• Peter Papathanasiou's biological father (pictured with the writer's two brothers in 1965) passed away before the two had the chance to meet. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
When Peter Papathanasiou found out he was adopted, his biological mother had already died. He didn’t make it to Greece in time to meet his father.
By
Peter Papathanasiou

16 May 2016 - 12:55 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2020 - 2:51 PM

It had been over a year since the moment in my life that tore time in two – the day Mum sat me down and told me that she was my biological aunt. Since that day, my parents had remained my parents, but I now had something big looming – a reunion with my biological brothers and father that I was not yet ready to face.

So I did what any scared, gutless person might do. I threw myself at my work, grateful for the distraction. Young and ambitious, I was doing my PhD and clocking 18-hour days at the lab, performing experiments with mice and generating data. Ironically, I was studying genetics.

As I left work on a Thursday in January, my watch said 4am. It was an opportunity for three, maybe four hours' sleep before I needed to be back for a weekly lab meeting. Dog-tired, I drove home with the windows down and stereo blaring. The night was warm and conducive to sleeping at the wheel.

Dad’s blood sugar often dropped during the night so it wasn’t a surprise to find him fixing a snack at a quarter past four. But on this particular night, I returned to find all the house lights on and both my parents drinking black coffee.

Mum’s eyes were bloodshot. She had been crying.

“Your father,” she said.

“What about him?” I said, looking over. “He looks fine to me.”

“No, my brother,” she said. “My sister Sultana called earlier. He died a few hours ago.”

Too late

I sighed lightly and lowered my shoulders. I stepped forward to hug Mum who had already risen from her chair as if to embrace me. She was clearly upset but was already a step ahead, ready for the fact that I may have been more upset.

But I wasn’t.

I knew this day would come. An opportunity had passed. Now, I’d lost someone I hardly knew, but without whom I wouldn’t have existed. And Mum had always told me the adoption had been his idea.

I knew I should have felt sad. And I did. But it was more an automatic reaction, in response to hearing of the death of anyone, than a deeply personal one. I was sad for Mum’s loss and guilty for my own. Uncle Savvas wasn’t just anyone. He was the architect of my creation. Biologically, he was my dad. The reality that I would now never meet him bulldozed a pit into my stomach when I realised I’d also let Mum down. She had always held out hope her adoptive son would meet his biological family. That I never met my biological mum Anna was Mum’s fault, but that I would never meet my dad was mine. Because I was busy with my experiments. Because I was weak. Because I was scared. Fear is an awful feeling but it is never quite as frightening as regret.

Mum sat back down. Her hopes were dashed, more so than mine. I would be lying if I said part of me wasn’t also relieved.

Ever since I was told of my adoption, I had been trying to reassemble the mother of all existential jigsaws. The pieces never fitted or I was content to merely push them around the kitchen table. Or I procrastinated and got distracted by more immediate, less daunting problems. Now, the jigsaw would never be complete.

Less said

I’d had a phone call with my biological family several months earlier. The phone line to their small Greek village crackled like an open fire. My hand trembled as Mum passed me the receiver, my palm sweaty, my head throbbing. Georgios was friendly and immediately asked when I was visiting. I had laughed nervously. The question came far too quickly in the conversation but showed that it had been brewing for decades. I came up with an excuse which seemed to placate him. He did not mention our deceased mother and then-ailing father, still working as a fruiterer.

I sat next to Mum on the couch and took her hand. Her fingers relaxed in mine.

I asked Mum how my dad died. At first, I said “Dad,” before correcting myself and saying “your brother”. Mum replied that her sister mentioned something called “gangraina”, which I couldn’t decipher.

“Eh, you know.” Mum pointed to her slippers. “His foot. All black.”

“Oh,” I said, “you mean gangrene.”

I winced at the thought. Gangrene, in this day and age? The mere mention of the word evoked memories of diseases I thought had been eradicated. It was like hearing someone died of smallpox or polio. I wondered precisely how underdeveloped my family’s village was and whether I would need a raft of vaccinations to visit.

The day I found out I was adopted - and my aunt and uncle were my birth parents
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.

“The medicines and doctors they have in our village aren’t like here in Australia,” Mum added. “People still die of things like gangraina.”

I asked Mum whether her family told her any of this on the phone. She said no, not a single word. I was annoyed. How could Mum’s family justify not mentioning that her brother – my biological father – was unwell, let alone at death’s door? Mum explained it simply: “Probably didn’t want to worry us.”

The funeral was next week. Mum said she wasn’t going. She had no time or money. I offered to pay, said I had been saving up my research fellowship. She told me to keep my money – her sister was taking care of all the arrangements. “I feel for her and also pray for her.”

I sensed Mum did not want to go. After not seeing Greece for some 30 years, to return to something so traumatic could do a person closing in on 70 more harm than good. But not me. Now, I knew I had to go more than ever.

I squeezed Mum’s hand. “You’ll be okay, Mama?”

She exhaled. “Eh, I’ll survive. I’m used to this kind of thing now, and it’s only going to happen more and more.”

Three days later, as I prepared to go to work, I was surprised to see Mum’s smile had unexpectedly returned.

“I got to say goodbye to Savvas,” she said. “When they took his body home before the funeral, Sultana phoned again. She put the telephone receiver on our brother’s chest. I spoke direct to his heart. I said goodbye.”

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What do you do when your identity is challenged by family secrets? Find out on tomorrow's episode of Insight, May 17, 8:30PM on SBS.