I posted a picture on Instagram. Some friends of mine were doing a #funfactfriday challenge and I decided to join in.
The photo was a polaroid of a toddler boy sitting in a highchair. He has a mop of red-brown hair on his head and he’s wearing a blue and white striped polo. He’s averaged sized with the pudgy cheeks of childhood. He had a small cake in front of him. His eyes look at it greedily. Around him are several adults, clearly in mid-song. The photo has that red-brown tinge to it that happens to polaroids from the late 1970s
I crafted my short caption: “Here’s a fun fact about me. I have a brother I’ve never met. I know his name is Michael. I think he is married and lives in Kansas. He may have a kid, but I’m not certain. #funfactfriday #siblings #bigbrother”
This aged photograph was a small glimpse of my brother’s second or third birthday party. Probably one of the last milestones my dad was a part of in his life.
My brother Michael is the son of my dad and his first wife. They dated for years, but their marriage only lasted about six months. During custody hearings over Michael, my dad was dating his eventual second wife (my mom was his third). My dad is only functionally literate, and barely that. His second wife is the literal worst.
When the court summons arrived, she lied to my dad about the hearing date. His absence was a forfeiture of his parental rights.
My dad is a proud man. He didn’t fight the court’s decision. What was he supposed to do? Tell a judge that he couldn’t read the summons for himself? Who would grant custody to a grown man who can’t read?
So my dad resigned himself to a life without his first born, and he went on with his life. He married his second wife and had two children with her. Then they divorced and he found his way to my mother. She had two daughters of her own already. Together, they had me and my younger sister. We were quite the crew, but we were incomplete without Michael.
I always knew about Michael. He was no secret. No, I had never met him, but that was no matter. When asked, I would tell people I was number six of seven: one younger sister, three older sisters, and two older brothers. When I posted that picture, I had no idea how much could change.
One of the first comments on the post was from my cousin. Her mother and my father are siblings. She said, “what?!? You don’t know Michael. Hold on! I’m DMing you!”
My heart skipped a beat. What did she know?
“Hey! Yeah. Your brother is Michael Holder. He lives in Topeka. He’s married to a woman named Gina and they have 3 kids together. He’s my friend on Facebook. You should go find him there. I can’t believe you don’t know him! I thought you did or I would have said something forever ago!”
In an instant, my world got bigger. My heart got bigger. I had to reach out. But what do you say? I decided to get right to the point.
“Hi Michael. I think I’m your sister. My dad is Matthew and you know our cousin Jane. Anyway, I’d love to meet you sometime.”
And then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. I optimistically believed that he would be so excited to hear from me. It never occurred to me that I might have disrupted his whole life.
So I waited for more than a week. Then I got a message:
“Hi Jill, I’m Gina, Michael’s wife. Needless to say he was surprised to hear from you. And he’s not sure yet how he wants to proceed. I’m hoping he chooses to reach out, but I would love to get to know you if that’s ok. Michael and I got married right after high school and we have three children….”
And on Gina went. I learned about their kids, their dogs, and their jobs. I learned that Michael's mother kept us a secret from him and she was not happy to hear that we found him. That was part of Michael's hesitation - his mother was putting him in a position to choose between her or knowing his siblings. But I learned that Gina was working to bring Michael around; she did not think his mother was being fair to him and that he had a right to know his family.
It took several more days, but Michael replied:
“I’m sorry I took so long to reply. This was a lot to get my head around. I never knew I had siblings and now I have a whole family. It’s a lot. And, just to be clear, I’m not interested in talking about our father. He left me when I was little and I don’t want to know how good he was to you. It’ll be too much. How about a phone call?”
Two days later, I arrived home from work. I was a mess of nerves. I walked up the stairs in my townhouse to my bedroom and plugged in my phone. I sat down at the foot of my bed. And I waited. I was minutes away from hearing my brother’s voice for the first time. What if we had nothing to talk about? Our father was an off limits topic, but, while I understood and respected his boundaries, our father was literally our only common ground. Could we come up with enough to have a conversation?
But then I thought about that photo of the little boy at his birthday party. The photo that reminded me that my family wasn’t whole, but also the photo that changed everything. The photo that I returned to over and over as I grew up wondering what my brother was like. And I realized that we would have plenty to talk about – we had a whole lifetime to catch up on and a whole lifetime left in which to do it.
The phone rang. I took a deep breath and answered.