At age seven, eight, ten—well, most of my childhood—I wished my parents had adopted me. I was a selfish, shy child raised by helicopter parents before helicopter parents were “cool”. My parents fought almost constantly, with loud, booming voices that could be heard in every room of the house. During most of these arguments, I just went about my day as usual, ignoring everyone and watching Rocko’s Modern Life and Star Trek: Next Generation reruns. Rarely, when the arguing got bad enough for long enough, I would hide under my daybed with a pillow earmuffing my head. While there, I hoped and wished and prayed that I was adopted, that I was not like them.
But I looked exactly like my mother. The same nondescript brown hair, brown eyes, olive skin, and full cheeks. I was her Mini-Me in every aspect, except perhaps temperament, and I despaired every time I looked in the mirror. I feared I would grow up to be the same grudge holding, overweight hypochondriac in a loveless marriage. Needless to say, I entered the melodramatic adolescent stage early and didn’t climb out of it until my late teens.
Whenever my parents felt guilty about arguing in front of us kids, they bought my brother another video game and me another guinea pig. I wondered when the city would bust us for animal code violations. With Crackers, guinea pig number 4? Brown Nose, guinea pig number 9? Poke, guinea pig number 11?
At age 14, I worked up the courage to ask my mother why she and my father didn’t divorce.
“You’re not in love with each other. Why don’t you just get a divorce?”
She was driving, so it felt natural when she didn’t make eye contact with me.
“I’d like to think that I always consider all of my options,” she said.
Things got better when my brother left for college, even better when I moved out. I limited interaction with my parents to bimonthly meals out, where there was a 10% chance that my mother or the waitress or both would end up crying because of my mother’s inappropriate foodie behavior. My father would always apologize to my husband and me while she was in the bathroom, but then he’d nag us each following weekend until we agreed to go out to eat with them again.
So when my mom stopped by at lunchtime on a random day, I assumed the visit was related to her recent retirement or my new house.
“Can we talk? I have something serious to tell you.”
I invited her in, barely refraining from rolling my eyes. She sweated the small stuff. Would this be another lecture about how aspartame and sucralose were responsible for migraines, mood changes, weight gain, and I should stop drinking diet pop right now? How my husband, not I, would be the executor of their will? How my brother and his girlfriend in New Mexico broke up, and why didn’t I seem to care more?
“I have to teach in two hours. What is it?”
She sat on the couch and started crying. She didn’t say anything.
“This could still be about aspartame,” I thought. When she didn’t say anything for another moment, I thought, “Oh, god. Someone has cancer.”
“You know your father isn’t your biological father, right?”
No, I didn’t know. I’d had no inkling. There’d been no warning signs.
“You and your brother. Your father couldn’t have children, and I desperately wanted children.”
“I—but we don’t look unlike him.”
“Your brother doesn’t look like him at all. He doesn’t even have one of our eye colors for God’s sake!”
I knew that didn’t necessarily matter with the tendency of recessive genes, but she was firm in her declaration. They had gone to a doctor in the Cities twice, before sperm donation had truly been regulated, and my “half”-brother and I were the result. Two medical students with brown hair had donated anonymously. No information was recorded other than the date and time of the procedures and the doctor’s name. No one else knew—not my grandparents, not my extended family, not my family doctor, not my half-brother, and not me.
“Teresa, please say something.”
What could I say? “I’m glad I exist.”
I had many questions and half formed thoughts, but I had to leave and teach my class like everything was normal. My mom told me she was glad that I was handling it so well and that I shouldn’t tell anyone. But I wasn’t handling it well; I felt a little betrayed that they hadn’t shared this information with me at some point during the past 27 years, like when I turned 18 or graduated from college.
I called my husband, and he said the knowledge changed nothing. Then I called my closest friend, and she said this didn’t change anything. But it did. I wasn’t feeling better with comforting platitudes.
I made it through class without crying or accidentally blurting my new secret to a bunch of apathetic 18 year olds. My chest felt tight; I needed to talk to someone, someone who would react without trying to downplay the situation. My friends and coworkers at the hospital where I worked part time seemed like a natural choice: they were used to handling emergencies.
I found them in the ER, and finally the tears came.
“My mother just told me that my dad isn’t my biological father.” They offered hugs and let me talk out my surprise, sharing their own surprise at the news.
“Would you ever want to meet him,” one asked.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I’d be able to find out who he is even if I wanted to. I’m sure he doesn’t want to meet me. I mean, I was just a $50 transaction to a broke med student.”
One of the doctors glanced up, probably only catching the last sentence.
“Well, maybe only $25—it was the 80s,” I said. “No, I don’t want to meet him.”
“What about your dad? Are you going to treat him any differently?”
No. This man had given me everything except his genetic material. He loved me like his own offspring, spent thousands and thousands of dollars raising me, and never once, even in frustration, hinted that I was not his biological child.
Everything and nothing had changed.
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Teresa Schneider is an English instructor at Minnesota State University and Hennepin Technical College. She graduated with her MFA in creative writing from MSU and is pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration at St. Cloud State University. Her work has been published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Firethorne, and local newspapers.