Here I am in the bed I slept in 40 years ago, in the 3-bedroom duplex
of the working-class neighborhood Garrett Hill, a blue-collar section
carved out amidst Philadelphia’s elite Main Line. Surrounded by large
single houses I was embarrassed growing up that nine of us lived in half a house,
and embarrassed that I had to help Dad in his
janitorial work at our elementary school. I was also embarrassed
by Dad driving a decade old car without a working radio. His
transistor radio played the Phillies game, and with every turn, slid
off the dashboard and fell on the floor.
I moved back to Philly from Santa Monica four years ago when Dad was 87. It was time we got closer. Also, by being back where my biological son was put up for adoption 42 years ago, I thought I’d be more likely to meet him somehow. Maybe we’d pass each other and be struck by the uncanny resemblance. Or maybe he’d be at a Moth when I told my story.
Over and over again private detectives and others told me since it was a closed, catholic adoption and my name wasn’t on the birth certificate, it was impossible. I desperately wanted to meet him, get his forgiveness for what I had done.
In addition to being a janitor, Dad was a full-time mailman and often stressed out. Growing up I feared him. When My brother Bill was 16, he told Dad he no longer wanted to go to church. Dad threw his coffee on him. At the dinner table my father’s hand would lash out at anyone who misbehaved. When he reached for a roll, everyone ducked.
I was the daydreamer, the lazy one. Whenever he took my six brothers and me to help him clean I was the one who got his rage. “You call that done?!,” he shouted after inspecting a toilet stall, “I can’t even tell you were in there. Wake up! You’ll never amount to anything.” My brothers laughed, as my thoughts raged, “Wake up to what? All Dad’s anger? I won’t be cleaning toilets the rest of my life.” I daydreamed about running away and becoming a stand-up comic; I knew I could do one thing well: make people laugh.
In high school I wrote and directed a comedy show, collaborating with fellow students. My comedy sketches brought down the house. Hearing all the laughter, I felt connected, worthwhile.
That night Dad gave me a compliment. I remember it because it was the first one. “Paul, I’ve never been so proud in my life!” Lifting my spirits even higher. Then he added, “Nothing John did compares to this.” Why did he have to bring up John? My older brother, was the star of the family—a football hero, MVP. Couldn’t he just acknowledge me? My father couldn’t even give a compliment right.
Also, I knew he wouldn’t be proud at all if he found out about the pregnancy and adoption. Afraid of his temper, I never told my parents. From the moment I got Patty pregnant at 16 I was devastated. Everything Dad had screamed at me, bubbled up. He was right: I was useless. I set out to redeem myself. My grades went from C’s to A’s. All my anxious energy went toward football and landing the starting quarterback position, which never panned out. Then, I wrote the show. But despite its success, I still felt broken, unable to forgive myself for giving away my son.
Dad found out about the pregnancy two years later in a bar. A neighbor, Mr. Doyle said, “Bill, I need your advice, my son got his girl in the same predicament as your son.” Dad didn’t understand. Mr. Doyle asked, “How did you handle it, when you found out Paul knocked up the O’Leary girl?” My dad slugged him. That’s how he handled it.
At 19 I escaped this house to pursue stand-up comedy and began making my living at it. For forty years the judgments I made at 16 stuck with me, weighing on me like a low-grade fever. And then 4 years ago I saw a YouTube video of adoptive parents meeting their child for the first time, showing me the other side of adoption. Filled with awe, the new parents couldn’t stop crying. The conclusion I held for so long began unraveling: maybe giving him up didn’t screw up his life, maybe it didn’t screw up mine. I may have missed out on being a father, but he didn’t miss out on having parents.
Recently, I thanked Dad for the compliment he gave me at 17. He replied, “Well, I knew how difficult it was for you your senior year not starting quarterback.” So that’s why he brought up John. Dad is way more more sensitive than I ever realized.
Dad continues to surprise me. Last year I lost my life savings day trading. I was in shock and, once again ashamed. John consoled me. I couldn’t tell Dad; he’s conservative with money. A month later, to celebrate Dad’s birthday I took him to New Orleans. At Preservation Hall in between songs Dad starts talking about 1991. He got a stock tip on Eastern Airlines, invested twenty grand. Two weeks later Eastern folded. He lost it all. How coincidental! I never knew about his loss. Then Dad asked how I was doing with stocks.
“Oh, you talked to John. Yeah, I lost my savings.”
Dad said, “Don’t start working too hard. You’ve got plenty of time. I don’t want you to worry about money.” He handed me a $10,000 check.
Deeply touched, I paid his bar tab. Why did I fail to see this other side of him? Why do I hide my mistakes from him? I’ve always wanted to be better than him. I began to realize that this man—who I thought never understood me—was a big ally. My world was dark because I kept turning out the light.
On our flight home my father talked about how his life was idyllic until he was 11, when his drunk uncle moved in and began berating him and hitting him. His dad never protected him, or even attended one of his sporting events. Dad rarely missed one of mine.
For 42 years connecting with my biological son seemed impossible and then … he showed up. I’ll never forget my son’s first words to me, “Per 23andMe, you are my biological father.” It happened so simply. I spit into a vial, mailed it in, and was connected to this stranger who shared 49% of my DNA. Why did he join 23AndMe? Does he need a kidney? For so long I lived with the aching unknown; how was he doing? I sent an email asking about his life.
A day later I was greeted with a five-page response. His name, purely coincidental, is Paul. He loves his parents, thoroughly enjoyed his childhood, and appreciates his life. He too, had to deal with the disappointment of being a back-up quarterback. The nature versus nurture debate intrigues him. Paul also grew up in a very working-class neighborhood and always wondered about his life-long passion for writing. He always understood his adoption situation without remorse. We’re a lot alike, except Paul always accepted his family and feels fortunate.
He wanted to learn about me and for some reason I put it off for two days. Why would I put off something that I wanted for so long? At McDonald’s I bought a senior coffee and began, “Paul, so glad to hear you feel so fortunate.” I stopped writing. I began bawling, my body shaking, my heart beating as if a clogged artery opened up. 42 years of hope and worry met with such joy. Tears raced down my cheeks. I smiled uncontrollably, covering my face with my cup, snot running from my nose. At McDonald’s, I kind of fit right in.
After reading about my experience he wrote, “I’m touched, but also saddened, about how you struggled with the adoption. I wish I had reached out years ago to say I’m fine.”
That’s my kid! Thoughtful, Concerned. I can’t take credit for the nurture part, but damn he’s got my nature. I did not not raise my son to be insensitive. Discovering Paul’s appreciation for life has me experiencing an odd sensation, not joy or sadness, but peace. Unlike ever before, at least for now, I can be, simply be.
Last month I had two days off and looked forward to time alone. But my father needed help. With a sense of duty, I went: Did his laundry, made him lunch, and cleaned his bathroom. And didn’t miss a spot. It was magical. As I left, Dad handed me a birthday card penned with his own words, “So grateful to have you as my son — and my friend.”
Since the virus pandemic wiped out my comedy work Dad suggested renting out my condo and moving in with him. So here I am, in the home I couldn’t wait to flee. And I keep thinking of the T.S. Eliot quote that hung in my therapist’s office, “And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
I am fortunate. And humbled by the delicate intricacies of what it’s like to care about someone, care for someone. It’s a lot like being a father.
Happy Father’s Day to you fortunate soul’s taking on the heart wrenching task of fatherhood.