Among the flannel-clad passengers waiting to board our Portland-bound plane, the older gentleman dressed in a pilot’s uniform stood out. With a bushy mustache, round belly, and kind eyes, he could be Dad’s fishing buddy or brother.
He smiled at me. “Heading home?”
I chuckled. “I’m not sure.”
Twenty-four years had passed, but Dad would be waiting for me when I landed.
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I grew up a daddy’s girl, happiest by his side. On school holidays, we’d leave for the lumberyard before dawn. He’d pack me, still in pjs and cocooned in a blanket, into his truck’s cold bench. I’d spend the day coloring or playing Pacman on his office computer while he oversaw the mill.
His crew would stop in, “You the boss today?”
“Yep!” I was an only child; I was always the boss.
My parents divorced when I was eight. Mom and I moved to the Bay Area to live with the man who would become my stepfather. Dad remarried and moved to Portland. I collected frequent flyer miles like other girls earned Girl Scout badges. Despite the flights, the distance strained our closeness. Talking on the phone once a week became a chore. Without email or video chats, my visits brewed resentment because they took me away from my friends. His demanding job meant I spent my time with my nose in a book, trying to avoid my gnat-like stepmother.
When I was 16, Dad’s family held a reunion picnic. While flies buzzed around potato salad and crows crept closer to hamburger buns, my stepmother pulled me aside.
“You’ll regret not being closer to him when you get older.” She had just lost her father, but her voice wasn’t sad; it was menacing.
I rolled my eyes.
“There’s something your mom hasn’t told you,” she said.
Straight-A students don’t like to be told they don’t know something. A cold sweat chilled me in the mid-summer heat. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. My mom tells me everything!”
Dad rushed toward us, red-faced. He draped his arm around his wife and they marched away from me.
“She started it,” I called after them. Rooted beneath an oak tree, heart thudding inside my ribcage, I waited for him to return and comfort me next.
He never came back.
The few times he called, I refused. It takes more than a phone call to heal from the rejection of a parent. I felt betrayed, abandoned. I couldn’t trust him to side with me, so it was easier to move on and forget he existed.
I saw him twice over the next 24 years. He came uninvited to my high school graduation, staining my day like a red sock in a load of whites. Ten years later, at a family wedding, merlot fortified me enough for civil conversation, but triggered an epic night of vomit and a multi-day hangover. Months later, I traded Dad’s last name for my husband’s.
For most people, a father is the person who tucked you in at night, who taught you how to ride a bike and drive a car, who stared down your prom date, who walked you down the aisle. By that definition, I was fatherless. Every Father’s Day, I bristled. The rest of the year, my baggage was sealed shut, and buried deep.
By my early thirties, I had a stable career and marriage, a stamp-filled passport, and a brick house with a grassy yard for my dogs. My life was blissfully vanilla, no longer Rocky Road.
But it didn’t last.
It turns out my mom hadn’t told me everything. At age 33, I learned I had been donor-conceived and Dad wasn’t my biological father. Though Dad knew, no one else did, and no one was ever supposed to.
Learning I was donor-conceived was like entering a funhouse where mirrors distort and gravity deceives. Wobbly and confused, I longed to be like most children who could turn to their parents for guidance at any age. But my parents were the source of my confusion. I was on my own.
Though my donor was anonymous, I thought he would be the reward for decades of fatherlessness. I wandered my city — the same one where Dad was born, and the same one where I was conceived — staring at every 60-ish man I passed searching for signs of myself.
When a DNA test led me to him, I was thrilled, but he wasn’t. After he made his “deposits” in med school, he intended to never look back.
“A relationship isn’t in the cards,” he said.
I was crushed.
Initially, when I found out Dad and I weren’t related, I was relieved. Diabetes and obesity were no longer genetic landmines. Plus, it made sense that he didn’t stay in my life. At least, that’s what I told myself. By the time I turned 40, I needed to understand his side.
Without knowing if I even had the right number anymore, I called him. His greeting was familiar and sing-songy, “Well, helloooo there,” like no time had passed. His levity was disarming, reassuring. With nothing to lose, we spoke openly and honestly.
On that first trip to Portland, at a riverside beer garden over too-bitter IPAs, I asked, “Why did you let me push you away?”
He pursed his lips to one side and squinted across the water. I expected him to rehash the scene at the picnic, comforting his wife from his erratic teenager, realizing that the emotional roller coaster wasn’t worth the effort.
“Your letter made your feelings very clear,” he said.
I narrowed my eyes, shook my head. “My letter?”
“You told me to stay away. You said you didn’t need me in your life, that you had all the family you needed.” He shrugged with the forgiveness only time can bring.
I raked my fingers through my hair and felt the scar from when I fell and cracked my head open and he and Mom whisked bloody, wailing, three-year-old me to the hospital. I willed a memory as vivid to bubble up. There was nothing. I wasn’t much of a letter writer; but the anger, the independence, the certainty sounded familiar.
“Your words gutted me,” he said. “It was too painful to even think about changing your mind. I shoved the letter in a box and tried to forget.”
Pressure built behind my eyes. I bit the skin on the side of my thumb to keep from crying. I didn’t think closure would include facing my own culpability.
The little girl who played boss for the day should never have had the power to dissolve a parent-child relationship. I failed as a daughter; he failed as a parent. Our stubbornness failed us both. Yet, here we were sitting across from each other.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. When I sipped my ale, it tasted less bitter, more like a second chance.
Learning the truth hurt, but it also healed. Our relationship now is less father-daughter than old friends. We keep in touch sporadically, but our foundation runs too deep to ignore for too long. We can drop all pretenses, and just be ourselves. Whenever I hear his sing-songy voice, I feel like I’m home.
Amanda Serenyi is a writer and reluctant accountant in San Francisco, CA. She has completed a memoir about her donor-conceived experience.