Two years ago I saw my dad – for the first time in 29 years. Our paths had separated when I was nine years old and my parents got a divorce. It was a sudden end to the life I had known. Before I realized my dad was gone. My mom, my siblings and I moved away to live with our new stepfather. I never heard from my dad again. It took me 29 years to find the courage to write to him.
29 years spent wondering what he might look like now, how he was doing, whether he was thinking of us at all. 29 years being scared of contacting him and possibly facing rejection.
And then one day I did it.
I took a pen, a piece of paper, wrote a one-page letter and sent if off to the address I had researched a few years back. The message, in a nutshell, was: 29 years is a long time, too long, for a father and a child not to see each other. How about we meet and catch up?
During the next few days I contemplated various outcomes, ranging from no response at all, to an answer saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’, to no response at all.
Three weeks later I found a letter in my mailbox. At first I didn’t think much of it. I thought it to be from a treasured friend of mine who stoically keeps handwriting letters rather than updating Facebook or texting through WhatsApp. I turned it over for confirmation – and almost dropped it.
15 minutes and two strong drinks later I opened it.
The one option I had not dared to think of for fear of disappointment was a gentle and kind letter, one full of relief and gratitude and joy. I held it in my hands.
Three weeks and two letters later we had agreed on a day and place to meet.
I was overjoyed and terrified. My brain took refuge in thinking only one step ahead at a time. Book the flight. Book the train. Book the cab. Board the plan. Take the train. Get the cab. The last few meters to his apartment block I walked in slow motion, counting down the house numbers. Then I stood paralyzed. Staring at his name on the bell board.
Five minutes passed. I knew that once I pressed this button, the story would unfold, all those images and moments that I would later replay in my head. Whatever followed now I would not be able to erase from my memory. I was scared out of my depth.
The world’s steepest five flights of stairs followed, every step taking me closer to seeing my father’s face, to meeting his eyes, to recognizing or not recognizing him.
I could see the open door.
I don’t remember the first moment I saw him. My memory kicks back in when we’re holding each other, crying. We talked for seven hours straight.
Thinking back I’m still in awe about the wondrous day we had. I didn’t just see my dad again. I re-encountered a part of myself that had gone missing with him. There is a side to him that is outworldly kind, humorous, dreamlike, undemanding and content. He’s discovered for himself a terribly liberating way of dealing with the beauty and hardship that is called life, in the most dignified way.
Strangely enough, I had ventured out to look for him right at a time when I myself was wondering a lot about how I could change my somewhat downbeat approach to what I experienced as a permanent struggle. Not that he is not struggling. But he seems to be doing so in a more distanced way, as if not taking too personally what life throws at him.
Seeing him and talking to him that day, and since, made me realize that the little residue of him within me, that faint memory of his way, was what made me look for him in the first place.
I have found what I was looking for. And more.
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