How heartbreaking that new film “Philomena” sounds. It’s the story of a woman in search of the love child she was forced to give up by the Irish nuns to whom she was sent after her “indiscretion.” The Sunday New York Times had an excellent, spoilers -riddled article Jan. 12 about the fate of the real child, Michael Hess, a gay man who perhaps not so improbably became a Reagan-era lawyer in Washington D.C. and died of AIDS. The emotional kicker was that he was buried in his mother’s native country in the hopes that she would find him.
Which she did. But all those years when they could’ve had a relationship. All that waste. I could weep. Come to think of it, I did.
There are few more complex relationships than mother and child, which plays a part in my just-released first published novel, “Water Music.” I’m not here to judge why women get pregnant outside of marriage, why they keep or give up their children or why they have abortions. I’ve never been pregnant. The whole thing is beyond me.
But I would like to comment on something that struck me in The Times’ article, and that is the idea that Hess’ friends and associates found him ultimately unknowable. The estimable author, Jacob Bernstein, attributes this to Hess’ gayness in the conservative 1980s when AIDS was a scourge and not the chronic illness it is today. But I think that misses the larger point. “Illegitimate” children are always unknowable, not the least of which is to themselves.
Think about it: Even if you are adopted and have a legal identity, you have no biological identity. Part or all of your DNA remains a mystery. Any exploration of it is bound to cause a Pick Up Sticks tangle of emotions for you, your biological parents and your adoptive parents. I think of quarterback Colin Kaepernick – whose San Francisco 49ers beat the Carolina Panthers 23-10 Jan. 12 to advance to the NFC championship (Go Niners) – and his refusal heretofore to meet Heidi Russo, the white woman who had him with a black man, then gave him up to the Kaepernicks. ESPN’s Rick Reilly, who has an adopted daughter, had the temerity to suggest that Colin give her a chance. Listen: It might be the best for him, if not for her. But that’s not for us to judge. And Reilly doesn’t know the hurt of being abandoned, even for the best of reasons. You never get over the fact that the people who made you couldn’t keep you.
And when you’re biracial, you’re always looking over your shoulder. Check out the GQ profile of Colin in which he describes nervously waiting with his white family at a hotel during vacation and “helpful” people asking if he were lost. It boggles the mind and breaks the heart.
In my second novel, “In This Place You Hold Me,” New York Templars’ star quarterback Quinton Day Novak is an Indonesian-American of questionable parentage. It sets him on a course of self-discovery – and into the arms of an abusive lover, because when your own people reject you, you don’t think you’re worth much, you know? (On the plus side, you are always on the outside of life, looking in, which is a very useful quality in a writer at least.)
What Quinton and others have to do is go deep to find what Aeschylus called “the terrible grace of God” and forgive – not only others but themselves.