I was orphaned at 15. It has taken me nearly 45 years to write that sentence. It was only this year I realized it could finally be written. I don’t fully understand why, other than I have been sober for awhile now and sobriety is a wonderful and mind clearing thing.
In brief, my father, the greatest gift life has ever given me, died when I was 15. Five months later my mother placed me in reform school and disowned me. While we would reconcile 10 years later, I was never part of that family, or any family, again. I came close, or so I thought, in 1999 through 2001 when I grew deep-close to my birth-mother Leona. I am adopted and we were reunited in 1987. She lived in California with my sister during those years and was battling liver cancer. It ended her life on December 19, 2001.
It was Christmas 2000 when I thought I had family for real again. I mean throughout my years I’ve had families, especially when I was homeless as a boy, who would take me in for a couple of days, promising me I had a home at last, only to send me on my way a short time later with a sawbuck and their apology for not being able to let me to stay. I knew back then that they had brought me into their homes with their hearts and the best of intentions; yet they’d not thought their decision through and fully realized I was an entire human being that needed food and clothing and healthcare. In short, I was real, far more than a momentary source of ego-boost. I’ve had girlfriends too who’ve told me their family was my family; always well intended – but never true.
In 2000 I flew out to California for Christmas with my mother and sister, my sister’s children and my brother-in-law. When I woke up Christmas morning there was a Christmas tree with ornaments and lights and there were presents under the tree. Some of them were even for me, and I’d brought presents for everyone. There we all were, me and my mother sitting side by side on the couch, opening our presents, my nieces tearing their presents free from their colorful gift-wrapping, my sister and brother-in-law sitting cross legged on the floor opening their presents, all of this accompanied by the comforting smell of coffee. There was music and laughter and I was sitting next to my mother and I thought, Oh my God, I have family again. I have a sister and nieces and a brother-in-law and a mother! I mean we all knew the liver cancer was terminal, but my sister and I were together and we were family and looking at her and my nieces and my brother-in-law I felt a deep joy, deeper than I’d felt in longer than I could remember. I would have family from now on and I would come out every Christmas and bring presents and watch my nieces grow and be with my sister and my brother-in-law; or so I thought.
Months before my mother died at age 68 my sister, who’d always been a rather controlling person, turned it up a notch to a level of viciousness I’ve rarely seen in life; and like most folks my age, 54 as I write these words, I’ve seen my fair share. My sister began to block all my phone calls from New York to my mother, who was then on hospice and very weak. She also stopped my mother from calling me.
But perhaps the height of cruelty occurred one day in December 2001. My telephone rang. I answered and it was my sister. In an angry voice she said, “Mommy wants to talk to you, make it quick. I’ll hold the phone to her ear.”
“Hi, Mom,” I said.
“Hi, Peter,” she said.
“I love you, Mom, don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay.” We tried to keep talking but I could hear my sister in the background saying, in a loud tone of voice that can only be described as hideous, cruel and evil, “Hurry up, you’re gonna die any day now old lady. Hurry up. This is the last time you’re gonna talk to sonny boy, unless you get the strength to pick up the phone and dial yourself but we know that’s not gonna happen. Hurry up. Say goodbye to your only son, you’ll never hear his voice again. Common – I have to go. You’re gonna die soon anyway, make it quick.”
Throughout my sister’s ranting I kept saying, “It’s okay, Mom. I love you. Nothing can ever separate us again. I’ll be with you in the next world…don’t listen to her, Mom. We’ll work it out. I love you and we’re together and we always will be. I love you, Mom.” She told me she loved me too and then my sister hung up the phone. My mother died less than two weeks later. Needless to say, my connection to the family died with her.
Writing all this was prompted by reading an article about a scavenger hunt the New York Rangers hockey team held for some kids from Children’s Village, a group that “focuses on providing safety for children who have come from foster care, abuse situations, unstable households and neglect.” Reading about the joy these kids experienced, and identifying from the center of my heart with their journey in life, wet my eyes and led to this admittedly self-indulgent essay.
I am in my fifth decade as a Rangers fan. When they won the Stanley Cup in 1994 a New York fan held up a sign that read, “Now I Can Die in Peace.” I know what he meant. Also, while I still have no family, I have been friends with Michael Sulsona for more than 30 years now. He and his two sons, Philip and Vincent, are family to me, and I am family to them. They are the only three people on the planet I know will never leave my life as long as they are alive and they know too that I will never leave them. Recently, Michael and I realized that over the years we have in fact become brothers.
Perhaps, when it comes down to it, family is in the eyes of the beholder.