In the summer of 1969 a woman was sexually assaulted.
This is not her story.
This is mine.
I was born with polydactyly; a mutation that gave me an additional digit jutting out of each of my pinky fingers. Imagine a mother counting the tiny toes and fingers of her newborn, but continuing past ten to eleven and then twelve. These extra digits were amputated soon after my birth leaving only small, unnoticeable nubs as reminders of what had set my story immediately onto a different path than most.
I was born in the California desert to a woman who had earned a meager living working as a stripper. She’d taken this job to support herself after escaping an abusive marriage to a man she’d wed far too young. She left her daughter, my older sister, with him and went off to save herself, start a new life, and eventually, I suspect, return to reclaim her little girl.
My sister did come to live with my mother, her boyfriend, and me a bit sooner than I suppose was the plan. One day, not long after I was born, my mother had vanished, leaving no word with the man whom she’d been living with, only to return days later with daughter in tow. Now this man—my father—found himself with two children under his roof: his infant son and a young girl who’d had horrors unleashed upon her by her own father.
My older sister attempted twice to kill me when I was still a baby. The first time she tried to stick my small hand into a meat grinder. The second time she pushed my hand—let’s assume it was the same one—into a light socket but was discovered by the man of the house.
As the story goes, upon finding her over my crib, he beat her brutally. My sister, damaged by her own father, was now the victim of another man and was removed from the house and became a ward of the state of California.
A few years after the incident with my sister, my mother married a great guy, a hard working construction worker who chain smoked and watched far too much television. But he loved us and worked hard to take care of our needs, which is heroic considering he wasn’t my biological dad. Still, despite this, I remained curious about my birth father, the man whose last name I carry to this day. I dreamt that he too loved me.
One day, after turning ten, I approached my mother who stood at the sink washing dishes and asked her about my father. Her eyes lit with anger, “Do not ask about him ever!”
“Do not talk about him!"
"It’s disrespectful to your stepfather,” she said with abrupt finality.
I never asked again.
Years passed. I met a girl, we fell in love. I was 19 and she only a month past her eighteenth birthday when she gave me a son. For years I’d quietly wondered about my father but now, a father myself, decided to go against my mother’s command and find him.
Within months I’d tracked him down. I wrote him a letter to his California address and told him who I was, where I was, and that I wanted to know him. He called me within a few weeks of my dropping that envelope into the mailbox.
It was reckless to pack up our belongings into that hand-painted yellow 1976 Plymouth Duster and head west from Miami with our three-month-old child in the back seat ... but that’s what we did. You see, he’d made promises of a place where I could work and support my soon-to-be wife and our son. He said a great many things to get us to come to California, but the reason I desperately wanted to see him were the three words I'd imagined hearing for the first time in my life from a parent: “I love you.”
Things did not go well.
He worked in a room, at a table, with a phone, and a pad of paper. I was set up next to him and my job was to do the same thing he did ... but with my own flair. You see, this job was to make call after call, day after day, posing as a war veteran and conning people into purchasing things like earthquake preparedness kits to support the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars).
I had to quit. I'm a terrible liar. As soon as I did things began to disintegrate. One evening, not long after, he asked me to take a walk with him. It was on that walk that he told me that he wasn’t my father, that it was obvious the moment he saw me. Our differences became more apparent as time went on and finally he’d realized something my mother had told him was true. “I never had any other kids,” he said. “I’m sterile. Just like your mother said I was when she left.”
We didn’t return to Miami, my wife, son and I. Instead, we moved to Texas, brought here by my mother-in-law, soon after our baby turned one. For years after coming here, I didn’t speak to my mother, angry that she’d not told me the truth, bitter for having gone on this journey and not finding what I was looking for. But I eventually broke down and tried with her again.
I’d found myself in a place where I could actually express my anger with my mother. She’d called to tell me that she was leaving my step-father for a man she’d met online and so I felt justified in attacking her with the question she never wanted to have asked.
“I want to know who my real father is!” I demanded.
“I was raped!” her voice was this mix of cruelty and hurt. “Are you happy now?”
We didn’t speak again for several more years.
I’d love to tell you that we worked through things. That we had one of those cinematic moments filled with insightful words, hugs, tears, and those three words I had grown up longing to hear. But in real-life there aren't always those tidy and heart-warming endings to chapters. Instead ours was clumsy, messy and rough.
For much of my life, I’d built my identity and excused my behavior around all of these things: I was born with six fingers on each hand and my sister tried to kill me ... twice. I was the fatherless son. The unloved boy. I was the kid who was lied to by my mother. I was the byproduct of a rape who stared into the mirror trying to determine which of my features had come from my mother’s rapist.
After years of internal strife, I finally found clarity through the words of Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”
I sat with this and worked through the idea of “giving up all hope for a better past.” I ultimately realized that in doing so, I could create a far brighter present. You see, my life is devoid of memories of a mother expressing love toward me. But through the act of forgiveness, I've been able to see that she expressed her love by feeding and clothing me, by working hard to support me, and by putting up with all the stress I’d caused growing up. I realized that she had always loved me once I’d forgiven the past.
I realized we are but what we do with our story. It is so much easier to look back at a life and feel justified in blaming the present upon the past. For who can criticize a person whose past is filled with hardship and hurt for being a hard and hurt person? Giving up the burden of the past or using it to create something better of ourselves is a far more difficult path to take but I propose that it’s worth it.
My mother and I haven’t seen each other in 20 years but we recently started texting every day. Very recently I received a text from her...
“I love you, son.”