A SON'S LETTER TO AN ABSENT FATHER

by Brandon Massey


Dear Father,

It's taken me a long time to get around to writing this letter. I've been putting it off for years, to be honest. I suppose that I was waiting for you to get in touch with me. An unexpected phone call, a surprise letter, maybe a birthday card--I entertained hopes of such things, when in fact, I should have known better. How could I forget how easily you seemed to ignore my existence? I can be too optimistic sometimes. Reality finally kicked in and compelled me to sit down and compose my thoughts.

Let me be clear from the start: I'm not writing to ask you for money. I'm a grown man. Do you know that I'll be thirty soon? I've done well for myself. I have a good job, my own place, and savings. I'm planning to buy a condo next year. I'm not bragging. I only want you to understand that I'm not writing you to beg for money.

I'm writing because I have questions. I'm writing because I have complaints. I'm writing because one of us has to take the initiative to shatter the wall of silence that's separated us for my entire life. I don't want to spend another thirty years sitting on my side of the wall, you sitting on your side, too, and neither of us having made the effort to break through. It isn't right. But even as I make this effort to do the right thing, I wonder if I'm wasting my time.

I mean, let's be honest: it's comfortable for you to maintain the status quo. You have a wife and other children, a house and a career. A stable, peaceful life. Having me appear on the scene, asking questions and voicing thoughts you don't want to consider is like having a nasty rumor surface at your job--you want to squelch it immediately and wipe the memory out of everyone's mind. Especially yours.

You're in good company, too. There're millions of men across the country just like you--deadbeat dads, absent fathers, whatever you want to call them. The story is so common it's become a popular stereotype: Man and woman date, woman becomes pregnant, man deserts woman and child. It's socially acceptable these days. The widespread acceptance makes it easier for you to feel good about yourself.

But what about me?

People like to say that you can't miss something that you've never had, but that's a lie. I never had you in my life. But I missed you. I missed you when I learned how to talk; I never called anyone "Daddy." I missed you when I learned how to ride a bike; my cousins taught me how. I missed you the first time I had to knot a tie; I learned how by reading a book. I missed you a million times as I grew up, and oddly, some of them I didn't realize until now, especially when I see a father and son interacting somewhere: I can be sitting at the barbershop awaiting my turn in the chair, and I'll watch a father enter, guide his young son to the barber and describe the haircut he desires, and I'll say to myself, "I missed that."

But what I really wonder is, is it the same for you? Did you miss not being there to show me how to ride a bike or knot a tie? Did you miss never taking me to the barbershop? Did you miss my first, tremulous words not being Daddy?

What am I to you, anyway? Am I a mistake that you want to deny? Or am I merely a seed that you dropped into the field of your youth, a seed that, without any attention from you, happened to sprout and grow into a tree, and good riddance?

I know I'm asking a lot of questions, but I'm trying to understand.

I'm trying to understand, for instance, why you would call me and promise that you'd send a Christmas gift, but when I would race to the tree on Christmas morning, none of the presents underneath bore your name. I'm trying to understand why, on the holidays, you would visit your family in the city near where I lived, but never visit me or call to say that you were in town. I'm trying to understand why you would phone on my birthday and promise that you would talk to me again a week later, and it would be five years before I would hear your voice again.

The one thing I'm trying to understand the most is how you could treat me this way when your own father did the same to you. Maybe that's your excuse. Like father, like son. In that case, I'm destined to bestow the same misfortune onto my future child, too. Right?

I don't understand you. All I have are theories. You'll have to explain why you've allowed our relationship to drift down this path. I wonder, though, whether you understand your own motives. Do you? Or is this, instead, the proper question: do you want to admit them?

You can be honest. I'm strong enough to hear the truth. In various ways, your absence actually shaped me into a stronger man. Knowing that I could not depend on you made me self-reliant and responsible. I helped my mother run the household because no one else was there. I've worked hard in every job I've held, from the age of thirteen to the present, because no one can afford to bail me out if I get myself into a financial bind. In my romantic dealings with women, I'm honest and considerate, because I don't want to give a woman the same sorry impression of a man that you gave my mother. So you see, your absence has had an invaluable, positive influence on me. Take some credit.

Yeah, sometimes I get an attitude when I think about this stuff. I have the right to be upset. And I have the right to demand answers. You haven't given me anything. You can at least give me the truth.

Still, I wonder if anything that I've written matters to you. I can see you reading this letter and tossing it into the garbage. After all, you don't have to answer me. Why should it matter what I say? You've survived for this long without your conscience moving you to take action to demolish that wall between us. Almost thirty years have passed. What's another thirty? Better to recycle my letter and slide back into the comfortable life that you know so well. I'll survive, right? I seem to be doing well enough on my own. Why establish a dialogue only to possibly discover that we don't really like each other, anyway?

As strange as it sounds, the most comforting aspect of our tenuous relationship is the wall between us. Think about it. It's difficult to feel anything--positive or negative--for a relative stranger. I can safely explore the possibilities in my imagination. I can imagine, for example, how much we might enjoy each other's company and conversation, without running the risk of finding out that in real life, we have nothing in common and little to discuss. I can daydream about one day inviting you to my wedding and proudly introducing you to my wife, without learning that in truth, I'd never send you a wedding invitation. I can envision us sitting on the patio, drinking beer and swapping stories, when in reality, I might prefer the company of a good book to you.

Yeah, it might be a good idea for us to leave things as they have been. You sit over there. I'll stay right here. We'll both be fine. Deal?

My intuition suggests, however, that circumstances will eventually change. They always do. Things happen. You go to the doctor and learn that you have cancer and have less than six months to live, and suddenly it becomes vital for you to make amends with everyone, as if some terrible fate awaits you in the afterlife if you don't correct your past wrongs. I win the state lottery and you get in touch with me under the guise of wanting to help manage my fortune. Or, the best case scenario: we both grow older and wiser, and become unable to tolerate the prospect of passing from this world to the next without sharing our lives. Like I said, I can be too optimistic sometimes. I suppose I acquired it from growing up without you. Optimism is a reliable defense against hopelessness and despair. I can remember days when I would be depressed and had no idea why, engulfed in a sense of emptiness that I could not articulate, and years passed before I understood the source of my troubles: you. Living without you tormented me. Yet living without you made me stronger, and taught me the healing power of a hope that dares to imagine that anything is possible--including a renewed relationship between a father and son who barely know each other. Why else would I have written this letter, father?

Sincerely,

Your son



Brandon Massey is a contributing writer and the author of the novel, Thunderland, featured at his website.

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