Six years old, I stood behind my mother, staring up at the tall, dark-haired stranger framed by our front door.
“You don’t know who I am,” he began.
“Well of course I do,” Mom replied warmly. “You look just like him. He isn’t here now, but please, come in.”
It was Greg, my father’s grown son. A son I had never known about. A son who had been adopted by another man when he was a small child.
Later, my father explained some of the details to me. His first wife left him, and he allowed their two very young sons to be adopted by her second husband. In those days family judges didn’t grant custody to single fathers, and he thought it was best for them to have an intact family. He didn’t meet and marry my mother until years later. It was years more before they learned my mother couldn’t have children and adopted me.
“You aren’t mad at me, are you?” he asked.
Hardly. I was fascinated. It had never occurred to me that my father had a life as an individual, distinct from his role as my dad. I insisted on tagging along when Greg and Dad went out to lunch. I didn’t understand what they talked about, but as I wiggled in the yellow laminate booth, picking at my brownie, I felt somehow older, as though sitting next to an experience larger than my own could grant me wisdom.
I never had the chance to see how that relationship might have developed. Greg and his brother Scott were killed in separate auto accidents a few months later. When we heard the news I followed my father into the back yard, where he worked on our fence and cried silent tears. I stood watching him. I had no words for new feelings washing over me—compassion, and a sort of quiet reverence for the truth of raw emotion and the pain of another.
How little even those who are closest can understand of a father’s heart.
This spring, almost thirty years later, I learned the name of my own biological father. Tom. I heard for the first time pieces of his story. How he took his fiancé home to the family farm to meet his parents. How in the flush of springtime and love, planting tomatoes and dreaming of their future together, I was conceived. How a few months later he was diagnosed with a spinal tumor that changed everything. And how the years following the breakup of that relationship and my adoption he struggled through many more broken loves and dreams.
Thirty years later, wordless ideas still tumble through my mind as I try to stretch to understand the many meanings of father, to honor my dad, and to remember that other man—both stranger and parent—who gave me life, and whose own life was changed forever because of it. Though I know I can’t understand it all, I am grateful for the chance to sit next to them, to share in their stories, to grow in wisdom, compassion, and grace.