I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get in contact with you for some time now, and decided that this was probably best. My name is Ben. Your son, Scott, is my father, which, in turn, makes you my grandfather. Having said that, and realizing the expanse of time during which some very hard feelings were formed, you may feel inclined to stop reading here and toss this letter in the trash. And please, do as you wish. I am asking nothing.
It occurred to me many years ago that dismissing your existence had been a problem for me. Never getting to meet my grandfather was something I refused to let happen. However, I let my own fear and hesitance take over and found myself watching the years slip by without contacting you. I finished high school graduated from college, and am finishing a Master’s degree in Chicago. The years have moved quickly, however, there was only one truth that came out of it: I ignored my opportunities to forge any sort of relationship with you. I let too much time pass, and have decided not to let that dictate my future any longer. So I am writing you now, if only to try to create an opportunity to shake your hand at least one time in my life. My father has been close to silent about his past relationship with you, and though I’ve been able to piece together a patchwork history of his life in Freeport and Rockford, I’ve decided I need to make my own decisions from this point on.
Again, I’m asking nothing from you here. I have no idea what sort of reaction this letter will warrant. And I apologize if this has ruffled your feathers and created any ugly feelings. I only wanted to give you my contact information in hopes that if you ever wanted to meet or speak with me, the information is available to you. My telephone number is ###-###-####. And you can reach me by mail at…
Please don’t hesitate to call or write. I hope this letter finds you well. And thank you, if nothing else, for your time in reading it.
Not exactly Shakespeare.
I didn’t actually scramble to open the letter from Harold, if you can believe it, but walked slowly up three flights of stairs, turning it over in my hand. Fancy cursive writing on top. That wouldn’t be Harold’s. No chance. When I got inside my apartment I set it on the coffee table. It was a Friday. Week was done. I opened a beer, turned on the tv, and thought about it for a few minutes. It was springtime, baseball in the air, some sort of perfumy tree outside my living room window that was always giving me a stuffy nose. Should I wait? Call someone? Damnit. Without wanting to, I realized I’d drummed up expectations for this moment, somewhere between the tiled entryway and the wine-red rug outside my front door.
I tore it open.
There were two pieces of paper inside the thin envelope. One I recognized as my own letter, which caught me off guard, and left me anticipating the worst. Why else would he send my own letter back to me? The second sheet of paper I read first, a typed letter like my own. A full page from Harold’s wife of 30 years, Bobbi. It was kind, thoughtful, and had taken quite a bit of effort on her part. I read carefully, watching the meandering way she was trying to piece together a puzzle of clumsy family tree branches, not unlike I have been doing over the last month. And like me, some of the details were wrong. It spoke of her own detachment from Harold’s sons. Some of the names were mixed up. But the tone was kind, as I said, not a defensive response stating her position, just information, delivered in a gentle way. She mentioned stumbling into a former boyfriend of one of my sisters some years back at a home improvement store, and the awkwardness that accompanied Harold’s reaction to hearing we thought he was dead. It was always easier saying that than the truth.
She also detailed Harold’s health issues. It was staggering. Open heart surgery a few years before. Left knee replacement. A GI problem that revealed a metastatic brain tumor. Brain surgery, which revealed another tumor three days later, a secondary mass in his esophagus. Treatments. Radiation. Things that would extend his life, but cast him further down the twisting tunnel of pain and agony.
“He eats very little, but I fix him nutrition drinks, etc. It is hard to know for sure what we should do. Death isn’t something he wants to face, but sometimes we have to,” she wrote.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her to have to detail all those complications for me, a complete stranger sticking my nose in their business, and for the first time, I thought about how intrusive my letter must have been. How selfish I had been. And I felt bad. She was kind enough to share all of the health issues that had produced crushing levels of stress, induced thousands of tears, probably made her feel fragile, spidery cracks spreading across the surface of her reality.
Harold was keeping himself busy chopping/splitting wood for their whole house, wood-burning stove. She finished by welcoming my phone call, offering that her husband probably wouldn’t reach out because of his unfamiliarity with me. He had also lost a lot of weight, and felt self-conscious about his appearance, but she was sure he would like to meet me and, perhaps, make some sense of peace with his sons.
I looked at the other piece of paper, my letter, and saw a scrawled response in the bottom margin, scribbled in Harold’s own hand. While his wife’s had left me feeling sad, though hopeful, Harold’s was different.
“I have friends, lots of them, so at this time I am not looking for any right now.” Seven sentences. Three of them repeated the sentence above.
I am not looking for any new friends.
It felt a bit teeth-clenched, but polite, intermingled with a few telling phrases. “I have no hard feelings…You are doing good I can tell (good)…So listen to your father, I always thought a lot of your mom and Dad and I still do…Thank You…Harold.”
I looked at both letters again, and noticed a short, hand-written note at the bottom of Bobbi’s letter. I’d missed this the first time. This short note was in her handwriting.
“Sorry about his reaction, Ben. It disappointed me. Maybe he just doesn’t want to open old wounds, as he is facing a lot right now.”
Bobbi had included a picture of them as well, the two of them, sitting at a restaurant table, wood paneling behind. Harold’s hand is rising up, it appears, to block his face before the picture snapped. Too late. I took a look at my grandfather for the first time. Sneaky smile. White hair. Beaky nose. Pops’ forearms and hands. Truly, one of the strangest moments of my life.
I wouldn’t call it disappointed. For those first few hours, I struggled between the opposite ends of my being. The “I told you so” from Pops, and the “at least you tried” from Mom. Not that either of them would have said that. Besides, I knew there was truth in both of those reactions. The man was dying. Who in his right mind would care to pursue something like this when his diagnosis gave him mere months to live? No, it was a lot of things, but it wasn’t disappointment. Honestly, there was no practicality in pursuing the short correspondence, for either of us. Like rearranging the living room furniture in a way that complicated foot traffic, there was no reason to open wounds, chase heartache, create chaos by looking for answers. I guess I just have too damn much of my mother in me.
I decided to take the scenic route.
I went to see him.