Toward the end of their decades-long marriage, my hurt, angry mother was looking for some way — any way — to break the bond I had with my father.
"You realize she's going to get half of your inheritance," she hissed at me once. "If he goes through with this."
“This” was a paternity test to determine whether or not I had an older sister I’d never known.
To my mind, the only inheritance I eventually expected from my dad comprised a few hundred vinyl records and some African art. Splitting that with some heretofore unknown half-sister didn't strike me as a big deal. (My mother, on the other hand, was worried more about this other daughter seeking back child support and hypothetically eating into any assets she was going to try and wring out of him during the divorce.)
I was uneasy, though, when I thought about the fact that I had bragging rights to basically the best father in the world — while this other girl, several years older than me and the product of a previous fling, grew up without a dad. And more specifically, without MY dad.
He’d once mentioned that I may have a sister. I must have been about 9 or 10 at the time, and he said it in a way that was sort of, “Here’s a thing.” But the concept seemed so foreign and maybe wasn't even true, and I absorbed the information and went back to reading one of the Roald Dahl books I carried around with me everywhere. He didn’t bring it up again, and I didn't even think about it again for more than a decade, when he told me that he'd begun to reach out to her in earnest and was planning on doing a paternity test, now that I was 21.
It turned out she was his daughter. And the ways in which she was like me left me unsettled. My dad is American, my mom is an immigrant. The mother of this other girl was also an immigrant from the same country as my mom. I went to college thousands of miles away from home but only a few hundred miles from where she grew up. And this new sister and I were in the same profession.
My parents' marriage was on the downswing but it would be a few years before my mother moved out. And for her, this was just one more betrayal to add to the docket of their marriage.
For me, it was — well, it's something I still haven't dealt with.
Before the paternity test, but after he told me he was in touch with her, my parents visited me in my very first out-of-college one-bedroom apartment. By this point they were sleeping in separate bedrooms, but I didn’t know that, and gave them my queen-size bed, one that I put together by myself, while I took the couch.
I have another sister as well, from my mother’s previous marriage, and I’ve only ever referred to her as my sister; “half” has never entered the equation. She was also in town, and came over while I made dinner for everyone. Older than me by more than 10 years, she’s always been there — in my baby pictures, in portraits of the two of us from Olan Mills when I was a preschooler, then off to college but near enough that we’d see her on weekends.
It had been years since we’d all been in one place as a family, and I proudly had them sit on my cheap sofa while I played music and made dinner. I forget what it was I was making, probably something from my mom’s home country, when my dad stuck his head around the corner into the kitchen, and handed me the phone with a bright smile.
In our family, and maybe in yours, we have a habit of calling up far-flung relatives when we are all together, to play pass-the-phone-around. I expected one of his siblings on the other end of the line, or a cousin maybe.
Instead, it was her, my sudden sister. My mother, whose face could be described as “pinched” at best whenever my half-sister was mentioned, stared and then walked away. Later, she asked me what we talked about. I didn’t have an answer, because I don’t remember what my new sister said, though she was friendly. I might have said “Hi! How are you?” because I was raised to be polite. We made the smallest of talk and then I made excuses about needing to get back into the kitchen. I didn’t expect my heart to start pounding. It felt like the floor had fallen out from beneath me. I walked into my empty bedroom and stood there until I could think straight.
Then I came out of the bedroom, finished making dinner, and made everyone watch The Notebook on DVD.
Part of the reason my dad and I are so close is that he had a flexible job that allowed him to drop me off and pick me up from school and keep me with him at work during the summers. We just spent a lot of time hanging out together, and our similar dispositions made for many chill hours. The other reason is not as upbeat. My mom had anxiety about him cheating on her, because her previous marriage ended with infidelity, and my dad kept me with him as much as possible to ward off similar accusations.
So while my dad and I hung out, my mom had a lengthy commute to a nine-to-five that she hated (but was more lucrative than his job). He was the best friend, the hero, the pal, and she was the irritable nag. I look back now, with an adult’s eyes, and have more sympathy for her than I ever thought possible —- more sympathy than I can express to her now, because she was angry and hurt all the time, and her pain chewed away at our relationship like acid.
I called my sister once, the one whom I refer to when people ask me if I have siblings, and told her, “I feel guilty that I grew up with all of dad’s love and attention and that she didn’t.” It was the most emotional conversation I’ve ever had with her. My sister tried to reassure me that I shouldn’t feel bad, that my dad — her stepdad — was responsible and that I should reach out to this new sister if and when I felt comfortable doing so.
I kept saying I felt guilty. I kept thinking, “I feel guilty.” After all, I got to ride shotgun on errands, and I got to go to our favorite Thai restaurant for a late lunch after stopping at the bank, and I got to have the cross-country road trips, and I got to watch old Westerns, and I got to go to the matinees where we bought tickets for one movie and snuck into a second for a double feature, and I got to iron his shirts at a rate of 25 cents a shirt, and I knew his work colleagues, and I knew his friends, and I got to raid the candy bowl in his office for bubblegum, and I got to talk to him about school every day, and when I went to college I got to call him whenever I wanted just to talk and he would drop everything.
I thought that I was guilty, culpable for getting something she didn’t get to have.
I know now that what my brain coded as guilt was actually anger. I’ve been angry at him since he handed me the phone that day, almost 10 years ago. It’s anger I still haven’t learned how to express. It became clear as my parents' relationship deteriorated and my mother pulled her own anger and resentment around her like a cloak, while my dad played the role of the reasonable one, that I had one of two options: Lose my shit or throw myself into work. I chose the latter, and while it’s paid off professionally, it hasn’t done much for my personal relationships.
I talk to my sister — the one from my mom — more now than anyone else in my family.
I don’t talk to my other sister. I wasn’t ready the few times she tried reaching out, and now, I don’t know how to begin. Opening that box also means dealing with how angry I am, and I’m not ready yet. My dad gave up trying to talk to me about her when it became clear I wasn’t receptive. The guilt I feel now is over letting my anger at him steal what could have been a new relationship in my life. I know only the barest details of her life while I’m sure she knows plenty about mine. She and my dad were in close communication for some time, though I think it’s tapered off. I can't say for sure because I can’t bear to talk to him about it — or, really, anything that I feel or think about him these days.
I hate thinking about the parallel life I could have had — where she got him and I didn’t. I wish I could have experienced a relationship with both of them as I was growing up, rather than refracting my relationship with her through a prism of resentment toward him.
Still, I love my dad. I had the best upbringing he could offer. Maybe someday I'll be able to forgive him.