Last summer, I spent a few days searching the internet for both my biological and adoptive fathers. There were things I wanted to know, wanted to say to each of them. Though I was able to uncover marriage and divorce decrees for both, I couldn’t get a current address for either man. My hope was that either could tell me the kind of person I used to be, and I could perhaps see in them the man I’ve become.
My childhood was…complex. Half of it is missing, thanks to an ill-fated trip to summer camp and an unruly horse. What remains in my broken and addled brain is largely free of the first man’s influence, and defined mainly by the absence of the other. Summers and holidays shuttling through airports, weekly phone calls, and a life lived with one foot in two worlds was what I thought being a kid was.
When I was 16, I changed our relationship forever. Children often argue with parents, but this was a biggie, even for me.
You see, I was a thief. I started boosting toys with neighborhood kids when I lived in a bad part of San Diego. Small scale shoplifting was just a thing I did, until one day I got caught shoving Judas Priest CDs down the front of my pants. The look on my mother’s face when she came to get me could have cut glass, and that was the end of that.
Mostly. Once upon a time, I’d smuggle small items from Las Vegas back in my luggage from visits to my father’s house, things of my mother’s she’d had to leave behind when they split. Figurines, records, sheets, little things, and though she never asked me to do it, it felt like a win to see her smile when she had them back. This was long over by my teens, but I’d found another outlet for my unexpressed urges.
The main target of my larceny was my abusive step-brother. Once we were friends, fellow travelers on a grand adventure. He was like me, the child of a divorced mother who got to move into a fantasy castle with a fairy tale king. Years later, I found that we not only shared a backstory, but also a timeline. In my fractured thinking. he had everything, and I not so much. He hit, I hit back, we’d move on, both fearing the much larger fists of our father.
My father was not a nice man. But he loved me, as best he could. I could feel when he sat at the edge of my bed when he returned from work in the dark of night, not sure what to say to me about his life. I’d pretend to sleep, listening to him breathe and feeling like part of him. Those moments were ours, and to say anything would change them forever.
I could hear it in his voice on the other end of the telephone every Wednesday night, asking me about Idaho and my life there. He once called on a Monday afternoon, excited about a new friend he’d made, and asking if I wanted to go to India. I was excited too, and scared, and eventually decided not to go. I learned later that he didn’t go either, another reason my step brother would swing his arms when we were alone.
One year, my dad got in a really bad car accident, and didn’t want me to come visit for Christmas. It was the first time in our lives we’d spent that time apart, and my life started to go down a different path.
A few years later, I stole the wrong thing. A ridiculous video golf game, just one of a hundred knickknacks littering his home office. At the time, it probably cost 50 to 60 dollars, an LCD wonder he’d acquired and then forgotten.
I was so wrong. I always knew my father had a life before meeting me. I’d spent Christmas with his mother in Pennsylvania, picked oranges off trees with his father in Florida. Both he and my mother had been married before, a fact the Catholic Church never let either of us forget.
Another mistake on my part. The game was not a chotchkie, but a gift from the natural son who shared his name.
This, by the way, was how I found out that my father had a son, and that I had a brother I’d never met. This fact had somehow escaped mention by the adults in my life, though to be fair, I was a child.
Harsh words came between us, a series of escalating letters and messages which ended in some of the angriest lines I’ve ever put on paper, and the only ones I’ve ever regretted.
As I said above, my father was not a nice man. But still, according to the court of Clark County, we were of one blood. My goal in searching him out was to heal that wound, and find family.
It seems I stopped my search exactly two weeks too soon. Or perhaps too late, given the decades-wide gulf of sadness that followed our last two-way communication. This morning when I woke up to write, I started thinking instead about the early days of our relationship. Several quick searches triggered a pastiche of memories, and one more search led us to this post.
— LAS VEGAS — Thomas “Tom” J. Magner of Las Vegas, formerly of Sharpsville, passed away peacefully at 12:15 a.m. Monday, July 16, 2012, in his home after a brief illness. He was 64.
Two weeks. Two weeks when I could have made his life, and mine, better. Could have conquered my fears and spoke to a man who tried to give me a better life, met him as an equal on my own merits. Shown him that I turned out okay after all, and it’s because of him that it happened.
In reality, I had three decades to do that, but this morning all I can think about are those 14 days, my last real chance to be a dutiful son.
I want to feel something right now. I want to hurt, and mope, and tear at my breast. But that me is gone, replaced by a man who looks and acts a lot like Tom Magner.
He never meet my son, never got to be a grandfather. This was intentional on my part. Prideful. Protective. Private. He never sought me out himself during that time, and though I made half-hearted resolutions to pick up the phone on on infrequent trips to Vegas, that never happened either.
Like many things Magner, our excuses overwrote our hearts, until the scar tissue was too tough to penetrate and we couldn’t hurt each other anymore.
I swore I would never become my father. But right now, that’s all I want to be. A man who despite his faults, tried his best to love his children.
Nothing else matters, in the end.