When I was 24, I learned that there are two kinds of deathbed secrets: those that loved ones choose to reveal in an 11th-hour coming clean about who they are and what they’ve done, and those that you stumble across when sorting through their things. Either way, just as you lose this person you love, whose image you are trying to freeze in your brain, you begin to wonder how well you knew him or her at all.
A few months before my father died, he decided—at my mother’s urging—to share with my brother, Todd, and me a secret from his childhood. Before we could make our way from our respective homes in different states to learn what the secret was, my father’s health took a turn for the worse. The next time we were all together was one horrible afternoon when we were around his hospital bed and he was screaming for help as if literally drowning in his pain. After bullying the nurse into giving my father enough morphine to knock him out, my mother ushered Todd and me out of the hospital. We sat down on a sunlit bench, still trembling in the soul-wrenching aftermath of watching this man we loved so much suffer so greatly. “I think I’d better tell you the secret,” my mother said, finally able to share what she’d known since before she married. “Your father’s part black.”
My brother and I laughed and felt immensely relieved. Compared with what we’d been imagining—some terrible crime—being part black struck us as no big deal. It didn’t make our father seem like a different person, and I didn’t yet feel that the disclosure had much to do with me. “Cool,” my brother and I said. The next day, my father required emergency surgery, which he survived to live another month. But he was never lucid again, so I never had a chance to ask him why he chose to keep this secret and what it meant to him.
In the months that followed, the deathbed revelation began to seem more consequential. At his memorial service, I met his sister and my cousin for the first time and considered from their perspective how it felt for my dad to cut them off because of their color. I learned that many light-skinned black people from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where my father’s family lived, had presented themselves as white to get work in the 1940s and ’50s but that my dad was among the few who “passed” in his personal life, too. I also realized that my father, who served as an editor and a book critic for the New York Timesfor 18 years, never would have been hired in the early 1970s had he been open about his ancestry. At that time, there were no black critics on the staffs of any major newspapers.
I loved and admired my dad. But it was hard to reconcile his choice with the man I’d thought he was. The photos of my father and me I’d placed around my apartment—in his lap as a baby, looking up at him with an expression of unadulterated love; as a three-year-old in his arms, leaning in for a kiss; as an 18-year-old, with my arm slung around his neck the morning I left for college—no longer filled me with easy comfort by setting off a slideshow of similar moments of closeness. Instead, I began to look for signs of falseness, a trace of gloating or hiding in my father’s smile. I missed my dad, but I also felt furious at him—for depriving me of a relationship with his family, for leaving behind so many unanswered questions and, most of all, for clouding my memory of him when it was already slipping away.
Even after 23 years, the issue of his ancestry and his struggles with it cast a backward shadow over our relationship. At the same time, I realized his secret wasn’t just about him; it was about me, too—not least what the revelation meant for my own racial identity. A foundation of my sense of self that I had once considered rock solid, my father’s love and affection for me, suddenly crackled with complexity.