Friday, August 10, 2012

never assume, always be kind: or, There's Always Two Sides to a Tale

When I found him so easily on the internet last October after learning his name from MW, my birthmom, I cast aside what I'd found. It seemed too easily accessible to be him. Or perhaps, I didn't want to believe it. She was telling me so many terrible things, frankly, and the relationship with her was still so new, so fragile. I wanted to trust everything she said. So I successfully compartmentalized him. For a time.
I began to have doubts. Perhaps it was more important to find him and make a judgment later? I'm a firm believer in "the truth is somewhere in between" and "there are always two sides to every story". So I waited to let my gut tell me when the timing would be right.
Bashar and D, my birthmom and birthfather's old friends from That Tempestuous Time wanted to meet me. Badly. I almost cancelled. I was tired of talking Adoption? MW? Our "reuniting"? I'm not sure, but I felt a bit drained by the time my little family and I traveled to Pittsburgh just for a visit and one of the things on the agenda was Go See Birthmother's Old Friends To Learn More Overwhelming Information. Oh joy.
When I called D to get their address in Highland Park, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Pittsburgh---where big old trees grow amidst old Victorian homes, she started getting choked up already on the phone. I'm one of those people who doesn't actually start getting nervous until it's too late, so it wasn't until I was kissing MAC and Birdy goodbye that I realized how much I was actually dreading going. What do I say to them? What do we talk about? I know, I know. Me, the talkative extrovert asking what to talk about. Hey, it happens to the best of us.
As I was driving through East Liberty, it started raining. Ani Di Franco randomly started playing out of my iPod:

I've got
No illusions about you
And guess what?
I never did
And when I said
When I said I'll take it
I meant,
I meant as is.

When D opened the door, I was shaking out my umbrella, my face to the side. She gasped as I turned to face her. "You have his face! Please, please come in, come in, Reem."
Her husband, my birthfather's old friend was in the kitchen, barefoot, making pita bread and kebab. He grabs my face between his hands. "Reem! The last time I saw you, you were a tiny little baby!" They both keep staring at me. Especially at my dark hair.
He's starving, he says in his thick Arabic accent, because it's Ramadan and he hasn't eaten since 4 in the morning. It's now 8 at night. They're waiting for the sun to go down completely. At one point, he accidentally puts a piece of rice in his mouth to see if it's done. He spits it out before he can chew it, laughing at himself for his folly.
He serves me rosewater infused date juice, the sweetest, most interesting concoction I've ever had. I've never tasted it before, but for some reason, it's familiar. Arabic music plays in the background as we all sit down to a traditional meal of lentil soup, hummus and pita, kebab, saffron rice, and of course, tabouleh salad.
For a few minutes, no one really talks, happily gobbling up food after being famished. I wonder to myself how diabetics handle fasting in such a conservative religion. I sit there, imagining myself passing out multiple times during Ramadan. I keep it to myself that I don't believe in God.
But they are warm. They go on and on about the past. Their eyes look off sometimes, teary, remembering what happened. They can barely bring themselves to talk about the circumstances surrounding my adoption. Instead, they focus on M, my birthfather.

He was such a gracious man! A real gentleman! So smart! So charming! So generous! 
We took ESL together in our very first semester of college, then he made me take Ballroom dance with him---he wanted to know how to dance, hahahaha! 
He was such a prankster, always making people laugh!
He never drank, never smoked. No matter where he was with anybody. 
He respected his father so much; that man made me have more respect for my own father!
One time, I had no job, had no money. He heard about it and one day I answer the phone and he says he got me a job as a translator for the embassy making good money! That man would give you the shirt off his back, that man!
I bet I want to see him more than you want to see him! I miss him that much!

I sit back in my creaky straw chair, full. I don't know what to make of it. He sounds not just nice but...kind. Genuinely so.
I pull out my usual frankness.
"Would you say he was a womanizer?"
Well, he did love beautiful women! What man doesn't?!
"Did he just leave when MW told him she was pregnant?"
Reem, it was complicated. They barely knew each other. It was a bad time for everyone. She was so scared, he was so scared. They were just kids. We all were. Her family...they were not good to her. She's had a rough life. And he was so terrified of his father. 

I suddenly remember that I'm 31 and have never walked a mile in M or MW's shoes. I picture myself at 19 and 21, a young woman and man, getting pregnant. Holy hell. A blush comes over my face as I imagine that mess. One bloody mess it would've been. And that's exactly what they keep saying. It was a mess. It was a mess. It was such a terrible mess. Unplanned pregnancy and resulting adoptions inherently are. Always.

D tells me she remembers calling MW to come over to a party at their house, and next thing she knew, MW was saying she was leaving with M. And the rest is history.
They barely knew each other a month when she announced she was pregnant. He kept saying It Can't Be Mine, It Can't Be Mine, but none of us saw her with anyone else. We believed her. 

A clear picture of my birthmother's rage begins to form in my mind. I'd caught glimpses of it talking with her on the phone and when she came to visit me. She didn't exactly try to hide it. But it was still somewhat contained. She was always somewhere else when she went to it. Now I could see it, all red and booming and screeching and anguished, trying to convince a man who barely spoke any English that she was pregnant with his child.

After dinner, we sit around with a group of other Arabic speaking friends who have joined for hookah and strong tea and ridiculously sweet middle-eastern pastries. I look around and see faces like mine, and  realize I am part of the group. Bashar and D's son arrives, a half Arab/half white person like me. I am 3 years older than him, we talk about the failed economy and at some point he introduces me as "MW's daughter" to someone. I am in a waking life, someone else and yet still me. More so, it seems.
As the hookah passes around, I admit to them I've never smoked anything in my life. They giggle and without pressure, coach me on how to take a puff and not inhale the smoke. I cough the first time and impress them the second. It tastes like roasted strawberries.
At 11 pm, I get a text message from my partner saying that the baby is screaming his head off and he's resorted to hiding in the closet with him to muffle the volume. I figure it might be time to go.
As I gather my things, D says, You really should consider looking for him, Reem. I really think he'd like to know you. It's not all as MW told you. I think she even remembers some of it wrong. He wasn't a bad man. He was just a kid who made some bad decisions. We're all older now. Just think about it. 

On my way back to the hotel, I think about change. I think about how I've changed. How I've grown as a person. And I think about how I'd hate it if someone assumed they knew everything about me based on the person I was half my life ago. I feared his rejection, and I fully admit that finally.

That night, after cuddling my toddler and traumatized partner to sleep, I sneak out of bed and look up the D.C think tank website I found him on. I look through the pictures of him all over again, trying to see some of that kindness, that warmth they spoke of. In the glow of my laptop, I find an office person to contact.
Tomorrow, I tell myself.

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