“This Is Us” Is Me – And Maybe You Too

Meeting my brother for the first time.

The hit television show This Is Us is a poignant family drama. It’s been an especially emotional experience for me as I’ve watched Randall discover and build a relationship with his newly discovered birth father, William. At the same time, Randall’s relationship with his adopted mother Rebecca deteriorates as he struggles with the knowledge that she purposely excluded William from his life. My story is quite similar.

My father, Paul Spizuco, died when I was 18 months old. I never saw a picture of him until I was in my mid-twenties (and only because my dear Uncle Julie had kept some photos for me). For a long time my youthful mind assumed Paul must have been a bad guy because no one ever talked about him. In my late twenties my grandmother told me Paul was actually fun and generous and I was a lot like him. In my mid-thirties, I learned from a cousin that Paul had been a widower when he married my mother and had three daughters from his first marriage. My mother confirmed that but, when I asked why I had no contact with them, she said they wanted nothing to do with me after their father’s death. I had no reason to disbelieve her. Over the ensuing years, I made some minor attempts to find my half-sisters but with no success.

About ten years ago, I learned that my mother had been the one that purposely cut me off from my paternal family. That’s when I, like Randall, became focused on finding my birth-father’s family. One weekend in 2010, a childhood friend and his wife were visiting and we talked about my quest. They’d had success tracking down their own family trees on Ancestry.com and within two hours, I learned Paul’s deceased wife’s name and when she died. Most importantly I learned that I had two half-sisters and a half-brother. I contacted the woman who had posted the information and introduced myself. Long story short, the next day my 80-year-old brother, Paul Jr., called and we spoke for an hour. He was twenty years older than me and had been in the Marines when our father died. The next day I spoke to the daughter of my youngest half-sister, who told me her mom had always talked about me and her dying wish was to see me one more time. She had died ten months earlier. My older half-sister had died much earlier in life. Each of my half-siblings had large families and I became a “half-uncle” to about twenty nieces and nephews.

Paul Jr. died in 2014. I knew him for less than four years, but I cherish those years and I know our relationship meant a lot to him as well. My most vivid memory was a summer reunion party with all of Paul’s kids and their kids. My daughter accompanied me as we met all these blood relatives we didn’t even know existed. On the way back, she said, “That’s your family.” She explained that they all had the same kind of goofy humor that I’ve never outgrown, and we looked and sounded alike. Even after my brother’s death, I’ve remained in touch with his family and will be attending the wedding of my nephew’s son in July.

That’s the good part of the story. The bad part is that I lived sixty years without knowing any of these wonderful people. And just like Randall, the experience has profoundly affected my memories of my mother. In last week’s episode, Rebecca admitted her mistake. She acknowledged that she’d been selfish in keeping Randall away from William. My own mother never made that admission even when given multiple opportunities to explain the whys and wherefores of her actions.

It’s too late for me to make amends with my mother, and the heartache I feel seems too immense to ever fully overcome. As my eyes welled when William died, I had an overwhelming urge to share my story publicly for the first time. It became clear to me that we humans possess an innate tendency to tell lies in the name of “protecting” ourselves or others. We’re all selfish at times and we’re amazingly proficient at rationalizing our words and actions regardless of how painful and callous they might be.

The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to right a wrong and tell the truth about falsehoods (regardless of how well-intentioned). The longer we wait the more the issue festers. When the lie is finally revealed – and it almost always is – the damage can be irreparable. So if you do need to make amends, I urge you to do it now. Yes, it will be hard; but it will get harder every day you delay. And it will get exponentially harder every single day for the person you deluded to deal with the truth and the lie’s aftermath.

This Is Dedicated…

Dedication - Aunt Gloria & Uncle JulieMuch the process of writing and publishing a book is intense and exhausting. But there’s one aspect that brings nothing but joy – crafting the dedication.

My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.

My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.

The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”

Novelist’s Parents Discuss Son’s Book

Godfather parodyMary Donatello has just opened an Amazon package containing a paperback copy of Still Counting, the novel narrated by her son Adam.

Mary: Hey, Joey, come here, come here. Adam’s an author!

Joey:   A blog about ironic alliteration that no one reads does not qualify him as an author.

Mary: No. It’s a real book. The one about him and Nina. Remember?

Joey:   Did he mention us?

Mary:  How should I know? I just got it.

Joey:   I hope he didn’t say nothin’ about the gerbils.

Mary: Well it would serve you right for kidding around all the time.

Joey:   Let me see it.

Mary: Be careful. Don’t crease the pages.

Joey:   It’s a book. You can’t read it without turning the pages.

Mary:  Just be gentle.

Joey:   Look at this. He says I shit like clockwork.

Mary:  Well you do.

Joey:   But the whole friggin’ world doesn’t have to know it.

Mary: Everyone who knows you already knows your schedule. The rest of the world doesn’t care. Plus it’s fiction.

Joey:   Fiction? Listen to this. He says I sometimes try to talk like a Mafioso. That ain’t no fiction.

Mary:  They say authors should write about stuff they know. So sometimes there’s some truth mixed in with the fiction.

Joey:   So now you’re a literary critic?

Mary:  I read everything on Oprah’s list.

Joey:   Wait a minute here’s something about you.

Mary: What did he say?

Joey:   He says you’re a no-nonsense matriarch with a bellowing voice like a sports announcer. He says you’re a clean freak and you always cook too much when we have company.

Mary:  He’s a good boy.

Joey:   You always liked him best.

Mary: But you’re a close second.

Joey:   Does that mean it’s time to get the gerbils?