Nick Kowalczyk

 

That Tuesday morning I awoke with an aching body and yellow shit clumped around my eyes and caked across my temples like two dried-out streams during a summer drought. It was 7:31 a.m. My phone was buzzing with a text message from my mother and I wondered what was wrong. It had been two weeks since we last texted, almost a month since we spoke, and two months since I’d seen her at Gram’s funeral. For our family, that’s abundant communication.

Mom’s text said: It’s time. I believe I have answers to questions regarding your DNA testing. But I need to do it in person. I realize your house is undergoing remodeling—so I am happy to stay at one of the hotels. Let me know if and when it is convenient for you. Much love. Mom.

I read this over a few times and couldn’t settle on what to think. First, I remembered that I had lied to Mom about the remodeling the last time she asked to visit, then I muttered some profanity only to discover that my throat felt like I had gargled kitty litter. I did not consider immediately replying to Mom. Instead I set down my phone, settled into a familiar state of denial, and fell back asleep.

Hours later I awoke to re-read Mom’s text in case I’d dreamed or misunderstood it, and I panicked that this wasn’t the case. After literally three and a half decades of silence on the topic, Mom was initiating a conversation inevitably about my being the lone member of our large Polish-American family who happened to look mixed-race Asian-American. My blood sank down through my feet. The secret snooping I had begun at age twelve in my parents’ attic for evidence of adoption, infidelity, or a switched-at-birth scenario suddenly was arcing toward a revelation.

How terrifying.

All I could think to do was forward Mom’s message to Jen, who for several hours now had been at her veterinary clinic. I figured that if the text was something that I could afford to take lightly—which I hoped against all reason was an option—then maybe Jen and I could have a good time joking about it. And why? Because texting is what you do when you’re communicating about frivolous stuff, such as “I’m running late for dinner”; or “Good luck at your job interview, call me when it’s over”; or, “Nick, it’s your mother and I have vital information about your identity that I’ve withheld from you for thirty-six years.”

Jen called me immediately, much to my dismay.

I croaked my usual “Hello, honey.”

“Ugh. What is she talking about?” Jen said with uncharacteristic panic. “That message is really cryptic.”

I rolled my tongue in my mouth, hoping to generate enough spit so I could speak.

“I know,” I said aloofly. “It’s bizarre.”

“What are you supposed to make of it?”

This was an excellent question which I was in no condition to answer, as it would require sentences or maybe a paragraph. I pretended she hadn’t asked it.

“Throat hurts. Feel like shit. Plan to call doctor,” I said elliptically.

Jen hates the sound of mouth noises, especially lip-smacking and salivating ones, which probably explains why the remainder of our conversation sounded like she was holding her phone at the long end of her stethoscope.

“How are you going to reply to her?”

“Don’t know,” I said. “Probably won’t.”

And for more than a day, that’s what I did, too scared to do anything else.

***

Late the next morning a nurse practitioner diagnosed me with a sinus infection and bilateral conjunctivitis and ran a quick-test for strep throat that turned out negative but still was sent to a lab because my mouth was so raw. I was prescribed oral antibiotics, which gave me diarrhea, and eyedrop antibiotics, which irritated and further reddened my eyes.

During this appointment I sputtered out that Jen and I had sex shortly before I came down with the sinus infection and sore throat but after I already had symptoms of pink eye even though, at the time, I didn’t realize it was pink eye. “She’s also eight weeks pregnant with our second baby,” I added nervously.

The nurse practitioner sighed. She clearly pitied me. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t always this tightly wound; it was just that I had learned a day earlier, sort of, that my parents maybe had been lying to me basically since I was born.

“Um, I’m not going to say the pregnancy is in danger,” she said hesitantly. “But you might want to contact your obstetrician immediately.”

On the drive home I phoned Jen to inform her of this advice and that because of me, our second child would be diseased, blinded, pink-eyed, developmentally challenged, or miscarried—I was certain of it.

She told me maybe to contact Mom and get some rest.

But before doing that I dabbed my seeping eyes and squirted salt water up my sinuses, only to notice in the bathroom mirror two enormous cold sores, or stress blisters, forming on my upper lip, and I thought to myself, This is ridiculous; I’ve become a Monty Python sketch. Angrily I popped the cold sores, took an overdose of acyclovir, and grabbed my phone.

For my entire existence, I reasoned to myself, my appearance had been my public embarrassment and private shame—and not because of how I looked, either, but because of the weird family silence that surrounded my dissimilarity from my parents and my younger brother Ben, who has dirty blonde hair and blue eyes.

Angrily I recalled the only two times I tried to get Mom to talk to me about my identity. The first involved a direct question, posed when I was twenty-one years old and seeing a psychologist, at my own initiative, for problems with depression and heavy drinking. “Am I really your and Dad’s son?” I asked her as we ate spaghetti at home. “Of course you are,” she said, as if insulted. Then my Dad walked into the room. He was lanky and pale and hazel-eyed. He gathered what Mom and I were discussing. “You look like my Dad,” he told me, and fetched his parents’ grainy wedding portrait from the dining room wall. Besides both us having round faces and dark hair, I did not see many similarities between me and my paternal grandfather, who died long before I was born. But I thought to myself, “Okay. It’s settled. I won’t ask again.”

My second attempt happened a year or two later and its outcome still smarted. On that occasion I asked my mother to read an essay I wrote in a college creative writing class. It was called, I believe, “Pacific Islander Polack,” and was my first and very raw attempt to write, or even speak about, what I had experienced by consequence of looking Asian-American and having to come to terms, painfully and entirely by myself, with frequent and unprovoked racial antagonism.

It wasn’t a great essay, I was certain, but it was mine and it was honest and I was proud of it. I gave it to Mom so she might help me feel less alone inside of my skin. But with my phone in my hand, ready to let loose on her these fifteen years later, I thought back to the full year it took me to gather the courage to show her that essay and how, after she read it, we talked about…nothing. “It made me sad,” she said blankly, and that was it. Except that I apologized to her, for making her read something about me that made her feel that way.

So now I was in a full rage. In fact, I found myself screaming at my mother even though she was six hours away in Ohio and I was alone in my bathroom in central New York. But all of the pieces suddenly seemed to have tumbled together about why my childhood sucked, and in all likelihood, why I had given so much of my post-adolescent life to a search for comfort elsewhere in alcohol, drug abuse, womanizing, porn addiction, and chronic suicidal ideation.

“Fuck this,” I said to myself, and typed quickly and hit send.

I wrote: I’d call, but it hurts to talk and I’m low on mental energy. I’m dealing with a sinus infection, pink eye in both eyes, possibly strep throat, and the chance that Jen has been exposed to all of this in her 8th week of pregnancy. But regarding your message: it’s cryptic and inconsiderate. What am I supposed to make of the mystery you’re implying? And why should I have to wait? Just tell me. If I’m adopted, have a different father than Ben, or whatever—nothing is going to hurt me in regards to my childhood or family-of-origin stuff more than what I’ve already had to overcome. But it would be irritating for me to spend however many days or weeks in a weird guessing-game state-of-mind that’s inevitably going to distract me from my obligations to Jen, Henry, Jen’s pregnancy, my writing, and everything else I’ve already got to worry about.

The remainder of Wednesday came and went.

So did Thursday. Friday, too.

All of them with no word from Mom, which instead of giving me pause, only angered me more.

“I just don’t understand,” I complained to Jen on Thursday night. “Why wouldn’t she reply at least about the new baby? There can only be one of two explanations: either she had an affair or I was adopted. So what’s the big deal?”

Jen looked at me somberly. “There is also a third possibility.”

***

By the next morning my eyes felt like a magnet was pulling them out. I feared I was going blind, or that I had shingles in my eyes. I kept thinking about Jen’s suggestion and hoped to come up with another theory. I considered the recent timeline of events:

In mid-June I’d seen Mom and Dad at Gram’s funeral. It was a brief and awkward visit, which is to say, it was fine.

A few days later Jen gave me the 23andme DNA test as a Father’s Day gift. She said she hoped it might bring me some closure.

For six weeks the test sat on the desk in our kitchen and I made excuses that I wasn’t taking it because of its restrictions about not eating or drinking for thirty minutes before spitting into the test tube. Then because I felt bad about not appreciating Jen’s gift and curious if any ailments I am genetically predisposed to would strike me or my children, I spit in the tube one Sunday night, walked it to our mailbox, and said to myself, “God, I hope this isn’t a mistake.”

In the first week of August I got an email saying the results were in. I logged into my account, Jen wasn’t home, and I learned that ancestrally I am 52% European and 47% East Asian. For approximately thirty seconds I wondered, “Could I really be Mom and Dad’s son, then?” But my loyalty to my parents, as well as, I am sure, my cowardice and idiocy and decades of learned repression, cut short this particularly obvious inquiry. I looked further into the results hoping to find an explanation that matched the storyline my parents led me to believe.

And I found my explanation, however unscientifically, in the fact that my Asian lineage comes from my paternal side, specifically through Haplogroup O-M307.1, a subgroup of O-M119, which originated 32,000 years ago in Eastern Asia. From this fact, I made the fantastical (although believable, at least to me) leap that while it may be true my most ancient paternal ancestor was born in Eastern Asia, that person or their near progeny must have left home and settled eventually in Europe, specifically Poland, which was conquered countless times by invading armies, anyway, and somehow I just ended up with a phenotype that presented this long-ago ancestor’s Asiatic features.

“Finally, my identity problem is solved,” I congratulated myself.

For several days I debated whether to tell my mother of these results. Initially I decided not to, as I assumed her response would anger and ultimately depress me. But then I got an email from another 23andme client who said he was my “DNA Relative” and turned out to be my third cousin on my mother’s side. And so it happened, on an impulse, on the first Friday of August, I called Mom to tell her about my DNA Relative. In passing I also mentioned the test, something like, “Hey, so I took this DNA test and figured out why I look sort of Asian…it’s because of these really fascinating things called Haplogroups.”

It was evening and rush hour in Cleveland. She was driving home after an eleven-hour day. Our connection wasn’t good and she seemed distracted or uninterested. She didn’t say anything about the science-fiction-like, creepy coolness of the DNA Relative thing. Nor did she say anything sympathetic, like, “Wow, I’m glad you can rest easy about the Asian thing now.”

We spoke no longer than fifteen minutes. Afterwards I felt abandoned and invisible, just like the other times I’d tried to make myself seen. Therefore, two weeks later when Mom texted “When can we visit” I said we were remodeling our house. This lie had been my first conscious effort to put distance between us, as I didn’t know how much I wanted our relationship anymore.

***

Later in the afternoon I saw my optometrist for an emergency appointment and was diagnosed with Endemic Keratoconjunctivitis, a highly contagious strain of viral pinkeye that I probably contracted the previous weekend in a hotel swimming pool. “Other than maybe being stabbed in the cornea, what you’ve got is the most painful thing that can happen to the eyes,” the doctor said as he noted my remarkable number of broken blood vessels. “And the worst part is, it’s just got to run its course, but the good news is that you’re probably almost done with the worst of it.”

He prescribed steroid eyedrops and gave me sterile lubricating drops and his personal cell phone number in case my eyes worsened over the weekend. The steroid drops burned my eyes and clouded my vision, but drastically reduced the inflammation. But as tends to happen to me when I begin recovering from an illness, I began to mourn the inevitable ending of my physical suffering because it meant that soon I would be left to concentrate solely on the same old emotional, self-hating, I’m-bewildered-by-my-parents-and-my-childhood-and-I-feel-chronically-alone-in-the-world shit, which, insofar as I could imagine, would be my burden forever.

That night Jen put Henry to bed and I once again hid in our bathroom so he wouldn’t cry over me missing our nightly family cuddle and reading time. When Jen returned to the bedroom I told her I wanted to send Mom another message. Something about how I couldn’t believe her self-centeredness, about how ashamed she should be over sending her first message and then not responding to mine, and how her silence and apparent indifference toward my sickness and Jen’s pregnancy was reminiscent of when I phoned her about my DNA test results, or when I was a kid and my Dad was angry and silent toward all of us for days at a time, and on, and on, and on…

But lucky for me, I ranted my message to Jen while I typed and she said, “Stop. Don’t do that. You’ll regret it later. Just write to her something like, ‘Mom, you’re kind of leaving me hanging here…’”

It was good advice.

An hour later, my phone buzzed. The display said I had a text from Mom, but Jen already was asleep and I didn’t want to face alone whatever it said. The next morning I woke up and Jen already was in the kitchen. I took a deep breath and opened Mom’s reply:

Sorry. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the fact I was assaulted—and became pregnant. Your DNA test resurfaced an event I wanted to never to have to confront. In my heart of hearts I believed Rich was your dad. I did not want to have to tell you this way—but face to face was not an option, and from your last text, phone was not either. I am so sorry I hurt you so very deeply. I only wanted to protect and love you—and still do. Please find it in your heart to forgive me.

***

I put my hand on Jen’s shoulder and gave her my phone. If she said anything, and I’m sure she did, I don’t remember it. After a little while I texted Mom back and it took me thirty minutes to ask myself, What were we doing texting about this? I called my parents’ house and she answered. I invited her to visit for the weekend.

“Oh, you’re going to make me cry,” she said.

“It’s fine. It’s fine, Mom,” I told her. “Do you think you can come?”

She told me to expect her in seven hours.

When she hung up, it all settled in. The truth and the validation of my reality, which I had needed since childhood, was on its way, but at what cost?

I stood alone on my back deck for a long time. It was bright and warm and the woodpeckers were eating from my birdfeeders. On my smartphone I searched for “rape” and “conception” and found very little, just one Andrew Solomon article from The New Yorker and various news chatter about a Midwestern, male, white, and Christian politician who claimed in 2012 that children couldn’t be conceived in “legitimate rape.”

From there on, the day bottomed into a haze. I felt somewhat better and didn’t spend the whole day in bed. Jen, Henry, and I walked the dogs on the road. After we put Henry down for his nap Jen let our three pet chickens roam the yard, went inside to shower, and a wild animal killed two of our hens. Mom arrived about an hour later, just as I was picking up the last of the feathers, which ironically enough I did to protect my own son from facing something bad.

That night Mom joined us on Henry’s double bed to read him bedtime stories.

In the kitchen Mom, Jen, and I awkwardly made ourselves cups of tea. We settled into the living room, with Mom in a sofa chair and Jen and me on the couch. No one said anything for a long time. It was 9 p.m.

Eventually Jen broke the silence. “So this is a little tense,” she said, with a sly smile.

Mom chuckled nervously.

“So what do you want to know?” she asked me.

***

The following morning I awoke when Henry ran into the bedroom to announce that he and Jen made strawberry-almond waffles—my favorite. I kept sleeping, though, as I was tired and uncertain whether I would be capable, ever again, of arising and heralding a day. By 11 a.m. I woke again, rubbed my eyes which were less gunky, and walked into the living room.

Mom sat on our couch.

She smiled at me. Her face was bright and loving. The sun was shining through the tall trees in my backyard and casting itself on her cheek. She was sixty-two years old, had been twenty-four when she was raped, and I came to exist in-between: the best thing that ever happened to her, out of the worst thing, she had said.

“Good morning, Mom,” I said.

“Good morning, son,” she replied.

Her voice was even. There was no nervousness or quiver to it. No silent questioning of her own worth. I had never heard her speak this way before. There was no feigning of confidence, just confidence. I asked how she had slept and she said, “Good.” Perhaps this morning was the first time in my life I had ever seen her, really, and taken into my heart everything that she is, and was.

“How did you sleep?” she asked me.

I steadied myself. There could be no more lies between us, but also no more cruelty on my part. I kept smiling and swayed my head back and forth.

The night before, Jen and I entered the privacy of our bedroom and I said, “I don’t think I’ll ever feel happy again.” She laid beside me while I researched the offender online. He was a rich plastic surgeon born in the Philippines and he assaulted Mom when she was an operating room nurse. I began stalking him on the internet as one would expect. I started with his name and tried to trace him using every search-term configuration I could think of. But he was an old man now—probably in his late seventies, Mom guessed. He did not have much of an internet presence, even though the absence of an obituary or gravesite image suggested he still was alive. How was I ever going to find a picture and address of this motherfucker? I needed those things if I hoped to murder him. I needed those things if I hoped to knock on this old man’s door and beat him until he stopped breathing, or the police arrived, or I gave up and permitted him to live after I came to my senses. The same search results kept coming up, though. Jen looked at me soothingly as if to suggest an inability to find him would not be a failure on my part.

By luck I latched onto the name of the rapist’s second wife, who also had been a nurse at the hospital, and according to my mother, was already the rapist’s mistress at the time of her assault. Through this second wife, I found the obituary of her deceased sister, and this obituary listed the rapist’s first name in parentheses between the second wife’s first name and their Filipino surname. It also listed the couple’s city of residency at the time, which helped me find all the cities where they had ever lived. This information next led me to pictures of him, his current wife, and his children—my four half-brothers. I also found pictures of his grandchildren—my half-nieces and half-nephews. I found the address of the house the rapist owned less than ten minutes from my father-in-law’s vacation condominium in Fort Myers, Florida. I found the second wife’s contact information on the website of the hospital in Tampa where she was a vice president. I read a condolence he wrote on a friend’s obituary page. I found the name of a Catholic priest who was one of his friends. After an hour of watching me, Jen pleaded with me to go to sleep. She brushed her teeth, talked with me while I brushed my teeth and took an alprazolam, and she kissed me goodnight, reassured me I could get through this and she would help me, and fell asleep. But I remained awake for four more hours, plotting revenge and deciding that in lieu of murdering this man I would expose him. I would write him a letter accompanied by a photo of me, and I would send the original letter to him, but only after I had already mailed dozens of carbon copies to everyone I could find who knew him, including his children and grandchildren and the Catholic priest and the journalists at his rich suburb’s community newspaper and the administrators of the hospital where his wife worked, and this letter would detail my mother’s assault and my DNA test and it would urge his progeny to take a similar DNA test on 23andme, find me as a “DNA Relative” and confirm for themselves that their father, grandfather, husband, and friend was a rapist, and that beyond his suffering and my ability to haunt him for the rest of his life, I wanted nothing else from him, except that he die a lonely, sorrowful, and anxiety-ridden death by his own hand, with his final thoughts about how I might tarnish his name even in death. Or I would telephone him from an untraceable number and threaten to send out these disgracing letters unless he took his own life within the week. Or I would show up at his door, letters in hand, and when he answered I would ask if he was V________ F_______, and not introduce myself, but instead show him the envelopes and ask if I had gotten the addresses correct for his sons, grandchildren, and friends; tell him about the content of the letters; that I already had mailed dozens of them; and either leave him speechless or demand that he answer all of my questions, that he beg for my mercy, or weep so that I could laugh at him.

But by 4 a.m. I thought to myself, what’s the use?

To cause him the most pain, I would have to inflict pain on people who presumably love him: my half-brothers, my half-nieces, my half-nephews. People whom I have never met, and who never harmed me. And even him, the rapist, he didn’t hurt me. He hurt my mother—thirty-seven years ago. What could I possibly do to avenge that? And what good was vengeance to me anyway? I already had endured and brought upon myself enough toxic anger for one life. I walked into the bathroom suspecting that in good conscience probably the only thing I could do from here on was look up the rapist in a few years, see if he was dead, and if so find his grave and literally piss on it.

When I closed the bathroom door and heard it shut, I realized my total solitude in the quiet of the house. I thought to myself, I’m alone now, I can end it; all I need is a knife. I am the son of a rape and this is why I always have felt there is something wrong with me; it’s because I came into the world through one of the most terrible things that people do to other people, and now I finally know the source of my malignity, and this knowledge is a gift, it’s a gift, and now I can end it all, finally.

Just as soon as that thought traveled through me, however, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. At first I recoiled. My Asian features were the features of a rapist! Look at those eyes! Look at that skin! Look at those round cheeks!

But then, through the startled beginning of tears, I reconsidered myself. I saw echoes of my mother’s face that were louder than the rapist’s face. I saw echoes of Henry, who looks like me. I heard Jen snoring her pregnancy snore and I imagined, in her belly, the developing face of our unborn child, who right now was no larger than a kidney bean—just as I once was in my mother’s belly, and Henry once was in Jen’s.

I braced myself against the bathroom counter and breathed out all of the air I had inside of me, a long and slow and hard push that shook my torso and my arms, and I felt my heart tremble with a promise.

For Henry, Jen, this new baby, my mother, my brother, and my father—by which I mean my real father, Rich, the man who raised me, I would remain alive, and somehow, eventually, I would find a way to embrace living. So instead of finding a knife, I found a Benadryl—which was why I kept sleeping that morning after Henry ran into the bedroom to tell me that he and Jen made me strawberry-almond waffles.

My mother, sitting on the living room couch and looking up at me, still awaited my honest answer of how I had slept.

“I had a hard time falling asleep,” I admitted. “I was up until about four a.m., just thinking.”

Mom nodded and said, in a slow and understanding way, “Yeahhhhh…”

“But then I took a Benadryl and it knocked me out until now. So I slept pretty good, I guess.”

In the kitchen, Henry was dancing and pretending to swim on the floor in front of the refrigerator. Jen and my mother-in-law Laurie, who lives with us and watched Henry all week while I was convalescing, were with him.

“I got two Nanas! I got two Nanas! And they’re both here!” Henry kept yelling, until Jen told him I finally was up and he switched to, “Dada! Dada wake! Dada wake!”

Henry’s happiness gave my mother and me a much-needed dose of our own happiness. She stood up and we hugged each other—not dramatically, but like the casual and light greeting of a mother and son who love each other. For the first time in as long as I can remember I did not feel her clutching me.

We walked into the kitchen to join Henry and Jen and Laurie, all of whom turned to see me cross the threshold. Of course there would be many painful things for me to process and rethink in the coming days, weeks, and months, but I decided at that moment to be present. Jen needed me to be her husband, Mom needed me to be her son, and Henry, most important of all, needed me to be his dad.

“So are we all still going to the New York State Fair today,” I asked everyone. “Henry is saying it’s ‘Two Nana Day’ and if we go, we’re all going to get to see horsies.”

 

Nick Kowalczyk lives and teaches in Central New York.

3 Comments. Leave new

Patricia Murphy
May 5, 2017 9:13 am

OMGoodness, Nick!! So sorry for all the pain for all of you from all of this; so many victims. BUT I totally believe in the freedom that only truth-in-love can bring. I believe and know without a doubt from my own life that, “God may be slow BUT He is NEVER late!”, and that’s the very best thing I can say that seems to be the most meaningful. And my prayer is that you and your family are witnesses to the healing going on right now, connected yet very different for each, with restoration replacing that which was stolen and lost. God bless you. Patty Murphy

Well written, lucid and yet still dreamy, Mr. Kowalzcyk has written of harrowing events that ultimately left him closer to the truth and love of his family. Knowing that his feelings of restlessness and unease have a cause leads him to be able to interpret his own behavior in a new light. Choosing not to take revenge is for him, choosing life.

Maura Stephens
May 6, 2017 5:24 pm

Beautifully written piece, Nick. May this purging help you find the freedom from fear, confusion, and self-loathing that this terrible tragedy brought to your life. And may your ties with your Mom and real Dad become stronger and more trusting. And may you and Jen and Henry and the new baby finally be able to relax and build the kind of family life you’ve always craved. Kudos and hugs!

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