A week before my 49th birthday, Gabby called me. She goes by Gabrielle these days, but when I met her in 1988 she was Gabby and I cannot get beyond that. “Hey,” she said in her native New Yorker/transplanted Floridian/neo-Texan twang. “I’m wondering if you’re wondering if he’s going to call to wish you a Happy Birthday.”
As I was backing my Honda into a tight parking spot on New York’s Amsterdam Avenue while stressing about the fact that I was 10 minutes late for a meeting, it was difficult to catch her drift. Whom exactly should I be wondering about?
“Bob,” she explained. “Your birth-dad. The guy who made you take a DNA test this summer. Do you think he’s going to call? Would it upset you if he didn’t?”
Somehow, I managed to wedge my car into the slender parking spot, but now it was scraping up against the license plate of the car behind me. I eased up on the brake, moved forward three inches and cut the engine.
“Bob,” I repeated, feeling his name escape my mouth like a plume of cigarette smoke. Having met him for the first time a few months earlier, the truth was that I don’t really think all that much about him … unless I was recounting to friends and family the dramatic tale of how I found him and our awkward subsequent meetings, which included scraping cells from my inner cheek for a DNA test that only proved the obvious.
Now, however, I was forced to consider whether he was thinking about me — the child he had relinquished 49 years ago — on the occasion of my birthday. Though I hadn’t entertained the question and I didn’t connect the concept of birthday with birth-dad in the least, Gabby’s question evoked a sorrowful recollection.
When my birth-dad and I met for the first time, he asked me, ever so casually, what my date of birth was. “You don’t know my birthday?” I asked in frank disbelief.
Before I found Bob, I had worked up a reservoir of great compassion for the man who surely suffered deeply every November 18, thinking about the child he had lost — tiny little dark-eyed Lisa Robin, the me that ceased to exist after my five-month birthday, at which time I was adopted and given an entirely new name and identity.
Fantasizing about my phantom father, I had envisioned him marking my birthday with a Yom Kippur-like day of hand-wringing, wailing, regret and wild sobbing. Many years ago, a compassionate social worker had slipped me a forbidden report from my adoption file, describing a sad yet moving scene — a young Bob visiting me at my adoption agency in January of 1961, when I was just two-months old. He seemed, wrote the social worker, “visibly moved” by the sight of me, the daughter he could not keep.
Did this man always not know my birthday, or did he only more recently forget it? Was the question a trick to see if I was indeed whom I purported to be? Perhaps it was a false query, borne of his need to preserve distance between himself and me — the woman who sprang, fully-grown, into his life when he was no longer young and vital?
Such were the thoughts that washed over me at the time of his shocking question during our first lunch at Nougatine. Over the intervening months, I gradually packed away the memory, feeling only a small wave of chagrin whenever I thought of it.
But now is the approach of my first birthday since he and I met and Gabby’s question hangs in the air.
“Judy never called me,” I told Gabby, though I didn’t know if that was exactly true. Judy is the biological bond between Gabby and me the woman who kept her and gave me away. Though there is no denying the psychological impact of having been relinquished, Gabby and I both know who got the better deal.
Maybe my birthmother did call or send me a card once or twice since we met in 1983. She certainly knew my birthday. And when she gave me Bob’s name, it launched me on a quarter-century search for answers.
“I don’t know,” I told Gabby, getting out of the car, pantomime-pleading with the Pakistani fruit vendor that he should give me quarters for the meter despite the fact that I wasn’t planning to buy any fruit, doing a quiet victory dance when I discovered the glorious word FAIL on the meter, sheepishly tucking the quarters into my pocket, walking hurriedly in the direction of my meeting.
“I just want you to be prepared,” she said in a voice that sounded like a shrug. “I don’t want you to be hurt if he doesn’t call.”
It took me about five seconds to render a response.
“Nah,” I told Gabby. It is inconsequential to me whether Bob does or does not call on my birthday because he doesn’t own the rights to that day. The right to serve as Father of the Birthday Girl belongs to my Aba — the tall, still-handsome rabbi and psychologist whose DNA does not match my own, but for whom November 18th is a Yom Tov, the birthday of the little girl of unknown provenance who first made him a dad.
Shira Dicker is the principal of Shira Dicker Media International, a communications consulting firm, and writes the Bungalow Babe in the Big City blog.