In February 2003 I turned forty-five. My family gave me lots of nice gifts. After I’d opened them, we sat around the dining room table eating cake and ice cream while I told stories of growing up in Missouri. After awhile I began to wonder about all the things I did not know about my life. I’d had a couple glasses of wine. It didn’t take long before I started thinking about my birth mother, wondering if she ever thought about me on February 26th.
Telling my wife and sons to wait, I rushed upstairs to the desk in my study. The folder was still there in the back of file drawer. I yanked out my birth certificate and hurried downstairs. As I entered the dining room, I contemplated for the hundredth time the fact that I had no idea where the term formality of occurrence came from. I sat down at the table wondering whether I had made it up myself.
“You all have been so good to me,” I told my family, “now I’ve got something for you.” I handed my wife, Marion, the sheet of paper and watched her unfold it. Sam, Jesse, and Conor crowded around. Sam was fifteen, Jesse almost twelve, and Conor nearly eight.
After a few seconds they understood what they were looking at.
“Your mother’s name was Dana Black?” Sam asked. “And your name was Anthony Tobias Black?”
Marion seemed annoyed. “How long have you had this?”
“A few months.”
“Why would you keep something so important from us?” she asked. I could tell she wasn’t exactly mad, more disappointed, feeling left out.
“I start thinking so many things about this that I don’t want to think anymore,” I finally told her.
“You should have let me know,” she insisted. “This is important to me, too…and your sons.”
“I am. Right now.”
“Yes, you are.” She let it all drift away then by shaking her head a few times and chuckling at me.
“I came up with this concept of the formality of occurrence,” I went on hurriedly. “I can’t remember where I got it from–the formality of occurrence. I could swear it was a reference by some psychologist like Jung to something a philosopher like Wittgenstein or Alfred North Whitehead said about time and coincidence. I thought I had a book with a chapter in it called “The Formality of Occurrence,” but I can’t find a thing. I’ve looked everywhere.”
My wife just shook her head and laughed quietly.
When you’re adopted you’re less than an accident–you don’t know the circumstances of your birth; your conception seems to have come about by the snap of two fingers in the back seat of a car around 11:30 P.M. on a rainy Saturday night; and, in my case anyway, you have no idea what your racial or ethnic heritage is.
I remember thinking as I lay in bed that night that I wished I could chuckle at me, too. I had given a name to the malaise plaguing me: “The Formality of Occurrence.” But I didn’t really know what it meant, nor did I know where it came from. The term was like me: confused, disoriented, and without origin—somehow made up, unconnected, plucked from chaos, just four words, confounding, and yet, oddly defining.