I’m still writing trying to sort out what might become a base for that book I have in mind – the first part of it ignoring the surprise DNA discovery, the second part opening with it. The last couple of weeks I’ve been mulling and drafting and talking through what might be(come) parts of that decidedly longer section/chapter/essay. This post is the start of working out a narrative arc…
I. Only Only
I told you before that everything you knew was a lie.
Now you get to face the truth.
This is going to hurt.
– The Timeless Children, 2020
Orphan. Somewhere there are notes and journal pages that I wrote about what was a new state-of-being during the spring and summer months of 2005 when I was traveling between my St. Paul home and my Mankato home from home after Mom died. I remember feeling expected to write an essay about selling what had been our family home for 45 years, about becoming an only child orphan, about grief.
The house became home to someone named John Kennedy. The only child orphan became the only person remaining in her nuclear family. Grief happened. It was ever-present – palpable, profound, and prolonged.
That essay didn’t happen. I didn’t yet feel this new state of aloneness as a weight, a solo-selfness, an impediment. There was bewilderment, certainly – and bereftness, overwhelmingly. Feels were plentiful. Words spare.
To write essays, I’d have needed to think beyond the series of single days I occupied. I wrote lists to track house-closing Things to Do, sentences to create class session plans, and full paragraphs as a reader responding to student writing. Any essaying forward was taking shape as an entirely interior, somatic matter: synapses quietly trading pieces of information, datum, memory bits. Whether dreaming or wakeful, my imagination ran movies in my head, corralling puzzle-piece data to fill in an incomplete picture of who we were, this trio of Donna, Dave, and Ilene as an entity of its own, and as a unit within its just-a-bit-bigger nuclear family. Whole compositions emerged in my heart.
To enter that weighty, liminal space of being ready to write, I’d need to step across the threshold of being a daughter living in a world with Donna and Dave, to being a daughter at ease enough with imprints from their souls to have identified what I was carrying forward from each. I’d need that before becoming a writer making sense of family, home, grief – self, transitions, and gratitude.
The handwritten journal pages of first thoughts and annotated readings, which might well be in a folder among the boxes of archives and artifacts I stacked in my storage room and haven’t sorted through since that 2005 summer, would show that I was very much still with family – the pie and coffee conversations with uncles and aunts who survived their baby sister, who drove together visiting me on weekends of getting the house ready for sale; the 14-siblings-make-a- for-a-lot-of-cousins crew; the plus-one who kept me tethered to the non-teaching parts of my life; and the constant of chosen family across decades-long friendships. Each and all, they stood beside me at thresholds: Alongside me, each standing still – present, silent, motionless – at that space I needed to step over to move from the homes behind me to the changes and spaces just in sight. To do the work of stepping forward, I needed more than conversations recalling younger memories of them or me in the company of a sister or brother-in-law. I needed memory and imagination that only someone nuclear to me could know and decide to – or not to – provide to fill in the now incomplete spots and speak of never passed along life details. So, there I was, the one remaining of my own nuclear family – Mom, Pops, Gram, Grumpy, the aunt Edna, and the uncles Dave, and Puzzy carrying on my heart-to-hearts conversations in orbit with my only self.
And back in St. Paul, there were – delightfully and urgently – my students, and The Doctor.(1) In a timely 2005 regeneration, this two-hearted alien was navigating their worlds as an only child orphan newly bereft of family and home. For an hour each weekend – made possible with what were certainly illegal links patching me into BBC broadcasts thanks to footie-loving graduate students who were in class with me when I learned my mother had died – my wibbly-wobbly human heart orbited with another only child orphan.
Watching each episode featuring my Doctor, the ninth one, who held survivor’s guilt for not preventing the full scale of destruction of his home planet, Gallifrey, in a Time War in which he was participant and witness – in this, I could hold space for tending to my heart, my own battered space teeming with its own guilt-inducing messages: “If you’d been a better daughter, you might have seen and done enough to help your parents live beyond their 70th birthdays.” I did know that guilt wasn’t the base emotion I was feeling: that base was a daughter’s anger for all the times her parents had not taken heed of earlier in life of distress messages their bodies and their doctors – and their daughter – sent out about depression and coping addictions that were factors of their lives, ahead of and alongside medical complications. Those feels were also about bewilderment and exhaustion of facing down invisible walls that each parent tended as protection from talking frankly about health setbacks specifically, and life mishaps, hitches, and complications even more regularly in life, and – for daughter me, walls stronger still at their deaths.
Watching my Doctor navigate two hearts – one heart happy, one sad; one compassionate, the other furious; a liberating heart in tandem with the cruel one; the pair acting as kindred and antagonist to humans – this relaxed the constricting hand I held to my own heart. In episodes, he could be short-tempered, moody, cynical and compassionate, hopeful, inventive in moving forward. In having these heart-to-hearts with my Doctor, I tapped my imagination into that energy, and found it possible to exercise memory and imagination, tenderness and fury to mend my own senses of guilt and incompleteness. I found myself in a liminal space, ready to start a new, very long (ad)venture.
(1) Doctor Who, a BBC 1 series that ran from 1963-1989, and began again with Russel T. Davies’ 2005 reboot via BBC Wales, revolves around the travels of the Doctor, a centuries-old alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels in time and space, frequently with companions, in the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) which takes the exterior form of a 1963 police telephone call box, and which offers a cavernous interior. The plot device of “regeneration,” offered as a biological function that allows Time Lords to change cellular structure and appearance as a mode of recovery following a potentially fatal injury or usurping of life energy, also brings changes in personality and priorities, accent and dress. During the 1980s, which is when I began watching the show, Doctor Who was part of some public television stations’ late night weekend programming. Both Minnesota and Iowa PBS stations offered delayed broadcasts featuring the 4th Doctor and his companion, journalist Sarah Jane Smith, originally broadcast between 1974-1981.
* * * * *
I’m not who I thought I was, Ryan. What I always knew to be the story of my life… isn’t true. I wasn’t born on Gallifrey. Where I’m from, all the lives I’ve lived, some of that has been hidden from me, and I don’t even know how much.
Seriously? And how do you feel about that?
Mostly angry. If I’m not who I thought I was, then who am I?
The Timeless Children, 2020
Remember that my 2005 sense of aloneness felt new, not yet weighty? That feeling lasted for 13 years, right up to 4 April 2018. On what would have been Pops’ 88th birthday, he died a second time. This one a genetic death as I reckoned with an Ancestry DNA report that didn’t include the people I expected to find as genetic matches. My handful of Alexander cousins, and the Stafford + Svelstad + Evans family members in the US and Europe were absent from my report, just as I was an absent presence in their listings of DNA-matching relatives.
David Allen Alexander is not my biological father: A crisply clear DNA message.
That message broke the Alexander in me, broke the very heart of me. In the quiet of my flat, speaking that single sentence aloud pushed me into loosing-sense-of-self plummeting, finally landing me at bottom-drops-out weighty aloneness. Not Alexander. Not Stafford. Not Svelstad. Not Evans. That refrain raged in my head for months. Not Welsh – not like my grandmother and her grandmother. For 48 hours, that specific identity fright kept me from walking into the rooms with family photos – my home became only the space of kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom off a small hallway at the back of my flat.
And once again, speaking colloquially, The Doctor saved my life. Specifically, Doctor #13 whose October 2018 regeneration episode introduced the first female doctor, whose trio of companions – Yaz. Graham, and Ryan – became a crew of kindreds. A chosen family. “My fam.”
During the first two years of this Doctor’s run I investigated the DNA and genealogy trails, and reconciled myself to the genetic presence of a biodude 20-some years dead.
With 2021, it became clear that the presence of four half-siblings living in southern US states was going to be “thanks we’d rather not know you.” I tend, now, to my own restless soul: trying to reason pieces of stories into a narrative to understand the secret both of my parents created. I take comfort in knowing that my Alexanders, the elders who had joined Mom and Pops in raising me – Gram, Grumpy, Puzzy, Dave, Edna – had known me as their Alexander. And, like Doctor 13 – whose regeneration number matched Gram’s birthdate, I recognise my own fam in the intergenerational quartet who now hold me up in a kinship of friendship and love, value questioning and connecting, discovery and creativity, and who proved regular doses of social, personal, and cultural engagement. Drawing on the counsel the Doctor’s Ryan, we act from knowing that:
Things change all the time, and they should, cos they have to. Same with people. Sometimes we get a bit scared,
cos new can be a bit scary, right?
[and not at all finished in this section]
[and not at all started in the segment below]
* * * * *
So, when we’re done with this Dalek problem, you find out about your own life. Confront the new, or the old. And then everything will be all right.
– Revolution of the Daleks, 2021
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