For this story to be understood, you have to grasp that one thing. I have two fathers – one genetic and one by choice. One who chose to love me.
This isn’t in the joyous sense that you find today where two men may be fathers and share the joy and love of a child. This is an accident of another time, where one father chose to leave and another at a later time chose to enter my life and made that decision to love someone in a truly incredible way.
There’s also another period in here of sadness, of absence of loss. Between the two events. Struggling to find who I was, by finding someone who was.
My earliest memory of my father is a bit of a blank. My genetic father that is. I only have one real memory and that is of someone bouncing me on his knee by a river. A picnic. A happy time.
The rest of my childhood memories, indeed my life memories, contain only absence and sadness insofar as my genetic father is concerned, with a few exceptions
My next memory is of writing a letter, of packaging it up in a handmade envelope. A letter to my father.
At this time we lived in an old farmhouse, incredible by today’s standards. I discovered the place at a much later age and couldn’t believe how a family of eight, six kids and two adults had lived there, in this small tar paper shack. At best two tiny bedrooms, one small kitchen and living room. Yet we did.
It was in that world where I wrote this letter to my father. I can’t remember the contents. I remember writing it. I remember drawing a stamp on the handmade package – for I’d included some things, again escaping memory, an offering of sorts.
I remember addressing it. I don’t know what the address was – something my mother would have told me. I remember putting it into the mail box, a grey tin box on a old post that was part upright and part tipping over – occupying that in between space between up and down, and betraying to all that there was no man, no father here to keep the property up.
In the country in those days you put the mail in and took it out. The pickup and delivery came through the same door. In a world before long distance or the internet, the country mailbox was a door you could open and peer in at the dark and mysterious tunnel to the outside world. Messages to that world left and came by this same magic tunnel. It was a time before junk mail – for no mail was not magic. From letters to the Eaton’s catalogue, everything was magic.
I watched and waited as days became weeks and weeks became months, but no message arrived. Soon I forgot and moved on.
I never lost the feeling. I still can picture that child, opening that tin door, peering into the shadow as the sunlight shone in on an angle and in the dim light of the box, seeing nothing. I can feel that disappointment in my stomach as if I was that child again, descending on me like a mist of sadness and emptiness.
But as I grew, the memory, although it never faded, it sat back in the deep recesses of my mind.
There were few mentions of my father. I remember once that my brother, who struggle much more with my father’s absence that I did, I remember him saying in a family fight that he was going off to live with my father. An empty threat at best, as my father was nowhere to be found. How he would do that was unclear.
In all those years, my father made no contact with us. He made no attempt to support us. My mother swallowed her pride and we became “those welfare people”.
Over all those years, I never dreamed of my father. I stopped thinking about him.
I tried to build attachments with many men over the years. My mother had a few boyfriends, most of whom I disliked. Some engaged with me. My uncle “Red” – short for Reginald, visited my mother on occasion in the early days when we moved to the city. I remember that he smacked me for trying to play with a light above my bed. I remember a nice old man who talked to me – a neighbour. I remember my mother’s boyfriend, Harry, who tried to warm up to me in his own way.
Harry taught me how to make “ox-tail soup”. He taught me how to bury sardines in the garden so they’d fertilize the soil for the next year. That’s all I remember. He died of brain cancer a few years after my mom met him. She sat by his bed for months watching him die a slow and agonizing death.
I didn’t mourn for Harry. He left my mind as quickly as he’d entered it. In my world, men came and went. I formed no attachments.
I met my genetic father many years later when I was in my late twenties. My brother had finally succeed in finding him. I met him, fittingly, in a bar with my brother. Another dark cavern, ill lit. As I think about it today, as I opened the door and the sun shone into this dark, cool world, it was like opening the door to the mailbox, only this time he was there.
He sat at a table. He was a roundish man, grey-haired and stubbled, with the famous moustache I had seen in photos. His face was a mixture of warm and cold, of welcome and of a hidden coldness. Or did I just imagine that?
He was there with another woman, a stout short-haired blond woman of around his age, which I guessed was around late forties or early fifties – laughingly ancient to me at that time. She had an aura of warmth and engagement to her. I think she’d been attractive in her own right at one time, but that had faded, like an old sofa on the porch, faded by the light of the sun.
I remember one thing clearly. How badly he treated her. I remember the dismissal. The bards. The power games. I saw things that I imagined at an early time was the way he would have treated my mother. And I felt the darker side, a coldness and a cruelty. What I was seeing in public was a game, a shadow of what would happen in private. I don’t know if this was true. It’s what I felt.
I didn’t know until later about his abuse and beatings. Of perhaps even sexual abuse. Beatings for certain. But the other was only whispered in the shadows. I was too young to hear such things. I was protected by my sisters.
But maybe I absorbed it somehow. Because I could see that potential there – and it chilled me. Yet, somehow I was hoping for a redemption. A redemption that never came.
We talked. He talked mostly. About things inconsequential. Nothing it it. But he never mentioned about thinking about me. He never mentioned any sadness about leaving me. He never mentioned any of the things that I wanted, that I needed to hear.
His one thing for me was to acknowledge my birthday, which wasn’t even around that time. He gave me a wallet with a dollar bill in it. If I never spent that, I’d never be broke.
I don’t know why this gesture angered me so much. Not a violent anger but an intense burning anger. A disgust. A feeling of sickness in my stomach.
I stood up and said I had to go. I said, “you’re not my father. I remember only one thing about my father. There was a fat man who bounced me on his knee. For all I know, my father could be Santa Claus.”
He looked at me and I saw the melt away of the jovialness, and I saw the eyes and I saw the anger at me for what I couldn’t tell and I heard him say, “you’re not really my son.”
With all the aplomb I could manage at that age, and god bless me there wasn’t that much sometimes, I looked at him and I smiled and I said, “Thank you, I was hoping that was the case.”
He couldn’t hurt me anymore. He couldn’t not answer that letter anymore, because someone else had answered that same letter, many years later- but long before this meeting.
I struggled many ways in my childhood. Bright kid. Tough world. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m just trying to fast forward through it. For whatever reason, I found myself as what you might call a street kid today. I had run through a series of foster homes. But I was bright. Bright enough to know that I needed to finish high school somehow. So I was a promising student. And I was also in the drama club. And it was there that I met Frank Casey, the theatre arts teacher, who invited me to dinner one day with his wife Dolores and their two foster children, Charlene and Doug and as I ate dinner there – probably the first home cooked meal I’d had in a long, long time – god bless him but the person I was staying with was not much on home cooking. This first home cooked meal I’d had in a long time ended with a conversation where Frank said to me, “why don’t you stay with us? We’d like that.”
I went through a lot of emotions at that point. This had happened before. My best friend Ken’s father, when I was a much younger child, when my family had first imploded, Ken’s father had said the same thing – “why don’t you come and stay with us?” There had been other offers. It’s just that nothing worked out.
My reluctance to accept was based on two things. The collapse of other foster homes that I wanted to be part of but for whatever reason didn’t work out. Then there was the offers – and the feeling that I would disappoint. I can only describe it as that. It will end. I will disappoint. That was the reluctance that was with me then, but times were more desperate. And Frank was, god bless him, most insistent.
And so it was that I stayed with the Casey’s. I became their son. Frank became my father.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light. I did disappoint. Yes. I did disappoint. And somehow we always bounced back. In later years, I realized what had happened. And I realized the overwhelming gratitude I had to him – and to Dolores and to the family. Frank and Dolores never gave up on me. In my life they were the only ones who accepted me unconditionally and never, never gave up on me.
It’s hard to express, even now, the overwhelming gratitude and love that I had for both of them.
But life moved on. I moved into my own life. And I visited. We talked. But we were separate somehow. In those intervening years I felt more and more separate from him. I wasn’t really his son. I can’t explain how I felt – or I couldn’t, until my own son phoned me tonight.
It was in that call that I realized that the separation I had felt was real and normal. My own son has grown and has his own life. The bond between us still exists, but we are separate. He has his own life.
If I’d been a “normal” kid, maybe this would have come easier to me. But it didn’t and for whatever reason, in those mid-years I felt more separate. And once again, it was Frank who bridged that gulf. In his later years, he spent more time talking to me. The visits. The calls. Not as frequent as one might like, but magical in the moments we shared.
In his last visit, I shared some songs with him. Even at 83, his enthusiasm and energy was incredible. He made me promise to share these with an audience – with a choir. I promised I would.
He told me that I should be back on stage as an actor. He was insistent.
I kept both promises – after a fashion. I didn’t go back to the stage as an actor. But I wrote a play which first appeared on radio and now will be done by a theatre group next year. I wrote a part for myself that had no lines.
The second promise I fulfilled at his funeral. With the choir of his church, I sang the song I sang to him that night.
Frank died, last year about this time. Coincidentally, yesterday, my sister called to tell me she had found out when my biological father died.
The contrast put it all into perspective. For my biological father, I felt nothing.
But unlike my biological father, I dream of Frank. I dream of him in a way that I’ve never dreamt before. I dream of him talking to me. He comes to me in dreams. He’s as real and live as ever.
Today, I remember Frank. With a potent mix of joy and sadness.
I think of what I could have said in all those years between. I think of what I could have said to fill those silences.
Then my son called. As I talk to him I realize that we are entering that same period of separation. He is becoming a man and he lives his own life. In that call I realize that it’s okay. Even in the separation that we all must experience, love exists. It is a thin gossamer strand that links us all.
Love transcends all. It transcends the spaces and the silences. It transcends the separation.
With eyes wide open, I’m dreaming of Frank. My father. He’s telling me – it’s okay. I love you.
I love you, too.