Modern Family

“Mom, can you come in here for a sec?” Z asked as I walked by his doorway, laundry basket in tow.

R was still at work, late, this being week three of the quarter close, the last week.  The numbers were finalized on the Thursday, and reported to Wall Street at 6am on Friday.  This meant that my husband would work more insane hours this week, culminating with probably the craziest night of all on Thursday, when everyone would be in a frenzy to make sure all the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed; or in my husband’s case, all the numbers added up properly.

Z was up late working on homework at his computer in his room.  He spent a lot of evenings this way, either working or instant messaging his friends, or logging into a new website called “Facebook”.  I asked him once why our phone hardly ever rang with calls for him, and he told me that most of the communicating he did with his friends was through the computer any more, or as a last resort, a cell phone call.  No one called people’s parent’s numbers, he told me with the distinct air of someone who was explaining the obvious to someone who just didn’t understand.  It was as if I was a strange being from another time, when phones came with cords and computers were tools only libraries and schools could afford.

“Sure honey, what’s up? I said, walking into his room, now that I was invited.  Zach was 17 years old after all, and I tried to respect his privacy.  It was in short supply enough as it was with him having two much younger siblings.  Most of the time his door was open (as was our rule about the computer being housed in his bedroom), but the unspoken rule to all of us was that no one was to enter unless you were invited.

Z turned away from the computer screen in his swivel chair to face me.  He looked down at his hands, a trademark move that told me that he was afraid to say what he was about to say.  I sat down on the bed and steeled myself.

“Well, I was sort of wondering if you still had that email address for my aunt that you told me about a few years ago.”

At first I was confused.  His aunt, my sister or R’s sister?  Of course he knew both of their email addresses, probably by heart.  Certainly he knew my sister’s that well.   “Which one?” I asked, clearly not understanding the question.

“My aunt. The one I’ve never met,” he said, clearly having a difficult time saying the words that would make what he meant obvious and clear.

Oh, God.

It was the familiarity that had thrown me off.  The casualness of the phrase:  “my aunt”.  The ownership of it, the easy way you speak about a close family relation.  Except he wasn’t talking about a close family relation.  He was referring to his biological father’s aunt, really his biological great aunt.  The one I’d searched for in a fit of insecurity and mid life crisis feeling two years ago.  The one who had rebuffed my outreach to her but had offered to communicate with Zach now that he was older.  The one who ten years prior to that had told me while we shared coffee that my son’s biological father would never be interested in playing a role in Zach’s life.

My gut impulse was to feign stupidity, but I just couldn’t.  I had always been scrupulously careful about being positive about the other half of who my son was.  To complain about his father’s family would be to cast aspersions of half of what made him who he was, and I just couldn’t do that to my child. I made my face a mask and thought carefully.  “I’ll have to look it up, but I’m sure I have it somewhere on my computer,” I offered optimistically.  “So you never contacted her when I gave it to you before?”

He shook his head slowly.  My son was not forthright, did not ever want to talk about personal matters.  He’d been honest but given little information when I’d brought up the subject two years ago.  “No, I didn’t.  I just wasn’t ready.  But you know, with me graduating soon and going to college, I think that I can handle it now.  If she wants to talk to me, I have questions for her that I’d like to know about.”

I gulped.  “Like what?”

“Mostly genealogical stuff, and medical stuff.  Like, I know cancer runs on your side of the family, but what about his?  Is there anything big on his side, like Down’s Syndrome or something like that that I should know about?  It’s like being adopted, you know?  I don’t know anything about my medical history, my family history.  Do people live a long time or do they die early?  I don’t know anything about half of who I am.”

I nodded, full of sympathy.  “Yeah, that’s always been a concern of mine for you as well.”  Inside I was screaming, of course.  I’d always hoped that my marriage to R would give him a father that would fulfill his need for a father, that he would almost kind of forget that the man we called his father was really a step father.  But I should have known that someday, somehow, Z would want to know more about his biological roots; it was only natural.

There was a silence passing between us; full of what I would never say to him and what he would never say to me.  My sorrow that I couldn’t make his life different, that of all the things I had been able to give him, I couldn’t give him his biological father.  His sadness that he’d spent his life growing up with an empty place in his heart; words that he knew would hurt me and so he never said them out loud.  Still, they were there, and I could feel them now.

“Well, let me go find that for you so you can get started,” I said, easing myself off of the bed, my voice choking imperceptibly as I spoke.

“Mom?” Z said, stopping me as I walked towards the doorway.

“Yes?” I answered, turning my head towards him.

“Thanks,” he said simply.

One word, but it said so much.


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