Before leaving town for a two-week absence, my wise and formidable therapist told me to draft a letter to my father. Week one is over, and the letter remains a lump in my throat. When I resort to organizing plates and glasses in the cupboard to avoid a task, it is a sign that I associate dread with what I should be doing. In my defense, writing to a father one has never met is not the easiest assignment. Like any good writer, before I begin a piece, I determine my purpose, my audience, and my tone. Simple enough. But as I contemplate the first word on the page, I find I cannot identify these three elements that constitute the foundation of my project.
At the end of our last session, I asked Angela, “What is my purpose in writing this letter?” She looked at me as if on the edge of exasperation. “You must tell him your heart’s desire,” she replied. I was quiet for a few moments before continuing. “I don’t want to manipulate him. No matter what I write, it will be manipulative.” Now she was agitated. “You must listen. You are going to write a draft of a letter to your father and let me read it the next time we meet.” Understand: Angela is exceptionally intelligent and understands the arts.
I know almost nothing about my father. He is a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 16 miles down the road from where I live. Here is the title of one of his most recent studies: “Fas-mediated apoptosis eliminates B cells that acquire self-reactivity during the germinal center response to NP.” I do know that rodents are involved in his research. Furthermore, he is married to a former elementary school teacher and has two children with her. From his past I know that he played football at Tennessee Tech, married my eighteen-year-old mother, and left her two months later when he found out she was pregnant with me. And the wedding photos.
My mother kept their black and white wedding photos in a small manila envelope tucked away in the back of a closet. Now and then, I would sneak into her room and look at the pictures. One day, I decided to take my three favorite shots and keep them with my own photos. Every time I looked at the photos, the same thoughts entered my mind: What a beautiful couple. But what I felt when I looked at the images was a combination of sadness, confusion, and shame. Sadness because I had never met my father. Confusion because I did not understand why I had never met my father. Shame because in my overprotected world, everyone had a father, except me. I must have done something awful and was awful to not have a father.
There were and are other complicating factors involved in this situation. Because my mother refused to talk about my father, I have little reliable information about him other than what I managed to force out of my mother and more recently what Google has supplied. My mother’s story was that my father beat her. I have no reason to doubt her, yet I also know there are two sides to every tale. Even after 48 years, my mother would become stiff as an iron pipe, her face red from ear to ear if I asked her to tell me just one small detail about my father: Did he like cats? Did he like steak cooked medium? No answers. Just sullenness to follow.
I still do not know what to say in my letter to my father. I don’t know what Angela wants me to say. I don’t know what my father would want to read from me. For some reason, I sincerely believe that if what I imagine I might write stays inside my mind and my heart, I will always know what to say.