There are things in life better left unseen, unheard, unknown. Truth is not always the best path.
“Mommy, why do I have red hair?”
“That’s just the way it is, Cal.”
“Ricky and Jenny have brown hair. You have brown hair. Daddy has brown hair. Why do I have red hair?”
“God picks the color, honey. You’re lucky. You have beautiful red hair.”
Such explanations suffice for the very young. Not so much in the later years.
“Hey, give me some of your popcorn, Cal.”
“Get your own popcorn, Ricky.”
“Gosh, you’re such a jerk. Jenny’s right. You must be adopted.”
The oft heard sibling tease was finding a home in Cal’s head. It wasn’t just the hair. Ricky was two years younger than Cal, but he was two inches taller. Jenny, the youngest, was the tallest girl in the 6th grade. His Mom was above average height, and his Dad was 6’3”. A red headed short kid seemed out of place in the Williams home.
Troubling seeds sometimes take root, and grow. For Cal, it was a mild but consistent undertow, an annoying turbulence swirling just below the surface of his life. Could he possibly be adopted?
He never raised the topic with his parents. It seemed too impossible. They would have told him, right? But why would they do that? They probably would want to protect him from such an unsettling reality. And what difference would it make anyway? These were the only parents he had known. They were Mom and Dad, adopted or not. Ricky and Jenny were his brother and sister, or were they? Discovering an alternate origin for himself could upset a wonderful homelife for everyone. But if he had been adopted, shouldn’t he know the truth?
These circular, self-contained debates had been a minor disturbance in young Cal’s life, but they gained some traction as he sat in his 10th grade biology class. His teacher was talking about black and white dogs mating, and the resulting black puppies, white puppies, and black and white puppies, but Cal’s mind was quickly translating the words to brown hair, red hair, tall, short and all the combinations. As he researched the genetic probabilities, it seemed more and more unlikely that Cal was who he thought he was.
There is a balance in life that prefers not to be disturbed. Could a single, final drop of rainwater tip the scale and sink a boat? For Cal, it didn’t come in drips. He was carried away in a flood along with the broken pieces that had once been his life.
“Cal, I found this old roll of film when I was cleaning out the attic. On your way to practice today, could you stop at Al’s Camera and see if they can develop it?”
Dangerous explosives are so marked. Old rolls of film that can blow up lives aren’t. There was no way for Cal to know that the small package gripped in his hand could flip his life upside down. Would that his mother had never found it, or maybe the careless teenager could have lost it, or that Al wouldn’t be able to develop it. Unfortunately for Cal, fate only intervened in just the one direction.
“Sure, I work with a place that still deals with this stuff. I should have it for you by next Thursday.”
“Thanks, Mr. Foster.”
The wheels were set in motion, but Cal still had a week of ignorant bliss coming. He scored the winning goal in his high school soccer game. He cheered the love of his young life, Rachel, on at her volleyball match, and they went out for pizza afterwards. He clowned around with his buddies before school, at lunch, and after school. He shot baskets in the backyard with Ricky and Jenny. He told his Mom about his school day and made a couple fishing lures with his Dad. It was all so normal and nice. Had he known, he might have enjoyed it even more.
A storm was brewing to the west. Thick dark clouds, broken by occasional flashes of lightning served as fitting foreboding as Cal walked to the entrance of Al’s Camera.
“Here you go, Cal. It looks like there were only a few pictures on the roll. I don’t know if the rest of the film was never used, or if something happened to it. But they got what they could.”
It was raining by the time Cal left the shop so he kept the packet of photos in his jacket until he got to the car. With the rumble of thunder in the distance and rainwater pouring down the windshield, Cal dried off his hands on the inside of his pockets. Sitting alone behind the steering wheel, he opened the envelope and slipped out five photos.
He had never seen the pose before, his mother propped up in a hospital bed, looking as happy as he had ever seen her, holding a baby in her arms. The date imprinted on the photo was a meaningful one- the day Cal was born.
Cal smiled as he studied the picture. He couldn’t recall ever having seen a picture of himself on the day he was born. For the moment he pondered the good fortune of his Mom finding that roll of film and Al being able to have it developed. He could hardly wait to show it to his Mom.
Pictures two and three were pretty much the same, Cal’s mom holding him in her arms with discernable love pouring out of the photos. If only there had just been the three.
Photo #4. Mom in the same position holding Cal. The only variable was the well dressed man sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning toward mom and baby to get into the picture, and smiling proudly. He had flaming red hair.
Photo #5. Cal’s hands were shaking as he took hold of the last picture. It showed the man with the red hair sitting in a chair holding the baby, again with a broad smile.
Mom, baby, the man with the red hair. Noticeably missing was his Dad.
Cal about stopped breathing. There was no longer a raging storm outside, no steering wheel in front of him, no dashboard, no car, no memory of scoring that winning goal, no more anything. It was all wiped away with as much force as those windshield wipers frantically trying to keep pace with the storm. Cal wasn’t adopted. It was just that his Dad…wasn’t his Dad.
He couldn’t move as a thousand thoughts stampeded through his mind. His Mom was still his Mom. Ricky and Jenny were still, at least halfway, his brother and sister. But was his Dad still his Dad? Why didn’t they ever tell him? There would have been better times and better places to learn the truth than sitting alone in a car. How hurt will his Dad be to know that Cal knew the truth? How will Ricky and Jenny react? They don’t need to know, do they? This had the potential to upset everyone. Would it be selfish for Cal to seek the truth? Does he keep secret the fact he now knows the secret? It was all too much for a 16 year old boy to handle.
His mind drifted away from his family and back to the picture, back to that man with the red hair. Who was he? Where is he? What happened to him? Why would he have never had a relationship with Cal? Was Mom ever married to him? Did he just take off? Should he someday seek him out to learn the why of it all? Is the man still alive? Maybe he died right after Cal was born. That would explain some of it.
Cal set the pictures on the passenger seat, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His Dad wasn’t his Dad. His Dad wasn’t his Dad. His Dad wasn’t his Dad. This might have gone on forever if his cell phone didn’t ring.
“Cal, where are you?”
“I’m on my way home, Mom. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”
“I was getting worried, with the storm and all. Drive safely. I love you.”
“ I love you too, Mom.”
He loved his Dad too, but would the love somehow be different now? What does it mean to no longer have that special, natural bond of parent and child?
Cal had 5 minutes, 5 minutes to make the biggest, most consequential decision of his life. Does he show the picture to his Mom and Dad and ask for the true story, or does he keep the two photos to himself, rip them into tiny pieces and never think of them again? But these would be the only pictures he had of his real father. Cal knew this had great potential to hurt his Dad and upset his Mom. They would perhaps feel guilty for not disclosing the truth to him themselves. Should he let them tell him when they feel the time is right? But how does he go on not knowing the true story, not knowing who his real father is?
“So, were they able to develop that old roll of film?”
Cal pulled the envelop out of his front pocket and handed it to his Mom.
“ There were only three pictures on the roll, but they’re awesome.”
Cal and his mother marveled at the good fortune to have these precious pictures appear out of nowhere, while photos #’s 4 and 5 stayed safely tucked away in Cal’s front pocket.
At dinner that night, it was a struggle for Cal just to talk. Everything he said sounded forced, irrelevant, out of sync with whatever everyone else was talking about. He spent more time sneaking in glances at his Dad than he did eating. It did not go without notice.
“Cal, are you okay? You seem kind of…distant.”
“I’m fine, Dad…maybe just a little tired.”
And so it went. Cal’s mind was always somewhat removed from the location of his body. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. His Dad wasn’t his Dad. That is a hard thing to come to grips with. And he was doing it all alone. He was the only one who knew that he knew. Cal did his best to act normally, but maintaining the façade was not easy.
“Cal, do you want to shoot some hoops? If I want to get into the ‘Forever Rebounder’ Hall of Fame, I need to get some hours in.”
“Sure…Dad. I’ll be right out.”
Dad. D-a-d. Never in the history of the English language had 3 letters wreaked so much havoc inside the head of a teenage boy. Cal couldn’t escape it. He was having trouble sleeping. He knew he wasn’t interacting in a normal, natural way, with his Mom, Dad, brother, and sister. It followed him down the hallway at school and parked itself over his head as he missed out on most of whatever they were talking about in class. His only refuge was the soccer field where he could give full attention to a bouncing and rolling ball.
Saturday afternoon found Cal sitting on the bank of the river just a few miles from his home. He had fished there with his Dad many times, but this day Cal was without a fishing pole. It was just Cal, his thoughts and a handful of small stones he would toss one at a time into the river. He couldn’t help but notice that the splash of one small stone sent concentric circles of ripples all across the river’s surface. How many lives could be affected by one small picture?
Over the course of the next few weeks, Cal was consumed with thoughts of his family, the family he knew, grew up with, the family he loved. How would this affect them? Playing a backup role in the suffocating siege of Cal’s mind was the man with the red hair. He had the picture hidden under a loose piece of carpeting in his bedroom. The symbolism of sweeping his problem under the rug did not escape Cal, and he managed a rueful smile as he stashed the photos away. Many nights he would pull the pictures out and study the man with the red hair. The more he looked at the photo, the more he saw his own reflection. He spent hours in a futile effort to discern the height of a man sitting down. Where was he at this very moment? How could Cal go through life never knowing the whole story?
The battle was tough enough. Fighting it alone made it so much worse. It was taking its toll. Cal had to confide in someone. The bank of the river was the right place.
“Rachel, I have something important to talk to you about.”
“What is it, Cal?”
He reached into his pocket and showed her the picture of his Mom holding a baby in the hospital with the man with red hair sitting on the bed.
“What is it, Cal?”
“The man with red hair. I think that’s my father.”
Cal went on to explain his lifelong suspicions and how he came into possession of the photo.
“See the date? That’s the day I was born, Rachel. That would explain the red hair, wouldn’t it?
“Oh my God, Cal. Are you ok?”
“Not really. I found out a few months ago. I’ve been struggling with it ever since. Do I tell my parents that I know, or do I keep it all to myself? I don’t know what to do, Rachel.”
Cal cried, and Rachel consoled. They talked for hours as the autumn sun set. As deeply as two 16 year olds could possibly cover all the important, meaningful concepts of life, they did. To tell or not to tell, that was the question. Each side had its moments. Your parents have to know that you know. If they wanted you to know, they would have told you. It would hurt your Dad. What difference would it make? It is only right and natural that you know who your father is. Back and forth, tell, don’t tell. Round and round, back and forth. Finally, Rachel had the answer, well, at least the best answer they could come up with.
“You have to get past this. You have to know. Talk to your Mom, just your Mom. There’s no change in that relationship. She’s your Mom before and after the picture. Your Dad is the concern. Obviously she’s the one who could give you the whole story. And you and your Mom could talk about what to do about your Dad. She’ll know best.”
Pretty and wise. Not all teenage boys are so lucky.
Cal felt a sense of relief. He was no longer consumed with the battle over what was the right thing to do. He just knew he couldn't take it anymore. At least he now had a plan, a course of action. The execution was still the hard part, but at least he finally knew what he would do. He stopped at St. John’s 24 hour Chapel for the 5th time in the last 3 months, and prayed, not for guidance this time, but for strength.
Cal lay awake staring at his bedroom ceiling. By this time, he would be able to draw from memory a detailed map of every crack, mark, and blemish in that ceiling. He knew his Dad had an early tee time the next day with his regular group, so Cal would do it first thing in the morning. Mom would be up, Dad would be gone, and Ricky and Jenny would still be sleeping. He took one last look at the photos, the instruments that would change his life forever, and went to bed.
Cal found his Mom right where he knew she would be, sitting on the back patio with a cup of coffee enjoying the morning sun. He hesitated. He would give her a few more minutes of life without the trauma that was about to unfold.
Three deep breaths, just like before taking a penalty shot in soccer, and he was out the door. He joined his Mom at the table.
“Cal, what are you doing up so early?”
“There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
His Mom sensed the seriousness of the moment.
“What is it, Cal?”
He slowly pulled the two pictures out of his pocket and laid them face down on the table. Cal’s Mom looked at the backs of the pictures and gave him a puzzled look. Surprisingly, Cal’s hand was steady as he flipped the pictures over.
“Do you want to tell me who that is, Mom?”
His Mom studied the pictures for a moment.
“Oh my, I can’t believe you have pictures of him.”
“Who is it, Mom? Who’s the man in the picture?”
“That’s…ummm, that’s…gosh, why can’t I remember his name?”
“You can’t remember his name?”
“Well, I only saw him a couple times.”
“You only saw him a…”
“Oh, now I remember. Fullmer. That’s Doctor Fullmer. He’s the ER doctor that delivered you into this world.”
A moment to reflect.