Growing up, Zara Phillips’s life was dominated by her two fathers: the adoptive one who never spoke to her and whose affection she craved, and the biological one about whom she knew nothing but his first name…
Father’s Day has always been bittersweet for me because of the complicated feelings I have had towards my emotionally distant adoptive father, who passed away only a few weeks ago. I was born on 5 November 1964, brought into the world under a blanket of shame by an unmarried 17-year-old Jewish girl who had got pregnant by an Italian man she barely knew. My adoptive mother was unable to bear her own child and she so desperately wanted to be a mother that my father, who adored her, went along with it. In January 1965 I was adopted, along with a brother, Gary, a couple of years older than me.
When we were growing up my father never spoke to me or my brother. Our mother did all the talking. Dad just stared at the ground when I tried to get his attention, my eyes burning with tears and shame seeping into my core with the idea that there must be something wrong with me.
My father had been a solicitor for many years and was then appointed a district judge. He was well respected and would work hard, arriving late for dinner. We sat next to one another along the kitchen hatch that looked into the TV room, so my parents could watch the news. I was made to sit next to my father but could never see the TV for the furniture obscuring my vision. Instead, I got familiar with the side of his face, his silence penetrating.
My mother, by contrast, was buoyant, a homemaker, proud of us. She would whisper to me, ‘Zara, your father is home, come and give him a kiss hello.’ I never wanted to but was afraid not to, kissing him as quickly as possible on his clammy skin. No questions were ever asked about my day, about school. As my birthday was on Guy Fawkes night, my father would organise the fireworks for my party, but I didn’t see him talk to the other children either. I began to sense that he didn’t know how.
As a little girl, I made Father’s Day cards, drawing pictures to show that I was grateful. I knew he liked liquorice and I would buy him a packet with my pocket money. Maybe I would get a smile and that made me feel better for a moment. As a teenager, I would buy Dad a plain card with no message inside – after all, I would think furiously, I don’t see any cards that say:‘Happy Father’s Day to the man who’s never asked his daughter a question, played with her or read her a story.’
My father did not show any indication that he loved his children, and I wondered if he would have felt more affection if he’d had a biological daughter. I began to daydream about this ghost sister – she would favour my father, have his eyes. She would be clever the way he was because I certainly wasn’t. And he would love her and talk to her easily. I had begun to compare myself to the perfect daughter who didn’t exist.
As a teenager my rage erupted. I would scream in fury, trying to make my parents understand my pain, but my father stayed silent and my mother would say things like, ‘You’re so dramatic, Zara’ and, ‘I can’t help you, you have to learn to help yourself’. She would then calmly make tea and we would carry on as if nothing had happened. After my outbursts, my panic became heightened and I lived in this vicious circle of shame, believing that I must indeed be a terrible daughter – after all, my birth mother gave me away.
My brother, equally troubled, was now a heroin addict. I was afraid of him and his bullying ways and he swore me to silence. I, too, started taking drugs and began a dangerous pattern of going for unavailable men: drug addicts, bullies. I was promiscuous sexually – it was an easy way to feel some sense of self-worth, if only for a moment.
‘My father did not show any indication that he loved his children’
I left home when I was 20 and became a successful backing vocalist for bands. To the outside world, and to my parents, it looked as though I was doing well, but finally it all caught up with me and I hit rock bottom. I was reluctant to return to the family home and was fortunate enough to meet some caring people when I made the decision to go to 12-step meetings for my addiction. They guided me and told me that I didn’t need to live this way. I got sober when I was 22.
Desperate to make sense of who I was, I searched for and found my birth mother. It was complicated at the beginning – more grief, more confusion – but puzzle pieces were finally being put together. She told me my father was Italian. For years, I searched for him, but it was impossible with just a first name (which was all my birth mother could give me). I walked around Soho in London talking to the Italian community, learning the history, and those little pieces began to fill me up.
In 1995 I moved to the US to be with a caring man I had met while on holiday. Together we had three beautiful children, and I was reminded again of my birth father in the parts of my children’s faces that I didn’t recognise. I still found myself turning whenever I heard an Italian accent.
I flew back to London dutifully and regularly, my mother still dominating the conversation. Then, almost ten years ago, she died after years of illness, with my father and me holding her hands, and it connected us in a way that we never had been before. We helped each other through those first hours of loss and I stayed with him for two weeks after Mum’s death, showing him how to turn on the stove, laughing together at how hopeless he was without her. I felt a gentleness towards him, for he was allowing me for the first time to see his vulnerability, and I showed him mine. We began to talk.
Four years ago, I got divorced and was consumed by shame and grief. I found myself reaching out to the man who’d always felt so distant from me. Dad flew to see me in the US, and I took the kids to visit him. He still had his grumpy, withdrawn days, but I began to learn that it was more about him and his upbringing than about me. I knew his mother had not been motherly in any sense, that he had been sent to boarding school aged six. I realised that my own mother fulfilled that need for him and maybe it was too hard for him to share us with her.
Two years ago, the night before Father’s Day, I logged on to the AncestryDNA website (I had taken their test where you could send in a sample of saliva to see if your DNA matched with anyone on the database) and there was a message: ‘Hi, looks like we are related.’ I replied immediately and my heart began to flip inside my chest as I tried to figure out who this could be. When my mystery match called me, I was amazed to hear an American accent. Her name was Michelle. She’s almost two years to the day younger than I am, a bubbly, beautiful woman living in California. Michelle has the same father as me and had also been adopted. She had been able to track down our birth father as her birth mother knew his surname. When she told me she had already met Antonio, I could barely breathe – and the next part of the twist and turn was that he lived only 50 minutes away from my home in New Jersey.
Father’s Day 2016, 26 years after finding my birth mother, I had found him. Michelle broke the news to Antonio on the phone and he called me straight away. I drove alone to meet him outside Dunkin’ Donuts. We couldn’t stop looking into each other’s eyes; his were so familiar, the same green as mine. Antonio is funny, chatty and energetic; he calls me all the time and is not afraid to show emotion. He tells me he loves me. ‘You’re just like him,’ my youngest daughter Arden said to me when she met him for the first time.
Last year I called both my fathers on Father’s Day and I couldn’t stop smiling all day. But I didn’t tell my adoptive father about Antonio because my parents had never met my birth mother and I was worried that he would take it as my not being grateful. It has been a lot to take in – and sometimes the contrast between these two men is hard to absorb.
Early last month, I travelled to visit my adoptive dad in London. He had started to decline and needed full-time care, and I had flown backwards and forwards many times. I was hoping that I could be with him the way that I was with my mother as he sailed into the next world. For the first time on Facetime a few weeks earlier, when I had told my father I loved him, I heard him very quietly say, ‘I love you, too.’
My adoptive father passed away in the early hours of 8 May, four hours before I landed. When I arrived, I went straight to the home and sat with him, his body still warm, his soul still in the room. I finally told him the truth, that two years ago I met my birth father, that I hadn’t wanted to burden him. I told him how hard it had been for me as a young girl, that the way he had acted towards me hurt, but that in spite of it all, I did now understand that he had had his own struggles and I did love him. And I knew that in his own way he loved me, too. I sat with him for many hours. I touched his face, stroked his hair for the first time, kissed his forehead, whispered my gratitude for what he had given me and then, without turning back, I left the room.
This year Father’s Day is still bittersweet. I have bought a card for the man who created me, and I will be lighting a candle for and thinking about the father who raised me.
Zara’s memoir Somebody’s Daughter is published by John Blake Publishing, price £8.99.