My dad was in town to visit me for a couple of days this weekend. (Now when I tell people that I did something with my dad, they say, Which dad?, and I say, My dad dad. I refuse to say adopted dad. If I say that, it would mean I would have an adopted dad and a biological dad, but no dad. No thank you.)
When you are adopted, sometimes it’s hard to write one sentence without veering what could be called off topic.
So my dad was in town, and we went to the Cantor Museum on the Stanford campus because it is 1. beautiful and 2. free. We walked next door to the Anderson Collection first to check out the modern art, and as soon as we saw the first exhibit made of felt where you could add pieces that were in a little bucket, my dad started having problems. “This is a waste of time,” he said. He walked off, stared at a framed painting of a black square and groaned, “Ridiculous.”
On our way out, we walked past a metal sculpture on the front yard that looked like a warped square, and I decided not to tell him the piece was titled “fear.” It would have been like giving a marksman a fifty-foot target. No game in that.
We walked into the Cantor which was a better experience for my dad because there was a mix of paintings from ones that were centuries old to one that was dated 2017 and referenced Trump.
Being with your dad after you have met some of your birth family is a strange experience, or at least it was for me. Our relationship has always been layered. I grew up knowing he was both my dad and not my dad, sort of like when you steal a pack of gum and when you are chewing it you think about how it is both yours and not yours. But I didn’t steal my dad. He was given to me.
I had a sadness inside of me that had always been there, I think, but now because I knew more about how adoption made me feel, how being adopted made me both real and not real, I knew that this feeling of sadness had to do with being with someone who had known me my entire life (minus the first ten weeks which most people say don’t matter anyway), but also knowing he only knew the mask me, the me I’d created to fit in with the parents who had claimed me as theirs. My dad and my mom had DNA’d me, only without the DNA. So I’d learned. I became bookish, preppy, liberal, introverted. I was part of a puzzle and I wanted the piece of me to fit, and so I changed my edges, and to everyone around me, I was part of a whole. I was part of my family. I fit.
And I did. Granted, my stomach often hurt and I had headaches and frequent illnesses and trouble focusing in school. I had unexplained and frequent bouts of depression, but I was a girl, and many girls are moody, so I was just that, a moody girl who most of the time looked pretty happy.
In the museum, my dad told me how much he hated modern art, and I thought about my life and the book I’d written recently, and I thought about how, to me at least, modern art is an attempt to say something that can’t be held in a linear space or can’t be presented in a way that clearly mirrors its subject. To me, modern art is a way of saying the unsayable. As an adopted person, I’m a form of modern art.
My dad is a lawyer and is very, very smart. He graduated first in his class in Middlebury and went on to Columbia Law School. If my dad had fathered a child, the child would probably make lists like my dad does and love maps. The child might love politics and the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s wild how much my dad and I love each other given how little we have in common. He puts four sugars in his coffee and I think sugar is poison. He doesn’t go on expensive vacations because he’d rather donate money to the A.C.L.U. I’d rather go to Rome.
I look at my father and I see myself in him. We have similar eyes. I’m impatient like he is. I like to laugh like he does. He can be very silly and so can I. It’s confusing to see yourself mirrored by someone whom you call Dad who shares no DNA with you. It’s actually, sometimes, infuriating. Do we have no boundaries? Who are we? Are we not our genetics? Are we just Silly Putty and whatever text you press us to we will imprint?
This ability to morph may seem like a wonderful skill, but it makes me mad. I want to be me, and how can I even find that person when I’m so efficient at fitting in I don’t even know I’m doing it?
In the lobby of the Cantor Museum, there is a large horse made from driftwood. Only it’s not driftwood. It’s bronze. The museum patrons can’t believe it. They read the sign, exclaim, touch the one piece of bronze driftwood that is set out to be touched. They take pictures. My father and I did all these things. How can a horse that is so obviously made from wood be made of metal? It makes no sense, and my brain reacts, gets upset. I can’t trust my eye. What if outside the trees are not made of wood? What if my car is not made of metal? Does it even matter? So what if trees are metal and cars are wood? So what if we have it all wrong. Why does it even matter that things are what they appear?
What does it matter that I am both me and not me?
Who cares where you come from, what your raw materials are.
When we buy food, the lists of ingredients are carefully typed out on the package. Why? Because it’s the law. We want to know what is in that macaroni and cheese. What if the macaroni is driftwood? What if the cheese is metal?
What if this steak is not a steak, this chair not a chair? What if the eclipse is not the moon covering the sun? What if it is something else entirely?