When my sister told me she’d hired a private investigator to find our father after 15 years of no contact, I was worried. But the more information she shared about the PI, the more excited I became. I was used to writing “Whereabouts Unknown” after “Father” on medical forms; it had become a normal part of my existence. But my sister’s kids were growing older and asking questions about who their grandfather was. It was too late for me to have a father. Having him meet my pre-school aged son, however, could be something special.
I was a 44-year-old Black married mother-of-two who lived in Queens, New York, and I had always had a tricky relationship with Father’s Day. There were only a handful of photos of me and my dad from my childhood. My British dad met my Ghanaian mom when they were teaching in Ghana in the 1960s; they quickly fell in love, married and had kids. By the 1970s, my father separated from my mother when she was pregnant with me, the youngest of four. They legally divorced when I was a baby.
We had infrequent but memorable day trips with my dad that included hiking, fishing, baseball games and eating out. All that stopped when he moved to Japan to teach English when I was eight. If my father was found now, I thought, what would I say to him? Would he be pleased to hear from us? Or would he be distant?
The private investigator made some phone call inquiries but after a few months, hit a dead end. He told my sister that my father had permanently left Japan in 1996. Undeterred, she hired a PI based in the UK, hoping his might have returned to his native Britain. The new investigator’s strategy was to look for living relatives. And eventually, he found a paternal cousin who knew my father’s address in Victoria, British Columbia.
Once she got my father’s contact information, my sister forwarded me his email address along with a typed letter from him. (Wait, my 70-something-year-old father was using email?) It was uncharacteristically effusive and long:
“I ended my teaching in Tokyo and taught after that in Taipei and Vietnam and carried on traveling mostly in Asia with about a year in India and another in China. I visited South America in 2001-2002 and last year was in Africa (Tanzania to Cape Town) for the first time since we left Ghana in 1971…It is stunning to know that I have, is it five grandchildren [Note: his number was off and at the time he actually had seven grandchildren] and I feel somewhat confused about it. I wonder exactly how your investigator located me among all the Robert Millers...
After a few lines, he returned to his favorite topic: traveling.
“Today I applied for a visa to visit Mongolia later this month for a music festival, the second time, mainly Germans as the travel companions, but very international. I shall be spending time in south-east Asia etc. This MAY be the last of my extended wanderings.”
I was now in my early 30s, almost the same age as my mother had been when he had left the family. While my mother had died years before, I knew how pleased she would have been that my sister extended the olive branch. My mother always made it clear she wanted all of us to have a relationship with our father.
After some months, my father let us know he’d booked his plane tickets for a trip to the United States (he had changed previous travel plans for us.) He stayed at my sister’s house for a few days outside of the New York City, and I took my four-year-old son to Midtown to meet him. After a little conversation, we walked over to the Italian restaurant Carmine’s. It was surreal.
“Call me Grandpa,” my father told my son when he met him. He took his hand as if he’d been doing it all of my son’s life. We crossed the street as I hold my son’s other hand.
Over the next two weeks, we saw each other several times. We went to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and he came to a Coney Island beach birthday party for my son. We went to a friend’s East Village gathering where my father was in his element, effortlessly charming guests in the multigenerational crowd. While I knew he was fluent in French and Japanese, with conversational German and Spanish thrown in, I was surprised to hear him speak a smattering of Bengali too. Who knew?
When someone asked me who he was, he walked over and said, “I’m Bob — Pamela invited me,” sidestepping the question. “He’s my father,” I said. Years ago, as a teen, I’d wanted to call him Daddy. He told me he preferred I called him by his first name. During this trip later in life, he said it was up to me — but judging by his reaction at that East Village party, it was still an uncomfortable topic for him.
He was trying, though. In subsequent years, he signed off letters with “Love, your father” — something I’d waited for, for years.
The trip ended and he left New York. When we spoke the following year, in November 2010, he was in a somber mood. My phone call woke him up from an afternoon nap in his Canadian condo. The doctor had recently told him his cancer returned, he said, estimating that he had up to a year left. He didn’t want chemotherapy.
When I asked if he wanted me to visit him in Canada, the response was an emphatic no: “I don’t need any visitors.” In the same breath, he mentioned being pleased some new international acquaintances were planning to go round. “Have you known them for a long time?” I asked. “Oh no, I met them on my travels recently,” he responded. He mentioned how an ex-girlfriend from Asia had not been communicating as often as he would like. I felt out of my depth — how does one sensitively talk to one’s ill father about an on/off former romantic partner who may have already ghosted him because of his health issues? “Neither one of us believe in monogamy,” he said, going into a tangent about how her current partner didn’t really like him. I sighed: I was familiar with his views on monogamy, and they weren’t my main concern right now. “Well, if you change your mind, I can always come see you,” I told him. “I’m not going to change my mind,” he responded, blunt as always. It was the last time we talked on the phone.
I got a friendly Christmas e-letter weeks later, along with a William Blake poetry collection. Then, in early February 2011, four months later after that phone call, my father died suddenly after he collapsed at home. He’d signed a DNR order, something he let us know beforehand. Though I knew he was seriously ill, it was still a shock.
I made my peace with not having a real relationship with my father. I felt happy he got to be a grandfather, even if it was just for a brief period of time. Since my father’s death, I’ve been back in touch online with my father’s brother’s children and their family. Some of my siblings have met up with our paternal relatives on vacation. Although I legally changed my name to my mother’s maiden name years ago, I will always be part of my father’s extended family too.
My husband had a much closer relationship with our children than I ever did with my father. This Father’s Day, we won’t go anywhere fancy. We’ll probably just stay home, eat home-cooked food and watch Netflix. But it will be a happy day where I’ll watch my kids experiencing a relationship with a great father who is always there for them — and for me.