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A Letter to Dad

June 11, 2012

My birth father passed away when he was thirty-eight years old and his father died at the age of twenty-eight. He was around for the first two years of my life and then he and my mother divorced for the second time, just after the birth of my brother. I have two vague snippets of recollection about my father but no real memories. I just have stories. I am now fifty-five with two grown sons, the oldest married and expecting their first child, a son, this Sunday, Father’s Day. The youngest is in a long-term relationship, with wedding bells in the future.

As I write this novel, I continue to explore the relationships between fathers and sons, those fathers absent and those present. Those fathers present physically but absent emotionally.

And so in light of the above, I decided to write a letter to my father that I never knew. In doing this, I understand that such a public letter could be judged as self-serving, however well meant. After all, he could never read it. But some things should be done regardless of whether the giver and the receiver are able to participate or whether they simply choose not to. Like love. Like forgiveness. And so this is an exercise I am compelled to do.

Dear Dad:

Well that’s a beginning. I’m not sure whether I’ve ever addressed you as “dad” before. I’ve certainly referred to you as my “birth father” most of the time and, on occasion, my father. I’ve had a step-father for fifty-two of my fifty-five years and he’s always been “dad” to me in all of the best of ways. I’ve just decided to put down whatever feels right and natural and “dad” fit the bill.

In the few years that we were together, I wondered what I called you. Did I call you dad? Likely. Until her death, I always referred to my mother as “mom.” So it makes sense. But who knows what comes from the mouths of small children. My two sons both call me “dad” and it is a wonderful thing. I wonder if you were old enough to realize this. I wonder if you missed it when you and mom parted ways.

When I was a young father, I didn’t realize how special it is to be called dad. Our pastor during that time, Bro. Franklin Hall, came to visit when my oldest son was about two or so. We sat in our small living room, just the three of us, and Bro. Hall and I were having a really nice conversation. Bro. Hall was very much like a father/grandfather figure to me until his death in early 1988. My little boy toddled up to me and patted my knee and kept trying to get my attention, repeating “dad…dad…dad” over and over. I finally looked at him and hushed him, admonishing him not to interrupt. I will never forget Bro. Hall getting tears in his eyes and telling me not to quiet him down, telling me that a son calling out for his father was one of the most beautiful sounds I will ever hear. And he was right. Did you hear that enough? Did you hear it from me? I hope so.

Another Bro. Hall story – when my oldest was still an infant, we brought him to church and during one of the services, he began to fuss and fidget. I was so self-conscious about this sort of thing that I quietly stood up with my son, ready to carry him outside so he would not disturb the others. About the time I turned to leave the pew, Bro. Hall stopped preaching and lovingly told me that my son was bothering me more than anyone else. He told me to not worry, just to have a seat and everything would be all right. And he was right. Everyone around me was smiling, understanding. It was just me that was upset. And my little son did quiet down and everything was fine.

I know that you and mom waited seven years before having me. I found out later in life that you two had divorced and remarried before I was born. I think that it’s important for you to know that mom always loved you until the day she died. At least she always loved you when you were sober. She did not make you out to be a villain, rather she always said that if I wanted to know about you, when sober, all I had to do is to look in the mirror. She understood that you were an alcoholic and because you could never escape your addiction, she had to escape you.

They say that one of the signs of an addiction is that you sacrifice the important things in life for it. Your family, your work, your health and in your case, your life. When you were sober, you were funny and friendly, you loved us and others, loved to play the guitar I am told. I can’t imagine that you could make a conscious decision to give all of that up so you could drink to excess, drink until the anger was exposed, raw and bleeding, anger that caused you to hit and hurt others, including mom. But she always said that you never hurt me, never laid a hand on me. Only her.

I’ve wondered about those times when you knew what was at stake and still poured the next drink. I’ve wondered if time and time again, you thought that if you could just have one, maybe one would take the edge off and make the demons quiet down a bit. Instead, having one just made it easier to have two and so forth. And instead of quieting down the demons, it just stirred them up into a raging fury that took over your hands and your angry mouth. I’ve wondered about the many mornings after, how sorry you were, genuinely sorry. I wonder how many times you cried and apologized during your short life, meaning each one but not strong enough to make a change before evening arrived.

Mom said that you did give up drinking after the first divorce and that you were completely sober during the entire time she was pregnant with me. She said on several occasions that it was the happiest time of her life. I’ve wondered many times if one of the seeds of my happiness was planted during her happy pregnancy. They say now that an expectant mother’s disposition can factor into how a child approaches life. If that is the case, then I want to say thank you for those wonderful months you gave to her and, subsequently, to me. I never asked mom if the happy times were worth the violent ones, the times of hiding and hurting. I would imagine that she might have different answers at different times. At some point the bad caused her to divorce you for a second time and therein lies my answer. But you ought to know that she talked with me about the good times more than the bad.

And even though it wasn’t a part of a plan, you did help to give me a brother by my mother and a sister by your other wife. I thank you for that. We stay in close contact and have been through a lot together. Your sister, Corky, ultimately brought Sis to meet us, at the request of my brother, and we’ve been close ever since. You’ll be happy to know that none of us have addictive personalities and none of us have issues with alcohol. None of our children do either. And for that we are profoundly grateful.

And while we may not share some of the same shortcomings, I certainly have my own. I have tried to live a decent life. And to say that I have tried to make you proud is an overstatement. I do think of you often but when I tried to do the right thing I was thinking of mom and others who were still around. They say that once an infant makes his parents smile, he spends the rest of his life trying to duplicate the experience, the joy of seeing your parents smile. I am certainly guilty of that. I have a photo of you, smiling, and believe that during those few years I made you smile, even though I have no conscious recollection of it. I have spent a life, some successful, some not so much, of trying to make people smile. I’ve tried to be decent, to be tolerant and empathetic and to do the right thing even when others aren’t looking. I believe I’ve surrounded myself with family and friends who are the same way and I am happy. My sons have made me smile a lot over the years and continue to every time I see them. They would make you smile too.

I’m not aware that you ever said you were sorry to me but you could have. Regardless, I forgive you. In my heart I believe that if you really had had a choice you would have chosen to have lived and we would have known each other and would have had a father-son relationship. Growing up with my sons has been one of the best parts of life. In some ways your absence made me more aware of the specialness of those relationships. In some ways, your weaknesses have helped me be a better, more understanding, father to them. Growing up without a birth father made me determined to be there to see them to adulthood. My earliest, consistent prayers, have been to allow me to raise my children until they were adults and able to take care of themselves. I have been given that gift and everything else, as they say, is gravy. For these gifts, I say thank you.

I want you to know that my sons and I never greet or part without hugging. We never part without telling each other that we love them. I know that it was not as common for earlier generations to do this as it is now. I wonder how many hugs you received before your father died, how many expressions of love you shared. I wonder if we exchanged any such sentiments during our brief time together. I just have a feeling that we did. But in any case, I love you.

Please forgive this rambling missive. As a writer, I am accustomed to revising and rewriting to polish a story. But this is a letter and, like me, full of thoughts and musings, errors and flaws. It is what it is. I am what I am.

So here’s to the regret for not knowing you better and longer. Here’s to the regret of you not living long enough to know your two wonderful, loving grandsons. Here’s to life as it’s handed out and how we handle it. Here’s to learning and loving and living. Here’s to you dad, on your day.

Happy father’s day.

Love,

Terry

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2012 12:31 pm

    This is beautiful, honest, touching and heartfelt. Thanks, Terry.

    • June 11, 2012 2:07 pm

      Many kind thanks dear Charlotte. I had been mulling over doing this for some time and with it being the week of Father’s Day, I decided to give it a try.

  2. June 11, 2012 1:40 pm

    So candid and so lovely. Thank you, Terry.

    • June 11, 2012 2:08 pm

      Many kind thanks dear Bonnie. It’s funny how you don’t really process things until you put them on paper. Most of these words never came together until I committed them to the page today. Thank you for being there.

  3. June 17, 2012 10:16 am

    Happy Father’s Day Terry. The ravages of addiction are felt across the generations. How wonderful that you stepped outside the cycle and made a luminous life for yourself and your sons. That takes courage and commitment. Hope the delivery of Jude and your first grandson go well. Sending you much warmth.

    • June 17, 2012 6:34 pm

      Many kind thanks dear Kaylene. I do appreciate the kind words and wishes and you taking the time to read and then send me a comment. Everything still quiet tonight! The kids are coming over for dinner. Fingers crossed and I will keep everyone posted. Many thanks again and I hope you are well and happy friend.

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