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I Learned About My Dad’s Secret Family After His Death

“Even after you’re dead, people are eventually going to find out about who you really were.”

by Ollie Start; as told to Sarah Berman
Jul 6 2018, 5:30pm

Photo by Rhodi Alers de Lopez / Unsplash

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Even though I was an only child, growing up I never really felt like one. My parents didn’t spoil me; I always had friends around—I was very social. I just remember thinking all the way through my childhood that I had a sibling out there, like in the Parent Trap. You could call it intuition, I guess.

My parents divorced when I was four years old. My dad was very verbally abusive to my mom and me, so they didn’t have a good relationship with each other. It wasn’t like a good cop, bad cop thing—my dad was just an asshole, and my mom is still a saint of a lady. Between my parents divorcing and him passing away, my dad had six different partners. But by the time I was a teen, I couldn’t give a shit about who my dad was seeing.

He was the kind of dad who wanted me to do what he said. He wanted me to take up stamp collecting or play the sports that he liked, to not do drugs and shit like that. He’d hit me if I misbehaved. I wished he’d just accept me for who I was—an outcast with too much energy.

We bonded over the outdoors—we would go out into nature together. I remember trips with him up to Squamish, where I now live. He was still the same, telling me to do all these things, but he definitely seemed more relaxed out in the bush.

This past Father’s Day, we went to my dad’s memorial dinner with his wife and a couple of his friends. At the end of the dinner, my dad’s wife says to me: "I’ve got some pretty serious news." I assumed it was something about debts owed or unpaid taxes. But she just says: "I hope you’re not mad that you have a sister."

Of course I wasn’t mad; I was really thrilled. I might have been mad at my dad for a couple days for keeping it from us, but it did bring a lot of clarity to some of the things that were going on with him. All this time I’ve had a half sister who’s known about me, and she finally mustered up the courage to contact me after he died.

He died on Father’s Day last year, and an obituary went out. My sister saw that obituary and reached out to the funeral home where he was cremated, and they put her in touch with my dad’s wife. My sister has known about me her whole life, but my dad never told any of us about her. Even his youngest sister, who’s the closest to him in our family, had no idea. And my sister’s a spitting image of my aunt at that age.

Growing up, I’d ask questions. I tried so many times to have conversations about what it meant to be an adult. He would avoid it by saying it wasn't something I needed to know, and that I'd learn when I was older. I think he felt awkward. He knew he was hiding a pretty big secret. He probably didn’t think he was a good person to give advice.

I can see a second family being a pretty big wrench to throw in the mix. My sister was born less than a year after me, so he probably had sex with her mom around the time I was born. I learned my dad would visit her saying he was “uncle Tony” and then as she got older, she found out the truth.

Especially when my dad was alive, we would have asked questions about why he kept so many secrets. He’d have to answer to us about how he could have a kid with somebody and just abandon them.

So far, I’ve been getting to know my half sister over the phone and through Facebook Messenger. I feel like we’re already really close. We share mutual friends in Squamish, so it’s funny to find out about her through someone I already know. We’re very similar, being free spirits. She’s a bit of a rebel and an artist. She’s a bit of a weird chick just like I’m a weird dude.

I get the feeling both of us feel closure for the family, even knowing that our dad died with this secret. I want her to feel like she’s part of the family. It’s healing to know that a huge family now wants her to be a part of it.

I don’t really have regrets in terms of what could have been, I’m just happy that things turned out the way they did. It could have been a lot worse than it was. In high school, I had friends in the foster care system, there were a lot of other people struggling through addiction and much worse family dynamics than what I’ve been through.

I think before my dad’s health issues started, he’d probably not want us to know—he’d want to control the situation. But in the three or four years before he died, I think he started searching for deeper meaning in his own life. He started to accept the possibility of alternative meanings. I think he would have been happy to know that we found each other.

I have to say he was really, really good at keeping a secret. My mom had absolutely no idea until I told her a couple of weeks ago. He really invested in the lie; it was pretty messed up. My dad never really opened up about things with me growing up. He had a hard enough time admitting he was maybe not the nicest person.

That’s why I think I learned much earlier than most people that being transparent is going to save your ass. You might be scared about being honest about something with someone because it might hurt, but in the end, you’re saving yourself from that thing biting you in the ass.

Always being transparent with people has really become my goal in life. Because even after you’re dead, people are eventually going to find out about who you really were.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

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