The People We Carry

 

 

A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

 

For 17 years, this day has marked my Pops’ memorial celebration. This year is a dramatically different celebration for me as I’ve discovered one family secret I didn’t know: This year I celebrate David Allen Alexander as the person who made me his daughter through choice and nurture, even though, in the moment he first saw me, he knew that I could not be his biological child.

Like my mother and the four people who knew their dating history, he expected that an early February birth meant I would be a month premature. But I wasn’t. My mother offered adoption as she couldn’t see a way to raise a child alone, and my father offered raising together the child they both already loved. Talking that evening with those four people who also had feared a premature birth, Pops asked them to remain silent, until and unless I needed to know biological specifics.

I pieced the DNA story together on would have been his 88th birthday, and my godmother confirmed the story when we met for a regular dinner a week later. The DNA tests, which were meant to help me and my Alexander-Stafford-Svelstad-Evans cousins discover contemporaries among descendants of our Welsh and Norwegian relatives, broke the story open for me. I didn’t match my known paternal cousins, but was matched to people unknown to me who were connected to my Mom’s home territory. Thankfully my godmother, as one of the two remaining people who could tell my father’s version of the story, was relieved to end the secret keeping. And, again thankfully, I can look back on a last conversation with my mom and know that she was preparing herself to tell me the story as only she could know it – “I’ll answer the questions about dating and about meeting your dad when you’re here next time.” Here – in Mankato; next time – for her birthday, which arrived after her funeral. The small bit I learned in that last conversation is helpful now – she described becoming certain that, in dating the last person she was involved with before my dad, that he and his conservative Christian worldviews about daily life, culture, politics, and people’s “places” in the world were entirely wrong for her.

There are lots of things I don’t know because we didn’t have that conversation, things I take on faith. What I do know is this – every somatic and cognitive memory I can call up tells me that Donna, Dave and I were meant to be a family, that my Tracy people are my soul family, are the people with whom I have traveled for millennia, that it mattered not to my father whether my mom suspected another paternity before going into labor so it matters not to me, and that – as with becoming Madz’ grandmother through choices we all made – making a family is about creating genealogies of love. The long story short in terms of affective impact is that I find myself loving Pops more deeply, understanding Mom more keenly, and celebrating each day all that they taught me about choice and nurture, community and kinship without saying a word.

Having experienced these last few months the energy-sapping strength of deep secrets, I write this to “let the truth of things hit the air.” Akin to coming out as queer or as having a learning disability, putting a story into words helps kill the power of the secret with no need of sympathy or help or lament. As another suggests, in hard situations the acts of storytelling can make it possible for the teller to stand again more fully in their world.

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