my mom and dad divorced when i was 5. when i was 11 he stopped coming for visits and it's a moment i still remember - standing in the sunroom with my weekend bags packed, waiting for a man who would never come. i wonder how long i actually waited but in memory, a tragically romantic thing, it was forever.
with my grandfather, my dad's dad, i kept a yearly correspondence. cards and letters, christmas' and birthdays. we never spoke of my dad, (fear? the bond of mutual silence?) but it was comforting to know there was a tie to that side of my biology. a leaf on the branch of the other half of the tree.
not long ago, (5 years? 10?) i decided to ask my grandfather about my dad and was surprised to learn he'd alienated that part of the family as well. the imagination is a wild, rampant thing and i'd just assumed, that all these years, he was a full and active member of a family i wasn't part of. maybe he'd had other kids. maybe they had large, summer barbeques. maybe sometimes he asked about me. maybe sometimes he'd just wonder in silence.
to learn that he'd chosen to isolate himself from all family, not just me, felt in many ways like a relief. it wasn't personal, it was who he was. it may have been the first (and last?) time i felt an invisible connection with him. i understood that need for isolation. the desire to separate from the clan. to identify one's self on one's own merits. i thought of men going off into the wild - farley mowatt, chris mccandless, the guy from legends of the fall - romantic notions of men closing their hearts to find their souls. i made a kind of peace with the mystery. with the imagined poetry.
and then in december of 2010, just before the holidays, a letter came from my uncle. my dad was dying of colon cancer and had decided to reach out to the family he had shunned, to make good with the years of silence. i felt many things, to be sure, but prevailing was a sense of entitlement to an unhurried grace period, during which i could think through, in my own way, how i wished to proceed.
i talked to my mom. i talked to my step dad. i asked for their advice and support. i talked to jeremy. i talked to steph. i sat in silence with myself feeling surprisingly calm and clear-headed. i kept waiting for an emotional outburst, a dramatic desire to see my dad, to talk to him, to ask him questions, to demand answers, but nothing of the sort came and the honest truth seemed to be that despite this potentially life changing news, my life wasn't changing.
i decided that i was comfortable opening the lines of communication with him and, being a writer, sat down to pen the first side of a conversation with my estranged father.
at first the exercise was kind of fun like writing to a mysterious pen pal. my name is jenn sorrell! i am 30 years old! these are my interests! here are my memories! this is my life! but it needed something else, something truthful about my feelings towards him. something honest, but fair.
and so i wrote that i harbour no ill will. that i forgive him. that i don't pretend to understand the reasons why he did the things he did. that i'm sorry that he's sick but that i am not looking for a father. that the beauty in my life has been this - where he left off, others came in.
i sent photos of myself - our wedding, me camping - a return address and a sincere hope that we could start from here, from nothing, from not knowing each other, from not expecting anything, from honesty, from zero. i never heard back.
my uncle tried to pressure me into calling or going to visit. he said it was unreasonable for me to expect that a dying man would be able to write me back. he said i was being punative. the more he pushed, the more strongly i felt about my decision. this is something i had thought about at great lengths, after all. this is something i'd considered from outside of myself. what would i tell me as a friend? as a mentor? what would old me tell young me, looking back? the answer was always the same. i had done what i felt comfortable doing and i had tried to do it with honesty, compassion and grace.
was i proud? was i selfish? would i, as my uncle said and said again, regret my decision? i can't know the true answer to these questions but i do know indecision can be crippling and i stepped out of that fog with confidence. i made a decision, my decision, and i have not looked back.
my dad is as much of a mystery to me in death as he was in life however it is comforting to know that, upon receiving my letter, i was no longer a mystery to him. i hope that brought him some semblance of peace knowing that his daughter was happy and loved.
for our families, even if not by our own hands, it's all we can ever hope for.