It’s a happy coincidence that National Adoption Month should begin on my adoptive father’s birthday. I’d been following the conversation on adoption and loss on Twitter and it caused me to reflect on this very special relationship that has spanned decades of my life.
My Daddy Gary entered my world when I was seven and legally adopted me around the time I was nine. I remember my mom attempting to explain why this was happening, but I didn’t comprehend then—and am still trying to piece together now—the reasoning behind the decision. Yet what was plain to me even as a child was my father’s obvious agitation at the course of things. I remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of his car, seeing his hand clutch the stick shift, and noting an unusual graveness about him. —I will always be your dad.
The memories of my adoption are not pretty: I recall a dark courthouse, a self-important judge (“Say ‘yes, sir!‘”), and my dad, at a distance, looking uncharacteristically crestfallen. I walked out of that building with a new surname I was reluctant to use, not out of any dislike for my stepfather—I was already deeply attached to him—but the frightening sensation of being separated from the clan and severed from the thickness of family history. (My Daddy Gary also bears the name of the stepfather who adopted him, but rather than appreciating this poetic symmetry, it felt doubly estranging.) And then there was the insupportable weight of betrayal: The image of my happy-go-lucky father so visibly crushed would haunt me for years.
On the surface, my life registered no real changes after that day. I saw my dad as regularly as ever (Sunday night sleepovers, school drop-offs/pick-ups on Wednesdays and Fridays), and to my great relief, no one actually made me use my new last name. I practiced scrawling it in secret, in awkward cursive. Daddy Gary assumed incorrectly that I did this out of an impulse similar to the one that pushes girls to write out the surnames of their crushes appended to their first names. Really what I was trying to do was stitch together two halves of my life and get a feel for the contours of this new self.
Eventually I had no choice in the matter. A sudden, unannounced move to the US at age 13 necessitated new documents, and my greencard, Social Security card, and California ID all bore my full legal name. The incongruity between its very Spanish first three quarters and Daddy Gary’s English/Irish last name was disconcerting to me, and not merely for aesthetic reasons: If I’d already felt burdened by a cumbersome given name that I never used socially, this new configuration aggravated that sense of alienation. Warm welcomes notwithstanding, my mom and I retained outsider status in relation to Daddy Gary’s family, who lived in a very white suburb of Detroit, where we both garnered stares wherever we went. (Mom’s advice: “Stare back. They’re the weird ones!”)
I resolved early on to return to my birth name as soon as I could (read: after getting my US citizenship), and was able to fulfill that promise to myself at 26. My dad was elated to hear those plans and all too glad to wire me the money to cover the legal fees. I slipped back into Guevara as easily as one steps into comfortable old shoes. This was followed by an awkward announcement over email (what is the protocol for announcing a name change unrelated to marriage?) to all the people in my life, with one glaring omission.
Being unconstitutionally fit for deception, I suffered the corrosive effects of harboring this secret. The irony that I’d resolved my feelings of guilt and loss at the price of a second betrayal was not lost on me. When I finally mustered the courage to make that phone call, the disappointment at the other end of the line was palpable.
At that juncture it certainly felt like a lose-lose situation, but remarkably enough, my relationship with Daddy Gary has only deepened over the years, weathering the persistent geographic distance that has separated us since my boarding school days. When he and my mother divorced during my senior year of college and he grieved the loss of her extended family, there was never any question whether or not we would remain in each other’s lives. Of my three parents, he is the one who knows me best. That he randomly ended up in the Philippines and fell in love with my mother seems to us the greatest of serendipities.
So here’s to the man who helped me with my math homework; showed me how to swim the side stroke (“You pick the apple from the tree and put it in the basket”); taught me to ride a horse; nursed me through two whole weeks of the chicken pox; and spent many delightful afternoons and evenings playing all kinds of games with me. (But, boy, were you awfully competitive on Nintendo!)
I don’t know how you’ve managed to shrug off all the rotten things I said and did during my adolescence that I still shudder to remember. Thank you for your recent remark that who I am now—who I am still becoming—was already evident to you back in those days. It’s the greatest gift you’ve ever given me, this unexpected revelation.
Happy birthday, Dad. I love you to the stars and back again.