I sat in between my grandfather and my grandmother -- I had only met her the day before -- and tried to keep from looking at either one as they silently sobbed. None of the mourners, with the exception of my family members, knew who I was. As we sat listening to a mournful Jeff Buckley song, and collectively reflected on my father's life, I almost wished that I felt something more than remorse for my grandfather.
I felt like a fraud as I accepted condolences from my father's loved ones at the end of the memorial service, because they were probably suffering more than me. Relief flooded over me when I winced at his friend's remark to me about how my father treated his daughter like his own. That was a sign that I was at least human, even though I really wanted to tell people to stop apologizing to me for my loss.
The story of how my parents met will forever remain a mystery to me; the full details of their tumultuous relationship will never be revealed. All that I know is that I was conceived during an ill-fated stay in Wyoming. His last name was never mine. According to my mother, he forfeited his right to claim me as his child. My mother never received anything in means of support from my father, never pursued anything more aggressive than a restraining order. Any rare mention of him was negative, and she made it very clear that she did not want me to ever meet him.
One connection that my mother allowed to my father was a strong one: my grandfather. He had an estranged relationship with my father, so he never once hauled out old photo albums or told old stories about his son when I went to visit for the weekend. Over the years, I met cousins, aunts and more extended family, and we started a tradition of gathering on certain holidays. I was always in awe of how warmly this family embraced me, so completely without judgment, which was more than I could say for my nuclear family. These people had no obligation to me, the one person connecting to us was invisible; and no written proof was ever present to show that I, in fact, was one of them.
My father hid out in Florida -- that much I knew -- and only had contact with my grandmother and my uncle who lived near him. Though he had the closest relationship with my father, my uncle never pressured me to meet him, but he did invite me to visit Florida.
After a few attempts at getting me to visit, I embarked on the trip with my grandfather and step-grandmother. A few passive comments had been made about meeting my father during this visit, but they made sure to let me know that there was no pressure.
This visit happened right before my 19th birthday, and I was already living on my own, so my mother could not forbid me from going; not that she didn't try everything in her power to stop this meeting from happening. She didn't understand my need to meet my biological father, and no amount of reasoning would change that. We got into a huge fight, and she threatened to disown me, but I knew that she would never understand. No matter what I said or did, I had already betrayed her by entertaining the mere possibility.
I never questioned my mother about him, nor did I ever consider that I would meet him one day, partly because I knew that it would upset my mother, and partly because I never felt the need. Why should I make the effort for someone who never did the same for me? Instead, I relied on dry humor and sarcasm to fend off the sympathetic reactions I received when I told people that I did not know my biological father. Now that I was presented with the opportunity to change that, I wasn't sure that I was making the right decision, but I was determined not to let it become a milestone in my life.
We flew to Florida without mention of the impending introduction, acting as though this was the most natural trip that we had taken dozens of times. After we settled in at my uncle's house, we spent a few hours of obligatory sight-seeing before returning to the house. We got ready to go out to dinner when he knocked on the door.
My mind went blank for a few minutes, but the tension was still felt as the awkward introductions ensued. Dinner consisted of a large enough party so that conversation flowed pretty naturally, though my father never directly spoke to me.
The next day, it was somehow orchestrated that we would spent time together alone, so he gave me a ride to the store. Throughout the years, I had heard only a handful of positive adjectives about this man: gregarious, intelligent and kind. People also spoke of his love of reading and animals, which I felt may be our only common ground, so I reached for topics to discuss. The conversation in the car was strained, mainly because he kept stating facts that he knew about me that actually applied to my mother. Conversation quickly turned to my mother because of this, and I braced myself to hear horror stories about their relationship, but instead he only spoke fondly of her.
“I knew that if I left you alone, your mother would do a great job raising you. I thought it was best to leave you alone.”
Over the next year, he sent me a Christmas card, called me once or twice, and visited with me again in Florida. We were far from fast friends, and conversation was still awkward, but at least he was trying.
One day, I came home from work and answered a phone call from my grandfather.
"There has been an accident. Danny. He's dead."
Those may not have been his exact words -- I can't remember. I just remember my stomach dropping. My father had been sitting at a turn light, minding his own business when a car collided into his, causing his car to crash into a pole and immediately go up in flames. The kid that the cops had been chasing was not even licensed to drive, and he ran away from the cops on foot when he fled the scene.
His memorial brought family members together who hadn't been in the same room for over 20 years. I met my grandmother for the first time, and an uncle, who is now more like an older brother to me. His tragedy forced this family to recover from wounds that were decades old, and they made a point to stay in touch afterward.
My aunt had told me that my father had never found his way in this life. But I feel like he found his way, maybe without even knowing it, because his death resulted in something positive, and helped me gain closure that I didn't even know I needed.