Throughout my life I thought about having a man-to-man conversation with my biological father who vanished when I was very young. It came to mind during my favorite time with each of our three children: after their bath, when they were on the changing table, when I rubbed their chunky soft bodies with baby lotion. My heart was full and proud as I slathered their bellies, dimples, back and neck wrinkles and baby biscuits, all the while watching their heads bob up and down, curiously scanning the room. Then I would put on a diaper, dress them in their onesies and carry them into the living room, nestle into the rocker, all the while breathing in the sweet bath smell, my nose buried in their chubby cheeks and necks. And time and time again, I would ask the question: how could anyone leave such a beautiful miracle and give up these moments? My parents divorced and Bob had left by the time I was ten months old. There was a brief visit at the Dairy Queen, when my two brothers and I were expected to hug this stranger in Wayfarer sunglasses, who asked about school and sports. The only memories I had of him, mere slivers and slices: at the zoo with him, Grandma and Grandpa Hall, balloons, riding in a convertible. All perhaps conjured in my mind, eye of newt, bat wing and a wisp of a wish. When our last child reached ten months, I decided to have that forty-year-old conversation with Bob…if I could find him. He was getting older and if I didn’t follow through I might never have the chance to have the conversation. My mind was set even though I knew it would involve self induced pain and uncertainty. Either way, I would not sleep, I’d be pre-occupied, grumpy, and dodging anxieties like errant fast balls with all becoming exponential if a conversation was to occur.
I had a vague idea that he lived in Clearwater, Florida. I went to the library at Michigan State University to search for his name among the rows of phone books. When I found the Clearwater phone book, there were predictably many Robert Halls. I copied the pages of Robert Halls and began making calls, each time with that reminiscent adolescent feeling of asking for a date, anticipating rejection. Remembering that it was so much easier to be the “leaver” than the “leavee”, who is left unexpectedly to contend with a porcupine dumped into their lap.
I made several calls and not one of them scored. I remembered the name of my Aunt, who we always referred to as Auntie Ann. Her family had a unique last name and I went back to the library confident it would narrow the field. After finding one that I suspected may be correct, I went home and made the call.
I have always had a good auditory memory. If I had seen an obscure movie star in one movie, I could guess their identity from the other room just by the sound of their voice. The more popular they were, the easier it was. When I called the first and most likely number, there was an answering machine recording and I recognized Auntie Ann’s voice. We had not spoken in 30 years. I left a message of who I was and that I was looking for Bob’s phone number so I could meet him in the spring when our family would be traveling to Florida. She called back and was ecstatic. When she said “PRAISE JESUS!”, I remembered the Baptist brand of Christianity ran deep in this family. Bob had been a gifted Baptist minister, or so my mother had always said. I had heard stories throughout my childhood of his miracles, abilities and dedication to the Lord – all the while contrasted with the knowledge of a single mother raising three boys, who too frequently ate macaroni and cheese or oatmeal because we were too poor to afford anything else. We had a live-in nanny who stayed rent free, which allowed my mother to work as a secretary at Ford Motor Company. I had also heard that my older brother was the original poster boy, waiting-for-his-promised-birthday-puppy, sitting on the front curb for hours on end until called home. He would walk crushed and broken, empty handed, through the dusk and street lights to the house. Auntie Ann said they had been praying for so long that I would contact Bob, which made me wonder at the perversity of why the hell it had become my responsibility as the leavee? She said she would contact Bob and give him my phone number.
He called the next night. I had no memory whatsoever of his voice. He wanted to have an extended conversation as you would with an old friend you had lost track of over the years. He asked me about children and I told him we had three. He seemed elated that he had more grandchildren, which I let slide at the moment. I expressed my interest in meeting him while we were in Florida. We set a date and he gave me an address.
For forty years I carried a childs shame of being left behind. I had believed I was the reason for the leaving. Nobody had ever said as much. I had soaked it up with my childish mind. I was the last to be born before the divorce. And for these years, struggled to come to terms with feeling unworthy of love, a burden of shame and guilt. And rage. Therapy and hours of mind-time, praying in my youth, writing and ruminating, had provided insight albeit never a resolution. I felt embarrassed I was still dealing with Daddy issues as a grown man.
Forgiveness had never come easy for me. It is the pinnacle and the most noble of disciplines, an almost Christ-like state of mind. A giving when it is least affordable or deserved. An act of unrelenting faith. Especially for someone you don’t even know. But forgiveness came to me through an unconventional writing exercise. It spontaneously started with me writing how much I loved to listen to a childrens chorus. If there was such a thing as angels, they were surely manifest on earth by those sweet innocent voices. However, the song “Jesus loves the little children”, that I was taught and sang as a child, had never felt true for me. It was propaganda. It was at this point, out of nowhere, that I began a conversation with Satan. There was no consternation on my part. No critical eye interfering, looking for just the right words. I had entered my mind through the back door, a 180-degree change in direction. Jesus didn’t give me answers, so maybe Satan would. Characteristically, he started immediately criticizing Jesus, claiming that in such dire times for man, it was his own sin for keeping silent. Perhaps he should be born again; the last time hadn’t worked too well for his followers since he was still absent. He could have come up with another way to provide reassurance. It showed his poverty of thought and lack of creativity. Because Bob was caught in flagrante delicto, Jesus, in all his power, should have caused Bob’s penis to wither and fall off. To allow him to live a life free of responsibility for the pain he had caused was unforgivable. I began to ask Satan questions. How could I expect him to be truthful with me? He wondered why I thought he could do anything now to make the experience more painful than it had been for a lifetime? That I thought too highly of myself, believing what had happened to me was unique. It was not. There were others who had suffered more painfully. I knew this was true. He said a ten-month old child does not have that kind of power. I was wrong to take personal responsibility for those events when I was so young. That was just unrealistic. Very little of what transpired had anything to do with me. With that simple exchange I experienced the first emotional movement ever. My mind shifted to visiting Bob’s grave and posting a note on his gravestone that declared he was not a good man. He was a fraud. Then I pictured him as a child. I wondered whether he sang too, with all the hopes, optimism and dreams that children hold. And what had happened to that child? I felt compassion for him for the first time. I had been moved over several pages of writing. And it was a lasting movement because the feeling of forgiveness I experienced for him has never changed, twenty years later. My Baptist relatives would never have recommended talking to Satan. No therapist or book had suggested it. It just happened. Of course it was logical that a snake knows best how to shed skin.
I didn’t realize it was a cloudy Florida day until I walked down the driveway to our van. Our family hoped for sunshine everyday after making the long journey from the frozen north. I looked up at the roiling clouds, various shades of swirling gray, but I didn’t feel cheated. Today the clouds seemed welcome, uncharacteristically reassuring, as though I had externalized fetid emotions into a tangible sky. I had waited for so long. Barely remembering the drive through my brothers neighborhood, I entered the highway thinking of a conversation with my therapist 20 years earlier. I wondered aloud if I should look up my biological father someday and how would I know it was the right time? My therapist answered, “Probably when you don’t want to kill him.”
During the two-hour drive to Clearwater everything seemed poignant and symbolic. A car with a flat tire on the side of the Interstate. Cresting a hill to see the entire field on fire on the right side of the highway as the smoke obscured the road ahead. Some asshole monopolizing the left lane at 60 miles an hour so no one else could pass. Three feral pigs gathered at a fence post beside the highway. My fear was that during my man-to-man conversation with Bob, I would break down crying like a baby. That baby was in there somewhere but I was loath to show it to him. I was also a father in search of answers. That was where I was hoping to stay. I knew emotional reactions were not predictable, at least for me.
When I get anxious my stomach tightens and I struggle even with the involuntary function of breathing. I felt as though I was suffocating as the address numbers counted to the finish. I pulled the car over and reminded myself to breathe. I felt reluctant, panicky, and wanted to turn back. No one would think less of me. Except me. I would be angry and disappointed in myself for the rest of my life. And rather than dumping the life-long Bob Hall porcupine in my lap, I would add another of my own choosing; that I was too afraid to leave the first behind. I no longer wanted to be stuck in this childish loop. It was not going happen.
I put the car in drive and crept toward the address of a modest Cape Cod on my left with a large and wise sentinel oak in the front yard. I pulled in the driveway and shut off the engine, got out and walked around the car with trepidation. As I approached the front porch Bob appeared, opened the door and greeted me with, “Are you Tim?” Of all greetings, why choose that one? Sarcastically I answered, “Are you Bob?” There was nothing about him that was familiar. He was tall and heavy and I could see a slight resemblance of one of my brothers, but there was nothing that looked like me. He extended the screen door and his hand. I shook his hand and walked in. To my left, near the kitchen, stood an older woman and a young man who appeared to be in his twenties. Bob introduced his wife Jingles. I had never met a Jingles. He introduced her son Tim, who walked towards me and with face grimacing, spoke unintelligible words. Tim was developmentally impaired. He seemed the embodiment of my own developmental delay. God has a wicked sense of humor I thought. Regaining my composure, I told Jingles and Tim it was nice to meet them and extended my hand to Tim, which he shook while saying something else. As if the strangeness of the moment was completely lost on him, Bob swept his hand toward the table, introducing the sandwich platter. Ham, turkey, two colors of cheese and halved buns.
“We figured you might be hungry so we bought a sandwich plate. Would you like something to eat?”
“No thanks. I’m good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Really. I’m good. Thanks.” I would not keep it down although throwing up seemed aptly appropriate.
He gave me a tour of their home and showed me his office. He explained he had moved to California, graduated with a Masters Degree in Counseling or Social Work and worked as a therapist. Of course he did I thought. He showed me his bound thesis, which I thought was relatively thin, and a picture drawn by his other son who I knew existed but had never met. He asked if I would ever like to meet him and I was non-commital, one major life event at a time I thought. Before long he acknowledged that I was there to talk and suggested we step into the front yard and sit beneath the oak tree. A large branch ran perpendicular to the ground with a white swing tied by ropes. He sat down and the large branch started to swing. I had a pocket nightmare; the branch would break and fall, killing him instantly. Under the circumstances I would not have been surprised. But I would have been disappointed. Our conversation started with fundamentals. How long have you been married? What do you do for a living? He said he heard the tape of my original songs that I had sent to Grandma Hall (I remember being angry at his handwritten note that was signed “Dad”). Are you still singing and writing?
“Tell me about my grandchildren!” he said excitedly.
Not this time I thought. “Actually Bob, these are not your grandchildren. You have to be a father before you can claim grandchildren. My father was John, and he died in 1981 of renal cancer. These are his grandchildren. Before he died, I changed my last name from Hall to Johnides because he was my father.” He nodded as if he understood. I told him about our children, their ages and interests.
“I would love to meet them someday.” Which was not going to happen I thought.
“You must have a lot of questions” he said. I recognized his training as a counselor, leading with a statement rather than a question, encouraging the other to respond with the payload.
“I do.” I lead with a statement: “Karen and I have been married for years. We have certainly had our ups and downs like other couples that have been married for a long time. But even if it were all to fall apart, wild horses would never keep me away from my children. I just don’t understand how you could walk away and not be interested in your first born children.” He started weeping. Heaving and gushing. I was surprised by his reaction. Rather him than me I thought. I had never considered the 40 years of pain he may have stored. I always assumed he was a cad who didn’t care, but now that had changed. I had been a child with no control over the past events. He had been an adult and equal partner in the responsibility, which he had avoided for years. I begrudgingly felt a cringe of compassion.
“I have not been a good father” he said between gasps. I let him cry it out, the large branch nodding in agreement.
“I was told you had an affair.”
“That’s not true” he said. The nuances of truth didn’t really matter. With most couples it was always fifty-fifty. He could tell me one thing, and my mom tell me another. I wasn’t going to find absolute truth.
“I just can’t understand how someone could have three children and never come around.”
“I was told by John and your mom that I was not to come around,” he said
“No birthday cards? No phone calls?”
He looked at me. “I was told never to contact you boys. I came to your brother’s graduation from college and it was a disaster.”
“It was a disaster because you just showed up. You never let anyone know you were coming.”
“And if I had, I would have been told not to come. So I just went.” There were the wild horses.
“Your mother and I were married in our late teens. We were much too young. I made mistakes and I always regretted them. You see Tim, I have never met another person in the world who could get under my skin, make me so mad, like your mother. I would get so angry. One time I kicked in the kitchen cupboards. That was not like me. I had never been that way. I became another person.”
He asked me if I had met my sister. I was incredulous. How had I never heard about a sister? She was not living with him. I wondered what she had been through, with and without him. I felt compassion and a bond, never even knowing of her existence.
“I never knew I had a sister.” He told me she lived in California. She was a year older than our oldest daughter.
I told him I should probably get back to my family. Forty years distilled into one hour, my questions unfettered and candid and exhausted. He followed me to the car when Auntie Ann pulled into the drive. She and I hugged and talked. Bob said that he was hoping we could stay in touch. I told him that was not likely. I was not there looking for a father since mine had died in 1981. I had only wanted this one conversation and I thanked him for that. He told me he would be there for me if I needed him.
As I drove away, I was grateful to Bob for a most significant gift. He was accessible, accommodating, accepting and remorseful. He had cried. He allowed me to express myself, and listened and never told me I was wrong. I knew it could have been otherwise. There was so much to think about and I was drained. I drove into town, stopped to buy a pack of cigarettes and found a restaurant with a back deck overlooking the ocean. I ordered a beer and lit a cigarette. Just a few hours earlier I carried a burden which I perceived as shameful, that I had hoped to cast off once and for all. When I started my trip to Clearwater, my mind was overloaded, my memories and feelings mingling with the outside world, which I viewed through symbolism. As I stared out over the ocean, there were no sailboats mooring after a long journey, no waterfowl smoothly landing on the water. It seemed unnecessary. I would never be free of my history because it was a part of me. The hope I could leave it all behind was perhaps the last vestige of a childish wish and naïveté. I had expected to finish, but what I accomplished was a transformation. My history had created the most important aspiration in my life: to have children of my own, to do it right. I wanted to straighten the legacy of twisted links of a cycle. To raise children in a stable loving marriage, to be a mindful parent, porcupines and all. I wanted to give them that which I felt I had missed and through which I had hoped to change myself. Our family is fortunate that we were able to accomplish what we had. Our children know how to hug and to love. They have grown into responsible adults. They have even said how much they hate their home town because it was boring and nothing ever changed. I find that reassuring, even if they do not. Years later, as I write these words, I am grateful and proud of the choices I have made. Most of all, for not turning back. I am grateful for what I have. For my children. They are glorious.