My Birth Father, 1936-2018

IMG_0855      Frank Verges, my birth father, died on Monday, February 12. He was living in a nursing home in Davis, in Northern California, near his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha. The last six or seven years of his life he’d become cognitively impaired. The man who through most of his life had been so introverted and unresponsive became even more introverted and unresponsive in his last years.

I did what I could to help take care of him here in Southern California, up until 2013, when Samantha took over and escorted him—along with her generous inheritance—to a life of solitude and neglect  in her house and eventually in an institution. When that happened, I realized he was really gone. When that happened, I began the biggest project in my life, my memoir now called Fallen David. I got a dog, too. Both events were indirectly a result of his departure—and virtual death—in 2013. An era was over. I no longer had a birth father.

I first made contact with my birth father in 1990. I was 29. After the first phone calls and letters to and from him, Frank managed to track down my birth mother easily. Her name was Marcia. In 1990 both of them were divorced from other partners and living in different parts of the country. We had our reunion at the end of 1990, Christmastime. It was fun and strange and awkward. From the beginning, Marcia’s attitude toward me was, “Yes, I would like to see you again, why not?” And Frank’s attitude was, “I hope and pray we become loving friends!”

Not long after our reunion, the two of them began long-distance dating. They fell in love and got married. They lived together unhappily for fifteen years until her premature death in 2007. After that, Frank—a heavy smoker, drug-user, couch potato, and consumer of junk food—gradually went downhill. I remember the day of Marcia’s “celebration of life” event in their rose garden, months after her death. He made an appearance for some small part of it, but spent most of the time in bed watching C-Span and sports.

Whereas Marcia (even though she married Frank) never wanted much of a relationship with her long-lost love child, Frank appeared much more outgoing, open-minded, affectionate, and friendly. But that was true only up to a point. Compared to Marcia, anyone would appear affectionate and friendly. In reality, he had a habit of keeping people at arm’s length—and this included everyone. In fact the problem between him and Marcia was that he wanted to keep to himself most of the time, and was more interested in TV than in her. She noticed this, and didn’t like it. And friends of his noticed, and former wives and girlfriends, too. He once told me how he enraged women in his youth by his sullenness and indifference after sex was over.

And with me it was no different. Yes, we bonded. Yes, compared to Marcia, he was a caring, considerate birth father. But deep down the two weren’t so different. They were both very introverted, standoffish people. Whenever I saw Frank, he had a habit of cutting off our conversations abruptly, extending his hand, and declaring, “I am now going to bring this visit to an end.”

He once told me, “Of course I’d like to leave you a little something after I pass, but just a token amount—you come from a rich family.”

After my adoptive father died, Frank drove to the house in San Francisco and visited for a few days. “I’m doing you such a big favor, you have no idea!” he said. And he took me to task for grieving for my father so much. “I can’t sit here and listen to you whine about your predicament, I just can’t!” And so I had to apologize for grieving. The last day of that visit, I came home expecting to go out to dinner. His dog dropped a tennis ball out of its mouth in a playful gesture as I walked up the stairs. Frank himself stood in the kitchen. “No, I do NOT want to go out for dinner with you. I am tired and have a long drive ahead of me tomorrow. Good-night.” The next morning I woke up alone in the old house. It was my last day in the family house in San Francisco before it was to be staged and sold. And Frank was gone, unable to share the moment.

It seemed I always wanted to set up our relationship for a cozy fireside pow-wow, for a prolonged  tête-à-tête  surrounded by pets and tea things and autumnal colors and maybe some string music in the background. That was my fantasy. It never happened. He would appear, and just when things were getting friendly, he would disappear.

That day in 2007, when Frank disappeared on my birthday on my last day in the family house, I said to myself, I said in these words: When it’s his time to go, I will not grieve for him.

I am thinking about him a lot following his death on Monday. I haven’t cried. I am not grieving in any conventional sense. My birth parents were definitely and determinedly my biological parents. A relationship was established. Nothing like parent-child bonds were ever formed.

There was of course no funeral (they are expensive and he wasn’t religious). I will receive no ashes. I will probably never see the meagre $5,000 Frank set aside for me. The bio half-sister will try her best to cheat me out of even that.

And yet his presence over the last twenty-eight years enriched my life. He was a philosophy professor; I majored in philosophy a decade before I even knew of his existence. We could talk—especially back in the 1990s—and it was stimulating and exciting. If I hadn’t met my birth parents, I’m not sure I would ever have left Spain and returned to this country in the mid ’90s. He was cultured and smart and could on occasion be lively, and we had a good rapport. We are very much alike (—ha! I just wrote that in the present tense). My birth mother once said to me, “You and Frank are the two most negative people I’ve ever met.”

Frank Verges and I met twenty-eight years ago—a whole generation ago. He’s now gone. With him I probably had a better relationship than most people do who track down their birth parents and try to make up for what was lost.

In lieu of ashes, I will go to what was once his house in Fullerton, dig up some dirt in the front garden, and in a sort of ceremony scatter it in the sea somewhere near Catalina Island.

 

 

 

 

 

The Biological Half-Sister I Never Got to Know

 

Samantha

Bio half-sister Samantha Havens in the early ’90s.

As I wind down work on my memoir about adoption, I realize that one character will not be appearing until the end, and then only a little: my biological half-sister, Samantha Havens. Why only at the end?

The memoir, Fallen David, chronicles my childhood with my adoptive parents, Henry and Vera Frankel and my accidental discovery at the age of seven that I wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t until 1990 that I asked my father for more information. When I found out that my birth parents were Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges, it was easy to track them down. The book tells about our reunion and its aftermath.

In the early ‘90s, when I was living in Spain, I made a trip back to the States and met more of my birth parents’ relatives, including Samantha, a year younger than I am. Our father (how odd to put it this way: “our father”!) Frank Verges, after leaving the young Marcia Cranston to take care of her pregnancy situation on her own in 1960, went on to date many other young women, and one of them was Penny. What the two of them shared was guilt: both had given up children. Frank (through Marcia) had let me go; and Penny had let go of a child whose whereabouts are still, to this day, unknown. This fact from their pasts—so I am told—was the glue that held them together, for a time, a very short time. They married, and less than a year later, Frank took off again, leaving Penny behind with a daughter, my half-sister Samantha. Penny had to raise Samantha on her own, with rare visits from Frank after the divorce. In the ’80s father and daughter began to get acquainted a bit more (both lived in California, she in the north, he in the south). And then in ’90s I came along. Samantha—usually known as Sam—was living in Sacramento when I first met her. She had a tall, serious husband, Lyle (a lawyer, I think) and three children. Our meeting was pleasant. We had lunch in a beautiful restaurant by the river and toured the capitol. We were a large party: my birth parents and I, Sam and Lyle and their three young children. We toured Sacramento as one big, awkward blob, and Sam and I had no chance for a tête-à-tête or anything remotely resembling a tête-à-tête. What was she like? I’ll say it again: pleasant! She had a friendly, warm, candid face. She talked a lot and very, very fast, and didn’t listen much. It was a struggle to wait for her to stop talking so you could get a word in edgewise: you really had to plan carefully when to jump in—she was an express train going by, oblivious to everything. I’d always wanted a sister when I was little. Not a brother, but a sister would have been perfect. Could it be that even when I was seven or eight I sensed that she was out there? Nothing much happened in Sacramento except sightseeing. I thought it was an all right start.

I moved back to the States three years later, in 1995, and around that time we met again, when my birth parents rented a house in Laguna Beach. She was visiting for a few days with her children (by that time she’d already divorced her husband). I was excited to see her. I went up to her in the living room and asked when and how we could find time to talk and get to know each other. I was struck by her manner: she seemed guarded, cautious around me, evasive and puzzled when I asked questions. Later that night my birth father said, “Obviously a lot of sibling rivalry on her part, and almost none on yours!”

It wasn’t until many years later that we met again, in Frank’s old Fullerton house this time. I was not good company: my adoptive father had just died a few weeks before and I was grieving. Once again Sam was very, very talkative, and I couldn’t help noticing how much she loved her beer. Her beer-guzzling boyfriend loved his liquor even more; he was an L.A. transplant up to the Central Valley, who, when he had enough liquor in him, would begin pontificating about urban planning, baseball, Eastern Europe, and related topics. She was like an empty vase next to him, needing to be filled up, always playing the role of the co-ed hungry for knowledge about the world, hungry for instruction by strong male figures. I know I’m using an overused phrase—“no there there.” And I almost want to delete it. So I’ll take something from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: a character who compares himself to an onion; you peel and peel and there’s nothing at the core. I could have said to her, “I might go to Peru to spread the Gospel and father eighteen children,” and she would have said, “Oh! Nice, when are you leaving?” and her big, open face would have looked at me untroubled. I could have said, “Now that my adoptive father has died, I have no one and wish to end my life, do you have any suggestions on how to do so?” and her big, open face wouldn’t have looked concerned or the least bit emotional, and she would have fired away questions, cheerfully asking to be fed more facts and opinions on suicide as she drank her beer. Nothing of substance ever really got started.

I complained (to some people) that she never tried to reach out to me, include me in her family, invite me to be an uncle to her children. But I myself didn’t reach out, and didn’t particularly care. I didn’t care, but I wanted her to. Biological siblings—whom adoptees have no history with—are like dog littermates. When your puppy is weaned and whisked away from “brothers” and “sisters” there is no ceremony, no expectation of later bonding, nothing. They just go their own way. Samantha and I are littermates.

My birth father—a heavy smoker, drug user, and diabetic—began showing signs of senility several years ago. I lived thirty miles away and saw him often. I tried to communicate to Sam—still in Davis—how badly he was failing; it took her a long time to catch on, but when she finally did, it wasn’t long at all before she took charge. She helped him sell his house, and moved him up to Davis. After that, I always had to hear news about him from third parties. With all the money she’d inherited after the sale of his house, Sam took an extended tour of Europe. Then she bought a house in Oregon, and he went along (he had to, now that he was declared incompetent). There isn’t much left of the old man. He talks a bit, walks a bit. The last time I spoke to my sister, six months ago, she was in an awful hurry to get off the phone, and as for him, he only had the strength to chat for a few seconds: “I’m stuck here at the house, lost my license. Not much to do. Well, okay, bye.” She promised to text me their new Portland address, but I didn’t hear from her again.

A friend said to me, “I’m sure she’ll call you when he dies.”

Samantha. Who is she? Who are her children, my “nephew” and “nieces”? I don’t even know their names. Sharon, Brenda, Brandon, Brennan, Brandy? Who knows? I doubt they remember they have a biological half-uncle. Why would they?

This is what many reunions are like.