Tom Andriola prepared himself as much as he could, but that didn’t save him from being nervous for seeing his birth father for the first time.
My wife, Margaret, and I dropped the kids off at her parents’ house fairly early on the morning of August 26, 2011. The meeting with my birth father was supposed to be the day before, but Jerry, his cousin, had called me about a week earlier to say that something came up and we needed to change the date. We kept the time at 4:30, but I still wanted to get to Manhattan a few hours early in case there were any travel glitches.
My dad offered to drive us to the train station at Croton-Harmon so I wouldn’t have to drive back after an emotionally draining day. As planned, we got to Grand Central a few hours early and walked around for a while. About an hour and a half before the meeting time, we decided to walk by Jerry’s law office to make sure we knew exactly where it was.
While we were standing in front of the building, we both turned to look at a man coming up the street and about to enter the building. It was Stuart! I had recognized him from a grainy picture I had found on the website of a professional association he belonged to. We quickly turned the other way so as not to be noticed, and started walking away.
We found a Starbucks and got a drink. About a half hour later, my phone rang. It was Jerry. “Stuart’s here, and we’re ready if you want to come a little early,” he said. I told him I would be there shortly, and my heart started pounding. I had thought long and hard about what I wanted to say, and how I would respond to a number of possible questions and red herrings they might throw at me.
We got to the building, and there was a basic security desk. I had told Jerry that my wife would be traveling to Manhattan with me, but agreed that she would wait in the lobby. We told the guard we were headed to the law office, and he let us through. When we got to the office, there was a basic wood door with no window, so you couldn’t see in. We entered, and I told the receptionist I was there to see Jerry.
When he came out and saw that I was with someone else, he got angry. “I told you to come alone,” he said in a harsh tone. I reminded him that my wife was planning to travel with me, but would wait in the lobby. Apparently, he meant the building lobby, not the office lobby. I didn’t know what was in store, and I was nervous to be there alone, but at least the receptionist was there in case anything went awry.
I brought Margaret back down to the building lobby and told her that if I wasn’t out in an hour and didn’t hear from me to come back up to see what was going on. She agreed, and was probably as nervous as I was. I walked back up, thinking to myself, “I’m not going to eat or drink anything they might offer me. I’m going to have my phone in my hand, ready to text the second anything seemed wrong.”
I walked back in, and Jerry asked me to follow him into the conference room. Stuart was sitting on the other side of the table. He said hello and we shook hands. I sat down with my back by the door, and Jerry sat at the head, just to my left. The table was too small for the room, and the chairs just barely fit. There was a bottle of water on the table in front of my spot. Just as we were about to start our conversation, I heard a soft knock on the door, and then a woman’s voice. “Good night,” she said. I began to shake, and drank about half the bottle of water in one gulp. I had no idea what was coming next, and there was no one left in the office but the three of us.
The three of us were the only ones in the office, sitting in a tight, cramped conference room. There was really no way out, so if there was any malicious intent, I didn’t have much in the way of options. I had drunk some of the water, even though I told myself I never would, and I was nervous and shaking. I took a deep breath because I knew that was my only choice. I had to have faith.
Jerry turned to me and said, “Why don’t you start by telling us why you’re here.” I can’t remember exactly how I started, but I know the beginning wasn’t very coherent. I explained that I was curious about my roots and that I believed that Stuart was my birth father. I said that I had wanted to meet him, to talk to him, see what he was like, and continue to stay in touch if that was something he was amenable to.
The two of them took turns tag teaming their response. Stuart did admit that he knew Peggy, my birth mother, and indicated that he had dated her very briefly. Although this contradicted what she had told me, that they had dated for a couple of years and then saw each other on and off after that, I decided not to call him on that. To me, admitting that he knew her and that they had dated was a positive acknowledgment.
Then Jerry asked me when I was born. This was clearly staged, but I played along. I had written my birth date in my letter to Stuart and reiterated it when I spoke to Jerry on the phone. They both knew that since I was born in May 1971, that I was conceived sometime around August 1970. “I was away that summer on active duty with the National Guard.” I knew they were just throwing a red herring at me in hopes that I would just accept what they were saying and go away.
But I held strong. I said that I thought we could go back and forth all day talking about timing and semantics and asked if we could just talk about the rest. I said I was interested in his background and medical history and asked if we could talk about that. To my surprise, he agreed.
The conversation began to lighten. He told me his mother’s side was from Kiev, but that he wasn’t really sure where his father’s side was from. He gave me the names of his parents, their siblings, his maternal grandparents, and his sister. He didn’t mention his children, and I didn’t ask. I already knew from my research, and I knew that his greatest vulnerability would be his children. I didn’t want to put him in that spot in this first meeting in hopes that I might be able to build a rapport and eventually be able to meet my half siblings with his blessing.
He told me about the colon cancer and heart disease that ran in his family. I was glad to learn about that so I could at least tell my doctor at my next appointment. Jerry talked about how they used to play basketball together in Brooklyn when they were kids. Jerry had grown up in Brooklyn while Stuart was raised on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. I was happy to hear all of this information, and thought to myself, “Gee, for someone who claims he doesn’t think he’s my birth father, he’s really giving me a lot of personal information.” But I kept those thoughts to myself, of course.
When they were finished, I told them a little bit about myself and my family and I showed them a quick video of my son Justin scoring a goal in soccer. I was a proud dad. I had brought some pictures of my kids with me, and I asked if they wanted to see them. Jerry said no for both of them. I was a little bit taken aback, and then he asked Stuart to go wait in the other room. After Stuart left, Jerry said there was a lot of emotion going on and that things were going to take time. He humored me and looked at the pictures, and I asked if I could be back in touch with him again. He asked me to give it some time, but that we could touch base again. He called Stuart back in and we all said our goodbyes. He said I was a perfect gentleman and that it was a pleasure meeting me. I left feeling pretty good about how it went, all things considered, and immediately began wondering what my next step should be.
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