David Diebold on the search for his biological father: 'Tracing your real mum or dad is terrifying but the truth is beautiful'
I’ve had my share of equally beautiful and terrible life experiences, occasionally at the same time, but there are a few that will always keep their ranking at the top of a fairly peculiar list.
One is the premature birth of our first son at 26 weeks, weighing just two pounds, and being told he might not survive, or that if he did, he’d probably suffer lifelong disabilities.
He’s 21 now, I’ll add, and a skateboarding, world-travelled, college student, soon to be studying for his Master of Science degree, and I’d easily classify that journey with him as deserving in its life ranking.
Another is my dad asking me to transcribe his life story from a series of weekly one-to-ones during his 89th year, so people could read it when he died. We finished it just in time, but I’ll always have those afternoons quizzing him about his 24 bombing missions over Germany with the US Army Air Force during World War Two, or about when he played in jazz bands with legends like Louis Armstrong.
Birth and death, beautiful and terrible, often simultaneously, but so far, so... life.
But it’s another experience that I’m asked most about, occasionally by people I don’t even know that well, but who have gone through something similar, and that’s discovering that the parents who brought me up were not my ‘real’ parents — that my ‘sister’ was actually my mother and that, well, everything I thought I knew as a child was a topsy-turvy construct of half-truths.
It’s not such an unusual thing in Ireland, especially for people of a certain era, when babies born to teenagers were a scandal to be kept locked away in a filing cabinet behind a nun.
I was lucky. My adoptive family moved with me to Dublin in the early 70s from the fairly progressive suburbs of Los Angeles. My birth certificate, name change and guardianship papers were accessible, and I found out the truth early on, even enjoying sporadic, long-distance contact with my birth mother.
It was my real father that was hard to track down. Though to be honest, I didn’t have much interest until our premature son, and family medical histories suddenly seemed very important.
But tracing your real mum or dad is terrifying. You may never find them, they may be dead, or they may simply want to stay lost. Sometimes you think, the less you know, the better off you are. You sit on a fence between the possibility of painful truth and never knowing.
When I’m asked about my search for my real dad, most want to know, when I found him, how did he react? And when I met him, what did it feel like?
I finally pressured myself into it with practicalities. I needed his medical history, so I hired an investigator listed in the credits of an Oprah Winfrey show about missing Vietnam War veterans.
It took just a few hundred dollars and less than a week to narrow it down to just three names and contacts, which they duly sent me as soon as my final payment cleared.
Calling those three numbers sounds easy, but involved hours of pacing around and feeling like throwing up. The first two calls were dead ends. The third, my last hope, turned out to be him. There was a long pause. “You’ve got the wrong number,” he said.
But it had to be him, so I wrote a letter. “I’m not looking for a tearful Oprah Winfrey moment,” I joked. Sleepless nights later, he phoned back.
He arranged to meet me at a seedy bar. I walked up to the door and back to my car five times, throat clicking with different emotions: excited, apprehensive, angry, fearful and, mostly, incredibly curious. Cursing myself, I flung open the door.
It took minutes for my eyes to adjust and for me to make out the sole occupant: a giant of a man with a shaved head, behind a large cocktail. At the same time, beautiful and terrible.
“You don’t look anything like me,” is all he said.
He told me years later that he’d shaved his head that day to give himself the advantage in case I attacked him.
I told this to the half-brother I would go on to meet and grow close to later, and he just laughed. “That’s such bulls**t,” he told me.
I can laugh now too. All that trepidation, the self-doubt, all 19 years ago now.
My real dad was as gruff as they come, with a loud mouth and a big heart. When he died, six years ago at the young age of 62, it was so crushing. I selfishly thought, why did I bother to find him at all when all I ended up with was all this pain? Of course, it was worth it, even if it all ended in grief.
When people tell me they’re tracking down their real folks, I say, ‘Terrifying, isn’t it?’ The search for the truth. But the truth is a beautiful thing.
Whatever the outcome.