The story detailed below is part of a series detailing musician Jenni Alpert’s adoption story. Read the first post, detailing her early years and what led her to reach out to her biological family, here.)
After telling me that I would finally get to meet my biological father (whom I refer to as ‘D’ throughout the story), my biological uncle, Jimmy, led me to an outdoor dog run on the side of his house. Jimmy pointed to a sleeping man on the ground; his belongings scattered about; a partially broken tent over his head. Jimmy said, “Here you go: this is D, your biological father” and he walked away. I sat myself down on a crate and I looked into the eyes of this man who was starting to wake up: my biological father. He looked for his glasses, sat up to put them on and said, “God damn, you’re beautiful.”
D: The night before, I was living across the street from a casino and getting high in the bushes. I went back to Jimmy’s house where I get my mail and occasionally sleep, and I passed out. When I woke up and opened my eyes, I was looking straight at my daughter.
I had been named Jennifer ever since my first foster home when I was an infant. For my whole life, I have been Jennifer or Jenni. But when Mary Lou, my biological mother, died, I found out that she had wanted to name me Cameron. I had always felt that there was something a bit different about my past and my journey. Sitting with my biological father for the first time in my life, I realized that there had been a moment 30-some odd years ago, when I had been placed into the arms of a 16-year-old ward of the state—my biological father—as Cameron. That moment must have seemed to be forever ago for him, and maybe for me, too. That moment was what I had been chasing to understand my entire life. I was now ready to identify as Cami.
I said, “Well, hello there. I’m Cami, your biological daughter.” But I didn’t have to say a word more, because the moment our eyes locked, we both simply just knew.
I was a seemingly irreversible drug addict. I used heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, crystal meth, and pills of the worst kind you can get your hands on: Oxycodone, Demerol and a lot of others. As a retired grand theft criminal-turned-petty criminal, the only crimes I would commit at that time would be things like stealing from a shopping mall or a grocery store, like a couple of jars of coffee, food products, flashlights and batteries; odds and ends that I needed because I didn’t have the money to pay for them. I needed to stop, but it was either do without or steal, and my choice was to go about getting them the illegal way. In addition to that, I was on the run from my probation officer because I couldn’t pee clean and stay sober, so I was in hiding and always on watch to see if any authorities were anywhere around and about looking for me. All of that changed when I met my daughter. Looking at her for the first time was like looking at about 78 percent of heaven. It was like an electrical charge; very much like a bolt of lightning of unbelievable and unexplainable happiness. That’s what it was like.
From that meeting on, I considered my time with D timeless. We had no boundaries, no parameters to how we got to know each other, and no real plan. I began to learn the details of his current life: He was running from the law and was very close to facing the possibility of being put behind bars for the rest of his life. If prison did not take him first, there was a very real possibility that “the dark side”—his addiction to hard street drugs and narcotics—would overshadow the possibility for what I saw as the love he did not yet know could exist between two people which I was able to offer.
I thought that she was going to say, “Hello. Maybe we could take a walk to somewhere and get some coffee and donuts.” I figured that she would be checking out what kind of a person I am and that she would come to the conclusion that I’m not really worth too much of hanging around for very long. And then I figured she’d simply say, “Well, maybe in a couple days I’ll come by and see you,” and then she would just get in her car and leave and not return for weeks or possibly months at a time. Or that maybe I’d see her once in a great while for only a few minutes. If that would’ve happened, I would’ve thought that sounded normal.
But instead, what in fact happened is that we started to care about each other and like each other right from the very beginning—within the very first minute! That turned into hours and as the hours turned into days and one day after another was going by, we started opening up to one another with some exercises Cami had: We used words to describe one another so that we could get to know each other. We started talking about things that we like and things that we don’t like. And then we started to feel more and more attached to one another.
I came to this stage of life with a special skill set in handling the challenges D was facing because during most of my young adult life, I had volunteered with the homeless; in particular, working with homeless individuals who had previously been incarcerated. I had also been a part of rehabilitation programs in the prison system and had volunteered for several years at the downtown women’s shelter in Los Angeles. I had roamed the streets with these women, taking them on field trips to inspire them and give their lives meaning. It was this very experience that helped me plan outings with D. It occurred to me that perhaps for all of those years, I had been unconsciously searching in the darkness of every homeless person’s eyes to get close to something my biological parents had experienced. It became clear to me right then that all of the things that I had done up until this moment in time seem to have equipped me and armed me with the awareness to be open to this relationship. This, coupled with a desire to truly learn who this human being was, spurred me on.
The minutes we shared turned into hours, which turned into weeks which turned into months. My biological past began to unfold and intertwine and embed itself in me through the stories of D’s whole life. Connections, similarities and an unbelievable sense of fulfillment ran as an undercurrent to our time together. My instinct was to let every moment we shared unfold naturally as if by the impulse of whatever it was the heart chose to do in those moments.
I was surprised at D’s openness and willingness to spend time with me so quickly. Not once did he take any money from me or ask anything of me. On the contrary, he was extraordinarily giving, open and excited to do whatever it was that was presented to him.
I quickly realized that by just sitting back and letting her do what she wants to do, I’m winning and she’s winning and that all makes sense. Here was this person doing things and getting involved in my life, and this was bringing me a type of happiness that I’ve never felt before. And then I felt an attachment to this person. I really started to get attached to this person. This person indeed was my daughter.
We did many fun things during the weeks I spent with him and I began to stay with D for longer and longer periods of time. We took field trips rips to the public library and to museums. We ate BBQ, with him insisting he pay for his own. We rode the metro to explore the Los Angeles area in general and recovery facility options in particular. We went to the beach. One day at the beach, we ran into the water with our clothes on; this was one of the most profound rebirthing experiences I ever had. I got to witness a man of his depth and intellect discover for the first time the high you get from espresso.
He enjoyed new things with more joy than I could handle. The contrast between his willingness to spend time with me in order to get to know me was in stark contrast to his drug and crime life. The chasm seemed so vast, and it didn’t take me very long to see that his spirit had never been exposed to so many of the things that I was fortunate enough to experience when I was adopted.
She came over every day and started taking me to the library, and out to lunch and dinner – places I’ve never been before. And we went to the beach and we both went into the water with all our clothes on which felt like a rebirth in a way. She also took me to a really nice expensive coffee shop and introduced me to a type of coffee I’ve never drank before my life. My favorite moment together was when Cami allowed me to play guitar with her at a show she had. To play music with my very own daughter was like finally having the band I wanted to have; and like having the family I always wanted.
I began keeping a journal, writing down the activities D and I did. I asked him his thoughts about the things we did in order to keep a sort of log of his progress. I would show up at different times of day to observe and try to evaluate his lifestyle, track his drug use, noting the interval between using, and how his personality and mood shifted based on his use. I also made note of what things felt like home to him and what things felt like freedom for him.
By participating in D’s life night after night and day after, I came to learn of the dangers that surrounded him living on the streets and being surrounded by drugs, gangs, and crime. I began to become aware of a serious concern about his safety as well as an instinctual desire to spread a protective energy field around him.
One night when I almost overdosed, she happened to show up and instead of leaving me like I thought anyone would do, she helped me. And she came back the next day she came back and took me to the laundromat. We washed my clothes for the first time.
D is generous and kind. He is a highly intelligent thinker, with a remarkable capacity to retain information and collect information in order to apply it in such a way that I believed could eventually inspire him to play a part in tikkun olam– helping make the world a better place with his particular talents and life experience. The more time we spent together, the clearer it became that there was a specific reason why I wanted to know the depth of this man: there was a heart of a spirit in him that no one had ever come to know. I came to know it. It didn’t take long for me to realize how much love I had for this man. I knew him even though he didn’t raise me. He was a part of me and I was a piece of him. He was my biological father, the person who gave me life. Why shouldn’t I help him live his safely and productively?
D enjoyed being seen as a kind of father figure when I shared personal things, such as my desire to start a family myself. He wasn’t “the father that I never had” because my adoptive father Bill played the role of father perfectly well. (He died when I was 18.) Rather, as I took an interest in guiding D, he took an interest in guiding me. I learned more and more about who he was before we met and his bravery – as he let that man go and embraced who he was open to becoming – was remarkable. Seeing this new man emerge showed me the kinds of qualities I would want to see in the kind of man whom I would want to fall in love with and one day marry.
I kept thinking that after a short while of her being with me after we met – like maybe a few days at the most – that she would get tired of walking around with me and being around me and that she would start thinking to herself, “Well, he’s a nice guy and all that, but I gotta go. I can’t be just running around with someone like this.”
But in actuality, the exact opposite thing began to happen. She began showing me unconditional love instead; I didn’t even really know what it was. This is what won my attention. I have never had unconditional love before in my life ever and I truly love her.
The decision to go to jail
Just three weeks after we had met, D made an excruciating decision: to turn himself in the police and to end his running once and for all so that we could be together more often and in a safer way.
Being willing to give up my freedom and walk into a police department came from a sudden realization that in order to become more attractive to Cami as a human being, I’m going to have to give up a few things. And there were things I was doing in my life that could get me and her in trouble. So I made a decision that in order to be of service to her, I was going to have to do time in jail.
Once this decision was made, my mind could not be changed. The day we did it was this one day when we walked together around Long Beach. She had brought me into an old folks home that had a piano in it. All of a sudden, she began singing and playing the piano for everyone and this was the most incredible thing I ever heard. For the first time in my life I witnessed something that was so stunning to me, and my mind was irreversibly made up from then on that I would change anything about myself to carry on this relationship with this young woman who was actually my very own daughter. When I was watching her play and sing on the piano that afternoon I thought I was watching a real angel and I don’t usually think [things like] that but I always will. I couldn’t believe this person that I was witnessing was my daughter. I went ahead and told her that whenever she was ready to drive me to the jail, I would empty my pockets and enter with only a toothbrush.
I was with him that day he turned himself in, and for bureaucratic reasons, they couldn’t book him for three hours, so we had to wait. He and I sat in the police station arm-in-arm and I downloaded the movie “Goodwill Hunting” to pass the time. He loved the movie, as I knew he would. This set the tone for the months that were to come. We laughed a lot and ended up disrupting people who would come and go in the police station with our laughter. Although jail is never a place you would wish for someone you love to be, I felt better knowing D was in jail, feeling he would be safer than using on the streets surrounded by gangs. Jail also gave D an opportunity to process everything that we had experienced together. It was my hope that he could start having a new hope for the future.
It was at that moment that we knew that, one way or another, our next chapter of our lives would have each other in it.
Read the next post from Jenni/Cami, where she details what happened after her father made the huge decision to go to jail.