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Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Story


I was born in France and when I was three years old, my mother moved back to her country, Romania, and took me with her. My father had separated from us since my birth.

We came to Romania by ship, traversing the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Once in Romania, it took me six months to forget all French words. One single word remained in my memory: bateau. Why only this one? I don't know why.

Later my mother found a man who felt in love for her and for me and who became the father that raised me.

And years passed; sometimes I was thinking at the other one, the missing father. It is a long story, of dreams, and love, and hate, and deception, and finally of finding my two step-sisters, who gave me their love. Three people, they and I, who over passed a painful past.

I found in today's NY Times this story, told by Jason Burnett, a telecommunications engineer living in Alexandria, Virginia:

Late last year, while resting in my hotel room on a business trip to India, I saw my father being interviewed on CNN International; this was the first time I had seen him or heard his voice in 27 years.

The coincidence intrigued me enough to attempt to contact him and after I returned to the States, I spent the next few days trying various combinations of e-mail addresses until I finally hit upon the right one, and received a response. Before I knew it, we had set a date in February to meet. I was about to find myself face to face with a man who was more influential in his absence than he could have been in his presence.

My mother struggled to raise my younger brother and me on her own; in one way or another we always got by without our father. We had what we needed. We went to great schools. We spent the summers with our grandparents. We were good children, relatively speaking. My mother always let me think I was the man of the house, but everyone else knew differently. When I was asked by a guest if I was the “man of the house” my brother piped up and said, “The man of this house is a woman.” She was and she was all we had, and my brother and I knew it. And though she did what she could to make up for the absence of a father, for me, the absence was inescapable.

As a child, I waited for my father to contact me; as a teenager, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. So as an adult I wanted closure. I wasn’t interested in retribution or making him feel sorry for leaving because somehow I knew he wasn’t sorry at all.

I knew as well that I was not in search of a “Father” or seeking advice or absolution. I surely didn’t expect him to fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness at the sight of his long-slighted son. Nor did I expect him to act any differently than he did.

As the date for our meeting neared, I tried to remember the endless list of questions that, as a boy, I promised myself I would ask him if I ever had the chance. But the truth was that the answers to these questions weren’t important to me anymore. I had either answered them for myself or asked them of others.

I realized, though, that I wanted to find the man — not the mythical figure my father had become over the years. I had heard so many fantastic stories and I didn’t know what to believe: tales of sailing solo across oceans, thwarting a band of pirates aboard his small boat in the Strait of Malacca, doing relief work in Somalia, writing a screenplay for David Bowie. I needed to know who this guy really was.

We met in a hotel lobby. After we dispatched with the initial pleasantries, we headed straight for the bar. Over drinks and dinner, we nervously chatted about the past 27 years. The conversation focused on the superficial similarities that a father and son might share. Still, the mundane chitchat, which most fathers and sons must take for granted, was, in hindsight, what I really wanted.

And so it went for the weekend. I asked questions, he answered. I listened to him talk about previous marriages and relationships, other children he’d fathered, his feelings for my mother — things he wasn’t very comfortable talking about. I began to see the mythical character as a man. I learned that he is as fragile as he was powerful in a young son’s eyes. Toward the end he asked if I would call him Dad; I cannot. But now that I know more about him, we can move forward.

I am still digesting our reunion and will be for quite some time. While he is no longer this mythical figure in my life, he is who he is and I am who I am, partly because of his absence. Already, though, I feel relieved and free to move forward.

I have always wanted to be a father and a husband. I want to be there for those who count on me and I want to be counted on. I have made a good life for myself in the suburbs of Washington. I am married and still very close to my brother and our mother. While I am hopeful that my new relationship with my father is a lasting one, I learned the closure that I needed comes from relationships that I had all along.


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And the father of this man had the courage and honesty to tell the same story, from his point of view, here it is:


There was a water-stained photograph, faded from years of tropical heat, of my 10-year-old son and me as we walked away down the pier toward my sailboat. I had my arm around his shoulders and his arm was around my waist; there was a lot of love in that picture. Permanently framed in the boat, the photo captured that sad moment — the last time I was to see my son for 27 years.

I met him again in a crowded hotel lobby in New York City. We had agreed to meet, to test the waters. A son was now ready to find out who his father was, a father wanted to know how his son turned out. I heard a man’s voice behind me and I knew it was him.

There are no guidebooks on how to prepare for that first awkward meeting. There is no Web site that will tell a reappearing father what to expect or how to act when he and his son meet for the first time since his childhood. And what about those crucial first words? “Hey, son, how are you?” “Long time, no see.” Or: “I’m sorry, son. It was not your fault.” It is a moment that a father, possibly defensive, and a son, probably resentful, have played out in their minds for years. We had to tread carefully.

There are millions of absent fathers; there are at least that many children out there who are wondering who their fathers are. Barack Obama recalled in “Dreams From My Father” that when he was small, his father just vanished. “It was into my father’s image ... that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself,” he wrote. When Mr. Obama was told that his father had died, he said, “I felt no pain, only the vague sense of an opportunity lost.”

My son was not going to miss his opportunity. I had tried to make contact a few years earlier but it was not the right time. His best friend had just lost his brother to a roadside bomb in Iraq. But the hours he spent helping his friend try to make sense of what had happened got him to thinking. “I realized it can all end so suddenly,” he told me later. “There were some things I realized I wanted to get done and one of them was to know who my father was.” That death and my previous unanswered attempt to make contact were the forces that caused him to make his own move. He greeted me with a firm handshake and a strong voice. But it was not until later that I recognized him as my onetime 10-year-old buddy.

So that first evening, we met as strangers. Our wives were present, necessary buttresses for this delicate moment. He spoke first: “I recognize you from the white hair.”

“Yeah, like a beacon in a fog-bound channel,” I said.

He had once seen me on CNN in a hotel in India and thought, “Jeez, that’s my father.” But he had already known I existed, for his mother often said, in a fit of pique I would imagine, “You’re just like your father!” The first he knew I was still among the living was when he noticed a book with my name on it on a table in Barnes & Noble, and he wondered if the author was his old man. He saw the photo on the jacket and he knew. When he read a reference to himself in the book it was then that he realized that he had never been forgotten.

The evening was strained but friendly enough that we agreed to meet again the next day in Central Park. Our wives walked behind us as he and I spoke about his work, about mine. His wife said, “Look, they even walk the same way,” and indeed I am told our mannerisms, the way we move our hands when we speak, even our voices are similar.

“Why did you leave?” he asked me suddenly, a question I had expected, but still had some trouble answering. I had come from a dysfunctional family, exiled to boarding schools at a punishingly early age, and instead of going to college, I bolted down to the Brooklyn docks and signed on a merchant ship. I had not been groomed to know much about the obligations of a dad. As Mr. Obama has said, fathers often “abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”

“I thought of myself as a seaman,” I said. “It was not your mother and it was not you, I just had no sense of responsibility. I just dropped out, sailed away. I’m sorry... You must still be very angry, have a lot of resentment.”

“I got over that years ago,” he said. “Maybe some resentment. You know I don’t need a father now, something I didn’t have; I only wanted to know who you were.”

Late at night in the apartment of my sister, whom he had also not seen since he was a child, he asked other questions. About other marriages, about other children, and I bared all. There was no reason to lie, no reason to hold back. I wanted him to judge me. His condemnation would free me of my new responsibilities. His forgiveness might allow me to try to become the father I never was. It was his call. After my wife had gone to bed, I answered all his questions, in detail. Indeed, he and his wife now know more about me than my own wife, more than any living person. And my son was, on that night, still a stranger.

There must be so many absent fathers, burdened with guilt, regret, defiance and defensiveness, who like me wonder who their sons are now that they are grown men. And if they consider making that first move, they surely speculate about that first meeting: could it be anything but confrontation, his anger, his sorrow, his pain? These things do not always turn out well.

It is too late to pick up where we left off so many years ago and I certainly won’t make the mistake of now acting like a dad. But there is a chance we might at least become friends, even one day feel the love we had for each other when he was a little boy. The relationship is still fragile but we are in contact; I think that we will slowly, cautiously build something lasting. There is some hope. On our last evening together, just before I had to return to Europe, we faced each other awkwardly and then hugged. Not a hail-fellow-well-met hug, but a serious bloodline hug, and I felt for the first time in 27 years something I had forgotten existed.

It looks as if my boy turned out O.K. The credit goes to his mom. He is a sort of a geek working on fiber-optic technology. He’s a good-looking kid and I admire him not only for what he has overcome and become without the benefit of a father, but also for his courage to contact his grateful dad.

3 Comments:

  • Welcome to the Reggae Sound Clash at the Palace of Wonders in Washington, DC this Wednesday, June 24th.

    Jonny2Bad and his selection of roots with brethren DJ More Fyah.

    FREE Admission and drink specials for everyone.

    For more details, check out the site : www.jonny2bad.com

    By Blogger deenaanddavid, at 2:56 PM  

  • Nice piece. Oh, fathers. Absent or not, they loom large, huh?

    This is my piece for all the single moms out there...

    I dedicate Father's Day to my Mom

    By Blogger Robin, at 3:25 PM  

  • Thank you for commenting.

    You know, I had the joy to have actually a father who took care of me: the man who loved my mother and me, he married my mother and raised me with care and sensibility. He had had a daughter from his first marriage; that daughter had died in 1944 ! She was eighteen and died in a bombardment; it was the war. So when he met me, he thought probably at his missing daughter.

    Later in life when I had a boy, he was a great grandfather.

    May God rest him in peace, as he was such a good man!

    By Blogger Pierre Radulescu, at 10:34 PM  

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