Several years ago on a trip to DC I had the privilege of reconnecting with a childhood friend. We talked for hours, and he was even funnier than I remembered. In so many ways, our stories are the same: we grew up in the same neighborhoods, walked the same school hallways, we shared friends and teachers; we both went away to school and found our way to marriage and family and fulfilling work. And in so many ways our stories are different. To know someone you have to listen to their stories, and I’m grateful to still be listening to Brett as he weaves together the strands of this story about family.
I was nearly 30 years old when I learned I was part Mexican. For years, I was the tan kid with the sun-bleached hair elbowing my parents in the ribs about being switched at birth. You see, the first photos of me portrayed a chubby infant with dark hair and eyes. “I’m so clearly a Mexican baby. Unless …unless these pictures are of some other baby,” I’d tease.
But here I was nearing 30, having accomplished next to nothing of all the things someone in their 20’s is supposed to own in the realm of experience. I hadn’t reached upper management, nor even middle management. I’d not yet scratched the surface on world domination. The foundation of a rock star career was built, but had no wheels or wings – had never even left the hangar. I’d spent years reading and writing material so other people could look wiser and more confident than they already were.
But I’d at least accomplished Mexican-ness.
How? Well, that’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. I’m adopted. My sister is adopted. There was always the possibility that we might be something other than the White Anglo Saxon Protestant progeny we were raised to be. And with my proficiency in wild emotion, which was – and often still is – so foreign to my parents and the way we were raised, certainly it made better sense that perhaps I was the apple from a tree in another orchard.
My birthmother’s name was Candy. She’d spent years and years trying to find me. And she made contact during the spring of 1999. It was a time when I’d spent the three previous years not speaking much with my parents, and not seeing them at all, resulting from my coming out as gay. Now the mythical creature from the past we’d always known of, but had never known, was in our present.
She assured me she wasn’t looking for her long-lost son, or even a spare kidney. Ah, we share a sense of humor. Her reason for finding me came from a sense of responsibility. She yearned to be convinced without a shadow of doubt that the advice had been sound that she’d received and had taken as an unwed teenaged girl with a biscuit in the oven in the early months of 1969. In her words, she’d lived her life wondering everyday if she’d done the right thing.
Being reached out of the blue had a profound effect on my sense of anonymity, and even incited a little paranoia. Had I met her before? Was the woman I’d recently met at the dog park who insisted on talking with me actually this person from another world trying for face time with me? Was a reality TV production crew suddenly going to ambush me on my way home from work to ask how it feels to be found?
And it also had a profound effect on my parents who felt betrayed that my genealogical past could somehow break the steel door on vaulted information.
But I could not imagine having to live with such a question, such a heaviness in my soul without more than a prayer for the answer. So, I accepted her invitation, and we began writing letters.
After assuring her that she’d made an excellent life decision for me worthy of no regrets, we waded slowly into a friendship. The mythical biomom – birth mother for the politically correct – was perfectly lovely. And not unlike me, her relationship with her parents had its challenges. We talked about her false starts in life, that it had taken her a long time to grow comfortable in her own skin to make wise decisions. After being a mediocre student, and failing at relationships, she’d taken root back in her home town, had become a teacher and school administrator of some acclaim at the school where she’d merely been a passing student. She had even fallen in love, was married and had kids. She’d learned to love her parents and overlook their expectations in contrast with her perceived shortcomings. In fact, she simply loved and accepted her parents in a manner that suggested to me she understood the fault may never have been with her, but with them. She loved them like one loves one’s child – without conditions. And it was a love she was capable of, that perhaps they were not.
And yes, she is where I get my Mexican heritage, which stretches back to when California was a Spanish colony. There are fascinating epics telling of the Duckworth’s who fled the Old World, and the Figueroa’s who settled in and defended places like Monterey and Sonoma. There are tales of orphans who were taken in by aunts and uncles, and even a famous governor of the State of California under Mexico.
And as we tip-toed into a friendship, we decided to meet face-to-face. Popular culture leads many to believe there is an instant bond between a child and his birth parents. Not true. The moment Candy walked off the plane, I recognized her from photos we’d traded. But there was nothing familiar about her. Don’t misread me – she was completely lovely. But we didn’t have much shared history aside from gestation. Bonds are created by shared moments. And before meeting, we didn’t share much – didn’t look much alike, either.
On the heels of my first meeting with Candy, I had dinner with my then-partner and our friends. It was a nice opportunity to sit down outside over a bottle of wine and recap all that I had experienced. I remember with clarity like it happened five minutes ago when my friend Mary Beth offering a sage insight. “The thing to remember is: family is not made up of where we come from or from big events, but all the bits and pieces of minutiae that are usually as inane as they are mundane. That’s where you find family.”
In the following months, I began taking on the responsibility of reaching my parents more frequently. I made plans to travel across the country to see them. And we, too, tip-toed back into familiar territory with one another. We needed to. There was much ground work to lay if there was to be a future for us that was as meaningful as the past.
Conversations in our journey back to familiarity started with big occasions or monumental road trips. “Remember the 1984 Olympics when we road tripped out to Minnesota instead of to LA in a cramped car where the air conditioning worked only when we were going uphill, and we watched each night from motel rooms along the way? And how about making the snowmen in Tehran? The heartache when Nannie passed away? Granddad rolling silver dollars down the hill for us to find?”
Once back on common ground, we found ourselves able to tackle the friction points between us. “Yes, I’m getting married and yes we’re both men. But we want you there, only if you want to be there. And if you choose not to be there, that’s a choice we must all respect and live with forever.” And “Yes, we’re going to be to fathers. And your granddaughter is going to love to bits without ever wondering why, but she might also think you’re weird if you’re not okay with us …and that’s something I’m not okay with.”
And in time, joy came back to our relationship and stiff formality disappeared. In a mysterious way, all the little dots of activity – these teeny-tiny pixels of color – started to assemble, illustrating the big picture of our life together.
With tremendous pride, I look back at how these conversations set the table for expectations, much in the same way my parents set the table for their expectations of me. My parents showed up to our church wedding and were the toast of all our friends. They were part of our daughter’s Baptism. We vacation together. But most importantly, we are woven tightly.
There is a joke in our family about how no one can change my father from the ways in which he is so deeply set. I disagree. I’ve seen both of my parents travel light years from their comfortable groove to where they stand today – right at my side.
Most of us go through life growing up in a family defined to us by law if not by tradition. I’m not saying that because I was adopted, I encountered fissures in my sense of belonging. But there have been a series of events surrounding my adoption that sewed shut any potential fissure. I experienced the perfect storm. When I felt my sense of family was threatened by the possibility that I may end up shunned for life or that I may somehow become disowned by my parents, my mythical biomom entered my life. And that threw my parents off balance, while also opening my eyes to what an adult relationship can be between child and parents. From letters with Candy, I learned to increase my capacity for loving my parents. And what resulted is that I recognize now that my family belongs to me as much as I belong to my family. Our experiences together can never be taken away – not by law, not by stroke of pen, not by anything else in the world. They are worth loving, and they are worth fighting for. And I am so glad I learned to.
With 22 years inside the corporate communications machine, Brett West created a career of rewriting the future of his clients through influence and persuasion. Domestic and international issues required breaking down into bits and pieces more easily digestible by news media and the American public. Throughout his career path, he began applying principles that guided him to professional success to bring about personal success and fulfillment. He has written largely unpublished works including And I Laugh a Little Too Much, Short Tall Tales of a Last Grandparent, and From Letters with Candy. In 2007, West made a mid-life career change aimed at creating a larger impact on the personal lives of his clients as a Realtor with McEnearney Associates. He lives in Washington, DC with his husband, daughter and two collies.