First published May 18, 2016
My entire life was a lie, and I didn’t even know it until I was well into my autumn years.
I was the youngest of four children. As the baby of the family, I should have been the most adored and pampered, as is often the case, but not so for me. My father, in particular, barely acknowledged my existence. When he did, is was mostly to scold me or to point out the ways in which I was lacking. There was no love from him. My mother rarely came to my defense. Though my siblings were usually kind to me, they were much older, and they no longer lived at home when I needed support and encouragement most.
The conclusion I drew from this mistreatment was that I was unworthy of praise and of love; that I was a disappointment to all. I was never quite certain exactly what about me was wrong or lacking but the specifics didn’t matter so much as how I felt about myself. I lacked confidence. I second-guessed myself at every turn. I mistrusted the friendship and love of others. My relationships were painful and disappointing and never ended well for either of us.
I never doubted that the cause of my unhappiness and alienation was the result of my own inadequacies. I staggered under this burden, carried heavy on my shoulders, for most of my life.
When I was nearly seventy, my mother’s sister, lay dying. My parents were already long gone. My aunt asked to see me before she passed on.
I sat at her bedside, holding her hand, and she told me the secret which she did not want to take to her grave.
Before I was born, my parents’ marriage was faltering, and my mother had an affair with a man she deeply loved. When Father discovered her infidelity, he was deeply hurt and angry, as is normal in such situations. If her situation had been different, she might have run off with her lover, but he was in no position to care for her and her three children. So my mother had no other option but to end the affair and humble herself before my father. She begged for his forgiveness, promised to be faithful. He took her back and she committed herself to being a good wife.
Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant. Although she always maintained I was my father’s child, conceived when she returned to their marital bed, she and my aunt knew the lie. They justified the secret, believing it was in everyone’s best interest. Given the circumstances at the time, I suppose it was. What choice did she have?
But my father was not a fool. He did the calculations and discerned the truth. Although it was never spoken of, my mother and my aunt assumed he knew. As far as I and everyone else knew, I was the product of their loins, but it was in this lie where my own troubles were born.
And there, at my aunt’s deathbed, I understood suddenly and clearly that my father’s disdain for me had nothing at all to do with who I was but only what I represented. Every time he looked at me, he was reminded of my mother’s betrayal. How painful and humiliating it must have been for him to raise another man’s child, to feed it and clothe it, to pretend I was his when he knew not an ounce of his blood ran through my veins. Each time he looked at me, he was reminded that he was a cuckold. And my mother, too guilty to come to my defense.
My anger and hatred towards him evaporated and was replaced by pity and a deep, existential sadness that lasted to the end of my days. I’d wasted almost my entire life believing a lie, oblivious to the damage it wreaked upon me.