When Overly Frank adopted olderly Ryza from PAWS Chicago earlier this month, the cuddly interaction between Oklahoma expat and 11-year-old feline made me realize how much I’d been taking my own lifelong companion for granted. His life, that is.
Camões never saw the now-ongoing love-fest coming. For nine years, my Portuguese-monickered danger cat and I have been through a lot together. So many apartments. So many times around the futon chasing a ball of string. So many broken Christmas tree ornaments.
Our relationship is like my ADD attention span, the times I really focus on him come and go like the weather. He deserves more. I do too. Trouble is, my family history doesn’t have a lot to teach about long-term relationships.
It’s no surprise I recently shared with friends the realization that I have no idea how to enter and sustain adult relationships. I call it “The Lonely,” the place I end up inside myself when I’m trumped by my ADD and my codependence. I sit there waiting for my Higher Power to lead me to more stable ground and remind me that the true definition of love is not something I learned in childhood.
Growing up in New York, I never knew my father–either one of them. Not the Irishman with my last name in the black-and-white portrait who allegedly died six months before I was born. Sure as hell not the Puerto Rican border hidden away in the family album with Brillo hair and crooked fingers not at all unlike my own.
A native Manhattanite, my Spanish mom married the Irishman and moved to Queens to get out of her own family’s house and find independence. That’s probably why she raised her kids white-bread American, never teaching us the language of her birth. Imagine her surprise when the Irishman dropped dead of alcoholism in 1964 and a short while later her mother came to retire in the attic apartment.
You’d think she’d have already learned to roll with the punches when she went to the doctor suspecting cancer in 1969 and learned of her unexpected pregnancy. She’d later tell me she cried knowing that it wasn’t a terminal illness responsible for her bodily changes.
By the time I was born–six years after the Irishman died–my brother and sister, both a generation older, were already in the advanced stages of drug abuse and alcoholism. My mother should have known better than to entrust them with the secret of my origins, but given the Irishman’s own addiction, she already had a long head start on codependence, herself.
But my Spanish mother was Catholic enough to feel ashamed at having a child out of wedlock, so a family and a neighborhood were sworn to silence. She sent the upstairs border with whom she had shared what would turn out to be the last sexual experience of her life away and put a dead man’s name on my birth certificate.
I wouldn’t learn the familiar man in the family album was my real father until the age of 24. When the truth finally came out, my mother told me she never loved my father and, after all, my brother and sister weren’t ready for a new one, anyway. She also told me they’d been blackmailing her with the knowledge of my origins for my entire life, seeking money, approval of their eventually uninterrupted drunkenness, and silence for illegal actions. (I remain to this day the only person I know who can claim to have played as a pre-teen on bales of pot hidden in the family house by my sister’s drug-dealer boyfriend.)
When my mother died in 1996, shortly after I fled the family household for the sober urbanity of Brownstone Brooklyn, I thought that was that. Before the funeral, out of resentment at how they had manipulated our mother, I hadn’t had a discussion with my siblings in years. And even then, the closest my sister got to talking to me was the heckling she did from the first pew while I was delivering my mother’s eulogy.
Still, in my mother’s death, I thought I had finally escaped the clutches of my emotionally devastating family environment. As regular readers of this blog know, however, it would take many years of soul-searching, a move across country, and a lifetime of failed relationships for me to realize how damaging my upbringing had actually been.
Damaging enough to keep me from looking for my real father until my thirtieth birthday. Social Security death records told me I’d started my search eleven months too late. Digging through my mother’s effects shortly after, I came across private notes he sent to the woman who didn’t love him. I don’t remember how long I sat there reading and re-reading them.
In my father’s handwriting, they all made one thing clear: he loved her. But he was shut out. He eventually moved to Orange County, California, where he died in Santa Ana on September 29th, 1999. His name was Angelo Oropesa.
Before she died, my mother told me every time she looked at me, her breath was taken away by how much I resembled him. The few photos I have of Oropesa show him with children–my unknown half-brothers. From time to time, I poke around the Internet, seeking them. I probably always will. I doubt I’ll ever find them.
Last week, I went looking again. That search proved surprisingly fruitful, if in an unexpected manner. I ran my own siblings’ names through the Social Security death index.
I learned my sister has been dead for three years.
I doubt she ever let herself be happy. I doubt up until the end at the age of 56 she was ever sober for long. And I doubt my brother was sober enough to try and find me to let me know. I’ve spent many years building an information isolation from the two of them to protect me from their madness. Still, I’m eminently Google-able.
What really strikes me about my sister’s death, though, isn’t the late notice, but the lack of emotional impact the news has had on me. I feel sad that I don’t feel sad at her passing. The most I’ve been able to muster is a sense of sorry when I picture how she must have lived the rest of her life. At one time, I loved her dearly. But I made peace with the destruction my family inflicted on itself a long time ago. And I let go of them a long time ago.
Eventually, no doubt, I’ll find my brother in those death records. In the passing of my family members, what’s truly remarkable is how resilient their ghosts have been. I wish I had the same ability to let them go, too.
Much as I wonder how well “Michael Oropesa” would have fit the face at the top of this blog.