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Hello Antoine

It’s midday. I’m speeding down a highway with tears streaming down my face. I’m gripping the steering wheel tight to steady my shaky hands. Zoya’s hand is gently resting on my thigh.

In five minutes I will arrive at the St Andrew’s Hospital in Ipswich, Queensland to ambush a man, who I believe to be my *father*... Not the man who adopted me, or whose surname I share, But the mysterious man who is said to be my biological father.

To say I've been looking for this man for 31 years feels untrue, but to say it is part of the reason I've been looking for myself all these years feels like an understatement.

Since I can remember, I've known three things about this man.

His name: Antoine

His height: 6”7

His profession: Basketballer

Every year since before I can remember, my mum would take me to Adelaide to visit my biological mother, Barbara. During a visit when I was eight, a man called Dwayne showed up at the house. He was the biggest man I had ever seen, maybe the darkest too. He played on the same NBL team as Antoine back in the day. They were close friends. He didn’t stay long, maybe half an hour, and before he left he gave me a photo of Antoine, who was standing beneath a basketball hoop with his team. Dwayne pointed to himself, he was standing with a basketball in his hands. Then he pointed to the man with the tight afro and thick moustache “that’s Antoine, number 44”.

I don’t remember thinking about Antoine all that much when I was a kid, but from time to time he would appear in a dream, and I would spend the next few days wondering about him.

Was he alive? Where did he live? Did he have a family? What did he do for work now?

Sometimes I would ask my mum (the one who raised me), but she knew just as little as I did. Whenever I asked my biological mum these questions, she would get really upset, and said she didn’t know anything either. I knew that Dwayne probably had the answers, but it was clear that he was loyal to his friend Antoine.

When I was 15 I woke up crying and drenched in sweat. I told Mum that Antoine had died in my dream and it was time to find him. After hitting a few dead-ends, my behaviour flared up, I started getting in trouble at school, and the search fizzled. When I was 18 or so, I had another crack at finding Antoine and hit more dead ends. I gave up after that.

11 years later, I’m sitting at the bar of my friends’ restaurant in Puerto Escondido, Mexico eating a seared tuna steak. My phone buzzes and there’s a message from my biological mother saying “I’ve found him”.

I stared at the message a while - bemused more than anything - and eventually replied “lol. I’ll call you when I’m done with dinner”. Barbara told me that Antoine must have recently created a Facebook account and one of her friends had seen his profile pop up on her news feed. She told me that he doesn’t deserve to know me, but she'll send me a link to his profile if I want to contact him… It took me at least a year to send that first message to Antoine, maybe more. Our first interaction went like this:

Me: “Hey Antoine,

I’m Jamie, Barbara’s first son. I've grown up knowing your name and that you played NBL when you were younger - that’s about it!

I hope this message doesn’t feel like a skeleton from your past coming back to haunt you. I’m not looking to disrupt your life in any way. I’m just interested to know more about you. And if you’re interested, I’m happy to tell you more about me too.

So if you want to talk, hit me back!”

I found my favourite photo of myself and sent it along with the message. It makes me laugh now when I think about how long it took me to choose that photo…

Antoine: “You sure????”

Me: “I wouldn’t have messaged you if I wasn’t sure. I don’t have any expectations about where this conversation will go. I’m just interested to know more about you, that’s all.”

Antoine: All good 🤗🤗🤗 I still have your baby photo 👶👶👶Lol👌👌🍼🍼🍼 I'll contact you soon. I Always wanted to know!!! My in-laws are aware👆👆👆ttyl ✋✋

I played it cool and waited for him to hit me back, but he never did. So 3-4 months later I messaged him again and asked him if he would be willing to have a phone call with me. He said “sure” but didn’t give me his number. After a couple weeks of pestering, he gave it to me, but every time I called him I would reach the robotic sounds of his automated voicemail. On the 7th attempt three weeks later, I heard his voice for the first time.

I approached the conversation the same way I approach gaining the trust and affection of a timid dog. I tried to keep the banter light and fluffy and ask simple questions like

“How old were you when you started playing basketball?”

“Do you have any siblings?”

I avoided any questions that might send him running for the hills and I certainly didn’t dare to suggest meeting up in person. I knew that this tenuous thread that was now connected could easily “snap” and disappear forever. The call lasted thirty minutes, and honestly, it was like pulling teeth. Before the call ended I managed to extract a very lack-lustre agreement to speak again on the phone.

The second call happened a month later and was much like the first. Five minutes into the call, I sensed this would be the last time we would ever speak, so I asked him some practical questions about his medical history, questions about his childhood, his years as a pro hooper, and what his life looks like now.

His story was littered with childhood trauma, mostly tied to his father - basketball was his light. He got a scholarship to hoop in Hawaii and then signed a contract to play with the Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League. He lives in Brisbane (Australia) and has been married to his wife for as long as I’ve been alive. They don’t have children together (he never wanted them), but he does have another son who’s one year older than me. My brother lives in Denver (Colorado, USA) and he met Antoine for the first time when I was 18. I also have two aunties and a grandma who live in Denver too.

The call lasted 40 minutes. Before we hung up, I asked him if he would like to get lunch sometime. I told him I could fly to Brisbane, or we could meet in a neutral city like Melbourne or Sydney if he preferred. He said “yeah, sure, let’s see what happens…” I could tell from his response that he had little interest in my proposal and even less intention of following through.

Although this was the final time we spoke on the phone, we messaged each other occasionally.

Antoine: Happy birthday belated birthday wishes to you 🎂🎂🎂🙏🙏🙏

Me: Thanks mate! How are you? Any plans to come to Melbourne this year? Be good to meet you!

Antoine: Possibly not sure when!

… 3 months later…

Me: what are your plans over the next month or so, I’ve got some time off work and frequent flyer points to use up… Wanna meet up for a coffee?

… 3 months later…

Me: hey Antoine, how have you been?

… 5 months later…

Antoine: Happy birthday,,Hope U R blessed

Jamie: Thank you! How’s life in brissy! When are we going to catch up in person?

…2 weeks later…

Antoine: Great question!

This sort of dialogue carried on for a couple of years. I cringe when I re-read this dialogue because it reminds me of a desperate and clueless man who persists in the face of unrequited love. Take a hint Jamie. He doesn’t want to meet you. Let it go! I’m not sure if the shame and rejection became too much to bear, or whether my interest in Antoine just sort of fizzled… But I decided not to write Antoine after that.

But that’s not the end of the story because in March 2022, Zoya and I decided to move to Brisbane to work remotely for a few months. Our friends were looking for someone to house-sit their home for a few months while they travelled and we pounced on the opportunity to mix things up after a very sedentary couple of years during the pandemic.

As the trip approached, I thought about Antoine more and more. Maybe if I casually dropped him a line saying I’m in Brisbane, he’d agree to grab a cup of coffee… So, as I boarded the plane, buckled in my seatbelt and waited for the wheels to leave the tarmac, I sent him another message.

Jamie: Hey, how have you been?

A month went by and I hadn’t heard from him so I messaged him again… And again… And again… Two months went by and not a single response.

One night, feeling courageous after a bottle of chardonnay, I called him and reached his automated voicemail again. Agitated, I left a message saying I’m in Brisbane and have been trying to contact him for months. I told him we leave in 5 days and this is the best chance we will ever have of meeting each other.

No response.

My mental health had been slipping for weeks, and a few days before our flight home, I was in quite a state… I downloaded the Facebook app, logged in for the first time in years, and went on Antoine’s Facebook wall. What I saw hit me like a tonne of bricks.

The most recent post on his wall was from a couple of weeks earlier saying just heard about your health…praying for you brother. As I scrolled down the page there were dozens of comments like this, dating back a few months. And then a sudden silence where there had been no activity for a couple of weeks, which could only mean one thing. It was too late. He was dead.

In an instant, the casual facade I have carried my entire life shattered into a million pieces. I collapsed to the ground and screamed in agony. I was beside myself with grief. Grieving for a man I never knew. Grieving for a man who never wanted to know me. I cried hot angry tears and balled my fists, holding back the urge to smash everything in sight.

This prick doesn’t deserve my tears. How dare he die without looking me in the eyes.

After I calmed down, I fell into a deep sleep, and when I woke, I had to know exactly what happened. So I went back onto Antoine’s Facebook wall and chose three people at random who had posted on his wall and told them the same lie: “I’m an old friend of Antoine’s, can you tell me what happened to him?”

The next few days were a blur. I only left the bed to eat, shit and piss. I checked my phone every couple of hours for a response, but there was no response from anyone.

I woke up on Saturday morning 20 hours before our return flight home. Still no response. I knew I had to know what happened before I got on that flight. I had no proof he was dead, he could be in a hospital somewhere here in Brisbane. I told Zoya that I would search every room in every hospital in Brisbane, and if I can’t find Antoine there, I’ll go to all the morgs and cemeteries.

Zoya knew I was unhinged and gently suggested we walk to the corner of the street and get a bagel and think about a realistic plan. While we were waiting for our bagel I called my biological mother in desperation. I told her that I’m in Brisbane and I think Antoine has died or is about to die. I asked her if she knew anything or could give me the number of anyone who might. She could tell I was really distressed and she got really upset too. She told me he’s not worth it and he doesn’t deserve me and I should just let it go...

When we got home, I checked my Facebook Messenger again and there was a message from a guy called Bennie:

“He's still in the Hospital in Ipswich Queensland. I FaceTimed with him earlier this week. Big smile on his face as only he can do... seemed to be in good spirits while going through his recovery. He's working on gaining weight and getting stronger. Please continue to pray for our brother to be the best that he can be under the circumstances. Prayer is Power!”

He’s alive. I called the hospital and they confirmed Antoine was a patient at the hospital. They told me that visiting hours close in two hours and the hospital is a 50-minute drive from the city centre of Brisbane. So I grab the car keys and charge the front door like a bull. Zoya follows quietly behind me.

So here we are… Speeding down the highway, about to ambush my biological father…. As the car pulls to a stop in the hospital car park, the gravity of the situation hits me and I start to cry. I ask Zoya to wait in the car, but she insists on walking me to the entrance of the hospital and tells me she’ll wait in the cafeteria.

I ask the front desk for Antoine and they point me down the corridor towards the stroke ward. I get to the desk of the stroke ward and ask again for Antoine, they tell me he’s in room 22C, but he’s down in the cafeteria with his wife.

I walk back down to the cafeteria where I left Zoya, and see her sitting in the corner at the back on her phone. About 5 metres to my left, I see a huge dark man sitting in a wheelchair talking to this tiny white woman with blonde hair. I approached the table and said “Antoine?”

He looked up in surprise, but when our eyes locked, there was no trace of recognition - only confusion. I said “it’s Jamie” … silence … no response … “Do you know who I am?” … silence… Eventually he says “who? Jamie?” … I tell him I am Barbara's first son” … silence … “who’s Barbara?” he says…

I laugh to myself, wow, this is going down worse than I could ever have imagined… Is this guy for real? Is he gaslighting me and playing dumb? Maybe his poor wife has no idea about me… I can’t drop this bombshell on her mid-sip of latte… She’s at the hospital and her husband’s clearly already got one foot in the grave… I can’t say “I’m your son”... Can I?

I pull my phone out from my pocket and bring up the messages between Antoine and I. I say “look, we’ve been texting for years, you really don’t remember who I am?” He grabs my phone and looks at it in confusion, like he’s never seen a phone before… Silence… He still looks very confused… Maybe the stroke has wiped his memory? I suddenly become painfully aware of how raw and public this situation is. I feel the stares of the cafe staff and the customers piercing into my back. I think to myself: don’t you dare make me say those three words… I refuse to say “I’m your son” right here, right now. Don’t be a coward Antoine, own the situation.

Finally, the little woman comes to our rescue and takes control of the situation. In a terse voice she says “just sit down and say what you want to say love … silence… “um“ah”… [nervous giggle] … “It’s a pretty crazy thing to say, I don’t know how to say it”... The little woman repeats herself, but this time there is a softness in her voice “just say it. It’s okay. I think I know what you are trying to say”.

She knows who I am. I mumble the words you are my biological father, Antoine. Antoine’s eyes widen and the confused expression on his face shifts to utter bewilderment. We lock eyes for a moment, and I can see he is trying to process this with great difficulty. The little woman takes control again and says it’s your son Jamie, Antoine. The child you had with Barbara... silence... Then Antoine saysoh yeahhh, I know who you are! Jamie, that’s right”... The little lady interjects: I can’t believe you have been in contact with him for years and didn’t tell me! You’re lucky you’re already in hospital or I’d kick your ass right now.

In this moment, I could see that this little woman, who’s name is Anita, felt that Antoine had robbed her of the opportunity to have known me these last few years. I thought to myself, wow, I am family to this woman, she loves me. I felt a rush of love and gratitude for this little lady I had just met.

Anita asks me if I came alone and I tell her I came with my partner Zoya.“Where is she? We want to meet her!” I turn back to find Zoya, who is looking down at her phone pretending not to eavesdrop, I laugh, and call her over.

We learn that Antoine’s stroke was quite severe and is one of several serious health concerns. There is some hope he will be able to leave the hospital in the future, but no guarantee. Anita tells us more about Antoine’s family and their marriage. It seems Anita knows the man she loves is far from perfect, but she’s stuck by him through thick and thin.

It turns out that Antoine’s lack of communication isn’t personal, and most of his friends and family have had similar experiences to me. Anita is the one who stays in contact with family on his behalf, and she tells me that if Antoine hadn't kept our communication a secret, we would have arranged to meet up together years ago.

Anita tells me that she will tell my family in Denver Colorado that I exist and arrange a video call so we can meet each other. All of sudden everything makes sense. I no longer feel embarrassed about searching for a man who didn’t want to be found. Because the man I have been searching for has been the missing link to half my genetic and cultural roots, of which I know almost nothing about.

All my life I have avoided making friends with other African-American people because I have felt like an imposter. I look black, but I'm not really black. I’m a coconut and that would only disappoint them.

White world; white parents, white siblings, white uncles & aunts, white cousins, white friends, white girlfriends. But when people look at me, they see black. They assume I can pop, crump, rap and hoop, but are often always surprised when they learn I was a tennis player and went to business school. What do I see when I look in the mirror? What does being black mean anyway? I still have no idea, but at least now I have access to my history and my roots. It doesn’t have to be a mystery. I don’t have to live the rest of my life confused and ashamed of my curious identity*.

Anyway, visiting hours ended thirty minutes ago and Anita needs to go to work… So we all say goodbye and I ask Antoine if I can hug him. “Sure” he says. I stand up and lean over his wheelchair to awkwardly hug his giant and frail frame. I figure 2-3 seconds will max out his comfort levels, so I begin to withdraw from the hug, and as I do, he pulls me back in and holds me tighter. His tenderness takes me by surprise. I ask Anita to take a photo of us.

I take Zoya’s hand and start walking towards the car park. He calls after me. I turn around and Anita wheels him back around to face me. I walk back to him and he asks “Were you nervous? When you arrived at the hospital?” “No”, I lie, “just excited”...

There we were. Two men afraid to be vulnerable and say what we really wanted to. At that moment I wondered if in calling me back, it dawned on him that this would be our only proper interaction. I wondered if he realised he'd spent half his life being scared of facing something (me) that, in the end, wasn’t all that scary.

I felt sad for him. As I do for all the men who are incapable of being honest or vulnerable. What a waste. A life filled with regret and unanswered questions. So there we were, both victims and products of the patriarchy in different ways, saying goodbye.

As Zoya and I walked back towards the car park, I felt lighter. I felt proud of the man I was becoming and I promised myself to continue asking the hard questions. To continue being vulnerable. To continue unravelling and unlearning all the bullshit that has been prescribed to me; what it means to be a man, to be black, to be adopted, to belong.

Although I know the searching for myself may never stop, I found something in myself that day, something that I will hold on to forever.

* Of course the other half of my roots are from Greece and I’m really grateful to both my mum and my biological mother for allowing me to have a connection with my Greek family. I’ve had a relationship with my four siblings since they were born, and was recently introduced to my Pappous before he passed away. Even more recently, I got to meet my extended family in Rodos, Greece, which was really special.


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