Being biracial can leave you torn between two worlds, if you’re close to one parent and not the other. All of my life, my sister and I have only known my mom’s Ukrainian side of the family. We weren’t close with our African American father, and thus we only possess very minimal memories of time spent with his side. Beyond vague images of me jumping onto the back of my cousin April and demanding piggy back rides (I was that young), I don’t remember anything about them from back in the day.
On the other hand, with my mom’s family, we have our Christmas parties, Easters, birthdays and just random times spent together. We’ve always been an actual family with them.
Don’t get me wrong. I never willingly “chose” my Ukrainian side. My father wasn’t exactly a family man, and despite the efforts of my half-brother, half-sister and African American aunt, he didn’t want to keep in touch with them. They weren’t even invited over to our house. They were these mysterious figures that were already on this island called my family when I arrived, but I was ignorant to who they actually were.
They’ve been like the Others from Lost. They lived on the other side of the family “island.” Every time I looked at my father, I would hear whispers of a family that I knew nothing about. They had been in my family long before I had ever arrived, and yet had this separate life. They tried to keep tabs on us, too. I found out that they would call the house, and ask how we were doing. But they were often turned away. If Jack’s determination to save his camp from the Others had been as strong as my father’s lack of interest in his side of the family, Ben and company would’ve limped back to Otherville with their tails tightly tucked between their legs and never returned.
My father’s side never tried to kidnap my sister and I when we were kids, sure, but in the true sense of the word, they were Others compared to how I interacted with my white side.
But then came the day that my father’s death changed everything.
He had had liver cancer for over three years, and now it was ready to claim his life. Whether he wanted it or not, every bit of his family would arrive to say goodbye to him at the hospital.
I will never forget getting off of the elevator onto the ICU floor. I walked into the waiting area, and before me I saw two African Americans: A man dressed in a correctional officer’s uniform, and an older woman who appeared to be in her 60s. They noticed us, and immediately stood up. But I looked at them with unsure eyes, and approached with caution.
Are they family? I wondered. I had no idea. I hadn’t seen them for well over a decade. They were more air than water or blood.
My mom embraced them.
“How are you, Sheldon?” she asked the man. I know that name! This was my half-brother.
“And this is your Aunt Gene,” my mom also had to introduce the woman.
Then my sister and I gave our hugs, but a part of me wanted to reach out for a hand to shake instead.
Soon, more and more of “them” arrived, and we all found ourselves in my unconscious father’s room- our fingers intertwined, as we stood in a circle around the bed, and prayed.
This was a true family moment. And I felt as uncomfortable as any complete stranger would feel.
Being close to one side of the family over the other can happen to anybody- biracial or not. The complicated issue with biracials, though, is it can be perceived as choosing a “color” as well. It wasn’t just my mom’s side or my father’s side of the family. It was white and black. This made it that much more uncomfortable…especially with the charged feelings that come with the black and white divide.
This is probably far from the truth, but I felt as though that side of the family believed we thought we were better than them in some way. I’ve proclaimed all my life that “I’m half!” but I have really only known the white side. I’ll even brag about being half Ukrainian, because it always seems to catch people by surprise. So, when the time came, and I stood hand-to-hand with these Others, I felt like I had betrayed them in some way for being so close to my mom’s side…because not once in my life have I ever evenly floated between the two worlds.
But the gravity of the African American world suddenly started to pull on me as much as the Ukrainian one.
A couple of days later, I was introduced to my African American niece, nephew and more cousins. Who knew I even had them? I certainly didn’t! I learned about what schools they attend, what languages they study, what sports they like, what goals they have in life. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses were exchanged. There was laughter, tear-soaked eyes and hugs that felt more and more natural.
At the foot of my father’s deathbed, strangers became family for the first time.
A week later, after the funeral, everyone came back to our house. We opened our door to the Ukrianian and African American sides of my family. We shared a roof. We told stories. We laughed. We ate together the way that families eat together. And I knew we were all indeed family, especially when my Ukrainian uncle and African American aunt tried to drink one another under the table.
Over the last couple of months, I find myself Facebook friends with a number of my Afircan American family members. Facebook certaintly can’t turn water into blood (although, I’m sure there will be a button for that one day), but it’s a start. My girlfriend and I even had the joy of recently visiting my cousin April’s house for the first time (no piggy back rides were allowed, though).
I now find myself floating closer to the middle of my two worlds, as I embrace the Others like the familiar family they should have always been.