By Ryan B. Patrick
My mother, bless her heart, would later tell me she knew who he was as soon as she opened the door. Kevin (not his real name) had searched the phone book for the address. He showed up unannounced and asked if his father — my father — was home. Dad was not. My mother made small talk with him and then he left.
It was then that I learned I have a half-blood brother.
I grew up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough — shout out to the much heralded, much maligned suburb of The 6ix. Growing up, my family was my mother, my father, my grandmother and three of us siblings under one roof.
Many of my friends couldn’t say the same, being products of single-parent — more often than not, single-mother – families. The well-kept townhouses and semi-detached domiciles we lived in screamed “definitely not rich” but “firmly above the poverty line.” There, in that tenuous gap between lower-middle class and middle-middle class, I grew up as the eldest of three boys. My younger brothers and I were raised to be charitable and kind.
The news came via a phone call from my mother because I had long since moved out. She seemed rather calm about the proceedings, revealing that she had always known this day would arrive. My parents hail from the South American nation of Guyana, part of the continental mainland. Due to its large population of people of African and East Indian lineage, Guyana is considered a Caribbean country despite not being an island nation. Black men — that is, men of Caribbean or West Indian extraction — have historically been blamed for their purported failure to uphold the sacrosanct notion of the traditional nuclear family, or to acknowledge its binding blood ties. Monogamy be damned: according to the stereotypes, cultural and historical factors have coalesced into a black manhood that is measured by the number of women one has bedded and the children one can call one’s own. Right or wrong, it’s a reality.
“Be better. Know better,” my mother would drill into us.
Later, I visited to see how she was doing. My father was at work but she was home. You could tell she was upset but, much as she always did, my mother put up a brave front in the face of betrayal. My brothers were both upset and intrigued, wanting to know about Kevin. They would ultimately meet him.
I still haven’t.
What does it mean to be blood-related? From a familial perspective, a blood relation refers to a relationship through genetics, as opposed to marriage. According to the National Genetics and Genomics Education Centre, blood relatives can officially be defined in the first, second, or third degrees. First-degree blood relatives refer to parents, siblings and children, who share approximately half their genes with one another. Second-degree relatives include your uncles, aunts, nephews, grandchildren, grandparents, and half-siblings, who share about a quarter of their genes.
My father and I are alike in many ways — we struggle with communication and expressing our emotions. From my mother, I get overwhelming anxiety over what may or may not happen. It seems funny that, by virtue of sharing the same blood, that Kevin and I should have anything in common. My queries run from the mundane to the monumental. Does he have a peanut allergy like my brother? Does he share my love for literature? Do we share potential health issues – does he, like my brothers and I, have a tendency to get sun rashes in humid weather? Most importantly, is he hurting? Is he seeking identity by way of his fractured bloodline? Or does he not give a crap, happy to live his life through his current circumstances? What does he get from us, outside of alienation?
My own relationship with my parents was likely the same as that of any other second-generation African-Canadian. But Caribbean culture has clung fast to the concept of “inside” and “outside” children: “inside” being, of course, those sired while within marriage; and “outside,” those wretches produced outside of wedlock. Lawrence Hill, in his book Blood: The Stuff of Life, argues that bloodlines are both historical and contemporary markers of identity, dictating the course of family legacies.
What are the rights and responsibilities in the face of genetic knowledge? Reconciling my truth — that family is more than the blood line, that the bonds we forge between individuals are based more on events and decisions often beyond our control — with the reality that blood ties could, in fact, bring people closer together has been a struggle. Adding Kevin to my carefully sketched-out family tree raises more questions than answers — just when I thought I had things all figured out.
When I finally confronted my father, it was over the phone. He wasn’t apologetic. He was matter-of-fact, explaining the situation and asking if I wanted to meet Kevin. I told him that I needed time, and that I didn’t want to meet him right then. Word got back to my half-brother, however, that I didn’t want to meet at all. Those poor communication skills again.
Kevin still crosses my mind from time to time. Blood is what binds us, but it isn’t what defines us. Perhaps one day I will challenge myself to meet with my half-blood bro. As it stands, I could pass him on the street and not recognize him. I probably have.
And for now, I am okay with that.