September is the anniversary of many things for me, including the death of a local Tarrytown friend from breast cancer. Those closest to her called her JJ (though not this exact spelling) and have been hosting a breast cancer fundraiser—JStrong—in her honor every year since she died. JStrong is typically in September (occasionally in October), in the beer garden in the back of JP Doyles, a local pub restaurant where JJ was a regular. My wife, Kim, and I always do our best to attend and did so this year for the eighth annual event. For an anniversary of a different kind, I was struggling to hold it together and had made a deal with Kim that I would stay only as long as I felt I could handle. Ironically, it was Kim who lost the game of grief chicken we didn’t know we were playing. It was too close to the death of her friend S—also from breast cancer, which had metastasized to her brain—so we Irish goodbyed, first Kim and then me, and headed home to curl up on the couch and watch a movie.
But this isn’t about that. This is about an anniversary of a different kind.
At JStrong four years ago, my stepbrother had been trying to reach me for a couple of days and finally did. It was clear from the voicemails and texts I’d received that it was important and so I’d told him to call me that night even though I’d be at the fundraiser. He asked me if I had someone with me—I didn’t, I’d ducked out of the event to talk to him. He asked if I was sitting down—I wasn’t, so I perched on a fire escape. He said he had something upsetting to tell me. I assumed it was about my mom, whom I was accustomed to disappointing me. I prodded him to just tell me, whatever it is, just tell me. He said, I know how much you love my dad and think he’s a good person, but…
That same day, my stepfather and I also had a long phone conversation, about my mom’s drug use and how high she’d been at my wedding just the month before and how I needed a break from her because I didn’t know what to do with my anger and disappointment. He confided in me that he and others had tried to talk to her about her behavior at the wedding and beyond, and she wasn’t hearing it. He was thinking of spending a few months in Hawaii, where both my stepsister and stepbrother were living at the time, to figure things out. I interpreted this as him thinking of leaving her, at least for a time. I interpreted this as a good thing. Maybe if the bottom fell out, she’d finally change. But also, maybe my relationship with my stepfather, whom I called Pops, could be untethered from her.
Earlier that week, I’d been listening to a podcast in which a man who’d been taken in and mentored and essentially fathered for the first time in his life when he was about 18 asked, many years later when he was grown with a family of his own, if the man who’d taken in him would adopt him. Make it official. This was his father now. That’s how I felt about Pops. Not always, to be clear. I was 19 when he and my mom met through a personals ad in the newspaper—something of a habit for my mom (yes, this was 100 years ago)—and married later that same year—also something of a habit for my mom. And though I liked Pops a lot and thought he seemed like a truly good man (the best my mom had brought into our lives to be sure, but as my boss often says, it’s hard to fall off the floor), and I was honored to join my brother, soon-to-be-stepbrother, and soon-to-be-stepsister in holding the chuppah poles, and I got teary seeing my mom so happy, I felt apart from it. The oldest of all the children, I was in college in Oberlin, not exactly happy but happy enough, living on my own and putting myself through school and figuring my shit out. They were a family, if a deeply flawed one, living in their beautiful house in Shaker Heights, where the only place for me was a cheap futon unfolded in a tiny office when I occasionally came to visit.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that Pops and I got really close. When my relationship with my ex- ended, my mom and Pops—whom I still refer to as my parents—scooped me up, and something shifted. I remember standing in their kitchen crying and he hugged me and I apologized for not being able to stop, and he said, Welcome to the human race, which made me laugh-cry because I always thought I was better than that. But I wasn’t, and crying became something I did a lot of at the time, publicly and with no shame like a real fucking New Yorker.
After listening to that podcast, I did a bit of Google research on adult adoption and was delighted to find it was actually pretty easy to make happen. I worried a bit about how my stepsiblings might feel, but Pops already called me his daughter and they already called me their sister. At 39 years old, I thought, why shouldn’t Pops adopt me? Make it official. This was my father now. So at the end of that phone call, I nervously brought it up, and he immediately agreed. And to this day, that’s the last conversation I’ve had with him. Because the bottom didn’t fall out for my mom—it fell out for me.
There is a darkness in my stepbrother. I’ve felt it for as long as I’ve known him and felt a kinship with it for just as long. That night, he told me our darkness came from the same place. He said, I know how much you love my dad and think he’s a good person, but… Hadn’t I spoken similar words about my own father over the years? I know you think he’s funny, but… I know he seems nice, but… I know how charming he can be, but… When what I wanted to say was, I know what you see, and you don’t know shit.
My stepbrother had been struggling for decades with what his father had done to him, and I’ve always thought my wedding was the proverbial last straw. My wedding his father officiated. My wedding where I toasted my chosen family since my stepfather’s family had become my own. My wedding where I felt levels of love and joy I didn’t know were possible. Not unadulterated (see above about my mom being high as fuck) but as close as I’ve ever known. I understand why it would have been too much for him. While I was trying not to watch my mother weeble wobble in and out of pictures, in and out of the buffet line, in and out of her clothes, surely, my stepbrother couldn’t help but watch his father who’d violated him so unforgivably being upheld as a beacon of fatherhood—by me, by his aunts and uncles, by his sister, even by strangers. I know how I would have felt, how I have felt, in similar circumstances. Split down the fucking middle. But it turns out it wasn’t my wedding that led to that phone call. That was a narrative I built around my own trauma. Go figure.
Regardless, about a month later, I was perched on a fire escape in the parking lot outside a fundraiser for a friend who’d lost her battle with cancer when my stepbrother threw down a gauntlet of his own. He disclosed in detail what his father had done to him (something I’ve almost never done; even my wife doesn’t know exactly what my father did to me), not just to me, but to his whole family. The day after that fateful call, he sent an email to his father, my mother, his sister, his aunts and uncles, his cousins, family friends—he’d wanted to tell me before he told anyone else and asked me to pre-read the email before he sent it—and the sides lined up immediately. But before that, it was just the two of us on the phone, him in the dark in Hawaii, me in the dark outside JP Doyles, and we cried together and I told him how much I love him and I told him how sorry I am that this had happened to him and I told him how proud I am of him and I told him, above all, that I believe him.
When we hung up, I knew I needed to go back into the beer garden, that the night’s tribute to JJ would happen at any minute, that the raffle would be called, that Kim would be looking for me. But I was a puffy-eyed ball of the wrong grief for the occasion. I was an upside down stomach without legs. I was once again a daughter without a father.
There’s more to the story. I could tell you how our friend T found me a few minutes later, in a daze of sorrow in the parking lot. I could tell you how I told her how my stepbrother had just told me that his father had sexually abused him, like the worst fucking game of Telephone ever. I could tell you how I told her I couldn’t tell Kim because I didn’t want to ruin our wedding (“told” may be an understatement—it was more of a wail, but in my defense, how do you tell your wife that the man we’d chosen to lead our wedding, the man who’s in every photograph of our ceremony, the man we were so proud to have sign our marriage certificate is not who we thought he was?). I could describe to you how Kim appeared at that very moment and held me as I collapsed in a heap on the ground like some overwrought scene in a goddamn made-for-TV movie. And I could tell you how what my stepbrother told me that night haunted me—for months, it was the last thing in my head when I went to sleep and the first thing in my head when I woke up—and haunts me still.
But instead, I’ll tell you this: nothing could ruin our wedding. That day—my mom’s drug-addled shenanigans aside—is pristine. Pops on that day was exactly the father I needed him to be. His family was exactly the family I needed them to be. My friends were exactly the friends I needed them to be. My stepbrother and stepsister were exactly the brother and sister I needed them to be. I hold that day in my heart like an indestructible snow globe.
As for the other day and the truth my stepbrother was strong enough to break wide open, it’s a wound that I try not to but can’t help but worry, especially when JStrong comes around. I also can’t help but think that if I made a list of great ironies in my life—and y’all know how much I love a good list—this one’s got to be near the top: only I could manage to ask someone to adopt me on the same day his son tells me he’s a child molester.
Strong + Ironic = Istrongic,
Jessica the Westchesbian
Jessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.