In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fourth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Robert Mulkey
What do you do when you are offered the dream of a lifetime? And what do you do when that dream is offered to you by the brother you never knew you had, your full biological brother?
Should I take him up on it? I pondered this carefully because my brother and I have an unusual relationship. You see I’m an adoptee. Yes, another one of those “a” word people. I have had the unique blessing of knowing my brother now for thirty-six years. We met in 1978 when adoption was still swept under the rug, clouded by embarrassment and gaucherie. This was before Oprah, before Angelina Jolie’s many adoptions, before books, websites and seminars on adoption. We were blazing a trail we never expected.
We were but mere teenagers. I was nineteen and my brother was sixteen when we met. It was Spring Break in March of 1978 and I had driven to his home in Vancouver, British Columbia from my home in Salem, Oregon. I had just learned of my biological family three months earlier and decided impulsively to meet them. I never stopped to consider the ramifications of my actions—was I too young? Was he? All I knew was that I wanted to meet my brother.
I had wanted a brother since my childhood in my adoptive family. My only sibling was a sister nine years older. My parents even took in a foster child because of my constant whining, but it didn’t work out. Eventually, I forgot about my childhood yearnings.
Before driving to B.C. I spoke with my brother on the phone and it was surreal. We didn’t know what to say to each other. The childhood yearnings came back. He was the brother I had prayed for. Now he was on the phone with me.
Our meeting was cataclysmic. We were both so young. That first day, I met him and my biological father, an Italian immigrant. Eventually, I met an aunt, uncle and cousin. Sadly, our biological mother had died six years earlier. His family was very small, making each relationship intense.
I was heartened by the fact that my brother and I had the same parents, making us full siblings. For me, that made our relationship all the more special. I was his only sibling. He was my only brother. No one else swam in the same gene pool we did.
At that first meeting, we danced around like two boxers in a ring, not quite sure what to make of each other. Where I was outgoing, loud and raucous, he was more quiet, reticent and withdrawn. Where I was more sensitive, wearing my emotions on my sleeve, he was more pragmatic.
I had wanted to meet my family for the same reasons most adoptees do—to answer questions, know history and heritage. This was before much of the DNA science, so the issues of health care and biology were never considered. Knowing I had a brother sweetened the pot.
We continued our awkward dance. I felt like I was a disappointment to him because he was always so quiet. So I overcompensated. I felt I wasn’t cool enough for him. I invited him to visit me at Oregon State University where I was an undergrad, thinking my cool friends would cause him to see me as cool by proxy. I played up the party and athlete ethic, something with which I was uncomfortable. Yet I couldn’t penetrate the walls around him.
When I would visit British Columbia, his friends would swarm around me, inviting me to dinners, clubs and parties. The family would have activities planned and there was a general sense of enthusiasm and anticipation surrounding my every arrival. Yet barriers remained. And they existed with my biological father, too. I couldn’t articulate them, but I knew they were there. My brother seemed to be even more distant than when I arrived. I had naturally assumed he would be as enamored with me, his only sibling, a brother, as I was with him. Obviously, I was wrong.
We matured. College ended. I moved to Southern California to find work after graduation and my brother found work in the oil industry in Alberta. Yet we stayed in contact, despite the distance. Sometimes it was as if we were the only two people on earth. Our gene pool included only the two of us, a fact that we began to slowly acknowledge and embrace.
Despite the physical distance, I observed progress as we continued our boxing dance. We were adults, thrust into the real world, leaving childish, immature musings behind. And a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood. We found ourselves growing up.
And with that maturing, came the obligatory pain. We began to open up to each other. We discussed our “situation.” We talked of how my appearance in his life had upset the apple cart. Suddenly he was no longer the golden child, my mother’s only son. Suddenly there was an older brother, given away in adoption, who captured everyone’s attention and, seemingly, affection. Suddenly there was competition for that attention and affection. Or so it seemed.
The walls around my brother began to crumble. We talked on the phone. He came to visit me in Southern California. I regaled him with the Southern California lifestyle, taking him to Beverly Hills and Hollywood and treating him to an exotic dinner in Laguna Beach. I even introduced him to Mike Tyson, by happenstance, when Tyson emerged from a chic men’s store as we walked along Rodeo Drive.
But I did it because I adored my brother. I decided I didn’t have to convince him to accept me by being someone other than who I was. He was enjoying time with his older brother, as we sped down the freeways of Los Angeles in the springtime sun.
Yet while his walls came down, mine were going up. My brother’s professional trajectory was nothing short of spectacular. He began traveling the world, commanding huge salaries, dating models. I remained in dead-end jobs, unable to progress.
He reached out to me, but I batted his hand away. I was intimidated and embarrassed by his success. The tables had turned. Where he was once pushed to the side by my presence, I was now pushed to the side by his success. Or so I thought.
And where he had once dismissed and rejected me because of my popularity, I now dismissed and rejected him because of his phenomenal success.
In 1997, he and our father took me to Italy so I could meet my extended biological family. An aunt and uncle, two cousins and a grandfather, the family patriarch, had known of me for nearly forty years. They had patiently waited for me. Before we left, my brother and I had a heart to heart talk. I apologized to him for taking away the spotlight for so many years while he was still a young boy, still grieving over the loss of his mother. He stoically brushed it aside, but I knew I had hit a nerve.
The reunion in Italy was more than I could ever have hoped for. I didn’t speak the language, but I was accepted as family. I connected with them in a manner I hadn’t expected. My octogenarian grandfather told my father, “He’s one of us, that’s all that matters.” My new grandpa placed my gift of an eight-by-ten color photo on the mantle along with his other grandsons. I was theirs, and they were mine.
I reveled in my acceptance by this newfound family. I made periodic visits to Italy and was always met with loving, open arms. My relationship with my family grew. Yet it was at the expense of my brother, who once again saw me as a threat. I was usurping the spotlight while he was cast aside. He dove deeper into work, while I pursued a bond with the family in Italy. He was hurt by my strong connection with our relatives. I was intimidated by his astounding success. We fortified our walls.
So the dance continued into middle age. His stellar professional trajectory continued unabated, while mine languished. But I still anticipated his calls, and I felt a certain smugness when he would share his struggles, knowing his life wasn’t perfect, either.
We still failed each other. When I needed him, he wasn’t there. And I enviously dismissed his life as shallow. We still weren’t willing to trust, to any substantial degree, so the relationship remained on a superficial level.
Middle age came and went and we continued on with our lives, wanting each other, but not knowing how to get closer to each other. And not realizing that we already had each other! We were two broken men, unaware of our brokenness, or of how to piece ourselves back together.
By the time our forties rolled around, we had both had a lifetime of experiences to color our psyches. He was married with a child, my nephew. I had lost both of my adoptive parents. Our father’s health began to decline. We relied on each other more. We both contributed to decisions about our father’s health, which made me feel included. I tried to alleviate his fears about my relationship with our family in Italy.
I traveled to B.C. periodically to check up on our dad and help him out in any way I could, since my brother was overseas. When I was financially strapped, my brother offered me help and I accepted–begrudgingly.
When my brother’s wife entered our lives, a new picture of my brother emerged. One I never imagined existed. He had always bragged about me. He thought I was brilliant. He couldn’t wait for his new wife to meet me. And I found he had been struggling with, and contemplating, our relationship over the decades. Just as I had been.
He started to reach out to me in ways he never had. I was astounded to discover that he remembered details of my life in Oregon with my adoptive family. He was genuinely interested in their well-being, and I began to fall in love with him all over again. This time it was healthy.
During the next decade we became closer still, and the walls of mistrust started falling, without our noticing it. Time spent with him and our father became comfortable and enjoyable. During the holidays in 2007 we went out and bought a tree, lights and ornaments. After we were finished decorating, we stood back and admired our creation. It was our first Christmas together. Finally.
With each passing year, our brotherly relationship blossomed. It happened without trying. We were approaching fifty, and somehow maturity not only occurred, but stayed. We began savoring each other. Our father’s health continued to decline and we leaned on each other. I back in Oregon and he was in Russia, but we were closer emotionally than ever before.
And when our father finally died, I made the agonizing call to my brother in Russia, waking him in the middle of the night. Over the next two weeks, we clung to each other, because we were all the other had. We worked together to give our father the best funeral in the world. We each gave a eulogy, a eulogy that only we could have given, from our own unique perspectives. No one else could know the loss we felt, because only we were his sons.
Our father’s death impacted us differently. I had lost the last link to my genetic foundation, and my brother had lost his biggest fan. All we had was each other now and the bond tightened. My brother started a new career in the Middle East, and I started a writing career. In our own ways, we were both alone.
I visited my brother in Moscow, right before he moved to the Middle East in July of this year. During the trip he offered me the dream of a lifetime—a chance to live in Italy near our family. I had been aching for years to get my Italian citizenship. Now with our father gone, my brother was the only link towards this goal.
He offered me an apartment rent-free, so I could have the chance to become fluent in Italian, become better acquainted with our family, embrace my Italian heritage, pursue my writing, and work on my Italian citizenship. He reached out from his heart to help his brother and have him close by—closer than the West Coast of North America.
What did I do when the dream of a lifetime was handed to me on a silver platter by the brother I never knew I had? After a lifetime of turmoil, mistrust, arguing and pain, I humbly thanked my brother and accepted the gift.
And I watched as the last brick in the wall disintegrated.
Robert Mulkey is the author of the book, This is My Lemonade—An Adoption Story. He has recently relocated to Alba Adriatica, Italy where he will be pursuing his Italian citizenship, embracing his Italian family, and continuing his writing. As a special offer for Thanksgiving weekend, Robert’s Kindle book is available FREE on Amazon from November 28-30. Follow Robert at at:
This year’s Adoption Portraits series is filled. You may send a submission for next year’s series to Carrie Goldman at email@example.com. Follow Portrait of an Adoption on Twitter and Facebook.
To continue receiving posts from Portrait of an Adoption, be sure to join Carrie’s mailing list.
Check out Carrie Goldman’s award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.