• "I’d always questioned... why I was the only kid at school without siblings. That was especially weird in large ethnic families. Suddenly, I make sense." (Peter Papathanasiou)Source: Peter Papathanasiou
Peter Papathanasiou was born in 1974, grew up in 1980s Australia as an only child of Greek parents, and found out he was adopted in 1999 at age 25.
By
Peter Papathanasiou

31 Mar 2016 - 12:46 PM  UPDATED 20 Jun 2019 - 3:48 PM

Mum has something on her mind. She hopes I won’t notice but it’s impossible not to. She’s poked her head around my bedroom door umpteen times today.

‘Mama,’ I say, ‘what’s up?’

She stays quiet for some time. ‘Come to my room,’ she finally says, ‘I’ve something to tell you.’

My stomach tightens. Whenever a mum says something like that, you know it’s serious.

I follow Mum down the carpeted hall. She closes the door behind us. I’m not sure where Dad is but know he isn’t in the house.

‘Please, Panagiotis, sit.’

Mum calls me by my Greek name. She takes up position on the edge of the bed, her bare feet resting on a thick blue rug.

‘I’ll stand, Mum. Please, what is it?’

Looking down at her hands, she begins.

Mum’s eyes suddenly well up, her cheeks on fire. She takes a deep breath. I do the same, uncertain of what is to come.

‘When I was young, I tried many times to get pregnant. Although your dad and I succeeded three times, I miscarried each time.’

I listen, silently.

‘Your baba and I were going slightly crazy. We’d been through a lot, coming to Australia from our village of Florina in northern Greece. In the end, we had no choice. We had to consider the options of taking someone else’s child.’

Mum’s eyes suddenly well up, her cheeks on fire. She takes a deep breath. I do the same, uncertain of what is to come.

‘My brother Savvas and his wife Anna proposed to have a baby for us. They already had two teenage sons. I felt terrible about my brother’s wife having to carry and give birth to another baby for me, her non-blood relative. But our lives here were childless and, well, meaningless. In the end, an arrangement was made. Anna fell pregnant, and I flew to Greece.’

A tear rolls down Mum’s left cheek. She fights hard to compose herself and not lose her place in the story.

‘Your dad worked here while I was in Greece. I was completing all the paperwork to take you to Australia. He sent money when he could. Six months later, we flew back. From that day, you haven’t set foot in your country of birth, and the only contact with your birth mother has been was when she and I talked on the phone. To you, she was simply your aunt. And to her too, this was the case. Even though she loved you dearly, it was for us to raise you in the way we chose. You became our child. She saw the benefits of life here. It was why your dad and I came out in the first place. Your brothers, the two boys who I’ve always said were your cousins, know everything you’ve been doing.’

Brothers?

I put my fingertips to my temples, as if to steady myself, and let the new word nestle inside my brain.

‘Your brothers are still unmarried. Vasilios doesn’t work. He is somewhat handicapped. Georgios works for a power station. Unfortunately, Anna died six years ago. Your birth father, my brother Savvas, is old and weak and plagued by alcoholism. He blames it on having to look after Billy all these years.’

Mum wipes her face and eyes again and takes another deep breath.

‘Keeping this from you for so long has made me grey before my time. But we couldn’t tell you too young – you wouldn’t have understood. And back then, I was still too ashamed. It seems so foolish now but it was cultural. The older you got, the harder it was. I wanted to tell you before you started university but the timing wasn’t right. The time was never right.’

When I was at school, I’d always questioned why my parents were so much older than all the other parents. And why I was the only kid at school without siblings

She rubs the rough soles of her feet back and forth on the rug. Her jagged heels open like cracks in dry earth.

‘You deserve to know this. Some parents don’t tell their kids. But I know that even if people don’t see all that goes on, God does. There are no secrets from Him.’

Mum crosses herself as she utters the final sentence.

‘So,’ she says, ‘that’s it.’

Mum wipes her flushed face with a tissue. It is only then I realise this may be the hardest thing she’s ever done. She looks at me with the same honest brown eyes I’ve seen my whole life, and waits patiently for my reaction.

For a long time, I don’t say anything. I can’t. I’m in too much shock.

And yet, at the same time, it’s not unexpected. When I was at school, I’d always questioned why my parents were so much older than all the other parents. And why I was the only kid at school without siblings. That was especially weird in large ethnic families. Suddenly, I make sense.

Before I know what’s happening, I can sense a wash of emotions running through me.

Shock and confusion and anger are first – those who I thought were my parents are in fact my aunt and uncle. I feel deceived. Sadness quickly follows, at the realisation of having missed meeting my biological mother. I recall a memory of a time she called our house and Mum asked me to come and speak with ‘an aunty in Greece’. I had refused, claiming there was no point talking with another distant relative I’d never actually meet. That ridiculously immature attitude stabbed at me now. I feel like a fool.

But then the storm clouds clear and excitement is upon me – the thought of having brothers.

‘Brothers,’ I say aloud.

The word doesn’t sound right coming out of my mouth.

My brothers.’ I say the magic word again.

And not just one brother. Two. Stereo.

The questions all come at once. What are my brothers like? How did they feel all these years? What are their birthdays? What are their favourite foods? Their favourite music? Do they dance? Sing? What do they look like? We probably don’t even speak the same first language. Still, I wanted to shout it out, to tell everyone I had siblings. To tell everyone I was suddenly just like them.

What are my brothers like? How did they feel all these years? What are their birthdays? What are their favourite foods? 

Mum leaves the room and returns moments later with a pile of photos.

‘Here,’ she says, ‘Vasilios on the left, Georgios right.’

Looking at the image, I see my own features. I have Billy’s eyes and nose and Georgios’s mouth and chin.

Mum shows me a photo of my biological father, Savvas. I see a thin, moustached man staring out at me from beneath a slouched cloth hat. His image makes less of an impression; I am, after all, familiar with the notion of a father. But a brother is the really novel thing.

Finally, Mum shows a photo of my biological mother, Anna. I’m shocked to see the likeness she shares with the sister-in-law who had raised me all those years. I feel instantly comforted. Mum. One and the same.

And what of this amazing aunt and uncle, how will I feel about them now? It’s a no-brainer. The same. Although it normally takes two people to bring a life into the world, for me it just happened to be four. Four. Just a number.

The afternoon has been painful on Mum. The moist lines down from her eyes make her face resemble a river delta. How she must’ve worried all those years that someone else had told me the truth before she. It probably played on her thoughts every day. ‘Someone’s told him,’ she would whisper to my dad after I left the room. But now, she’s overcome with relief, which brings me joy.

‘Thank you, Mama,’ I say, and kiss her on the cheek to let her know everything is alright. She smiles. I hug Dad on my way out without any words. I know she’ll tell him later what it was for, I tell myself as I wander off to again gaze upon the photo of my brothers.

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Every Family Has a Secret premieres at 7.30pm on Tuesday 25 June, and airs over three weeks. Catch up at SBS On Demand after broadcast.

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