May 8, 2020

From Summer of Love—to Fatherhood for Dummies (How I became a Dad Later in Life).

Overnight, I’ve become a father! At the tender, young age of…70.

Yes, you read that right.

The prospect of fatherhood is generally time sensitive, not usually associated with men who could be shopping around for senior housing. If this evokes an image of a parchment-skinned figure cradling a newborn, that would seem a little creepy. It’s not that.

However, it is a late-life awakening rooted in my flower-child past, an era when “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” defined the counterculture spirit of rebellion and the term “premarital sex” was more a stage direction than a moral faux pas.

Already, the teenage years are virulently hormonal, but then add to that the 60’s mantra of “if it feels good—do it” and it became, for me, almost a license for hedonism. What the clarity of hindsight has added to the notion of “free love” is that freedom most often comes with a small-print caveat: freedom requires responsibility.

Now, settling into the Goldilocks zone of my retirement years, I hear an unnerving echo in my ears: Dad. Father. These were words directed at other men. Not me. Yet they have gained traction and entered my lexicon with meaning in a way I never fathomed.

I graduated high school in time to participate in the Summer of Love in California in 1967—the epicenter of the hippie movement.

I’d transplanted to the Los Angeles area from the Midwest for my first year of college, a transformative experience. There, I met a young woman, bronzed from the sun, with Caribbean-blue eyes, dimpled cheeks and chin. My nerves danced in her presence. Her lineage was Serbo-Croatian, a make-believe source of gods and goddesses I imagined. Cecilia became my first long-term girlfriend, so in my mind, our relationship earned a mythic stature.

After more than a year, I had to return to Minnesota, leaving behind a magical chapter in my life. But the connection with Cecilia didn’t end there.

In early December, 2019, a reminder of those halcyon days came through my email inbox from Ancestry.com. It was brief, a name: Marci Laughlin, relation: parent/child. One reason my first real romantic partner had become a fixture in my mind was inescapable. She had given birth to twin girls I had fathered. An intermittent correspondence had informed me of Cecilia’s pregnancy, birth of the girls, and then four months later, their adoption. That’s where the trail went dark—for 50 years.

And with this note from Ancestry, my world suddenly lit up. These days are no longer marked by a calm, predictable pattern. We have launched ourselves into a daily email exchange, with my part being choreographed with a degree of caution, trepidation, curiosity, and carefully chosen words. This parade of daily epistles between us has allowed me to gain precious insights into Marci’s values, aspirations, and history, and a chance to share my own.

I have glimpsed the quality of her character—her longtime commitment to social justice; a selfless compassion for others; a worldview similar to my own, as both of us have been longtime expats. I wonder if she too has realized what I’ve learned along the way: that our connectedness to others is the only way to learn empathy, express love, respect, civility, and the morality that weaves a society and family together.

Before the Ancestry stork delivered Marci into my life, I never felt such eagerness to check emails. Afterward, my wife Alice couldn’t tear me away from the hours-long one-finger typing on my phone. As the dance in my step increased each day, that inevitable moment came: the invitation to FaceTime. And when that next milestone occurred, we found ourselves talking in a way that showed that a sense of trust had displaced hesitance.

In fact, a new portal opened; before we finished our conversation, my proactive wife, Alice, had booked our flight to California to spend a week with Marci. She had asked us to come be with her to celebrate her birthday and we wanted to honor her request. I felt tears welling in my eyes, springing from an unexplored room in my heart, a missing piece of my soul slipping into place, and a new kind of love surging through my core.

Pondering all this and my delight at getting to know my daughter better, I can hardly wait to meet her in person. Every day I feel a constant buzz in this newly ordained status of “father.”

Beyond wanting to grow my connection with her, I was wanting to offer her a helping hand in the way a father would do, as a matter of course. I had learned from her emails that she had lived over 20 years abroad and that the transition back to the States had been a rocky one.

Following our call, I wrote the following:

Dear Marci,

If we could help you find your footing here so you’re no longer feeling like a stranger in a strange land, let’s put our hearts, heads, and energies together to make that happen. It requires a synergistic partnership. I think the potential is in front of us. Why? Because you already put the message out there to the universe and got a return call.

Her response tickled my father bone:

Dear Mark,

How is it possible that every email gets even more delightful? And requires me to pinch myself AGAIN? My heart is doing flips as I read your lines (again and again) about wanting to help me not be a stranger in a strange land. I’m just lost in the savoring of your words. Thank you so much. I never could have imagined the extraordinary nature of this return call from the universe.

While there’s no way to recapture time lost, I find myself fantasizing and longing for the nostalgia of what a life with my twin girls might have been. I feel the vacuum, the absence of shared experiences and lament that the California visit will not include my other daughter, Kristi. However, the adventure before us allows me to revel in the present, inspiring a heightened appreciation of the time ahead to bond with Marci.

We’re out of the starting blocks, on the same plane now, meeting one another as mature adults, bringing our learned lessons of life together. It thrills me to feel that she is as excited by this new adventure as I am.

I prize clarity and honesty and sense Marci and I share this nexus. Moreover, it seemed that integrity and good will animate her behavior. Her lack of guile is refreshing. I long to convey to her that this stranger she is coming to know as her birth father, is someone she can trust in; someone who has her back.

Now, I need to learn fast about this whole new realm of expertise—nurturing middle-aged children. A good friend, learning of my initiation into fatherhood, sent a card: “Congratulations on the birth of your twins!” Alice, with that characteristic twinkle in her eye, asked “Does that mean we should send out birth announcements?”

At age 70, I hope to be mercifully excused from any midterms that, in college, only ever demonstrated my unpreparedness and inadequacy rather than competence. If my daughters share any of my traits, I hope it is forgiveness. And, if not forgiveness, maybe forgetfulness—so my faults have a short shelf life. And in the meantime, I’m on the hunt for a new textbook: Fatherhood for Dummies.


Note: This blog is a companion piece to Marci Laughlin’s series on Elephant Journal: Struggles of an Adult Adoptee


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