Sometimes life’s early paths are so tangled up, you wonder how you eventually emerged on the other side of it all. What follows is a story that has very little to do with restaurants, but everything to do with me and who I am.
I have written about my stepfather in previous posts, and my memories of him are fond ones. This story, however, is a tribute to the biological dad I left behind as a young child, thought was lost, and found again decades later as an adult. We only had two years together–almost to the day–after we reconnected. He died on Palm Sunday, five years ago.
Actually, a restaurant played a big role in our initial meeting after so many years apart. Our initial family gathering, when I traveled to Texas to finally see my father again and meet my previously unknown half brothers and sister for the first time, was at a fantastic Tex-Mex spot. Amidst the sizzling fajita platters and pitchers of frosty margaritas, I will never forget watching my kids and my husband connect with a family I’d only known for minutes, marveling at how easily they laughed with one another and how absolutely perfect and natural it all seemed.
My dad loved that I was a writer, “Because I am so terrible at it!” he would say. He was actually a wonderful writer, and he crafted many poems and essays that he shared with only a few. He would have been an avid reader of this blog, had he lived to see me create it. And, he likely would have been a frequent commenter!
What follows is a story I wrote to him, for him and about him, very soon after I found him–seven years ago this week. I thought I would share it today, in his memory.
My dad is surely smiling as I revisit the great joy we had for such a short time.
I always knew I would see him again, knew I would feel his arms wrap me in a hug one more time. I just didn’t know how long and difficult and wondrous the journey would be to find him.
The last time my father saw me was in California. I was a tow-headed youngster holding the hand of my mother and baby sister as we climbed the steps to the airplane that would whisk us east. A new city was going to be our new home, my mother told me. I would now have a new father, one new brother, and three new sisters. We would have a new house, new school, new housekeeper. Wasn’t it wonderful? Oh, and don’t talk about your “old father.”
At first, I called my new father “uncle.” Soon, however, “uncle” became “Dad,” and my real father became simply “my other father.” I really tried to feel absorbed by my new family, throwing myself into my stepsiblings’ play. But I never felt as close to them as my younger sister did.
Over the next three years, I received one letter, one card and a Christmas gift from the father I had left behind. He had a new wife and there was mention of a brother and sister. I assumed they were “new” like my new siblings–belonging to someone else.
When I was 11, my younger sister and I were legally adopted. Our new father was now our only father, according to my birth certificate, and my real father was no more. My mother adopted the other siblings, and—poof!– we were the perfect family. In reality, we were a hodgepodge of emotions battling for acceptance.
When I was 12, I decided to reclaim my real father. So, I dialed Texas information and asked for the town I remembered from his letter’s postmark. Sorry, no listing. Thus began an activity I would continue for nearly a decade–randomly choosing towns in Texas and asking telephone operators for my father.
When I was in college–I located and called a biological uncle in a tiny town, whose name I vaguely remembered. Sure would like to talk to my father, I told him. Call him, he said. Better not, my aunt said. Write him instead, they agreed. So I did.
He never answered. Had he even received my letter? I told my younger sister about my efforts, but she wasn’t interested in sharing my pursuit.
When I was in my early 20s, I received a gift of sorts—-a bundle of letters. While cleaning up after a fire in my stepfather’s home, I found a small box that was virtually untouched amidst the soaked and scorched cardboard. Inside, brittle envelopes were banded together, the ink on them faded, but clear. My biological father’s name appeared on nearly every one. I started to read. And discovered that my father had desperately wanted to keep his marriage to my mother intact, had begged her to let him be a father to his girls. The letters spanned eight years.
Most compelling was the one-sentence telegram that stated simply: “REF. TO ADOPTION, THE ANSWER IS NO.” I could only stare and read it again. And again. He had never wanted to relinquish his parental rights. Tears burned, but I didn’t cry them. If I did, I wasn’t sure I could stop.
Soon thereafter, I married; I had two children. And with their births, I wondered again: does my father ever wonder about me? Does he pause when my birthday comes and goes? The sadness I felt was staggering, at times.
In the summer of 1999, I received another kind of gift—courage. I decided to seek counseling. It was time, I knew, to address the issues of how my patchwork family had affected me. I often felt guarded and skeptical with the assorted siblings, never truly grounded in their family network.
When the therapist at the counseling center propped up a white board and used multi-colored markers to draw the circles and squares that represented my blood, half, and step family members, something peculiar happened when I stared at the one that represented my biological father–I felt a pull even stronger than the one that had compelled me to aimlessly dial directory assistance in various area codes in hopes of finding him.
And when the counselor asked me what I remembered about him, his importance was rekindled. As was finding him. Because he was my father.
I searched the Internet. I called directory assistance. He was nowhere. Neither was the uncle I had found so many years ago. On a whim, I paid an online service to search for a “last known address” as well as a death notice. The results appeared on my computer the next day–his full name, an address and the year 1998.
I called the search firm’s customer service number.
Did that date–1998–refer to the year he died? I asked.
Did you do a death search? the rep asked.
Then that’s what it is, she said.
A crushing sorrow wrapped around my heart. After all this time, I had missed him.
I decided to find out as much as possible about my father. I started with his local newspaper’s online archive, looking for an obituary. After hours of research, I found instead, a reference to his name in court records. Huh?
I clicked on it, and glowing on the screen before my incredulous eyes were the words “Marriage Licenses” and my father’s name and age and those of his fiancée. What? Another marriage license listing appeared, this one for a “junior.” Did I have a half brother?
Turned out, the search firm had not conducted a death certificate search after all. What I had was his last known address in 1998.
I wrote a card and scrounged decent pictures of the kids and my husband and me. This time I urged him to write back and sent the letter certified. Then I waited. The letter was returned, unopened, two weeks later. Forwarding address expired.
I then called an attorney friend and asked for the name of a private investigator, something I had resisted doing all these years. But now I was determined to find a current address and phone number. After that, I’d figure out what action to take.
Within a few hours I had an accurate, current phone number.
And I was suddenly struck by uncertainty. Did I want to call out of the blue? What if his new wife and my half brother never knew about me or my sister? And what if my father himself really didn’t want to have contact with me? What then?
I started writing another letter and tore it up. I picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone. I knew calling was the right thing to do, but I just couldn’t do it without knowing that the call would be welcomed. So I convinced a friend to call the number on my behalf, ask for my father, and then ask him if would he like to hear from me.
“I would be so happy to hear from her,” he immediately replied to my friend. “How is she after all this time?”
Now it was my turn to call.
Instead, I promptly burst into tears. I cried deep sobs–for the answer to a lifelong prayer, for the knowledge that I would hear my father’s voice again, for the relief I felt knowing he actually wanted to hear mine.
“Just call him,” said my husband, as still I hesitated. “Just call.”
In all the years of searching and wondering, I realized I had never allowed myself to imagine the moment beyond simply finding him. I was almost frozen, indeed, overwhelmed, by the idea that a simple long-distance number was all that separated us. I took a deep breath and dialed it really fast.
When he answered the phone, I gulped, then sputtered, “Uh…Dad?”
“I would know your voice, even now,” he replied. Even after so many decades.
I have since traveled to Texas and met my father, his new wife, and my two brothers and one sister. They have welcomed me with astonishing love and affection. My brothers are very close and share a great sense of Texas-style humor. My new sister and I savor each moment we have to get to know each other.
And my Dad. Turns out I look just like him, even more than my half brothers and sister do. He is funny, kind, and adored and respected by his kids. He was married for 35 years to their mother, until she died. My brothers describe her as strong and compassionate. I wish I had known her.
I also have some insight into why my father stopped fighting our adoption and allowed the ties to be cut. Why? It’s complicated, the way family relationships often play out. Logistics, my sister’s and my best interests, and the era all certainly played a part. As my father’s and my relationship deepens, perhaps he and I will talk more about that, too.
The timing of all of this is nothing short of serendipitous. My father, myself, as well as my newly found siblings, are at an age when we can embrace this incredible turn of events. I firmly believe it wasn’t meant to be 10, 15, even 30 years ago. It was meant to be now.
Recently, my father wrote in a letter to me: “You certainly make me proud…Dads do have a special feeling for their girls. Can’t explain it, but it is there.”
No one has ever said those words to me before. But then, those are words that can only come from a dad. My dad.