The first four years of my life were spent being moved around through six foster homes and four adoption agencies in Denver. Fourth of July weekend of 1957, I was adopted and whisked away to a small town on the western slope of Colorado. In 2013 at age 60, I met my birth family for the first time. That’s eight sets of parents—and with not one can I ever say I had a father figure to bond with.
I never met my birth father as he had passed away in 1995 before I even knew he existed except as some vague discussion point when I was five years old having a talk with my adopted mother about where I came from. That was the last time we talked about adoption and my birth parents.
What I wanted more than anything else in the world was for my foster father, Robert, to adopt me and save me from my unhappily married, rageaholic adopted parents. Every night I prayed for a miracle. I doted on Robert, tried in vain to get him to stop smoking, reveled in his including me in his theater activities. But then one day, when I was twelve years old, he announced he was marrying and moving to Salt Lake City. My hopeful heart and dreams of salvation evaporated in a tsunami of confusion and disbelief. My hero and father elect had abandoned me for some woman and her young daughter.
I didn’t see or hear from Robert again until my first year of college. Amazing how all the pain from that fateful day of his announcement came welling back up in me with such Titanic force. Though I met him with affable enthusiasm, my heart didn’t know whether to soar or shrivel away. After that day, he disappeared for good. I was still heartbroken.
My adopted father was physically present, but everything else about him was absent. He was 55 when I was adopted. He’d already moved into a grandfather mentality by then and interacting with children wasn’t on his playlist. He chose to stay wrapped up in a private world that none of us could break into. At dinner every evening, he sat cloaked in silence, rarely joining in conversations between my sister, mother, and me. He just sat, ate, and slyly slipped food under the table to the dog as if we didn’t know what he was doing.
He and I rarely did activities together. He’d much rather sit in front of the television watching golf, something with which he could get intensely engaged, shouting in triumph at great shots.
One thing he had hoped from me, aside from his dream of my becoming a concert pianist, was that I would be like other boys: athletic. He had been captain of his high school football team, ergo, his son should do likewise—the standard “family plan.”
Athletics seemed an impossibility because I had contracted polio by age three. At the time I was adopted, I wore leg braces and used crutches. By age seven, I’d shed those, but my body was that of a rickety stick figure.
I made attempts at playing basketball, something far beyond my capabilities and comprehension. But then I discovered baseball, gymnastics and ice skating. I excelled in all three by the time I reached high school. I can still remember my father jumping up and down in ecstatic joy when I lettered in gymnastics in my senior year. That was the first and last time he ever hugged me. Dubious of his display, I could only think that I had overcome some kind of Pinocchio syndrome. I was a real boy, maybe even his son.
He and I never talked—about anything. He just wasn’t interested, but he was sure to let me know on a consistent basis how much better everyone else was than me. I heard “You’re so damn stupid” so many times I eventually believed it.
The generational gap existing between us inexorably widened over time never to be bridged. At his funeral in 1984, I felt absolutely nothing. My mother told me as he lay dying that he wished we’d had a closer relationship. Seriously?!
With 65 years of hindsight at my disposal, I’ve come to recognize that the adage “like father, like son” isn’t applicable in my case. I had eight father-like men in my life, yet I stood singular, unescorted into manhood and left to my own devices.
In 2008, I was hired to ghostwrite a book for a husband and wife. He and I immediately bonded and I found my father in spirit.
What an immense feeling of fulfillment and relief. Though we were in no way connected by heredity and we’d just met, we were like father and son. When he called me “son” and held me in his arms, I melted into peace, an indescribable safe haven—my favorite place in the world was wrapped in his embrace.
Meeting him, though, doesn’t mean the hole in me is fully repaired. An ever so slight pang of sadness still exists within me, the faint ache of realizing that what I’ve most fervently sought my entire life will never be found. That little boy, lost in the shuffle, who wants to light up at the sight of his beloved father who cherishes him above all other boys is a movie that will never play except in my imagination.
At age 65, why on earth am I still holding onto the dreams of a little boy? Most assuredly, the universe isn’t going to step in and re-write that script. So, what I’m left with is to see myself for who I truly am: a whole being who’s lived an incredible life filled with amazing, loving, accepting, inclusive and nurturing people.
My belief is that life is all about perspective, how we interpret that perspective, and then what we do with it. I’ve walked around the majority of my 65 years with a hole in my heart that I believed could only be filled and healed by a father. Yet, I have so much love around me. I have no children of my own, but I am a father figure to others for whom I make sure I’m present, engaged, nurturing and encouraging. I make sure they know that I “see” them at all times. I am THERE for them.
Like father, like son? I choose to embrace the idea in terms of how not to be. For that, I can rest assured that my past is truly informing my present in a positive way and guiding me to be an ever-greater version of myself.
As the adage says, “If you want love, give love—unconditionally.” I do every day. It keeps me present to me, now, not living in the past pining for what could have been. I live with what is right in front of me—and that is more than enough.
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