The son who wasn’t
I’m the child of an affair my father had almost 30 years ago.For years, I’ve known about my dad’s other kids. Now, at long last, they know about me.
Summer 1990. I was 10 years old, waiting impatiently by the window of my uncle’s house in Cambridge for my father to pick me up. Although he called me at home in New York at least once a week, we saw each other only twice a year, and that day he was taking me to my favorite place in the world: the New England Aquarium.
I imagined the rest of the day as I peeked outside. After the aquarium, we’d stop off for our favorite spaghetti lunch. And on the drive back we’d talk about my friends, school, and my performances in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus.
Finally, my dad, who lived in suburban Boston, pulled into the driveway and stepped from his car looking the same as always: tall, thin, and wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches. But before approaching the house, he carefully positioned my uncle’s garbage cans behind his car, blocking his license plate from public view. The message was clear: He didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Like many kids of divorced parents, I saw my father mostly in summer. Our relationship was built on summer things: baseball games, trips to the beach, hot dogs, ice cream. But my parents were not divorced.
I am the child of the Other Woman: the result of an affair my married father, a professor, had with a student almost 30 years ago. But my parents had a six-year relationship, not a one-night stand, and I am not a mistake. I am my father’s sixth child, and none of his other children knew until this past December that I existed.
In contrast, I grew up knowing all about his family life. Sometimes he’d show me the pictures of my five half siblings he carried in his wallet or point out that two of them were serious music students, like me. But there was no picture of me in his wallet. And the scholarly books he wrote were dedicated to a wife and five children, not six.
His first marriage had ended in a bitter divorce. During his second marriage he had the affair, and his wife, who learned of my existence soon after my birth, pleaded with him to keep me secret. As a child, I didn’t think about his absence. My mother made holding down a job while going to law school and raising a family look easy, and my two big brothers were like surrogate fathers to me. I lived in a close-knit Brooklyn neighborhood, did well in school, and enjoyed singing at the Met.
In all fairness, my dad paid child support without fail and attended all my graduations and performances. He never forgot my birthday. When my family visited Boston, he took me to a Red Sox game or the aquarium. And there were always our weekly phone calls.
As a teen, I enjoyed our long talks, in which he gave me lots of practical advice and rare glimpses into his life away from me. By the time I started college, though, my father’s life was falling apart. His dark, deep voice became shrill. “Be careful in life, Tef,” he told me. “The world is just brutal.” As the summer of 2002 drew to a rainy close, we met for dinner at Legal Sea Foods. I was leaving to start a new life writing and teaching English in central Europe. He seemed fragile and overwhelmed.
All that changed two years later. By that time, I was writing for an English-language newspaper in Slovakia, and my father had divorced his second wife, remarried, and moved to England.
I was apprised of his new situation more than a year after the fact. We exchanged long e-mails about the intense final months of his marriage and the pain the divorce had caused his kids. I tried to be supportive, but I was also deeply hurt: I was the only one of his children he hadn’t invited to his wedding in Boston.
Given my father’s new situation, I asked him whether it wasn’t time to tell his other children about me. Not yet, he insisted.
With both of us now living in Europe, our relationship flourished. When he called, his tone was upbeat, and he told me glowing stories of traveling, gardening, and socializing. Instead of warning me about the brutality of life, he now told me that his days seemed to melt away.
But he wouldn’t let me visit him.
“If you come here and someone drops by . . . I want to be able to introduce you,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I strongly feel that I cannot do that until I have told the kids about you.”
In the summer of 2006, he and his new wife visited me in Slovakia and then treated my partner and me to a weekend in Budapest. We had fun, and as the weekend came to a close, my dad announced that he intended to tell his other children about me, and soon. But something that happened later that day showed me the pace at which he was likely to act: While sightseeing, we came across a homeless woman. To his credit, my father took out some change, but he carefully inspected each coin’s value before deciding whether to donate it. I realized that even when my dad does the right thing, he does it in his own way: slowly, cautiously, deliberately.
His first plan, proposed six months later, was to introduce me at a family meeting at his house in England. But that was scrapped because one of his sons was studying abroad and might not be able to attend.
My dad’s next plan was to send a long e-mail to all his kids at once. I had reservations. That e-mail was going to be the first impression my new brothers and sisters had of me, yet I would have no chance to read it beforehand. My father’s third wife had read it, and his second, and even a psychiatrist. I alone, of all the involved parties, had been excluded from knowing its contents. Even in the course of being acknowledged, I felt unacknowledged.
I didn’t want my father to label my birth a mistake or blame my mother for their affair. Expressing even a hint of regret over my birth or presence in his life would eliminate any legitimacy I hoped to hold in his other kids’ eyes.
When the e-mail plan fell through -- the psychiatrist vetoed it -- my dad decided to go to the States for Christmas and tell my siblings in person. He would go to Massachusetts first, where he would tell his three kids from his second marriage, and then to Delaware, where his two older children live. He planned to deliver the news to the first group on December 28, and he promised to call immediately afterward.
I checked my cellphone repeatedly for hours, but it remained stubbornly silent. Finally, toward the end of the night, I called my dad’s wife in England. She said she had heard from him and that the reaction from his three younger kids had been “very positive.” As relief washed over me, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from him myself. Even now, it seemed, his thoughts were only for his other children, his ex, and his third wife. When would my needs come first?
My dad finally called the next day, but by then he could remember few details. He assured me that my siblings had taken the news calmly and wanted to get to know me. He said he had encouraged them to e-mail me.
A few days later, he told his older children. He e-mailed immediately afterward to say it had gone as expected: His son was “relaxed,” but his eldest daughter was “standoffish.”
My new brother from Delaware was the first to write. He told me he was married and the proud father of twin 12-year-old star soccer players. He is my first sibling to make me an uncle, which thrilled me.
I’ve had surprisingly limited contact with my Massachusetts siblings. My new sister and one of my brothers sent me short messages through Facebook and updated their pictures -- my first glimpse of them since those photos in my dad’s wallet years ago. But since then, we haven’t communicated.
I wondered if this had all happened too late in our lives.
But then I received an e-mail from another brother in Massachusetts: “I admire you for having the courage to . . . open up the possibility for us to have a relationship,” he wrote. “I want to be as accommodating and supportive as possible.” That gave me hope that we’ll get to know each other better.
As winter turned to spring and the news sank in, some family bonds were cautiously formed, others strained. But while it hasn’t been as easy as I had hoped, I still sometimes picture myself at my father’s house in England with my new siblings. It’s summer, of course, and we are sitting in the garden, talking about music and politics or posing for a family photo. And this time, there’s not a garbage can in sight. ª
Stefan Hogan is a freelance writer in Bratislava, Slovakia. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.