“Give Them the Opportunity to Surprise You”
If you have a same-sex sibling, you probably know quite well the experience of comparisons, particularly when it comes to your parents. Every child seems to get a label – I was the smart one while my sister, Corina, was the athlete. I was my dad’s oldest daughter – although we do have a half-sister who’s quite a bit older. Besides being the smart one, I was also the good one. The one who never stepped out of line, misbehaved, or gave my parents any worry.
No wonder my father believed me when I lied and told him Mr. Stokely must have been mistaken – it couldn’t possibly have been me our neighbor saw sneaking out of my bedroom window with my best friend when we were 14. Damn, were we lucky! Nothing terrible ever happened to us – even though we got into cars with boys we didn’t know, went cruising on Central Avenue, smoked pot and drank beer. I actually only smoked pot twice – it made me sleepy both times, and I figured I could do that on my own.
As for beer, who could stand the taste? I have never been drunk in my entire life. I went to a college prep high school and watched as some of the smartest people I’d ever met turned into blithering idiots when they drank, so I had no desire to do that. It only cemented my folks’ belief that I was their good girl when, during my junior year, I came home from a New Year’s Eve party early because by 11 p.m. I was the only sober person there.
Getting pregnant at 27 was a whole new world for me – it was not the thing a good girl did. So even though I lived in New Jersey and my parents were 2,400 miles away in Phoenix, I was petrified at the idea of them finding out about my pregnancy. In part, I think I was afraid they might try to talk me into trying harder to marry Tony or keeping the baby. Thankfully, I had a sketchy record of going home for Christmas, so it wasn’t that unusual for me to decide to stay in New Jersey for the holidays that year.
My sisters both knew, Corina because I trusted her with my life and Ann, our older sister, because she lived in New Jersey and I saw her with some regularity. In fact, Ann was the only member of my family who got to meet Eric when he was just hours old. Corina met him at my wedding; my mom met him a day or two later (she was unable to attend our wedding due to illness); and my dad passed away before he and Eric had the chance to meet.
Now, for as far back as I can remember, things with Ann were always strained. She was my mother’s first daughter, and our half-sister. From the stories I’ve heard, she went through some really difficult episodes growing up alone with my mom. However bad that may have been, suddenly my dad came along and stole Ann’s mother away.
Understandably, Ann envied the relationship Corina and I had, and the fact that we grew up with two parents. What she only came to understand fairly recently, though, was that it wasn’t really a picnic. Our mom had vascular dementia for most of my life, the result of many strokes we didn’t learn about until her death – making her behavior so odd that she wasn’t really able to be a parent to us. What with my dad’s weird obsession with all things Catholic, to say we were overprotected and underexposed to the world would be putting it mildly. Nevertheless, Ann was jealous and it showed in obvious and sometimes terrifying ways.
The point is that I didn’t trust her – especially when it came to keeping my secrets. As much as I feared telling my parents about their grandson, I was more afraid that Ann wouldn’t give me the chance. I was certain that sooner or later, she would “accidentally” let it slip – and all would be revealed.
I remember the exact moment the epiphany struck me: life as I knew it would go on if my parents knew about Eric. I was on the up escalator on my way back from a rare lunch with Tony in the World Financial Center. For reasons of his own, he also was determined never to tell his parents about our son. We were actually talking about it – another rarity – and he was digging in. “Nope – never gonna tell ’em.” And that’s when it hit me. Nothing in my life would really change if they knew. I’d already lived through the hardest part. My parents would have whatever reactions they would have – and the sun would still come up the next day.
So that was the day I made plane reservations to go home to Phoenix for Eric’s first birthday. Even as I write this now, I can feel the anxiety again. The hesitation to go through with it. The worry about what I would say and how they would react. It was my wonderful friend Ken Bolden who gave me the best advice I’ve ever received in my life. We were on the treadmills at the gym in the World Financial Center a few days before my trip. Ken could tell something was bothering me and asked about it. I told him about my plans to finally lift the veil and let my folks know about their grandson, and that I was quite worried about how they’d react.
Ken looked at me with a smile and said, “Give them the opportunity to surprise you.” My mouth gaped open at the thought.
“What do you mean?” I needed some clarification – in case it wasn’t as simple as all that.
“Don’t assume the worst before you get there. Just tell them, and let them react whichever way they’re going to react. But give them the chance to surprise you – maybe it won’t be as bad as you think it will be.”
Damn, if Ken wasn’t right. I chose to tell them separately – first my mom and then my dad. And neither of them flipped out. Neither of them lectured me or scolded me or accused me. They were surprised – and my mom expressed disappointment that I hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her. I get that now, especially when I think back on all she went through to raise my sister alone. My dad had a tear in his eye, but he studied every photo in each of the small photo albums I showed him, among the regular updates I’d been receiving from Kathy. Then he hugged me and told me he loved me.
We had cake that night to celebrate Eric’s first birthday. Then the sun came up the next morning, just as I knew it would, and I got on a plane to return to my life in New Jersey.