1999. My birth-father is playing whiffle ball with my two sons, 8 and 6. My boys are in heaven. Their grandfather, too. He hits them grounders and flies, encouraging them, teaching them. Being with them.
I watch. A wistful veil falls over me. Bittersweet breaths. I teeter on a cliff inside myself.
One inner voice suggests I resent the hell out of this moment. See, I have no memories of this man hitting pop ups, chattering, encouraging, being with me. Somewhere, somehow, he and the culture that raised him agreed that divorcing my mother included divorcing his children. I didn’t meet him until I was 18, and only then because my older sister looked him up. So what if he’s a world class grandpa! Where was he for me?
The voice recommends bitterness and resentment. Now there’s a day well spent – that I could begrudge my children’s happiness so as not to miss the benefits of feeling sorry for myself.
The other inner voice invites me to revel in this sublime moment of grandfather and grandchildren at play. To celebrate. To be a vicarious participant in this scene, almost pastoral. To let this moment lift me, too, into the richness of life, and in so doing, to redeem a part of my past. To affirm and give thanks for my father’s chance to redeem his absence in my life with his presence in the life of my children.
The voice invites me to be happy for that man and the two boys.
I tell Voice #1 “Thanks for sharing … now sit down and be quiet.” From the bottom of my soul I say “yes” to Voice #2, and let this voice take me by the hand and lead me to the light.
I think I made the right choice.
I was born Steven Curtis Bunting, and I was 18 when the man who gave me that name knocked on my dorm room door, my freshman year of college. We were granted 27 years together. I think we both did our best.
The first several years were odd, awkward, and tentative. Two people shouting across opposite sides of a canyon. Calling out across an immutable abyss of 18 years. It was like the early days of transcontinental phone calls, where that few seconds of delay made conversation stilted and unsure.
We became good friends. Once, during a long drive across the Sonoran desert, I asked him the question I’d long held in my heart: “So, it’s 1959. You’re in Seattle. You get a letter from a law office in Arizona, asking you to sign the enclosed affidavit, severing parental rights with your daughter and son. You find a pen. What goes through your mind as that pen descends to the paper?”
“I thought your mother married well,” he said blithely, simply, without hesitation.
I didn’t comment. But, within myself, I pondered the astonishing world wherein fathers can be convinced that fathering begins and ends with providing. As long as somebody is providing – in my case, an adoptive step-father – than, you’re good. Job done.
But it happens the story had a sequel, which I didn’t hear until years later over a few too many beers. Quite in passing, my birth-father told me that, after he left my mom, he had an elective surgery. A vasectomy.
He went on talking, but, inside, my mind raced. 1957. A healthy, single, 26 year-old American male steeped in a culture of patriarchy and virile machismo presents himself voluntarily to a doctor for a vasectomy? Unheard of! Me thinks he dodged me that day in the car. Shrugged off my question. This was the deeper truth. It broke his heart to lose his children. And so he made certain he would never be a father again.
I let the moment go. I didn’t share my new theory with him. I tucked it away inside the vault of my own heart.
My birth-father died of pancreatic cancer as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were handing the Oakland Raiders their arse in Super Bowl XXXVII. “Well, Steven, it looks like you’ve made a good life for yourself,” were his last words to me.
The perfect last words. Man to man. Neither presumption, denial, nor apology. All would have wasted our time. And he was done wasting time. I kissed him on the forehead, and turned my car toward Nevada.
If ever you have the choice between redemption and bitterness, choose redemption.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He writes a column weekly for this newspaper and he encourages readers to correspond with him at skalas@marinscope.)