He is standing alone outside the train station in downtown Dallas, armed with a cell that can’t seem to lose my phone number. Barely 5 feet tall, his bean-brown skin is boiled from years of pushing lawn mowers in the Texas sun.
A brisk March breeze cuts through the near empty city streets this Saturday morning, tunneling down Young Street, where he’s waiting for a ride. Waiting for me. He’s been waiting for years.
Ben Hernandez wants me to visit his home again. He wants pictures of my son, and a relationship.
After 25 years, he wants to be my father again.
At 62, he relishes senior discounts. His donated pants are clean but torn along the hem line, the threads dragging along the ground as he walks. I don’t know why that bothers me, but it does. He struggles to pay his bills each month and works a series of odd jobs when he can, where he can. Mowing lawns in the mid-cities a few weeks in the summer or helping a friend drive trucks to Laredo. All cash jobs. The only steady employment he has is ringing the bell for the Salvation Army during the Christmas season. A small, brown lump dressed in layers, he stamps his feet on the Walmart pavement to fight off the numbness in his legs. Eight-hour shifts, six days a week outside, in the rain, the wind, sometimes sleet, often causes him to develop chest colds. But he’s proud of what he does. “The rich people in Southlake need me,” he says. “They expect to see me each year.” He’s not supposed to say more than Merry Christmas or God Bless to the shoppers, but each week he sets aside money for peppermint candies and hands them out to children who pass by his red kettle. “I like to see them smile,” he says. The Salvation Army usually gives him a ham as a Christmas bonus.
Friends take advantage of Ben, often asking him for money he doesn’t have—Ben, can I borrow $40? I’ll pay you next week. Or favors—Ben, can you get me some lunch? I can’t drive myself. Always he gives and is frustrated when no one pays him back or they steal from him. “I got me a lawyer,” he told me once. “He’s a civil lawyer.” Some lady jipped him out of $39; he only had $27 in his bank account. The lawyer helped him get the money back and got his bank to waive the overdraft fees.
I wish he’d tell people no. I wish he were upright and regal and an ass kicker. I wish he wasn’t so poor. I wish I didn’t feel ashamed of him.
Ben is diabetic but eats pan-fried food and drinks sweet tea. The son of a migrant worker, he speaks with a slow, thick Texan accent. Too thick for a Mexican man. “Hell-o,” he says on the phone, hill-country like. “Did ya’ get your ol’ check yet?” But he knows his mother’s language. Cruz was her last name, I think. Her people are from somewhere in south Mexico. He knows a good recipe for enchiladas and the best place for huevos rancheros on Fort Worth’s North Side. When I hear him speak the language I can’t remember, the words I struggle for, the verbs I can’t conjugate, he is transformed. He is my legacy. His brown skin, those black-brown eyes—my eyes—are reminders of my heritage, and I belong, finally.
It’s like this for adopted children like me. No matter how long the time or how much you’ve accomplished, there are always strands of memory that prevent you from being someone else’s child. Case workers, judges and my adopted parents created a new childhood for me. My name was changed. You’re not Hernandez anymore; you’re Cattanach. I got a new grandma. I got a haircut. And though I branched out, I grew, I began to thrive in new earth, with new parents and sunshine in a house without roaches, in air without cigarette smoke, I never really felt rooted. They didn’t do anything wrong. My new family didn’t love me less. I did blossom like a cactus plant in a rose garden, but no amount of love or grooming could make me a rose.
I’ve read stories about children reunited with birth parents after adoption. Often you’ll see some mother squeezing tears into a hanky, talking about how she was young, she was scared and she always wondered what happened to her son or daughter. There are investigators who specialize in finding adopted children and reuniting them with their birth parents. Some do it for free. Others charge a fee. There are also websites that help adopted children find their birth parents. Television cameras love this sort of thing. The lens focuses in on that coveted, made-for-TV moment when a parent and child reunite. They might cry, stare into each other’s eyes and whisper words of longed-for relief: “I’ve waited for this moment,” the mother might cry out. “I’ve missed you,” the daughter might reply.
My reality is far different, far more complex, far more painful.
As reunions go, ours has not been especially heartwarming. There aren’t hugs and kisses or hours-long conversations. Instead there is awkwardness and long stretches of silence and missed phone calls.
Even for those reunited with tears of joy, there are layers of grief and anger and hurt that simply cannot be ignored. What no birth parent wants to admit and every child of adoption knows is this: There was a good reason a child was placed in adoption. Often it is because the birth parent was not capable, still isn’t capable of being a good parent. Poverty and mental illness prevented my birth parents from caring for me.
But Ben and I never talk about those missing 25 years he wasn’t in my life, nor the circumstances that forced my younger brother and me into foster care. All I know is that we were two of the 5,400 children placed in foster care by the State of Texas in 1982 and two of the 700 children adopted in 1984.
Like us, children in foster care today will remain in the system on average over two years. Though we were adopted, we shared a three bedroom trailer with—at times—up to five foster kids, including me. Some of my “brothers” and “sisters” had scars from their moms and dads—burns from a boiling pot of water left on a hot stove within reach of a toddler’s curious fingers. Some kids were violent and mean—and I was only 3. Others screamed and kicked and had to be dragged out of the house when the social worker came to get them for a home visit.
Most of them were eventually adopted, but today, many children in foster care —almost 10 percent, nationally—age out of the system at 18 having never been adopted. Thankfully, we were not among them. My brother and I were adopted by our first foster family and not separated from each other as are so many siblings.
But like so many children before me, and those still to come, forgetting is hard, and Ben Hernandez hasn’t been a welcome addition in my life.
As any child of adoption will tell you, inevitably there will come a time when you wonder why you don’t look like your new mom and dad. You will feel the sting in family portraits as your brown curls and chocolate ojos, and round Mexican-ness stick out in the framed photo of you alongside blonde-haired and blue-eyed Anglos. It’s in the eyes of strangers: “How come you don’t look like your sister?” And even the smallest bits of information blood-kids take for granted: How much did I weigh at birth? What were my first words? Did my mom hate mushrooms as much as I do? No matter how great your adopted life is, how wonderful your new mommy treats you, it is impossible to forget who you come from and harder still not to wonder about your past.
And I am no different.
After weeks of missed phone calls and near-daily voice messages—I had 100 waiting voice mails from Ben—I couldn’t avoid him any longer.
It’s like this for us: Him pushing and grasping and seeking. Me retreating and hiding and fleeing. He keeps asking for my new address, but I’m afraid he’ll show up at my house one day unannounced, so I’ve lied for the last year always promising, next week, next month, soon I’ll mail him a letter.
I have no intention of doing so. Not yet. Maybe never, especially not after what happened last year. He sent a Dallas police officer to my home on a welfare call to see if I was still alive. I didn’t return his phone calls for a month, and he thought I might be dead.
I finally answered the phone a few days later.
“Joanna?” he asked. “It’s your dad, Ben.” He always identifies himself as my dad. I don’t like it. I don’t consider myself his daughter.
“Yes,” I replied, trying not to sound as frustrated as I feel. I hate when he calls, which is all the time and any time of day. Sunday mornings at 7 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. or whenever he thinks I’ll answer, multiple times a day for weeks until I answer the phone. And though I try to calm myself, I feel tension stiffen my shoulders and roll through my body, each muscle tightening in response to a simple phone call. I can’t breathe sometimes.
“Hey, I got a blanket for the baby. Can I give it to you? Are you doing something this weekend? Can I see you?” He rattles out the same speech each time. Always he has something to give me. Five dollars for my 28th birthday. A ring he ordered from a catalogue. “It’s almost here. Do you know what size ring you wear, because I ordered a seven and a half,” he asks over the phone. Or something to show me. His birth certificate one time. “Look, it says here I was born in Wy-oming. I’d sure like to go back there.” And his letters express the same sentiment written in large, childish script, three to four sentences that take up half a page—HOW ARE YOU?
As usual I hedge at his latest request. “I’m not sure if I’m doing anything Saturday,” I say.
Does he ever consider what I want? Or think about how painful it is for me to have him back in my life? Does he think about how much he hurt me all the years he didn’t call or buy me rings from a catalogue? Does he know how foolish I felt growing up hoping to find a birthday card from him in the mail only to be disappointed?
So many foster care and adopted children dream of this kind of opportunity, but not me. And yet it found me just two weeks before my wedding, in 2008, when a blood cousin I’d never met left me a voice mail.
“Your father called,” stranger cousin said. “Your mother is in the hospital dying.”
I thought it was a joke. The only father I knew died of cancer the year before. And I’d sure as hell know if my mother were in the hospital, let alone dying.
And just like that, without warning, at the happiest moment of my life, he came back in. What happened next is a blur. I called my adopted mother. She was shocked. We all were. No one had heard from my mother, Verna, in years. Her mental illness had scared away whatever family she had left. And my adopted mother assumed Ben was dead. “I thought he committed suicide,” she said.
I went to the nursing home to see what was left of my schizophrenic mother the same day I got the phone call, so I suppose in some way I did bring this on myself. I could have not gone. I could have deleted the voice mail.
Maybe it was because she was dying. Maybe I needed closure. Maybe I bought into the reunited-and-it-feels-so-good mentality. What I found was a screaming mess off her meds. Verna didn’t know who I was and didn’t care. She wanted cigarettes and a cola. The bloated pear-shaped figure in a wheelchair smelled of pee and creamed corn. She begged me, her forgotten daughter, to take her home. I want to go home! She went home just two months later, alone in her bed and later in a pauper’s box, cremated cut-rate by the Greenwood Funeral Home in Fort Worth. She died from heart failure and complications brought on by diabetes.
But my story isn’t about Verna. It’s about Ben. It always has been. About the father who knew me before I was born. Ben, whose tenderness makes hating him so hard. Ben, who hasn’t stopped calling me. I don’t know why I gave him my phone number. Maybe it was because he looked so small, so diminished standing outside of the nursing home that day in 2008.
I thought at first the man pacing out front was homeless. He shuffled along the pavement carrying a backpack. And then, though I hadn’t seen him in two decades, I knew he was my father. I still carried that childhood dream that he’d be somebody. A veteran, a war hero, someone who was messed up for a good reason. Deep down, like all children, I wanted to be proud of my father. Instead, a warm tide of embarrassment washed over me as I realized the vagabond pacing outside the nursing home was my dad. Why did he have to look so poor? Why couldn’t he smell clean? And smile with a full set of teeth?
When I was a teenager, I fantasized about my birth parents. Confused and searching for identity, I was one of the lucky ones who had photos—seven to be exact—of me before adoption. Me in a car. Me in Verna’s lap. Me holding Ben’s hand. All chosen to seem normal, but I knew there wasn’t anything normal about our home life. There were no “Mommy’s Favorite” t-shirt shots or “Daddy’s Little Girl” poses. There were no bows in my hair or shiny black Mary Janes or white ankle socks with lace. Where was my first Christmas? My first tooth? My naked-in-the-bathtub photo? All I have are seven celluloid copies of a little girl with big brown eyes taken by surprise from an un-focused distance.
And then there was the long, gray silence after a welfare worker took my brother and me and left us with strangers. I could hear the new world around me. I could smell fried eggs and pancakes. I could touch the baby dolls. But I couldn’t function, and so I slept on the bunk bed in the shared bedroom with my new “sisters,” in the strange house with the toys I could play with—Don’t you want to play?—and was told when to get up, when to pee, to brush my teeth like a good little girl, only to shut my eyes and fall back to sleep in the comforting silence, in the choked tears of a toddler who finally realized mommy and daddy weren’t coming to get her.
I did emerge from sleep, but when the other foster kids would get loud, I’d crawl into a closet, over piles of shoes and hide behind my foster mom’s house coats and church skirts. The thin cotton covered my face in the dark, cool silence. I could hear my foster parents call for me, I could see them through the gap in the closet door, but I refused to answer them. I hoped they’d never find me. But they always did. What are you doing hiding in there, silly girl? They took away my bottle. They had rules and consequences. We had to clean our plates. For hours I’d sit at the kitchen table mute and angry in front of a bowl of goulash or split pea soup. But I learned to eat it—I had to. I spoke again. I got used to seeing new kids, troubled kids, hurt kids, come and go. When my foster parents finally adopted my brother and me, I got used to that, too.
I learned early on adoption is about adaptation. And a kid who escapes the foster wheel learns to adapt quickly. You can learn to call a stranger mommy. It’s hard at first. You may just wait to catch her eye—Can I have more milk? Or tug at the back of her dress—Um, I need to go potty. But eventually you can say it. New mommies want to hear it. It’s not so bad…eventually.
I hadn’t come from home situations like my foster brothers and sisters. No one beat the crap out of me or threw me against a wall. There weren’t drugs in our house. Ben and Verna did love my brother and me. And our foster home was one of the better ones. Our foster, now adoptive, parents gave us a real childhood, with real memories. My foster mother bought me a powder blue Easter dress with a big bow on the butt and fluffy 1980s sleeves. I wore it every week to church with white lacey socks and black Mary Janes. I felt beautiful in that dress. My sister—my adopted parents’ only biological child—treated me like her pet puppy, and I waggingly played along. Ten years older, she had me memorize the lyrics to ‘80s pop songs. We’d sing Cyndi Lauper tunes in her Yugo on the way back from the grocery store. Those were happy times.
But I thought often about my real mom and dad—Are they going to come get me? Will they send me a birthday card? Do they think about me? And later, when I was older, when I got tired of waiting and tired of feeling different—I hate them!
I tell myself each time Ben calls that I won’t answer. My adopted mother warned me to be careful. “He may want something from you.” At each awkward meeting, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will he ask for money? A place to stay? He did once borrow $20. And as I handed it to him, I felt a secret vengeance. I knew it! I knew he was a phony. A few weeks later, he paid me back in full.
But there have been other moments like the time he disappeared for a month. I’d gotten so used to ignoring his phone calls that when he stopped calling, I grew concerned. I’d visited his home before; I stayed for five minutes, perched on a smelly futon afraid to touch anything. Ben’s Social Security check affords him an illegal sublet in a crime-ridden area of Fort Worth. He’s an easy target.
Finally, his brother called me. He hadn’t seen Ben in weeks. His phone was cut off. I checked the Tarrant County morgue’s website for John Does. I read autopsy reports hoping that the “male, Hispanic, 5 feet tall” was not my father but also secretly wanting an end to our strained relationship.
Ben showed up a month later. He had gone to Oklahoma but didn’t tell anyone.
This is what reunion is about. You inviting the crazy back in. You having to be involved when you don’t want to and feeling guilty for not caring more. Why do I do this to myself? I can stop all of this. I can change my phone number. I can burn his letters. I can forget Ben. I have before.
I’ve given myself permission to let go, but he won’t.
You see, Ben never let go. He was just gone.
I live in Dallas now and never knew Ben and Verna lived in Fort Worth all the years I was separated from them. Just like I never knew my Aunt G forwarded the letters I wrote her to Ben’s family. My adopted mother made sure we wrote and visited our great Aunt G, Verna’s aunt, until Aunt G died in 1999. I wrote Aunt G about school, about my new life, my dreams and desires. My adopted mother sent her our school photos. The state does allow for continued contact after adoption—though most families opt not to.
I never inquired about Ben in my letters. I never wanted to know about him. I’d always assumed he was the reason I was taken. Because I couldn’t remember him, I blamed him. But he memorized those letters. I know, because he asked me once if I still wanted to be a doctor. I’d played around with the idea when I was in high school before I enrolled in freshman chemistry in college and figured out math and science and blood were not for me. There is no way he would have known that without reading my letters.
The beaten man with missing teeth and giveaway clothes is the polar opposite of me. He is the product of 25 years without his children. He is a shadow of the moments he should have had. His absence has deprived him of the joy a father gains through parenthood.
I have what he was never able to keep. I’ve taken hundreds of photos of my son in the bath tub, wiggling on the changing table, asleep, awake, crying, angry in an Easter bunny outfit he does not want to wear. My little boy wears Baby Gap and giggles when I make faces at him—peekaboo! His father and I argue about where he will go to college. We spend weekends at the park together and take turns at night rocking our son back to sleep—rest, baby boy, just shut your eyes and rest. We’re buying our first house, someplace with a yard, in a safe neighborhood with great schools.
Though I’ve allowed myself these brief moments of time with Ben, this has not been easy for my family. My husband has difficulty with the situation. He doesn’t know how to address Ben and feels as frustrated as I do when Ben tries to act like my father. I do not call him Dad; I call him Ben. And though I have a blood brother—Ben’s namesake in fact—he refuses to share any kind of a relationship with our found father. It’s just too hard and too strange for him. My younger brother was a baby when we were in foster care. He attached himself to our adopted family and doesn’t want to look back. I understand completely.
So when our father asks, “How’s Benji?” I’m honest but not hopeful. He’s always good. He’s always fine. And nothing more. Ever.
I’ve learned to set boundaries. I have to do this for my own emotional health. I have to protect my son and myself because deep down I still wonder if Ben is going to disappear again and how bad it will hurt when he does. Yes, Ben has met his grandson. I couldn’t deny him. And though my little boy is a mere 5 months old, I want him to know that he wasn’t born rootless like I’ve felt for so long. My baby comes from people.
I don’t know why I feel the need to protect myself from this man. Maybe when you can’t quite size up your enemy, you have to build strong defenses. Maybe it’s because he never talks about the missing years. He never mentions our adoption but always inquires about my adopted mother. “How is Mrs. Cattanach?” I’m 31 years old, and he still sends me little girl birthday cards. But he also offers me small glimpses of myself. “You used to love tomatoes as a little girl,” he said once. “You never sat down at the kitchen table, always running around making noise,” he said, smiling. He gifts me memories. I know it’s selfish, but I like having someone in my life who still treats me like his little girl.
I want to see him as a nice man, not a failure of a father.
For now, I can decide how much Ben I want and when and for how long. And I derive perverse pleasure from that at times. And finally, control.
For his part, Ben has told everyone about me. He always introduces me as his daughter—es mi hija—to strangers, to the disheveled homeless in downtown Fort Worth he hangs out with sometimes. Slowly, I’ve met other family members as well. I have an Uncle Frank and an Uncle John, Ben’s half-brothers. They’ve welcomed me back into the family. They remember me as a little girl. They have families and successful lives and good health and have thrived, like I have, in the ways Ben has not.
But where do I go from here? How far do I let this little trip down memory lane take me? I worry about what will happen if his health starts to fail. I’m not prepared or willing to become a primary caregiver. It’s all too much at times, and yet not enough. Despite my own reservations about our awkward relationship, I’ve requested my case file from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, the state agency that handles foster care and adoption cases. I need to know what happened. I need to see the truth through a social worker’s notes, not Ben’s wishful thinking or seven lousy snapshots. Some two years after my request I’m still waiting. I guess the state isn’t any more interested in mailing me my past than I am receiving it.
I pull up to the curb and spot Ben sitting on a bench outside the train station. He walks over to the car—left foot, right foot—not really walking straight but wobbling, teetering from toe to toe. Not drunk. Diabetes has cut off some of the circulation in his lower legs, and he can’t move as fast anymore.
He’s got a friend with him this time. “Hey, this is my friend, Juan Cantu.” Ben leans into the passenger side door and throws his backpack on the floor board.
Oh, God! Will I have to give him a ride? My baby is in the back seat.
But Juan is waiting for another bus, “Mucho gusto,” Juan says and tells Ben they’ll meet up later to take the train back to Fort Worth.
“That’s my friend Juan,” Ben says. “He’s 78 years old and likes to get out.” Ben has lots of friends. Old friends, disabled friends, shady friends, church friends. He’s like that.
He buckles his seat belt and I pull away from the curb. We drive to the restaurant in silence. I want to embrace this more. I don’t want to be ashamed of Ben, but I just don’t know how. He makes hating him so hard.
In the four years we’ve reconnected, I’ve never once called him Dad. I just can’t. I can’t hug him. It hurts too much. I spent years calling someone else dad and accepting a parental relationship that too often felt one-sided. I couldn’t be a Cattanach fully, not really. And I couldn’t be the round-face girl with pecas, freckles, either.
The waitress points us to a table, and Ben immediately orders the senior special. My son Gabriel is getting antsy in his car seat. Like most babies, he hates being confined when he can be carried. I unbuckle his straps and set him on my lap. He looks at Ben and smiles. Babies are like that.
Long strands of drool pour out of his gummy mouth—goo, he coos.
Ben watches Gabriel, “He’ll be talking soon.” He hands me $30, “for the baby,” he says. I noticed dirt under his fingernails.
The waitress arrives with our breakfast dishes, and Ben announces over scrambled eggs and white toast, “You know, my father isn’t buried far from here.” He’s always doing that. He’s always shooting one over my wall. I live in Dallas, and my grandfather is buried here. I never knew that!
We’re quite a pair. Me in an Ann Taylor top and designer jeans, grasping a chubby baby boy who’s intent on sticking his fingers in my omelet, and Ben in paint-spattered dress pants and a white guayabera, a Mexican wedding shirt. Ben has gained some weight. “I moved in with my stepdad in Saginaw,” he says. “He needs help getting around, so I make him lunch during the day.”
The baby is wiggling on my lap and makes lovey eyes at the couple seated behind us.
“Do you want to hold him?” I ask Ben and almost immediately regret it.
“Yes,” he says and reaches forward for his grandson, his first grandchild, his only grandchild. Gabriel immediately starts to cry. “I knew he’d do that,” Ben says laughing, bouncing the baby on his lap. “He just can’t stand to be away from Mama.”
Ben takes off his glasses and makes silly faces at Gabriel who laughs and shakes his thick baby arms. I can smell Ben’s cologne from across the table. He got cleaned up for me.
This is the only way he knows how to be a father. He is never going to be rich or powerful. He’s not my hero. He’s my father, and I am his daughter. This is going to be hard, this future we have and this past we share and these genes that connect us.
So how do we move forward?
I reach for the baby and cradle my crying son who’s back to happy again and look over at Ben who’s beaming with a new-found pride. The shoulders I can’t embrace are shaking with laughter, and there in Ben’s big brown eyes, my eyes, my son’s eyes is the answer—hope.
“Don’t worry,” Ben says. “He’ll get used to his grandpa.”