The daughter and I have more than once seen a film that especially moved us because each of us separately thought it related to the two of us. At the core of these movies has been a strong bond between a girl or a young woman and her father or a father figure. Others may have been entertained by the movie, but for us these films are something more. They apply directly to us. For example, we saw a holiday showing of “Les Miz” in a crowded theater where we could not sit together. I know that it might seem strange to you, but I kept thinking throughout the movie that it was in essence describing the relationship between the daughter and me. At the movie’s conclusion, we met at the back of the theater. I said that was about us. She had been thinking the same. In the midst of people streaming for the exits, we hugged tightly.
This came back to me when I read Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Noah’s father was a Swiss German who could not legally marry Noah’s mother under the South African laws where they lived, but the father tried as much as he could when Noah was small to stay in the boy’s life. Things changed, however, when Noah was thirteen. A stepfather entered his life, and the relationship with his biological father was severed. A decade later, when Noah had success and with his mother’s encouragement, he again sought out his father.
Noah had difficulty in finding this secretive man. Finally, Noah wrote a letter for his father in care of the Swiss embassy in South Africa. It was forwarded. The father responded, and Noah went to meet him again. After some hours together, the father opened a scrapbook recording everything Noah had ever done—newspaper clippings, magazine covers, club listings—from the beginning of Noah’s career through the week of their meeting. Noah says that he could hardly restrain tears. “Seeing him had reaffirmed his choosing of me. He chose to have me in his life. He chose to answer my letter. I was wanted. Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”
This made me choke up. These were words for the daughter and me. The daughter is adopted. In some sense we chose her, but that is misleading. An adoption agency paired us with her, and how can you know the person a six-month baby will become?
But what Noah’s words brought back to me was a night in Atlanta. I had gone there for a law school conference, and the daughter had gone along because she had never seen Atlanta. We were at a Buckhead restaurant with a Florida public defender in whose office I had spent time on a sabbatical. Back then I did not know the full extent of the daughter’s struggles with identity issues, but some were obvious. She’s adopted; she’s Asian and her mother and I are not; and it was clear from an early age that she was not a traditional girl. I don’t remember how the topic came up that night, but at some point she said, “I know that I have always been a disappointment to you. I am not the girl you wanted.”
The daughter no doubt knew that we had asked for a girl when we were adopting. I had hoped that I would be good in helping to raise a strong, independent girl who would not simply follow a gender-defined path but would chart her own course. I knew that I wanted a girl who, at least metaphorically, would not run and throw like a girl and would not blindly follow the crowd. I got all of that (and in reality she never threw like a girl). I never had to find out my reactions to being served pretend tea out of little cups by a girl wearing a frilly dress and makeup, because she never did that.
I replied when the daughter said that she was not the person we wanted, “I never cared that you were not a girly girl. I never wanted a girly girl. From our first moment together, I always wanted you.” There is a picture of the first time I held her as she was delivered to us at JFK airport. I like the picture for the look of love and amazement I was giving her. (The picture, however, also less happily reminds me of how young and thin I once was.) I continued, “I never felt that I was a traditional boy. I always felt that I was an outsider. I loved you because you were you. I loved that you were not the same as others. I have always wanted you the way you are. I have always wanted you and that won’t change.” (It hasn’t.) I gave her a hug, and she returned it with what I believe is the strongest hug she has ever given me. And although we did not discuss it then, I also believed that she always wanted me as her dad. So, Trevor Noah’s words resonate not so much the being chose part, but for being wanted. Being wanted, is the greatest gift you can give to another human being, and the daughter and I give that to each other.
Noah went on to say something else that also applied to the daughter and me. After the lost decade, he wanted to know his father again, so he set out to interview him. He soon realized this was a mistake. He wanted a relationship, but he realized that relationships don’t come out of facts and information. “Relationships,” he wrote, “are built in the silences.” Time has to be spent together often in what seem like inconsequential ways for a true relationship.
That also resonated, but in a slightly different manner from way Noah meant. To understate it, the daughter as a tyke was never chatty. She was not the kind of girl who babbled about her day—what Suzy said or how Tommy got in trouble with the teacher. And she certainly did not like to be asked questions. That somehow always made her feel on the spot and uncomfortable. Instead, we spent hours together when I drove her to school, or we watched TV, or we were on a plane to Florida, or driving to the country, or on our way to a movie, or on our way to a tennis practice or tournament, and little was ever said. However, out of those many long silences she did occasionally say something. Without the silences, I knew, she would have said nothing. Our relationships really were built out of those silences.
So, Trevor Noah, I thank you for your book. Your story is touching and moving and eye-opening, but I especially thank you for reminding me of my bond with my daughter and some of the many reasons for it.