I didn’t know I had a brother until I was thirteen years old.
It wasn’t like my brother was some alien kin who had been shipped off to adoptive parents for financial or other reasons; some stranger that I never knew. I grew up with my brother. I had lived with him in the same house until I was 6, which, at the age of 13, was about half of my life. And when my mother remarried and we no longer shared a home with him, he was still my constant companion.
They just lied about his identity.
As a child, it never occurred to me that my parents would ever lie to me. I knew they had their surreptitious adult whispers; I knew they did things in the bedroom that they didn’t want me to know about, and they spoke in French sometimes, when they needed a private conversation. But it never crossed my mind that what they DID tell me wasn’t the absolute truth.
I remember the first time that the thought of parents ever being deceptive even entered my mind. I was about 10 years old, and it was all over the news that two children had died after eating their Halloween candy. A posse of interrogators canvassed the surrounding neighborhood, confiscating uneaten confections from people’s homes, and cross examining anyone who might have come into contact with the deceased children. But as it turned out, it was the children’s own parents who had slipped the arsenic lased chocolates in their children’s plastic Jack-o’-Lantern that Halloween night. Now, that’s spooky.
This news story horrified me, as it was long before the Susan Smiths of our world. Today we are used to hearing stories of parents drowning, stabbing and slashing their own children with alarming regularity; but the thought parents hurting their own children back then was almost unthinkable. I couldn’t stop thinking about these parents, who intentionally poisoned their children’s bag of candy. I stared at my own candy and down the hall to my parents closed bedroom door, with my first suspicious thought. For the first time, I wondered if my parents were really who they said they were.
As it turns out, they weren’t. I was poisoned just like those children that fateful Halloween; the only difference was the poison they fed me wasn’t arsenic, it was a toxic lie. They told me my entire life that my brother was my Uncle. They told me that he was my mother’s half brother, and the biological son of my grandmother and the young Polish stud she had married, 20 years her junior.
George was only three years older than me, so as children we played together constantly, and as we grew older became friends. He would often tease my sister and me by slamming our Italian heritage, as our biological father was Sicilian. And we would slam his Polish heritage in return; all in good fun, of course. We teased each other relentlessly; we were all very much alike. George and I could pull funny faces that looked identical.
I had never met my biological father, Tony. He had left my mother while I was still in the uterus. I didn’t really know why he had abandoned our family, and I had only seen one grainy black and white picture of him, which my step-father glued at the end of a very long tube; so the only way I could see it was in the distance.
In my mind, Tony was almost a mythical figure; a swarthy romantic, living somewhere in Italy; perhaps on a boat. When I was a child, I was told my father was a sailor. Although I later found out that he just owned a motorboat which he enjoyed taking out on the lake, in my mind he was always a salty mariner, sailing alone somewhere in the Mediterranean; his vessel creaking from the muscle of the Atlantic, his hands and face weathered from the elements, his eye keen on the horizon. It wasn’t so much that he had abandoned me, I decided, but rather it was his intense wander lust which led him away from me. His heart was set on a perpetual adventure; he had a passion for solitude, exploration, and living with the fury of nature.
Although I had never met my father, I had always longed for him. My feisty Italian behavior was pleading for a kindred spirit; and even more so, it begged for the source. I could feel him inside every cell in my body; I always knew he was a part of me; and I ached to gaze into his eyes where I knew I would see my own eyes staring back at me. There was always a hole where I knew he should be.
I was determined that one day I would find him.
When I would ask my mother of his possible whereabouts, I would get cautious or flippant replies; or sometimes a vague answer. “I’m sure he’s somewhere in Italy, darling,” she would say. But somehow I didn’t believe he was. It wasn’t that I thought my mother was lying; I thought she just didn’t know.
But I was like a little detective, and I was intent on figuring it out.
I was born in Chicago, and I had heard all of my life how it came to be we lived in California. They would recount endless stories of how we got here, and everything which led up to us eventually making the trek west permanently. My grandmother would tell me stories how she wouldn’t do anything back then unless it was a step toward going west. “Will buying these shoes get me to California? This is what I would ask myself. And if they didn’t, then I wouldn’t buy them,” she’d tell me. My father, Tony, had also apparently waxed poetic about the Golden State; and he had planned on moving out with us, before he left our family forever. So it occurred to me that he might have moved to California, after all.
I had always searched for him. There was no Internet back then of course, nor had I any money to hire a Private Detective. So instead, wherever we’d travel in California, I would find a phone book and scan the contents for my Italian surname. When my parents took us to Disneyland, I scurried away with the hotel phone book, wondering if Los Angeles might have been my father’s ultimate destination. If we were in Monterey County, or Mendocino County, I would always find a way to sneak to a phone booth, where the telephone books hung on chains, waiting for my perusal. But book after book after book, I never found my surname in any of them. At some point, I had almost given up on ever finding my father; and looking in phone books became more of a compulsion than anything else.
One afternoon my parents took me to Mill Valley, to their friend Fritz’ house.
My parents were drinking and playing music downstairs, and I was amusing myself, wandering around the house and gardens. I came across a phone book in the hallway, and half heartedly opened it. I had never looked in a Marin County phone book before, so I knew I couldn’t pass it by. I flipped to the “S’s” as I always did, and scanned the contents for my surname. But this time, I had to blink twice to believe what I was actually seeing. There it was. The sight I had dreamed of my entire life; a half a page listing of nothing but my somewhat rare Italian last name.
I skimmed through the first names quickly, looking for the name Tony, but I couldn’t find it. I almost gave up; after all, it wasn’t inconceivable that this list of people were not my relatives, even if we had the same name. But suddenly I spotted the name Mike, and then the name Renato. I swallowed hard, as I knew that those were the names of my uncles; my father’s brothers. That couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. I felt dizzy.
I looked down the hallway to make certain that Fritz and my parents were occupied and I could still hear them laughing downstairs. The coast was clear. I picked up the receiver from the phone and slowly dialed the number that was next to the name Mike. I will never forget how loud the ringing was in my ear; it was as if time was standing still. “Hello?” Someone had answered. It was the voice of an adult male, and he had a thick Italian accent.
“Hello. My name is Cathy. And I believe I might be your niece. My father is Tony?”
I heard a “click” on the other end of the line. I could hardly believe my ears. I yelled out “Hello? Hello?” several more times, but the phone had gone dead. He had hung up on me.
Undeterred but angry, I scanned the names again. Maybe my father wanted the fact that he had a family to remain a secret; maybe his brother knew he never wanted to be found. But as I pondered this, I saw it, under the “A’s.” Antonio. Of course. My father was listed as Antonio.
My heart began to thump loudly, and I felt a strange tingling sensation go up my neck and toward my face like slowly burning lava. I knew it was him. But I was frozen. I couldn’t make the call; I was too scared, especially after the way my Uncle had just treated me. So instead, I found a pencil and paper, and jotted the number down. It was a long drive home from Mill Valley that evening; as I never revealed to my mother or my step-father that I had found my biological father at last. But I held a very special secret, on a little scrap of paper in my pocket, and I checked to make certain it was still there at least a dozen times.
It wasn’t until the next day that I revved up enough courage to make the phone call. I sat for at least an hour on the floor, the phone between my legs, and that little scrap of paper sitting on the floor just above the phone. I must have picked up the receiver at least a half a dozen times preparing to call him, but I would always hang it up at the last second. Then suddenly, with a burst of adrenalin, I found my fingers dialing the number. I didn’t hang up, but my throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow. The phone was ringing. And someone was picking it up. I held my hand over my chest to try and quiet the thumping that was that was so intense it was scaring me.
“Hello?” It was the voice of a little girl, about 10 years old. I couldn’t fathom who it might be.
"Hello. Is Tony there, please?”
There was a pause on the other end. “Yeah, who is this?”
Then it was my turn to pause. I was trembling all over. “I’m his daughter.”
The little girl laughed into the phone, and it startled me. “No, you’re not,” she said. “I AM.” And then I heard the familiar “click” and the phone went dead. These people certainly knew how to hang up a phone, I thought.
His daughter? This was impossible. My father was a lonely skipper, navigating his vessel toward distant lands. His only daughters were my sister and I, whom he left behind long ago in order to pursue his dreams.
I felt irate that I had been hung up on a second time; so without hesitation I called right back. I was prepared to have a fight with this little girl, who was pretending to be my sister. But this time, an older gentleman answered the phone. He sounded exactly the way Mike did, with a thick Italian accent. I knew it was him. And the way he said hello was so full with grief that my soul darkened like a gray cloud. It felt as though the whole world was crying. There was a lifetime of regret and grief in that hello.
“Hello?” I said back, almost inaudibly. I felt tears rising in my nasal passages and in my throat. For a minute there was only breathing. I could hear my father’s breath. And he could hear mine. We both knew we were connected.
“Why do you say you’re my daughter?” he finally asked.
“My name is Cathy, and....” but I didn’t have a chance to finish my sentence.
“Catherine Anne, yes? Hello Caterina. This is your Papa’. I’ve been expecting this call for many years. But this has to be a private conversation, do you understand? My son and daughter do not know I had a family previously. Capish?”
“Yes.” I hardly knew what I was saying. I had just learned I had a half brother and sister. That he had remarried and had a family.
“I cannot believe this is you,” he said, his voice filled with pain. “I cannot believe I am talking to my daughter. Do you know I love you? I have always loved you.”
“Si’ Bella. I must ask you, are you robust?”
I thought it was an odd question, and I began to giggle. I wasn’t even sure I knew what the word meant.
“What do you mean, am I robust?”
“I saw a girl on a bus one day. She would be about your age. She looked like my daughter. Very robust. I mean healthy, you understand? Vigorous.”
I laughed at this. “I guess so, but the only bus I take is the school bus,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said sadly, seemingly disappointed. “How is your sister?”
“She’s here but she’s not sure she wants to talk to you. Maybe later.”
“Oh,” he said sadly again. “And how is your brother?”
His last comment echoed like a menacing statement in the back of my subconscious. “Brother?” I said. I had no idea what brother he was talking about, but a part of me knew that he must be telling the truth. He is my father, and he would certainly know if I had a brother. But surely he must be mistaken, I thought to myself. “I don’t have a brother,” I finally answered.
“Oh,” he said sadly again. “Hmmmm. They still haven’t told you, eh? I always worried they might never tell you. That’s why I had to leave, do you understand? Capish?”
I can’t remember what happened after that moment, or how the phone eventually got hung up. I know my sister eventually came to the phone and spoke with him as well. But the only thing I could think about was this strange confession he made. It was a concept I could hardly wrap my brain around, this idea that I had a brother, and if I did, I wondered where he was.
When my sister got off the phone, I asked her if he had mentioned a brother. When she said that he hadn’t, I excitedly repeated everything that Tony had told me, and asked her what on earth he might be talking about. She looked as stunned as I, and in moments we were practically screaming, shouting back and forth dozens of theories and possibilities. Suddenly my sister said, “I KNOW WHO IT IS!”
She ran back to her room, and a moment later emerged carrying a picture of our Uncle George, the boy I had lived with half of my life. She held his picture up next to her face. We had always known they looked exactly alike, my sister and my brother; in fact people often mistook them for twins when they were very little. And throughout our lives we’d all remarked how our noses were the same, or our curly hair. “GEORGE IS OUR BROTHER.”
When the truth is presented to you in black and white, which it literally was, there are no longer any questions. This revelation was like a giant puzzle piece which had always been missing, which suddenly snapped into place with a tremendous thud. All of the questions we raised about George’s origins all of our lives came sharply into focus.
I remembered the time George came into my bedroom, looking as though he were about to burst into tears. “I found adoption papers,” he told me. “I’m adopted. I’m not related to any of you.”
“That’s impossible,” I told him. “We look exactly alike. We have to be related. You must have misunderstood what you saw.”
I also remembered the time George and I were reading the Guinness Book of World Records, and we came across the oldest woman to have ever given birth at that time. George said, “This is strange. My mother was only a few years younger than the oldest woman to have ever given birth. Is that right?” We both narrowed our eyebrows in disbelief, and we started trying to figure out exactly how old my grandmother was when she gave birth to George. And it seemed a bit remarkable.
I also remembered a lifetime of funny looks, every time a stranger would think we were all siblings. When we’d argue back and tell them he was our Uncle, a strange look would come over their faces; a look of disbelief. Now I know what those looks meant. They were thinking, “He is your brother but they’ve lied to you about it for some reason. What a pity.”
All of these thoughts filled my brain and I knew my sister was correct. “Let’s go wake up Mom and ask her,” my sister suggested. And that is exactly what we did.
In a moment we had dragged my mother out of bed and sat her down in front of us. There was no mistaking our exuberance and our horror; I believe she knew what was coming. Her face was greatly pained, as if this was a moment she had expected for a long time. She weakly lit a cigarette and her hand was shaking. We had something important to say. And we had no time to waste in explaining how we knew what we knew; there was no mention of the fact that I had found Tony or that I had called him. Or that Tony told us we had a brother. We just came straight out with it. “Is George our brother?” we asked her.
My sister and I have often recounted the way my mother took a long drag off her cigarette and let the smoke out in the slowest steady stream we had ever seen. Then she took the deepest breath, and said only one word. “Yes.” She whispered it.
My sister and I were verging on hysteria. The questions tumbled out of our mouths faster than we could ask them; but we were filled with anger and regret and suspicion. My bubble of innocence popped so loud it was almost audible. I was certain I would never trust anyone, ever again.
“Let me explain,” she said. I looked at my mother and she seemed strangely peaceful; almost relieved that the secret had been revealed at long last. “My mother, your grandmother, married a much younger man than she. You both know that Beba is 20 years younger, don’t you?” Beba was like our grandfather, even though he was only a couple of years older than my mother.
We nodded. “My mother was too old to have children, but her husband wanted a child very badly. And my mother didn’t want to lose him. She first asked if she could adopt you,” my Mom said, looking at my sister. “But I wouldn’t hear of it. And then she began to beg us; Tony and me. My mother begged us to have a child for her that she could raise as her own. I became a surrogate for her. We gave George away the moment he was born; I wasn’t even allowed to hold him. Tony was never happy after that. He managed to impregnate me with you, Cathy, and then he left. My mother swore me to secrecy, and I agreed never to tell her secret. And now I have to ask you girls to never reveal this secret. You cannot tell your brother what you know, EVER. And you can not tell your grandmother that you know either. Do you both promise me? Swear to me.”
This moment became another crossroads of my life; an instant where, in retrospect, I know I had sold my soul. I had agreed to lie.
My sister and I both nodded. My mother stood up. “I haven’t even told my husband this. I’m going to tell him now.” Even my step-father didn’t know. I was in such shock, I could hardly comprehend it all.
It took me four years after this incident to go looking for my father in person, which I eventually did. The reason it took me so long was that I needed to process the news I’d been given in that first exchange with him; I didn’t have the room in my psyche to handle any more. I had been asked to keep a secret; a secret that was much too big to keep; and I wrestled daily with it; from the morality aspect, to the shame and the guilt. There was a dark shadow in the back of my mind that constantly mocked me and every day that I kept mum a little more toxic poison was released into my blood stream.
I actually wrote to “Dear Abbey” at the time, to ask what I should do, but Abbey never responded or published my letter. Every time I saw George, I felt as though the secret would literally rip my skin apart, as if I was sewn together with seams. I was going to burst. His continued jokes about our Italian heritage suddenly struck me as painful; and he would cock his head and wonder why I had stopped laughing.
To this day, I abhor secrets. And I abhor lies. Secrets will eat you alive. When you keep a secret, your soul becomes a dungeon where you bury the truth; and it begins to fill with spider webs and dust. One lie causes you to tell another lie, and soon they begin to pile on top of each other, and there’s no room for anything else. And every day your psyche feels a little bit filthier, yet you know there is no way to clean yourself. Your innocence has been shot like a hapless victim in the back; your gullibility has been fatally injured and it’s stumbling away from you, running and bleeding. Your soul begins to smell like toxic fumes and its stench begins to leak into your nostrils and onto your taste buds. Yet you have no choice but to keep on dancing; you must dance in a world of pretend, you must dance to the beat of deceit, and you must plaster a disingenuous smile across your lips, so that no one will ever know.
This secret changed my life irrevocably; because I have never really trusted the world ever again. People lie constantly; and they are just as constant about justifying why they do so. Perhaps it is to protect another, or to spare someone else pain. People lie to get a job; they lie about where they’ve been; they lie about what they’ve done. And if you question them, they always recite some vague reason as to why it’s acceptable. But I don’t think there is ever a reason, and ultimately there is never a purpose. And the irony is, the truth will always come out. And it isn’t until it does, that you will ever be free.
The only thing that kept me sane was writing. Writing, to me, seems to be the antithesis of keeping secrets. I needed to express everything; I needed to reveal what the world was trying to hide.
We never told our grandmother or George that we knew, but we told everyone else. Even his girlfriend knew. Soon, everyone in George’s life was forced to keep this toxic secret. He was the only person who didn’t know who he was; a birthright, I should think.
It was Tony who eventually told George, many years later. My brother walked into his father’s house that evening as one man, and he walked out as quite another. He had just met Tony for the first time; years after my sister and I were in constant contact with him. Eventually Tony would tell his own children about us, and we became one big family. I constantly urged my brother to pay him a visit, but he had little interest. “He’s not MY father,” he would tell me, “why should I go?” But Tony begged us to keep on trying.
The night George finally agreed to go, the door opened, and Tony stood there, staring. “Georgio,” he said. “Let’s go take a walk.” We all knew what was coming. I shook my head in Tony’s direction, pleading with him not to reveal the secret. But Tony ignored me. I knew George was confused as to why they needed to leave the minute we had all arrived at his house for dinner, but George left with him. And when he came back, he looked like a different person.
My brother used to laugh easily; his eyes crinkling in an adorable way that always made me smile. But after he learned the truth, I never saw him laugh as easily again. Certainly he still teases, and still makes jokes. But I can always see the shadow in his eyes; a darkness and melancholy that first appeared the evening he learned the truth.
Some days, I think that they should have just put arsenic in our Halloween candy. It might have been easier than what they did do; and that was to release deadly venom into the bloodstreams of our souls, a toxic poison that still kills us all a little bit every day.
Yes, maybe the arsenic would have been better. At least it’s a little more honest. Capish?
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