It's Complicated: Are You There, Dad? It’s Me, the Guy Just Getting to Know You

This is the last in a series of five essays focusing on how people have navigated difficult times in some of their closet—or most critical—relationships. In this one, the writer and his long estranged father open up the lines of communication after 20 years of no contact. 

illustration of man holding snail mail

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Lately, I have been pondering what to say at my father’s funeral. This is admittedly a bit morbid, considering that he’s not actually dead. But that day is rapidly approaching. 

Next July, if he makes it that far, he’ll turn 96. He just had surgery for a broken hip. His kidneys are shot. His skin hangs off his bones like an ill-fitting suit. Every few months he goes back into the hospital to have more cancer cells scraped out of his body. But his mind is still sharp. And that makes me optimistic, in an I-hope-I-got-his-DNA kind of way. 

OTHER ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:

The problem is, I wouldn’t know how to eulogize him. For most of my adult life, my father and I didn’t speak. And before that, we didn’t speak much. How do you account for the life of a man you barely know? 

Here’s what I know about my father. He grew up poor in New York. His father, a bookie by trade, left when my dad was 13. He had an older brother and sister, both gone. He served in the South Pacific during World War II and married my mother while still in the Marines. They had five kids and an unhappy marriage. 

I also know that my sisters and I were all terrified of him. Seemingly always angry, he was the goblin in the closet, the monster under the bed. 

When I was 13, my mother died quite suddenly. My father did his best, but he was clearly out of his element. Eighteen months later, when he married a woman with five sons of her own, it created a fracture in our family that never healed. 

After I left for college, he and my stepmother moved 3,000 miles without telling any of us. Our contact, infrequent in the best of times, withered to nothing. 

In the intervening years, I became a father myself. Now I was the ogre with the anger management issues. I think I handled them better than he did, but I developed a new appreciation for what he must have gone through.

Twenty years went by without any contact. Then, out of the blue, a letter arrived. Written on a torn sheet of loose leaf in his precise block lettering, it said he had seen an article I had written for Family Circle and was happy to learn that I’d succeeded in becoming a professional writer. Three lines. No return address. I don’t think my father even signed it.

For years, that note lived on a corkboard above my desk, a perpetual reminder of unfinished business.
Finally, on the day my father turned 90, I looked up his number and called him. 

I was nervous, but the call could not have gone better. He was funny and sharp and opinionated. We talked politics. (He is easily the most liberal nonagenarian in South Florida.) He said he’d just finished reading War and Peace and was about to embark on Moby-Dick. I quizzed him about every medical procedure he’d had over the last 30 years. It was a pleasant, if emotionally superficial, conversation. When I hung up I realized I was no longer the angry man or the scared child I used to be. That was the past. The future, however much was left, was all that mattered.

Now, once a year or so, I fly out to see him. Mostly we both sit there with the TV on, listening to my stepmother talk. It’s boring, but in a good way.

As I was writing this, I got a call from my stepmother. My father was failing. So I flew to Florida and visited him in the hospital. 

Over the wheezing of an oxygen machine, we talked about his childhood and early married days. How he liked to play poker after work with his buddies at the aerospace factory. How close he came to being killed after landing in Guam with the Marines. And how, after I was born, the only son after four daughters, he wanted to celebrate but had no one to drink with. 

He said he knew he hadn’t been a good father to me. I said it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about the past, about him, or even about me. 

I was there because I’m a father too. And hopefully many decades from now, when I’m near the end, I’d want my son by my side, so I could say goodbye.