Last week I heavily mourned the death of a man I never knew.
This does not make sense, I know, especially since, from the surface, he and I had absolutely no connection whatsoever. That’s why, when I first ran across notice of his death, I gave little initial thought or reaction.
But then I logged online and called up the man’s obituary from the newspaper. He had died on June 12 at the age of 81. A former salesman and war veteran, he was survived by three daughters, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
That was all fine enough until I scrolled down and saw his picture. In his face, I saw my own. The high cheekbones, the escalating forehead, the same lips pursed in a half smile, and I knew there was no avoiding emotion or reality. He was survived by not six grandchildren, but seven.
And even though I never knew my grandfather and my children never knew their great-grandfather, we were all inextricably linked through 40 years of familial facade and unnavigable pain.
For instance, I was told time and time again that nothing in the man’s life caused heartache like the realization of my existence many years before. Married with three daughters at the time, the news that his oldest was bearing a child was almost more than he could stand. He had to face his friends at church. He had to face his friends at the neighborhood pub. He had to face the fact that his dream-girl daughter was rewriting her storybook.
The man sent his pregnant daughter away to a Baptist home for unwed mothers. She gave birth to me. She told her father she wanted to keep me. Go to college, he said. Pretend it never happened, he said.
He divorced. He started drinking more. He was never the same.
She finished college, but got pregnant again. This time, she married. She had two more children. The man never mentioned his daughter’s first child again; neither did she.
Legally speaking, I did not exist. The courts had taken an eraser to my birth certificate, changing the name of my mother and changing the name of my father to my adoptive parents. All worked out for the best, of course. My parents raised me well and then some. And, by smartly walking away, my young birth mother got a fresh start and the opportunity for a normal life becoming of the times.
But then there is the man who just passed away, the grandfather I never knew. Each and every biological family member I met through the years said he and I were cut from the same mold, for better or worse. It would be hard to know, however, since after my birth he was never the same.
The creation, they said, was a daily thorn in his troubled side, pain he never overcame.
In recent years, the man had learned of me, being told that I was more than just a forgotten memory. He said at first he wanted to meet, and greet, but never followed through. It was fine with me, really. I would not have known what to say and, besides, I was told the later years of his life were not the best. He had a heart condition, drank more than was becoming, and was more sad that happy.
On the day of reading his obituary, and in the days that have followed, I could relate. I read about the funeral service that apparently was taking place at the very time I first read the notice. It struck me as odd that the person who supposedly so altered his life found out about his death almost by accident. It further struck me as odd that family only means as much as people want it to. Genealogy has little to do with it.
We might have helped each other, I suppose, but now that is all mere speculation. He is gone, for good, survived by six grandchildren, not seven. Officially, in the record books of life, he was no relation to me. He was just a man who died, and I just happened to read about it in the newspaper.
Why it bothered me so, I’m not sure. But it certainly did.
E-mail David Magee at firstname.lastname@example.org