Secret Adoption, Sacrament, and Other Lies That Live in the Body
Will my intestines turn the sacred bread into holy shit, or does the miracle not extend that far into the digestive process?
My father, true to his blue collar roots, derides authority figures of all kinds—executives, government officials, lawyers, the clergy. He was a classic underachiever, the kind of prole who toed the company line in body but never spirit. If he sussed out a shortcut or loophole, best believe he’d take it. Anything to get home a few minutes earlier.
In Visitation Elementary School we attend church all the time, and at various rites of passage—confession, communion, confirmation—are made to demonstrate our devotion via public processions and declarations. To prepare for these events we practice hours on end. Our teachers fill our mouths with words; we memorize the lines and learn our parts. We’re paired boy/girl and expected to dress as if for a wedding—girls in frilly white gowns, boys in crisp black suits, every face blank but focused, like quiet little angels, or else.
Discipline is public and personal. I’m told to get my head out of the clouds, to sing out, to not just mouth the responses but to say them with the love of the Lord in my throat. I’m told to give more—energy, enthusiasm, sincerity—than I want, or am able, to give.
The first time I receive Holy Communion I look at my oldest, best friend, kneeling in the pew in front of me, eyes closed, face lax. He’s experiencing something I’m not, I worry. What’s wrong with me that all I can think about is how dry and sticky this wafer is, like peanut butter with no salt? That I’m seized with an impulse to laugh? To stand up and say, “This is it? God in my mouth? He needs ketchup.”
I wish for the personal attention from God that the priest received in Father Clemens’s story. As grotesque as it would be to find a chunk of Christ in my mouth, it would be proof of His existence, of another world beyond our own.
But no proof comes. Instead, I kneel with my head down, silently shaking, choking on giggles.
The question of faith and belief is complicated by my parents. They send my little brother and me to Visitation, but we’re not a devout family. When we don’t skip mass, we leave at Communion, walking past a sign that reads, “Do you know who else left mass early? Judas.”
My dad only attends church on Christmas and Easter, and my grandparents don’t even do that. “I did my time,” my grandmother tells me. “I don’t have to go to church anymore.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, my mom’s sister is a habit-wearing Carmelite nun. When she asks me what I want to be when I grow up, I tell her a priest. The idea of being anything when I grow up is a hard one to grasp, but I know she wants to hear this. Sure enough, she beams with pride. Her father, my grandfather, Leo, wanted to be a priest too, she says. She knows he’d be proud of me.
“This is it? God in my mouth? He needs ketchup.”
As an adult, I learn that she’s not exaggerating: Leo went to seminary after graduating from high school in 1929, but dropped out before taking the cloth. He came from a family of Irishmen, all functioning alcoholics, and had been a drinker since the age of twelve. But in seminary, Leo learned the body is a gift from God and alcohol defiles it, dulling the senses, annihilating the intellect, lowering the will to temptation. Gluttony is a deadly sin. The longer he stayed in seminary, the more his appetite struggled with his faith, the clearer it became that this was a war his thirst would win. So he made his choice, leaving the frock for the bottle.
As a child, I know none of this. My dad smirks when I repeat my desire to be a priest. He seems impossible to please when it comes to issues of faith. To believe draws his mockery; to doubt, his wrath.
My adoptive dad, I should say.
Sometime around First Holy Communion, my parents sit me down on my bed and reveal that the man I know of as Dad is not my biological father. They don’t tell me who my father is, or why he is not present, or what any of this means. And I’m talking in a very literal sense. Aside from knowing that a man and a woman can make a baby, I understand nothing about sex or genetics.
“I love you like you’re my own son, even if I’m not really your father,” the man I know as Dad says. My mom nods and puts her hand on his, saying nothing.
They assure me that this information doesn’t change a thing. But I know that isn’t the case, intrinsically, and from their body language—the rigid way my mother holds her shoulders, the thin pink line of my dad’s mouth, the shiny raw wound of their eyes. The distance between our bodies, me against the wall, the two of them prepared to catch me if I bolt.
As they drone on, I have the strong desire to laugh. Dad isn’t Dad, he’s “Dad?” And my brother is my half-brother. And this family is a farce? That’s funny. Except, it’s not funny. Which is exactly what becomes funny.
Like at First Holy Communion, I lose the connection between what’s inside and outside, my mind severed from my physicality. I’m behind a scrim, hiding while my body goes through the motions.
When they ask, “You ok?” I do what they want and nod. And when the sentence turns from a question to a command, “You’re ok,” I nod. I mouth back the words “Ok.” I do as I’m told, without question, though my brain brims with them. One being, “Why are you telling me this now?”
Decades later, I find out my parents were following the advice they had received from, of all people, the lawyer who handled the adoption. When they asked if they should tell me about what happened, he said sure, maybe when the boy is seven or eight. So that’s what they do, and that’s all they do—reveal the burden of their secret, then insist I carry it too.
They send me to Catholic school for much the same reason. They went as children, so it was the right thing to do. Plus, it was the white thing to do. My parents moved to the suburbs when the population of their working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia went from European immigrants (Polish, Italian, Irish) to African Americans. Our particular suburb was economically and racially diverse, but Catholic School kept us in an almost entirely white environment.
This was so important to them that my mom worked a few hours a week at the school to offset tuition, an extreme commitment given that they saw no great value in the religious instruction itself. On the contrary, they had horror stories of their own time in Catholic School. The terrible lessons. The meaningless rituals. The abusive nuns and creepy priests. But that’s what school was, my dad told me. Something to suffer through, not enjoy.
In many ways, that attitude summed up their entire childhood. My dad had been emotionally and physically abused by his parents and older brother, while my mother lived in constant fear that if she didn’t please her father, he’d disappear into a drunken haze for weeks on end. As adults, they deal with that trauma by not dealing with it. Solid working-class folk like them don’t pick at scars or go to therapy—that is for people who can afford weakness, who have time for feelings. No, my dad made very clear: Life’s a bitch and then you die.
And so, though they don’t perpetrate the same level of abuse on me and my brother, they don’t exorcise those ghosts either. What haunts them is passed to us.
The shame my mother felt when, at twenty-four, she told her family she was pregnant by a man she hardly knew, a man still in his teens, who wanted nothing to do with fatherhood, becomes my shame. My aunt, then a young nun, wanted her to hide at a house for wayward women in the Poconos, where I could be given up in secret; my grandfather Leo, like my biological father, offered to pay for an abortion even when I was five months to term. The insecurity of my adoptive father, never sure if my mom really loved him or if she just needed a man in her life and he was the poor sap available, her high school sweetheart, becomes my insecurity. Their inability to confront pain becomes my inability to confront pain. Their lie becomes me.
We don’t discuss my paternity again until I bring it up on the eve of moving to New York City, at twenty-one, though I thought about it often enough. Their revelation is a shock but not a surprise. Within the family, I feel different, an outlier. I prefer books to the constant presence of the television. My success at school and intellectual curiosity pleases them but also sets me apart; not only did they not like school, they never especially excelled at it.
What’s more, I had proof of this difference before they told me. As an even smaller boy, while snooping in the shadowy space at the bottom of their walk-in closet, I found two birth certificates in an unlocked lock-box. One named me Brian Gresko, son of John, the other Brian Crawford, which is my mom’s maiden name, son of X. Their news confirms what I already know: I’m apart from the pack.
And I’m set apart from myself too. There’s the person I know myself to be on the inside, the one that doesn’t belong at home or at school, and the person I pretend to be on the outside, who echoes the words without feeling them in his heart. This fracture—between what I feel to be true and what I believe I must perform to conform—grows, becoming a kind of dissociative anxiety disorder, eventually leading to panic attacks, impulse issues, and a college drinking problem.
But it begins here, as a child of around eight or nine, with the world telling me one thing is real and me knowing that it’s not true, that it’s a lie built around the desire to control, and therefore limit, me. This dishonesty takes root in my bones, disquieting them, so that in school and at family get-togethers I’m fidgety and tense, unable to relax, impossible with small talk. It sours and roils my stomach, a sick kind of joke that makes me laugh in the face of sincerity. And it lightens my head, which during my most nervous moments floats about a foot or so to the right of my body, not fully attached.
How much of my childhood resistance to God the Father in church stems from this break with my own father? When my parents, finally fed up with paying the ever-rising tuition, decided I could attend a public high school, I came out first as an agnostic, then as an atheist. Not attending church on Sunday didn’t cause a stir, but it rankled them the first few Christmases when I chose to stay home, listening to carols and guzzling wine, though my dad did appreciate that I was there to start the pasta water before they arrived back for dinner.
Eventually they stopped going to church, too, but still the issue of belief sets us apart. My mom identifies as spiritual but not religious, while my dad is convinced that without the idea of a vengeful God, people won’t behave morally.
How much of my childhood resistance to God the Father in church stems from this break with my own father?
During a recent visit to my parents’ house, my mom shows my son a stack of schoolwork she’s saved from my elementary years. “Look at this,” my dad says. “It says you’re gonna visit the sick. And always respect your parents. You were such a kiss ass.”
“Come on, Dad. It was an assignment,” I tell him. “On the Cardinal Virtues. What would you have done if I wrote ‘this is bullshit?’ on my paper?”
“Oh alright, alright,” he said. “I’m just joking. Christ, that was years ago.”
For a moment, I’m surprised. He’s right, that was a long time ago. But the strain of repressing my questions, my feelings, myself—whether at school, or on the hard church pews, and even at home with my parents—still pulses hot and raw and present after all these years. It is a hard truth I feel in my gut, behind my eyes, and at the back of my head; it hurts. That pain is real, a part of me and my body. Maybe the best I can do is accept that I’ve been damaged, mishandled by those who should have cared for me the most, and love myself for living with that pain. Love myself better than they were able to love me.
Brian Gresko is a widely published writer and editor of the anthology When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. He cohosts Pete’s Reading Series, the longest running literary series in Brooklyn, New York. You can find him online at briangresko.com.