“To accept one’s past–one’s history–is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” -James Baldwin
It’s difficult to retell a story when one of the narrators is unreliable and the other is dead. It’s even more difficult when it’s your own story. Uncovering the narrative of my existence has been like searching for a long dead corpse in murky depths while a thin sheen of oil over the water catches fire and rages above. What am I looking for? Where have I been? It doesn’t matter; we can’t go back.
Take a deep breath.
“One of the gravestones in the cemetery near the earliest church has an anchor on it and an hourglass, and the words In Hope. In Hope. Why did they put that above a dead person? Was it the corpse hoping, or those still alive?” -Margaret Atwood
How can you miss something that was never there? This was my attitude toward my father. I asked my mother about him three times.
“Your dad left when you were a baby. He went back to Saudi Arabia.” My mother glanced up at me from her romance novel as she reclined in her bed. “No, I don’t have a picture of him.”
Or alternatively, “Here’s a picture of him.” A grainy picture of a tan, trim man with long, curly hair and a mustache smiling ebulliently into the camera. “He was a member of the royal family. They’re all related over there.”
Years later, a flippant reply to my query in a grocery store, “I don’t know where your dad is. It doesn’t matter anyway; he’s probably dead by now. He was always sick.” Silence overcome by the beep of the checkout scanner.
Four years ago, my former stepdad volunteered information unexpectedly. Kyle and I sat close together at the splintered and warped picnic table; the napkins threatening to flee in the brisk spring wind. The lighter clicked repeatedly as Mike struggled with his cigarette.
“Your dad’s friend came by once.”
An astounding surge of emotion. A roaring in my ears.
“A friend came by? A friend of my dad’s?”
He exhaled a cloud of grey over his shoulder toward the park’s gravel lot. “Yeah. It was after your mom sent those letters.”
Letters? Letters? Yes, I remember a packet of letters. I was nine. She used to take me down to the International Food Store by campus, and I would walk alone through the aisles examining the spices and wafer cookies while she talked to the proprietor, a contemporaneous Arab friend. A treasure chest of information if she could find the right pick to unlock it.
“I’m writing to your dad about you,” she explained to me as we left for the last time. A strange sensation of excitement and hope filled my stomach. My dad? He was a real person out there somewhere in the world? A narrow strip of light cracked open in a closed room. Love me. Love me. Love me.
I watched her spend a week writing and rewriting. A long line at the post office. The large envelope in her hand.
“I remember the letters. What happened?”
“Well, your dad’s friend from that store came by. He said Mohammed wanted you to come to Saudi Arabia and see him. Said he would send money for the plane ticket.” Another opaque exhale, a cough. “I wasn’t stupid. I knew how old you were. I told him, ‘No, if Mohammed wants to see Jordan, he can come here and see her anytime. She’ll be waiting.’ We didn’t hear anything else about your dad.”
This story is the most confusing of all. You’ll understand why soon.
But it spurred something in me.
I started by googling his name. I found his Kalamazoo address, associated persons, his former phone number, his expected age. I found other addresses, more names. Who were these people? There was only one person who might know.
A long, slender pin sunk deep into my heart. A vermilion blossom of pain and remembrance.
I reached out to my mother.
But could I navigate this sea of lies and murky half-truths?
Before I left for college, my mother bragged to me that she had slept with over sixty men in college and had all her expenses paid for. She told me, “the going rate for a blow job is $20 if you want to be a whore.” A truth or a lie meant to shock me into abstinence? The latter, I assumed. But it further complicates the narrative.
Do you know what it’s like to not know if any part of you is real?
I got genetic testing done. My results asserted I was at least ¼ Middle Eastern. A long-held breath finally released. I posted the scant information I had about my paternal family and implored the community for help. I knew my father’s name, his brother’s name, his father’s first name, the schools he studied at in the US and the approximate times he was there. The gut-wrenching interactions with my mother, my months of searching. That was it.
“It was nothing, but it was Adam Parrish’s nothing. How he hated and loved it. How proud he was of it; how wretched it was.” -Maggie Stiefvater
But someone responded.
Let’s come up for air.