When I was 13 years old, my mother told me, "Daddy's not your real father." I do not remember what started this conversation. We were sitting on the couch in the living room, and I think we might have been talking about the way Alzheimer's runs in my dad's side of the family because next she said, "I thought you'd be relieved." She sounded irritated when she said it, probably in reaction to the way my jaw had dropped open in shock. (Until that moment I had always assumed the jaw dropping open in shock was just something that was done in movies and cartoons to convey surprise, but it really happens. It felt like a hinge had broken, and I had to use my hand to physically close my mouth.) Maybe it was apparent I was going to cry. I cried a lot back then. My mother explained, as my dad sat in the next room oblivious to our conversation, that Daddy wasn't my real father because she had been inseminated with sperm from an anonymous donor at her doctor's office. The donor was a med student, she said, though I wonder now if this is something the doctor actually told her or if she decided this fact on her own after hearing that donors were often med students. The only other things she knew about him were that he had the same hair and eye color as my dad so that I would convincingly be able to "pass" as his daughter.
"I'm surprised you didn't figure it out on your own," she said. "You're so much better at math than me or Daddy. How else did you think you got to be that way?" My mother told me not to start crying. She really hated when I cried, and I suspect if she had foreseen my reaction, she never would have told me about my father. There wasn't a door between the living room and where my dad sat in the family room, and she warned me that I was not to tell anyone this secret ever, particularly my dad. He knew, of course, but my mom said he seemed to have forgotten, and aside from her own mother and that doctor whose name I never learned, no one else in the world knew I wasn't my dad's biological daughter, and they shouldn't. Besides, my dad hadn't even wanted me when I was conceived, my mom said. He'd told her he hoped she miscarried. He'd tried to hit her, she added, so she'd had to sit with a baseball bat nearby so he couldn't kill me, the fetus in utero.
My mother did not seem to understand why any of this news was upsetting to me. After all, she said, knowing that my dad wasn't my biological father didn't "change anything." My biological father wasn't my father anyway -- he was just a "donor." It's different. "It was anonymous," she said, "so you can't ever know who he is. We agreed never to find out, and if you ever try, I'm the one who will get in trouble." I recall her saying she would be thrown in jail if I ever tried to find out his identity, though I wonder now if I'm misremembering this because it's such an insane thing to say.
My mother said the only way to unlock the donor records was if I were to get a terminal illness, since having my father's medical information could help the doctors treat me. It turns out she was wrong about that -- there was no way to find out the identity of my "donor" under any circumstances. According to the office where my mother was inseminated, her records had already been destroyed by the time she told me this story. But I don't think either of us knew that at the time. So I prayed for a disease that would allow me to unlock the file that I imagined would tell me who my father was and what siblings I had. I prayed for it every night for I'm not sure how long -- at least a few weeks, but it seemed like a few months -- as I cried myself to sleep. If this seems stupid or petty, please consider that I was 13 at the time and that this might have seemed a more pressing issue to me than my own mortality.
"Don't tell anyone," my mother repeated. "If you really need to talk to someone, we'll get you a therapist." And that was the end of the conversation. After the first couple weeks of crying myself to sleep, I asked her to set up the appointment. I'd always been a crier and good at keeping secrets, but I was having an abnormally hard time coping with this news on my own. My mother then told me therapy would be a waste of money, like it had been when they'd taken my brother to a psychologist, and all I'd do is blame her for everything anyway -- that's what therapists get you to do, she said. So I kept my secret entirely to myself, not mentioning it again even once for the next three years, until I finally confided it in my best friend. Sixteen years later, I have still never mentioned it to my mother again, or ever to my dad, or to anyone else in my family, and my brother -- whose adoption anniversary we celebrated every year with a party -- still doesn't know at all.