Longing for an Identity: My Last Name Mystery

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Natalie Kozakiewicz, 21

In December 2004, I went to my foster care agency to get copies of my parents’ death certificates, which I needed for college financial aid applications. I left there a different person.

In a tiny, crowded room, I found out that the angry, drunken man I thought was my father probably wasn’t. And everything I believed about who I was and where I came from was turned upside down.

My “dad” died of cancer when I was 10. Two years later my mom died too, and my sister and I went into foster care.

The agency staff member asked me that day: “Who was ‘Cywinski?’ Your mom has that as her last name on her death certificate.”

I knew that my mom had once been married to a guy named John Cywinski. But I always assumed she divorced him and married Michael Orbes, the guy who’d been around as long as I could remember and who I thought was my father.

I never really loved him. When I was 4, he threw a can of beer at my mom. The can rolled under her shoe, and my mom tripped and broke her leg. Officially, my mom died of a heart attack, but it didn’t help that her broken leg never healed.

“Does that mean my mom was always married to John Cywinski and never to Michael Orbes?” I asked him.

“Most likely, yes,” he said.

This brought up something that I had always wondered about. “Why does my sister have Orbes as a last name and I don’t?” I asked. “Is it possible that Michael Orbes is not my father?”

“There’s more of a chance that Cywinski might be your father than Orbes,” he said.

I was shocked. Could I really have a father out there somewhere? If Michael wasn’t my dad, did that mean that John Cywinski was? Or was somebody else my dad?

And what about my identity as an orphan? I always felt I was different from other kids in the system who were abandoned by their fathers or didn’t even know their names. Sure, my mom and dad were alcoholics, but they didn’t abandon me. They died. But if my dad had left me, I wasn’t an orphan anymore. I was just another ghetto child in foster care who never knew her father.

So much of my past is a mystery to me because there was never anyone to explain things or answer questions. When my mother was alive, she was an alcoholic and disabled. Michael was sick, too, missing his hair from cancer and usually locked up in his room, drunk. I had to make sense out of things the best I could.

My mom had told me she’d left Ohio to escape John Cywinski, so right after the meeting I went to a computer and looked up “John Cywinski” in Ohio. There were a lot, and I wrote down some of their locations. Then I thought, “If Cywinski is my father, I might not be so happy.” I remember him threatening my mom and frightening me.

For the moment, I would just leave things alone. But on the train home that evening, I wrote out possibilities and questions on a little piece of paper. I wanted to understand this mix-up.

I called up my sister, Cynthia, who is 18 months younger than I am. I told her how we might not have the same fathers.

“No, no that’s not true,” she said, and then got really quiet.

Then I realized my news bothered her. If Michael wasn’t my dad, she might feel even more alone because she would be the only one to lose both parents. Maybe it upset her to find out she didn’t have a full-blooded sister. I love Cynthia the same whether we’re related 100 percent, 50 percent or 0 percent! But I couldn’t talk to her about this because she didn’t want to hear it.

I thought about steps I could take to find out the truth. For instance, I could talk to a family friend, Monika, who said she is keeping a secret from Cynthia and me until she feels we’re old enough to understand. She has dropped a lot of hints about how my sister Cynthia and I don’t look alike.

I could also ask Cynthia to take a DNA test to find out if we’re full-blooded sisters. But I don’t want to ask her since she wants to ignore the whole thing.

I don’t think it would bother me if it turns out that my real father is dead. Ever since I was 10, I thought I had a dead father, so that would be nothing new. Even if he turned out to be alive and I didn’t like him, it wouldn’t matter: I have plenty of people who have been there, and are here, for me.

But then I thought of the bad parts of finding out the truth: If Cywinski is my dad and turns out to be alive, he might terrify me like he terrified my mom.

Since I had that conversation with the agency staff member a few months ago, I’ve realized I’m not so hype about finding out more – not right now, at least.

© 2007 Youth Communication/New York Center. www.youthcomm.org