He was living with her, had lost so much, and was afraid of losing her as well. He had another daughter still living, but rarely mentioned her. As my attachment to him grew, the desire to know more, to know him, grew as well. I decided I would take a trip, fly somewhere to visit some friend and make a long layover in Chicago, so we could meet. Keep it brief, on his turf; if he says no, I haven’t lost anything but a couple of hours. When I told him I would have 5 hours, he was eager to go with my proposal. He would pick me up with a ready-made plan of how we would spend our time.
Walking off the plane was like a foreshadowing of the Match.com blind dates I would be having a year later. We had courted each other through our emails and phone calls and now was the time to find out if we were truly compatible. I was at once nervous and excited, overwhelmed by the fear that he wouldn’t like me. What if we can’t find the conversation in person? I told myself repeatedly not to expect too much. He was just an older man, a friend, someone I sort of knew. But the longing was already brewing inside me. I grew up and into my life with a hole and here was a possibility of filling it. A real, live possibility. He wasn’t just my biological father, he was a good person, a warm, creative, sensitive person, someone I could love and who could maybe love me. I had played out so many conversations in my head, rehearsed them over and over, that now my thoughts were tangled up and knotted like my many skeins of yarn that I never bother to roll back up before returning to my knitting bag. They have become one big ball of indistinguishable mess. I couldn’t put one clear sentence together in my mind, so I whittled it all down to one word. Breathe.
He looked exactly as he had described himself: tall, thin, gray, full beard with little on top. If I thought we were close in the virtual world, I could have never imagined how easily we would bond in person. He took me to lunch in a restaurant somewhere north of Chicago. We had large, beautiful salads with white wine to drink. I felt like a newly sophisticated college student having a grown-up lunch with her dad. The wine helped settle my nerves and the conversation flowed freely and naturally, as if we’d done this on many occasions. Throughout lunch, and the rest of the afternoon, I was studying him, his hands, eyes, nose, teeth, searching for some piece of him that I could see in me. I definitely had his mouth, but I wasn’t sure about anything else. I would ask him later if he noticed that my mouth looked like his, to which he simply replied, “No.” But on this day, the sun was shining and my heart was full with the knowledge that I belonged to more than just my mom, that I came from someone and here he was, as happy to be with me as I was to be with him.
After lunch, we drove to the Northbrook Library, which was exhibiting his photographs throughout the building. We walked through this gallery of new and familiar pictures, as he told the story of each one. We lingered there as if we had nowhere to go, nothing to do. A fractured life was becoming whole in one afternoon.
A few weeks later, back in my real life, I found my world unraveling, slowly at first, then speeding up faster and faster. In the middle of a late-night, heated argument, my husband revealed he was planning to leave me, and over the next months I discovered he had been seeing someone else, a fact that apparently surprised no one but me. After 14 years, I was alone. At the same time, I hadn’t heard from Jack. There was no phone call to ask if I had arrived home safely from Chicago. No emails, nothing. I called him one night to tell him Fred and I were splitting up. “I’ll be okay,” I said.
“Of course you will,” he said. “What choice do you have?”
These are the last words I remember hearing from him. We never spoke on the phone again. I imagine that once his curiosity was satisfied, he had no need for me. The hole in me was filled for a moment, and trying to speculate further on why he disappeared, again, only reopens that hole and stretches it wider and longer. I’m that kid whose dad runs out for a pack of cigarettes. I’m the kid who sits on the stoop late into the night, then for days and days, waiting for his return. I’m the kid who continues the fantasy that someday he will walk through that door, that he wanted to be with you all along, but something big got in the way.
I hadn’t heard from Jack for seven or eight years, knew nothing of him but the occasional Facebook posts meant for anyone. And then, not too long ago, I got a personal message from him asking how I was doing. It was brief and casual, as if just checking in after a few days’ absence, and just like that, I was drawn in. I wrote back with a quick fine, how are you? I didn’t want to commit too much. But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, either. Hope settled into its familiar place, sitting next to me while I waited. He is now in his 80’s. I had thought I might hear from him; that he must have some things he wants to tell me before it is too late. Maybe he has told his other daughters, his real daughters, about me and they want to meet.
The next day I got another message, sent to all his contacts, saying that his Facebook account had been hacked and the “how are you” message was a hoax. I felt my heart deflate as it squeezed the tears up through my chest, my throat, my head, and out my eyes. And there I sat, out on that stoop, hope battling hoax, waiting once again.