Pat, Joe’s aunt, called me the following week and asked to meet me for coffee at the diner near my house. I nervously left Zach over at my sister’s for an hour while I pulled into the Dice Cafe and looked around for her.
I was trying to remember what Joe had told me about Pat. She had been married at one point, but had divorced. She looked a bit like Joe’s mother but harder somehow where Joe’s mother was soft. Both had been overweight and dark haired. I couldn’t remember much else except thinking on the few occasions I’d met her that I didn’t think she liked me very much; but then again, Joe hadn’t been too sure that she’d liked him either, so it was hard to say. In other words, I felt like I was going in very much blind to this meeting.
Pat was already waiting for me, coffee in front of her. I sat and greeted her and a cup of coffee was put in front of me as well, making us equals. Well, sort of.
“So,” Pat began, “My mother and I both agree that Zachary is likely Joe’s child.”
I gulped a mouthful of hot coffee, scalding my tongue with the directness of her comments. I’d coached myself for this ahead of time; don’t get angry, don’t get emotional here, none of that would lead to anything positive for Zachary. “He is Joe’s child,” I said quietly, simply.
“We literally had no idea he existed,” Pat went on. “But yes, the resemblence is quite clear.”
I sipped my coffee and waited to see what direction this was all headed in, trying not to let my nervousness show.
“What exactly are you hoping for out of contacting us?” Pat asked, continuing with her laser sharp direct line of conversation. At this rate I’d be out of here in fifteen minutes, I thought.
“I want my son to be able to know his father’s family.” I paused, trying to read her, but her face was blank. “Barring that, if that isn’t possible, I’d at least like to be able to give him information about his genetic background; half of his DNA is a mystery to me. Does cancer run in the family or Alzheimer’s? These are things that, if nothing else is possible, I hope that you’ll be able to share with me for his sake, so he can make smart choices later on in life.” I’d rehearsed this one, trying to keep it far away from the controversial area of Joe, because I didn’t want to rock any boats.
“Well certainly we can do that,” Pat said, finding the crack in the conversation and diving right in. “I can write some of this out for you, but for example diabetes runs in our family. So you’ll want to watch out for any signs of that. Also lung disease; my father has lung disease.”
“Oh, no. I am sorry to hear that. What kind of lung disease?”
“He has emphysema. He’s had it for a long time, but it is starting to get worse.” I tried to remember Joe’s grandfather. I couldn’t remember him at all other than the fact that he was a slight man named Carl.
“See, these are good things to know,” I said, trying to draw her out further with encouragement. “My mother, for example, died of lung cancer. To have histories of both in the family make a very strong case to persuade Zach smoking would be a very bad idea.”
“Yes, that’s true.” I could see Pat thinking of what to say next behind her coffee. “Perhaps we could set up a meeting between Zach and my father. I’m sure he’d really love to see him while he still can.”
I tried to hide my discomfort. One second Pat was admitting that it was “likely” Zach was her great nephew, the next minute it was time to introduce him to his great grandfather? I pondered this. On the one hand, it seemed like the right thing to do; a dying man would want to see the great grandson he never knew he had. On the other hand, how would I pose the meeting to my son? Would we say who the grandfather was? Or no?
“Pat, I’ll have to think about that one. Try to think about that from my point of view, just for a second. How would we introduce them? Would we say to Zach that this is his great grandfather? Or would we just say this is a friend of mommy’s?”
“Well we’d have to plan it carefully of course,” Pat answered. “But I think we could, if you were interested.”
My head was full of questions. What was I doing? Would this be the right thing for Zachary, or would it bring about more questions? Was I being played a fool here or was Pat really interested in building some sort of bridge between my family and her own? How did I feel about my son meeting an older gentleman who was likely quite ill, and possibly not even divulging the connection between the two of them?
“Does this mean, Pat, that your family is ready to acknowledge Zachary as one of their own?” I asked, direct meeting direct.
“If you’re talking about Joe,” she said, stirring half and half in endless circles into her coffee cup, “Then no. He’s made it pretty clear that he’s not going to be involved here. But my mother and I are willing to stay in touch with you on some level if you’d like, to give you family history, background, that kind of thing.”
The coffee was bitter in my mouth. I needed to remember that something was better than nothing, and this something was going to be a valuable branch of his family tree to hold onto later in life. But still, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d just been sucker punched in the gut.
“Thank you for that,” I said carefully, modulating any emotion out of my voice. “I think that will be good for Zach growing up to know that there is a connection he can hold onto.”
I was smiling, but in that moment, I could feel endless sharp edges of glass inside of me.