“All I need is a name.” He said.
This road trip was a fiasco. A week ago we had left his home in North Carolina in my Porsche 911 on a starry-eyed quest worthy of “This American Life.”
We were going to find my brother’s father.
For most of my life, my brother had existed only as a single distracted, almost-forgotten conversation. As a child, our now long-deceased mother had mentioned him at a most inopportune time. But to him, I existed in a different sense. I was a real figure from his past; biological proof he came from someplace; an answer to a question he had been asking for decades.
We met face to face the day after Christmas in 2007. 4 1/2 years later, I departed Oklahoma, picked up my brother and embarked on this adventure culminating in Columbia, South Carolina, the state capital. There, at the hall of records, I knew our heartwarming story of love, loss, reunion and redemption along our combined southern charm would open dusty vaults, rewarding us with answers.
Not a chance.
A woman from the records department met us in the lobby. She wanted to help; my brother sensed it and pressed.
“A first name…” He begged to no avail. She smiled sympathetically, but was handcuffed by regulations.
Indeed, a first name was all he needed. 19 years prior, he had come to the same building. The clerk at the window had held a file. She had told him ,”In here is everything you need to know.”
Then she added, “And I cannot give it to you.”
Instead, he had been given a sanitized copy, black marks lining through all the distinguishable details. Resembling an Area 51 document from the History Channel, the non-identifiable information included a generic description of an older brother.
Over the years he combed through the blacked out file and unceasingly requested further information. He received the same copies over and over. He searched, he posted on message boards, and he kept at it.
Finally, he caught a break. One copy failed to black out our mother’s first name. A volunteer search agency was able to cross reference birth records in several counties, filter the results with the non-identifying information; this lead to a cousin, then to my step dad, and finally me. That is what landed him in the passenger seat of my black 911 in the sweltering southern heat.
Our last conversation with various faceless officials of our inscrutable government had ended with “Have you considered hiring a private investigator?”
Those words echoed as I looked at my brother, elbows on his knees, Marlboro Light in his fingers, staring at a patch of concrete waiting for the answers that had eluded him for his entire existence. The same gaze had come from behind titanium Oakleys in my passenger seat during the days leading up to this moment.
So I hired one. A specialist in adoption who sat on the state board. Realistic and professional, she warned me it could from six months to a year and that sometimes she could not make the connection.
In the end, it only took three weeks. When the report arrived, I was stunned by the detail; I had the grandparents, family locations, education and even employment. Most importantly, I had the answer my brother needed to know.
As written by Mike Rutherford; I had a name, and I had a number.
I refused to cause any family harm and I was not going to make this connection if it would bring my brother pain. I had to tread carefully.
I left a excruciatingly generic voicemail. Two days later my phone rang.
A few weeks later, my brother was waiting to meet his father. Sitting in his Charger SRT/8, he wondered what they would talk about. They had spoken on the phone, but it was still bound to be awkward. How would they break the ice?
Then his father arrived, driving his 911.
W. Christian Mental Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most of them. He is a graduate of Panoz Racing School, loves cartoons and once exceeded the speed of sound. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has three dogs, and will never be half the man his brother is.