The Uber driver dropped her off outside the big building on Broadway. But as she approached the huge glass revolving door, she had a sudden sense of doubt, and faked a phone call so she could walk a few feet away and think about what she was doing.
No, this was ridiculous. She had come all the way down here, she had made her choice, and how would she feel if she just turned around and went home? She’d spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this, and battled a lot of anxiety to get this far. And maybe something good would come of it. The whole situation felt risky, but inevitable. And what’s the worst that could happen, really?
She ended her fake phone call and let the big glass revolve carry her into the lobby. But was she sure? Once she did this thing, she couldn’t undo it. She veered to the side and sat on a couch by the window. There was a person behind a desk at the far end of the lobby, but they were looking at a monitor and hadn’t noticed her. A tall woman in very high heels came in the door and went directly to the elevator. Then two men, carrying briefcases, engaged in conversation, did the same. There was a lull as the minutes ticked by and she sat on the fake leather couch in the glass lobby and wondered what to do. She should definitely go ahead with her plan, but she couldn’t move.
Across the lobby, the person behind the desk looked at her curiously. Afraid she would have to answer questions, she lifted her phone to her ear and said “Hello?” She pretended to listen for a minute, and then said, “Okay, I’ll be right up.” She’d made her decision. No choice now. She stood and strode purposefully across the lobby to the bank of elevators, and entered one, followed closely by a young man in a delivery uniform, carrying a taped-up box. He pushed the button marked “5” and looked at her with eyebrows raised, finger still hovering over the board.
Not nine, not nine, not nine. Not yet.
“Six,” she said. At the sixth floor, someone else got on and punched the lobby button, and the elevator started to descend again. She leaned over and pressed the button marked “2,” and got off there.
Was she doing the right thing? Would she regret this? Should she think about it a little more? Aware of the security camera above her, she started walking slowly down the hall, pretending to check numbers on doors.
She knew the man on the ninth floor was her father. She’d pretty much known it even before she’d spit in a bottle and sent her DNA off for testing. Her mother had often told her who her father was. “Stanley P. Griffin,” her mother had intoned many times. “He’s a very important man, an attorney.” The word “attorney” rolled off her mother’s tongue, vowels elongated, as if she were saying “president” or “emperor.” And she’d seen the name Stanley P. Griffin in the news as he defended prominent clients. So he was indeed an important man by the standards of the world, a well-known defense attorney. But until recently she’d had no proof that he was her father.
Her mother wasn’t habitually dishonest, in fact she tended in the opposite direction, telling too much truth, too frankly, and in too much detail. As a child, she’d many times squirmed in discomfort listening to her mother give away her daughter’s privacy, and her own, to anyone who would listen. But she could lie when it suited her — to her boss about being sick, to the school district about where they lived, that sort of thing. Would she have made up this story, about a famous man being the father of her daughter?
And why hadn’t her mother ever contacted him herself? She’d never know because her mother had died a year ago, killed by breast cancer in her early 50s. Toward the end, befuddled by the morphine, her mother had said it again. “Stanley P. Griffin. He’s a very important man, an attorney. He’s your father, baby. You should get in touch with him.”
But until today, she never had. She’d done a lot of research about him, combing the internet for tidbits (one wife and one ex-wife, three children between them, a home up on Skyline Boulevard and another in Sea Ranch) but until today, she’d never gone further than invisible online stalking.
What if he treated her like an opportunistic criminal? Suppose he was ashamed of the whole thing, ashamed of her mother and herself, and would reject her overture? He could probably make her life miserable if he wanted to. He was an attorney, after all. Much more powerful than herself.
Before the genetic testing, she’d had nothing, no shred of proof, just an assertion by a single mother, now dead. But now that had changed.
Because of her DNA, captured in saliva and analyzed by science, she now knew for sure he was her father. This was what she had hoped for when she signed up for the service, but also knew the chances were slim that he’d do the same. In the end, he didn’t. But his son did. When she’d seen the 24% match show up, she knew it was a half sibling, and when she saw the name, she sat very still for a long minute. Jonathan Griffin. His youngest son. A decade younger than herself.
So she had proof.
Suppose he would be happy about her? Suppose she went up to his office and introduced herself to the receptionist, and he came out, looking curious, and then when he saw her, he threw his arms around her?
That wouldn’t happen. Probably. But the cat was out of the bag now. Sooner or later, Jonathan would notice the match on the 23andMe site, too. Better to just take the bull by the horns and meet her father, however he might react.
By now, she had walked the entire circular hallway of the second floor and was back at the bank of elevators. Without giving herself time to think, she punched the “up” arrow, and when the door opened, she got on and looked at the button marked “9,” holding her breath until the doors automatically closed.
She pushed the button. It was done. She was going to meet her father now.
Two women in suits, each carrying a single file folder, got on at the fourth floor and got off at the sixth. The last three floors, alone in the elevator, doubts started to creep in again. Maybe not. Maybe not today. She’d get off. But she was too late, and as she leaned to punch the “8” button, the elevator slid past the eighth floor. Her heart started pounding. She would hit the “door close” button as soon as she got to the ninth floor, and go back down and out the lobby and call a car and go home.
But when the doors slid open at the ninth floor, there were two men standing there. The older was him, her father, Stanley P. Griffin himself, looking just like the photo on his firm’s website. She almost gasped. The younger was saying “I’ll have that ready when you get back.”
She was frozen in the back of the elevator. Her father put a hand out to hold the door and said to the younger man, “Thanks, but end of the day is fine.” He got on the elevator and punched the lobby button. He seemed to notice her for the first time. “Lobby?” he said. She just nodded.
But she couldn’t stay silent now that fate had arranged the introduction. And she couldn’t start this conversation in the lobby, where she pictured he would be walking briskly and she’d be trotting to keep up. Now. She had to speak now.
She took a breath, and then two, before she suddenly blurted, “You’re Stanley Griffin.” He looked a little wary. And then, “I was coming to see you. You’re my father.”
The elevator shivered a little, and the lights flickered momentarily, like a reflection of what was going on in her anxious brain. They looked at each other for a long moment. He seemed to be considering what to say, and was just opening his mouth when suddenly they heard a pop and a groan, the elevator shuddered and stopped, and all the lights went out.
They were only in the dark for a moment before the emergency light flicked on. And there they were, alone, silent, with a conversation looming ahead of them that was just too big to contemplate. He pressed the red emergency button, and a disembodied voice asked a few questions and promised help.
He turned back to regard her, and finally said, “Why do you think I’m your father? No, wait, first, who is your mother?”
She told him. She told him her mother’s name and the bar where she had worked thirty years ago, where he was a customer and they met. He heard it without any visible reaction, so she kept talking. She told him about the DNA test, and about Jonathan. “And when I saw that Jonathan and I were a match, I knew you must be …” she trailed off.
He nodded, looking thoughtful. He said, “Do you mind if I…” and didn’t finish the sentence before he pulled his phone out of his pocket and hit a couple of keys, making a call. He kept his eyes on the wall of the elevator as he spoke into the phone. “Jonathan? I’ve got a question — what? Yes, the power is out, I’m stuck in an elevator, in fact.” He listened for a moment and chuckled. “Let’s leave that for the professionals. No, I’m fine. But that’s not why I called. You know that DNA testing service you signed up for? Have you checked your list of DNA relatives recently? No, long story, but would you go check it now?”
He waited. They both waited. When Jonathan came back, he was talking excitedly. She couldn’t make out any words, but she could hear his voice, louder than it had been before. Stanley listened, and his gaze came back to her with an expression she couldn’t quite decipher. “That’s right,” he said. “I’ve just met her. She’s standing right here.” He listened again, and chuckled again. “I’ll fill you in when I get out of this elevator. But Jon, what are you doing right now? I may need you. Great. I’ll call when I get out of here.”
After he hung up, there was a short silence, but it felt interminable to her. She said, “So…?”
“Well,” he said. “This is complicated. You see, Jonathan isn’t my genetic son.”
She froze, silent and expressionless. But on the inside, she felt like she was screaming. “WHAT? WHAT?” She’d been so sure. She’d thought she’d found him, that she knew where she came from at last. Now she was starting over?
But he was still speaking. “I had a brother. Steve. He was… troubled. IN trouble. Quite a lot. We had to bail him out of jail, pay his debts, clean up his messes. Sometimes he would tell people he was me, we looked a lot alike. I was getting to be well known, with high-profile cases, and sometimes a bartender would have seen me on TV and if they thought he was me, they’d let him run a tab. That’s probably how he met your mother. I’m sorry.”
She felt as though the sky had fallen on her. She had hoped for a fine, respectable father. And well-off, too, she was honest to herself about how she’d hoped he’d help her financially. But apparently her father was the opposite, a liar and a deadbeat, and maybe a criminal. Her mouth was sour with the taste of disappointment.
After what seemed like a long time to her but was actually just a few moments, she said, “Oh.” In spite of herself, she sighed deeply. She thought maybe she could see a little sympathy in his eyes. She wondered what to do. “Is he… where is he now?”
“He died twenty years ago. He and his — Jonathan’s mother — both of them died together, drugs. Jonathan was just a baby. That’s when we adopted him.”
“I’m sorry,” she said reflexively.
“I’m sorry too. But that doesn’t change your situation,” said Stanley. “You’re my niece, my son’s half sister. There’s a relationship here. I’d like you to meet my family, your family, actually.”
Suddenly her sadness receded a little. She looked up at him and he gazed back, a half smile on his face. He kept talking. “Do you agree? Do you want to get to know everybody?” She didn’t trust her voice to be steady, so she just nodded. “But how about you?” he continued. “Are you married? Do you have siblings or other family?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have anyone.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “Well, now you do.”
At that moment, the power came back on, the lights brightened, and with a clank and a thud, the elevator began descending. The doors opened on the lobby, now populated with dozens of people. They stepped out and moved a few steps, and she, completely out of ideas for how she should act and not wanting to seem too needy, said “Well, thanks for… it was good to meet you. I’ll send my contact info —“
But as she was turning away, he said, urgently, “Wait, are you going somewhere?”
“I just thought… I was just going to … I thought we were done for now. I guess.”
“Do you have somewhere you have to be? No? Then let’s get to know each other a little. I’ll call Jonathan to come down, you should meet him first.”
And after that, everything was a blur. Whatever she had expected, this wasn’t it. And whatever she had hoped for, this was better. Jonathan picked them up in his car, and when she got in the back seat, he twisted around and gave her hand a hard squeeze, grinning. Stanley was saying, “Do you like burritos? We have a place. But first, Jon, let’s go see your dad.”
And they drove up Broadway toward Mountain View Cemetery. She felt breathless. Stanley and Jonathan kept asking her questions about her life, her work, and where she’d gone to school. She wasn’t used to talking about herself, but they were kind and curious, and quickly she started to feel comfortable enough to ask them questions, too.
And then they were standing by the grave of her father, the three of them together. He was in a family plot, surrounded by other Griffins, graves dating back a hundred years.
The headstone had his full name, Steven Patrick Griffin, and the dates of his life, no surprise. But the inscription read, “He taught us to hold on to our family, and to love each other no matter what.” Then below that was a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
From where they stood, they could see part of the city and a glimpse of the bay beyond, and all of the sky. A little breeze stirred from time to time. She could feel the warmth of the sun on her face. It was hard to say, but she had to speak. “You have a proud family here. It must have been hard to have a brother who wasn’t … honorable.”
Stanley gazed at the headstone. “I don’t think that’s the right way to think about it. But I felt that way at the time. I was furious with him. I was embarrassed to be his brother. I thought I hated him. I drove him away from the family. And then he died, and I was even more angry with him.
“But after we took in Jonathan and came to love him so much, well, things started to shift. Jonathan just reminded me of Steve in little ways, and day by day that made me love my brother again.” He sighed. “I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done to save him. But I wish I’d tried. I’ll never know.”
“Doing the kindness before it was too late,” she said, quoting the tombstone. “That would have been very hard when he was doing what he was doing.”
“It was easy to look at his behavior and decide to just cut him off,” he agreed. “But I wish I’d at least tried to understand him instead of being so caught up in my own ideas about family pride. I forgot to love him. It was the worst thing I ever did. After awhile, I realized that loving his son and the whole family was the only way for me to start to make it up to him. Anyway, I wanted to bring you here so you could understand that your father was part of a family that loved him.”
She nodded. “That’s why you’re being so kind to me, isn’t it? You just accepted me right away. Before you knew me, before you knew what I’m like or if I might cause you trouble like my father did.”
Stanley and Jon stood smiling at her in the sunshine. “My father, too,” said Jonathan, and reached out to take his sister’s hand.