My sister Carly called in the calm of autumn’s evening light a few weeks ago. She was driving through smoke-filled air on her way home from work. It’s been a brutal year for fires, with British Columbia burns topping three million acres, Montana over one million, then Northern California’s fires devastated densely populated areas.
“What month and year was Michelle’s baby born? And do we know gender?” I’m used to these out of the blue questions and get right to answering. Hellos will come later – often with a laugh – “oh – sorry – hi” inserted along the way.
“Let’s see. I’ll need to think back. A boy, though.” And in my way of memory, I start with a place or event. “You were born in April.” She inserts the year. “Right,” I acknowledge. “We moved to Oregon that summer. It was right around my birthday when I overheard Mom and Dad…so moving dates forward, Michelle gave birth the fall of 19** give or take a month.” Carly is eight years younger than I, and Michelle eight years older. We now have a year, and probable season. I’d never done the math.
“I was in the dining room when Mom got the call that Michelle had had a boy,” I tell Carly. That’s when she tells me why she’s called.
Let’s call him “Dick,” the person to whom my father gave this half-assed confession about Michelle “she seduced me.” Dick has found Michelle’s baby. Thirty years ago I talked him out of looking for this child. Clearly, Michelle had gifted her child into a better life than she herself could offer. And the circumstances of this child’s conception would shatter the staunchest of hearts. “Please allow this young man a chance to make his own way into adulthood without this history,” I had pleaded. At that time Dick listened, and I thought we’d averted a world of pain.
“Dick put his DNA on a national registry,” Carly continues, “and found a match. The birth certificate has Michelle’s name. No father listed. Month? November. Here’s the kicker. She had a girl, not a boy.” I try to wrap my mind around several pieces: the misdirection of gender and possible reasons why; that Dick is willing to drop a bomb into this woman’s life; the ramifications for Michelle whose husband doesn’t know of incest’s child. Dad is the gift that keeps on giving. He died a decade ago on Thanksgiving morning, but his unhappy legacy lives on.
I ask Carly how she feels about meeting this woman. At the moment, she doesn’t want to. Nor do I. I have never had a desire to find or know this half sibling of mine – this boy; or girl, as it turns out. Carly and I wish Dick would not insert himself into her life. Carly tried to stop him both by phone and text. Why, she asked, would you want this woman to know the incestuous nature of her conception? “Statutory rape” Dick corrected. Ah. I won’t confide, at this moment, the mental mayhem I have in mind for dear ole Dick.
Carly gives me a name. I put my investigative skills to work, because now I’m curious.
Her wedding picture is a clone of Michelle. Her current pictures look just like Elsie. She is apparently well married, with two children. Her parents love her. She was the lucky one, when you get right down to it. Loved. Carefree childhood. Cousins and family galore. College. Marriage. Children. Summers on the lake. So why is this woman in the national DNA registry, trying to find her biological parents? She’s pretty straightforward about it. Her parents are both failing in health, so the news won’t hurt them and she wants to understand the gene pool. Be careful what you wish for.
My heart’s a gyroscope. She doesn’t know what she’s asking. In his determination to connect, Dick doesn’t care about the shock waves that will reverberate in endless circles. Michelle will face, after nearly 60 years, a new reality – one she tried valiantly to put to rest long ago. And, what’s going on in me? At the core of me, I protect. I would gather anyone I could in protective arms to shield them from unsolicited pain, especially innocents. I want to protect this woman from Dick, and all that she will need to sort through when he rocks her world. I want to protect my sister – the one I haven’t spoken to in 35 years, at her request. For those of you who haven’t read The Fifth Sister, Michelle helped me prove Dad’s thirty-year child molesting history, in order to protect my own children. After Michelle gave her deposition, she asked that I not contact her again. She said I sound like my mother, I look like them, and me being in her life brings her pain. I honored that request.
But she’s my sister. And were I she, I wouldn’t want to be blindsided by this. I didn’t know my sister’s last name. I didn’t know where she lived, but I do know how to investigate. It took a bit, but deeply layered on the Internet, an obscure newspaper post about a social event where she was a guest, gives me her surname and the name of her husband. Michelle has done well at being anonymous. No social media, family gatekeepers who will not give private information about her, and unlisted numbers.
When I called, it went to voicemail. I said, “Michelle, this is Laura. I wonder if you would call, I have something I’d like to talk …” and my sister picked up the phone. Breathing was a forgotten aptitude. Even now, as I write this, my stomach tightens when I think of how my need to protect her will cause her pain. Just less pain than the alternative, which is why I’ve broken my promise to not contact her.
“Michelle, I don’t know any easy way to say this. Dick has found the baby.”
Stunned silence, then, “Why? That girl is 57 years old.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t need to make this call, but I wouldn’t want you to be blindsided by her contacting you.”
“I’ll close the door on her. I won’t talk on the phone. Dear god, why? That was the worst time in my life. An ugly awful time. I’ve tried to forget…”
I know. Yet, you knew her age instantly, I think to myself. “I’m so sorry, Michelle. About all of it. You did the right thing for her. She’s the lucky one.”
“Yes, I did, and yes she is. I have been married to this good man for over forty years, so I got lucky too. But how did they get her birth certificate? I was promised that no one could or would have access to it. Ever. Closed adoption.”
“I don’t know, but it’s your name.”
“I hate this.”
She asked me not to give Dick her last name or contact information. I promised her I wouldn’t. She wondered how he could be so cruel. She asked if he could be dissuaded, and I told her about trying decades before, and that Carly was trying now to stop it, but she had texted that he intended to move forward.
Heart aching, I said, “I’m sorry, Michelle. So sorry. I’d say, ‘Have a nice day,’ only I’m pretty sure it won’t be. I’d like to say ‘talk to you soon’ but we probably won’t. I wish all of this were different.”
“Thank you, Laura, for letting me know.” A small pause, and then, “Goodbye.”
Goodbye. My heart weighs a thousand pounds. I would have liked to have been a part of Michelle’s life, but that wrinkle in time wasn’t mine.
Sorrow shadows the meadows of my mind. My heart goes out to those devastated by hurricanes. And fires. And earthquakes. It aches for the state of our nation. For a good woman, who lost the love of her life too soon. For a young couple, who got bad advice and devastated a family. And this. A tipping point of sorrow. I need the peace of wild things. The river. The grace of the world.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry