Three years ago, at the end of my forties, I discovered through a DNA test that my father, the one who raised and loved me as his own, was biologically unrelated to me. This father, the one I still consider my true one, had died a few months earlier so, when the paternity news arrived, the only person to approach was my mother.
What happened? Who was my birth father? How were he and my mother connected? I hoped to uncover the truth. But my mother, disarmingly forthcoming and unfiltered in many aspects of daily life, was stubbornly uncommunicative.
My mother and I have a lovingly complicated, sometimes combative, relationship. She filled my childhood with beauty and art but also drama and volatility. When she withheld the story of my parentage, I was frustrated. But I tried to understand her reticence.
I considered whether some sense of allegiance to my dead father and their cover story made truth-telling feel disloyal. I wondered if she felt shame. Eventually she shared with me the thinnest of tales: that she had met a man at a passport office and that, somehow, I came to be. Other details of the story were offered only to be later contradicted or denied. From the spring of 2019 into late autumn, I held hope that, sooner or later, the Full Truth would flow from her. I just needed to find the right, key-turning question.
Then one day, following the intervention of a geriatric specialist, it became clear: not only was I the daughter of a love shaped by secrets and duplicity, I was the daughter of a mother with dementia. The details of my mother’s story and life had disappeared into a Bermuda triangle of memory.
With the help of a genealogical “search angel,” I found the identity of my Jewish biological father and half-brothers. We assembled facts that provided a basic hereditary scaffold, though the building itself remained unfinished. I wrote a book about it. When I completed the book, I believed I was narratively okay with irresolution and the shadowy parts of a tale that would remain hazy.
But maybe this was another kind of cover story because the psychic and emotional experience of irresolution began to feel like a different matter. At my core, I still felt knotted to my mother, in a state of ongoing expectation, heart toggling between needy vigilance and self-protective detachment, still awaiting her openness.
I began caring for my mother on Thursdays and weekends. On Thursdays I was frequently on my own, without the buffer of husband and children. I sat in those Thursdays, tracing the volume of the unspoken between us, weighing its solidity, wishing for something bright and breaking.
Craving emotional clarity and dramatic catharsis, I considered therapy—an obvious, legitimate option. But the piecemeal work I had done with therapists in the past felt too slow and incremental, too inner and introverted, to disperse a fog that felt formed by circumstances and forces larger than my mother or me.
From the moment I arrived on the planet, I had been locked in a “soul contract” with my mother.
A wise friend mentioned the name of an astrologer who might assist in sorting through some of my lingering feelings and questions. “Nothing prescriptive.” She could see I had exhausted my narrative powers and material options. If asked to describe my relationship to astrology at that moment, I would have said I was an astro-agnostic, a sporadic reader of sun-sign horoscopes, a wary observer of cosmic predictions. But I wanted insight and she was handing me another possible tool.
I booked time with the astrologer who reassured me that my ancestors and my adoptive father were glad I knew the truth, “But …,” she said, the unearthing journey with my mother was another matter. “Trickier. Thornier.” From the moment I arrived on the planet, I had been locked in a “soul contract” with my mother. “During your shared time here, you will be on a joint pilgrimage.”
When I asked the astrologer what she recommended, she suggested I schedule time with a psychic channeler who would help us sort our entanglements and past lives. “If I am your astrological GP, consider L. your surgeon.”
I held on to L.’s name and phone number for seven months. Surgery sounded dire. Consulting the stars and pulling cards was one thing but inviting a more active encounter with the occult felt daunting.
I veered between belief and skepticism—imagining a medium in possession of my body, the potential discovery of an incurable spiritual malignancy, the embarrassing theatre of a cartoon exorcism. Was it not possible the soul contract, which felt like a tight emotional knot, might undo itself on its own?
A lot was churning and changing in my mother and in me. My mother had begun to shift and loosen, subtly but surely. I didn’t know what to make of these changes, the gentle new way she sometimes smiled at me when we spent Thursdays together, her cheerful greetings and unfamiliar praise. Her new knack for dancing and joshing around. Dementia was releasing us from some of our old emotional moorings but, inside me, some of our “pre-dementia” patterns and pettiness persisted.
For example: the pattern in my heart. My heart remained checkered with mistrust toward my mother. A lifelong tentativeness was blocking me from fully appreciating her new warmth—a warmth borne of her illness or perhaps a warmth borne of having her secret known and accepted. Moreover, this wariness had begun to seep outwards.
Walking around with a degree of guardedness is fairly common for those who have recently uncovered a family secret or had an “NPE” (not parent expected) experience that sacks everything they assumed was biographically true. But three years after my discovery and the slow rebuilding of my story, I was still inspecting surfaces, still sniffing around for lies.
Previously open to new experiences, I had become unpredictability averse. My definition of “not a safe or controllable activity” expanded to include answering the phone and accepting my mother’s smiles at face value. I began shrinking from those who used to make me feel safe and loved.
One morning, my husband reached to touch me in the kitchen, and I flinched like his fingers were acid. That afternoon, I contacted L. to book a session. She was available the following Thursday. Thursday was logistically awkward but Thursday it was.
“Are you lying down?” L.’s voice was intimate and capable—the voice of someone preparing to help me with a psychic shake-up. I was reclining in our top floor bedroom under the weighted comforter, less like a woman of great leisure and more like someone recovering from a lung complaint in a mountain sanitorium.
I had left my mother in our living room with a generous pile of knitting and in the company of my husband and television, explaining I had to “take a work call.” Before closing the door, I could hear them searching through the Ozu catalogue on Criterion, settling on a 1959 film called Good Morning.
L. explained that she was going to link energies with me. Once linked, she would connect me with the “Source” who would join us for an “energy release.” There was a brief pause while L. presumably went to fetch the Source. When she returned, she spoke as a “we” in a slightly different timbre.
Dementia was assisting in the release. But the big obstacle had been the secret.
We began the energy release with a psychic CAT scan. The Source moved slowly, murmuring as they peered into the inner spaces of my being, section by section, organ by organ. Hmmm. Uh huh. Uh huh … When I asked if everything was okay, they explained that my heart appeared very still, neutral and “almost white.”
When I told the Source my heart felt like it was covered in vines, they said it was time to remove them. You are going to thank the vines for doing the work of protecting you and keeping you safe, but you are going to tell them you didn’t need them anymore; your heart can’t grow as long as they remain.
I had assumed the vines would be alive but as we began our imaginative labor I discovered they were brittle and immediately broke apart. They had become more of a cage than a nest for my heart. I was still lying down, tears trickling toward my ears.
When I was done cleaning my heart—a process that felt somewhere between Reverent Ceremony and Hasbro Operation game—I felt palpably, imaginatively, lighter. I had played tug of war with my mother my whole life. And while the Source told me the rope would not release completely, they promised the tension would gradually relax. Dementia was assisting in the release. But the big obstacle had been the secret.
The intensity with which it had to be held in and withheld from me took a great deal of energy. It weakened my parents. The terrible holding and restricting pressure placed on their hearts—spurred by embarrassment and shame on my mother’s part and perhaps pride and ego on my father’s part—had depleted them. Dementia (which had also affected my father toward the end of his life) was a symptom of their mental exhaustion from holding the secret for too long. The containers had broken down.
But there was still work to be done. To put it simply: my parents’ path was so diverted by secrecy, so complicated by dishonesty, they needed me to keep sending clean energy lineage their way. They needed me to continue to release them—through words and ceremony—so our story could be brighter and less tarnished.
The process of visualization was so surprisingly powerful it humbled me and began to melt away any vestigial skepticism, including the somatic doubts that had turned my body into a clogged pipe. I had spent two years trying to unearth and knit together a story. I had believed writing would wrangle the confusion into something settled and beautiful. But writing is not a miracle.
If there is a lesson, perhaps it’s this: after you have rendered and shaped an experience in the name of truth seeking, in the name of art, there will be debris. There will be holes. So, if you believe in the alchemical power of stories but feel alienated by any bunk notion of tidy healing, any thin promise of “righting of the past”, then consider locating a good psychic surgeon when you’re done. Whoever or whatever you find, make time and ceremony to recognize the residue.
When the session was over, I stood up. The hollow part of my chest felt warm. Something small landed on the floor. I thought it might be vine, but it was just a tiny pebble. I don’t know why there was a pebble in my bed.
The cat had nudged the door open and I could hear my mother. I could hear Ozu’s film about the bonds of family, his film filled with adult characters who are freaked out by simple affection, who are unable to express their desires or translate their longing into a simple request.
I went downstairs. My husband paused the movie they were watching. My mother sat, slightly atilt on the sofa, smiling. Her face was more known to me than any other and for a moment seemed softer than I had ever seen it.
“You look more rested,” she said. I nodded. I didn’t tell her about the vines or the rope or the numb husk that had been my heart. I did not explain that after a half a century, we were now free and all it took was a phone call and one hour. One hour! Who could imagine a situation as pathetic and amazing as that? We had cleared ourselves of our embattled and secretive past. My mother did it through the loosening of dementia and I did it partly by writing but mostly by believing in magic, ancestral intervention, and knowledge I could not prove.
She was knitting. Skeins of rope. I mean yarn. I sent some energy to her. Some shining light to her. She lowered her eyebrows and kept knitting as we sat watching the movie, watching a man and a woman, deeply in love but too afraid to speak their feelings; a man and a woman standing together on a train platform looking at clouds and talking only about the nice weather.
We didn’t say anything else. I just sat there, thinking and feeling: Do you see what is happening? We can begin and become another story. Or, even better, no story at all.
Kyo Maclear’s Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets is available from Scribner.