Listening to You

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April 1971 Easter

When my sister, Patricia, was a little girl, she wanted to fly like Peter Pan. The night she jumped from her bedroom window, her father was there to catch her. When she overdosed in the bathroom at the age of 20, five years after he drank himself to death, no one was there to unwind her jeans from around her legs where they cut off the circulation so severely that the doctors said she would never walk again. After a series of operations and years of leg braces, she eventually walked unassisted with a limp and continuous pain. Maybe that’s why she spent most of her adult life drunk. Though from the stack of Playboys hidden under her mattress, my mother suspected my sister’s pain to stem from an even deeper sense of personal shame.

My brother, John, held his liquor and pills better. When he was high, he usually did his nodding off at the dinner table. When he was drunk, he was at least sober enough to apologize to his girlfriends for smacking them around after the fact. He wasn’t sober enough to realize that saying the gun in the car was yours to protect a friend would send him to prison, instead. Some of my earliest memories of him are of visiting him up in Fishkill with my sister and my nephew, Little John, who my mother cared for during his father’s years in the Adirondack prison.

I was born 20 years after my siblings. I was told our father died six months before I was born. It would be another 24 years before my mother would admit that I was a bastard child conceived with a boarder who lived in our upstairs apartment. She sent him away and put her dead husband’s name on my birth certificate instead because my mother had a deep sense of personal shame, too.

For the next two decades, my siblings would get away with repeated alcoholic binges and fits of domestic violence by my sister threatening my mother with revealing to me my bastard status. That included the day Little John and I were met at the door by Patricia holding a bloody knife and telling my nephew that she had just killed Mary, his mother. She hadn’t. Little John’s mother overdosed and died some time after dropping the charges against my sister. My nephew still recalls my sister barring him from attending his own mother’s funeral.

I would be past the age of 40 before my Aunt Juanita admitted that my real father stayed away because my brother and sister beat him senseless when they found out my mother was pregnant. He would be dead by the time I had the courage to try and find him.

I loved my siblings as long as I could. I stopped talking to Patricia and started fighting her with my fists in my teens when, in a drunken rage, she knocked my grandmother’s teeth out with a paint can. I stopped talking to my brother when my mother died 20 years ago, shortly after I moved to Brooklyn. Before she died, she got very sick and Little John and I cared for her with no help from my siblings until my nephew couldn’t take it anymore and ran away.

My brother John never told me he knew all along where my nephew was, and he never told my nephew where his grandmother’s funeral was. My last living memory of my sister was her heckling me as I gave our mother’s eulogy at the second funeral that my siblings cheated my nephew out of. I lived one borough away for the next eight years without a word from either one of my siblings. When I ran away to Chicago 12 years ago, it was with the expectation that I would never speak to a member of my birth family again in this life.

In 2009, I learned that my sister had died three years earlier by searching the Social Security death index. As far as I know, my brother never tried to find me to let me know.

Caught in the crossfire of estrangement were my nephew and step-nephews from what would become my brother’s lifelong relationship with Barbara. She and my mother never got along, and through the years I sometimes wondered whether that was why he never reached out to me. But Brenden and Sean and Rex deserved the extended family that disappeared when I and, eventually, Little John walked away and were allowed to keep on walking.

I almost never read Sean’s email. A week ago on Sunday, I finally saw the message that he had sent me on Facebook six days earlier. It was automatically sent to Facebook’s dreaded “Other” inbox. If I hadn’t casually clicked the mailbox, I would never have seen it. It was my first contact with my family in 20 years. It was a message telling me that my brother was on life support, and apologizing if I didn’t care.

With Ryan sitting across the room with a look of concern on his face, I quickly learned through the Facebook pages of Sean and his brothers that my brother died the next day. He had been dead for five days by the time I found out. Condolence messages were already posted to their walls. To my surprise, all three of them called him “Dad.”

And as my heart broke for them, and for me, 20 years evaporated in the blink of an eye.

They hadn’t found Little John yet. Brenden, who was eight years old the last time I saw him, asked me to help. I spent a day searching through John Doyles on Facebook, and then an afternoon afraid to call once I found him. He never thought we’d know each other again. He thanked me for all the times I took him out of the house while John and Patricia were drinking and fighting. We forgave each other for missing out on two decades. I asked him to contact Brenden and Sean. And just like that, I was Uncle Michael again.

Brenden befriended my sister before she died. He told me he thought her drinking stopped. But not her pain. At the age of 56, she surrendered to it and tried to fly once again. This time, no one was there to catch her. I never knew how to feel about my sister’s death and still don’t. But I thanked my nephew for loving her when there was no one else left.

Brenden also told me that he had once asked his dad if he knew how to find me. My brother told him he had talked to me a few times and that I was still living in Queens. I don’t blame him for lying. I understand how it feels to think that the only way to make things better is to just leave them alone. Not Brenden. He’s been trying to piece the family history together on his dad’s side for a long time. He is adamant that we are still a family. That we are going to pick up the pieces, remain a family from now on, and never, ever be estranged again.

In my entire life, I have never had a happy feeling about my family. So I am in unknown waters now. No one should be the last survivor of their nuclear family at the age of 44. I mourn my siblings and the choices they made. I am comforted that my sister was not alone at the end. I am glad that my brother and Barbara transcended enough of the past to forge a real family.

And out of nowhere, I am happy about mine.

I am overwhelmed to know Little John again. I am in awe of Brenden’s tenacity. I am thankful Sean emailed me. I am happy to know that Rex has transcended the past as well. For two decades I haven’t had to keep track of birthdays. In one week, in the face of tragedy, there are suddenly nephews and girlfriends and wives and beautiful little children. And damned if they don’t also happen to be my family.

I know what it’s like to reconnect and still lose touch again. Eight years ago I was overjoyed to reconnect with so many of my fellow Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York alumni. But as the reunions and parties and being in each other’s lives again moved forward in New York, I ended up staying behind in Chicago and falling out of touch. I will not make the same mistake twice. Never in my life have I felt the pull of family so strongly. And frankly, not only are all four of my nephews amazing and awesome, but they’re also born-and-bred New Yorkers who can kick your ass. So I don’t have the option of walking away again, anyway.

In one week, I’ve sobbed tears of sorrow and tears of joy. My heart has expanded, and expanded again. In the mirror, I can see 20 years of holding back melting away. I can only liken it to the feeling of God working through you and all around you. I have lived a miracle this week.

To my nephews, thank you. I missed you. I love you.

To Brenden, especially, who told me on Facebook that he was going to reunite the family, thank you for helping me remember who I am.

And to Los Angeles, I know you will always be there. But I’m thinking it’s time for Uncle Michael to come home.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, 
shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are you, Lord our God, Sovereign of all that is,
for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this moment.

Amen.

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