If you read my eulogy to my father, posted in an earlier entry, you'll have seen mention of secrets that had come tumbling out of the family during my father's illness. Given the week I've just passed at our place in Spain, also the subject of previous entries, and with the permission of the people involved, I thought it timely to write about it here. Most of the people closest to us already know all this stuff anyway.
You think you know how the everyday stuff works, don't you? You think that the mundane things you've always taken for granted just are, and they ground the certainties around which your lifestyle, and to some extent your character, are built. I'd always thought that my family was the absolutely archetypal so-called 'nuclear' version of that paradigm - long-married parents, two kids, standard domestic set-up. My brother found out, though, having by necessity taken over the running of the folks' banking affairs while Dad was too ill to do so, that this was not the case.
"Come and have breakfast with me before the game this Saturday," he said to me. "I've got something to tell you and it'd be better face to face."
You hear that, and you run all sorts of worst-case scenarios through your mind. Well I do, anyway. You can imagine the sort of shit that had added to our woes in my brain before that breakfast actually took place. I did not, though, guess anywhere near the truth. It turns out that my brother and I - those of us of the 2-kid, nuclear family archetype I just mentioned - are in fact two of three, and we have a half-brother whose existence had been kept from us. For seventeen years.
This took a while to sink in, of course. My brother is the bloke I grew up with. The blond kid with the good heart who's been around since quite literally before I can remember. The baby who threw mum's rings into the fire, who's grown into such a dependable and kind adult, the new pillar of strength on which our now reduced family leans - that's my brother.
But there was now, in fact has been for a long time, a third. Mum and Dad had decided between them that we'd not be told about him so as not to damage our relationship with our father - thereby protecting the same man she'd found out years earlier was father to another child by somebody else. Now my brother G and I have different characters, but we've always got on, and we largely see the world the same way. On the important stuff at least. So it was with this. We both decided, without really having to talk about it, that this brother we didn't know existed was entirely blameless in the whole thing, so was certainly not worthy of any scorn on our part. We also both felt that by far the greatest burden of forgiveness landed on Mum, who'd chosen, as she has with so many other burdens through her life, to bear it. If she had been able to forgive Dad and move on, it was hardly up to us to decide differently.
I first met M, my 'new' brother, while Dad was still alive. That was, of course, a bit odd. This kid I'd never set eyes on before calling my dad 'Dad' - rightly, of course. That was his father he was speaking to. But I got a little jolt every time he said it - for 44 years until that point I'd obviously only ever heard me or my brother say that to him. It was the most immediate sign that something had changed forever.
This first meeting was at the folks' old place in Portslade, in the period when Dad was home from the hospital between his first enforced visit to the ICU and his later surgery. Dad had said to me that he was going to 'be a better man', in what at the time was an inexplicable conversation, just before my brother told me what he'd discovered. He asked me what I thought of M when he'd gone that first evening. His concern about our response, my response in particular as it's seemed since, was still there. What could I say? I'd only just met M and was frankly a bit bewildered, but he seemed like a decent kid.
A decent kid who later had to attend his father's funeral in March, surrounded by people he hardly knew or didn't know at all. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for him. The teenager, one of those carrying his own father's coffin, who was unknown to most of the mourners. It's things like that which back up our original instincts that we should be trying to build a relationship with him, not rejecting him, Just as my dad remained my dad regardless of his own weaknesses and typically male failings, so this young man is a brother to me despite how little time we'd then had to get to know each other.
Rejecting M would have meant scorning our dad, which would in turn have affected Mum, an entirely innocent victim already, so I don't think it's what would have happened regardless of when we'd found out. It is, though, the version of us, particularly of me, which was painted for M by Dad in the absence of actually meeting us. M has told me that he was nervous about meeting me because of how he'd been led to believe I am, what my likely reaction to him would be.
It's not a version of me I entirely recognise. While I may lack a powerful, instinctive, visceral empathy, and certainly am not slow to express my feelings freely and quickly, I hope my response to M is an indication of at least an intellectual capacity for tolerance, for acceptance of changing circumstance. For generally responding the right way to a given situation because my head tells me that's the right way to respond even when my heart and guts have abstained in the matter and are being fuck-all help. That's essentially what happened over that breakfast, when G told me what he'd learned. My guts just went 'Holy shit!' but pretty quickly, thinking about it, I realised that the only sensible way forward was to try to build a relationship with him, to make up for the time that had thus far been denied us.
So I recently invited M to come to our place in Spain with me and my partner, to spend a week in the peace and warmth of the Galician summer and people. He'd never flown before, and never left the country, so all of this was new to him. I'd warned him that the little village to which we intend to retire is not Ibiza; there's little to do bar sit and enjoy the pool, the sun, the cold beer and top-notch steaks. This did give us time to do a fair bit of talking, and we must both have felt a little bit like we were conversing with some time-displaced alternate of ourselves. I know I did. He looks much more like me than he does my brother G - we both felt that the other looks most like Dad. We both, of course, share some of Dad's mannerisms.*
We share a past with Dad, though those pasts are only now being very slightly stitched together through recollection - they'll never be part of the same whole. As he said to me quite early on, all three of us have a store of memories and experiences of the same man, but ours and his are and always will be separate.
That's where we are, then. Our closest friends, as I knew they would be, have been entirely accepting of him and have simply got on with the new reality in the same way we're all trying to. Can G and I build as close a relationship with him as we have with each other? I don't know. How do you bridge the space between meeting somebody at 17 and having grown up with them, having had them a part of your life for all but 14 months of its entire 45 years so far, as is the case with my brother G? Not to mention the generational gap. Difficult. But it does feel like we're all committed to doing the best job of it possible.
*This must have been a bit disconcerting for Mum in particular, who was also with us last week. (Poor kid - he's got two mums on his back, one of whom isn't even his, no doubt nagging him about his smoking for example!)