Can a man be so present for a child that a few hours create a bond that lasts a lifetime? Chris MacNeil shares a letter that answers that question. Yes.
Christopher MacNeil has written previously about the single night he spent with a baby boy who completely captivated his soul. It is a father/son relationship he will always carry in his heart, and it is from that place, that this letter was written.
My Precious Michael:
You would be – what? – 27 or 28 years old now. You were 2 years old and probably can’t remember that day more than 25 years when you gang-busted your way into my life, my heart, my soul. A miserable cold, rainy day whose memory I tried for years to drive from my mind but couldn’t – a day I didn’t understand until recently was when I began to heal.
That day, Michael, you and you alone and the love you made me feel for the first time in years broke down an impenetrable wall I was building to protect myself – protect myself from love itself because love for me until you had been conditional and always shattered like fine crystal, its sharp edges buried deep in my heart that had grown untrusting and fragile. It was safer not to love again, I wanted to convince myself. You showed me instead that it hurts more not to risk loving someone – and that I was worthy of being loved.
I hope to God you don’t understand what I mean by that, Michael, given the circumstances of both our lives when I found you. You were a patient in the burn unit at a hospital in Indianapolis, both your hands bandaged with second- and third-degree burns that your birth parents inflicted on you as punishment for some unknown wrong. A nurse at the hospital risked a HIPPA violation when she told me you were going to foster care after your discharge, that your parents were in jail on charges of felony child abuse and that social services was asking a court to terminate their parental rights to get you into a safer adoptive home.
Through the years, I have prayed and left to blind faith in God that you were not returned to your birth parents and you were adopted by people capable of giving you the love I learned you were so in need and worthy of.
I was at the hospital when you were there to visit a 1 1/2-year-old niece who was to undergo skin graft surgery. At the time, though, it had been less than two years since my last binge as a drinking alcoholic and a suicide attempt – dying was the only way I knew how to stop drinking. Nearly 10 years earlier, when I was 14 years old, my own father had thrown me out of the house I grew up in with a knife wound to my leg. On another drunk, my father stabbed me in the leg for another in a long list of wrongs I had done and I spent the next three years living on the streets.
Although my last drink and attempted suicide were less than two years behind me when I met you, I was nowhere near fully recovered and lived in the shadows of a fragile and scary emotional abyss and struggling blindly to find some place to fit in. But I would do it alone, I tried to tell myself, and I would never again try to be something I could not be to be loved on someone else’s terms.
You blew that to hell, Michael, when you rolled a wind-up toy car into the side of my shoe as I stood in the doorway of my niece’s hospital room. I picked up the car and walked it back to you and and returned it carefully not to hurt your injured hands. I was curious, though, why you raised both your arms and shielded your chest when I handed you the car, and I gently patted your shoulder to reassure you before I returned to my niece’s room.
Less than a minute later, I felt a tugging on the sleeve on my coat and looked down to see you standing beside me. “What the …” I thought as you showed me the car and then pulled my coat and led me outside my niece’s room. You sat down on the floor, pointed at me and then at the floor in front of you. “You wanna play?” I asked. You grinned slightly. Not certain that my niece remembered me and uncomfortable that relatives visiting her didn’t want me there, I took you up on your offer. We sat there rolling the car back and forth to each other for what seemed like a long time but, later, hadn’t been long enough for me. I didn’t realize while I was with you, Michael, that I had become oblivious to my niece and relatives and I to them.
It was just you and me, kid.
We stopped playing when I realized you needed a diaper change. I couldn’t fold my socks much less a diaper then and picked you up to find a nurse to do the dirty work. But as I lifted you off the floor, Michael, I kissed your forehead gently and didn’t realize I’d done it until after I’d done it. “What the heck?” I remember thinking to myself.
We found a nurse for your diaper change and when I handed you over to her – o, Michael! You blew the roof off the place – screaming at the top of your lungs, fighting the poor nurse with every maneuver as she cleaned you up. And, the clincher that trapped me – you reaching your bandaged hands out for me. You never stopped screaming all the time the nurse was changing you, and I soothed your hair to calm you down and assure you I wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m here,” I remembering telling you. Realizing then I hadn’t taken off my coat, I removed it and, as I did, I remember thinking a strange thought: I didn’t want to leave. I’d given you up to someone else, and I wanted you back.
The nurse, clearly tuckered out after getting your clean diaper on, handed you back to me. When she did, you flung both your arms around my neck while I gently pressed your head onto my shoulder. You wore yourself out fighting the nurse, Michael! Standing there and holding you, your arms around me, your face buried in my neck, I felt spasms through your whole body as you inhaled and exhaled heavily to catch your breath. But quickly, I felt your breathing lapse into the slight, regular pattern of oncoming sleep.
I moved you from my shoulder and into my arms and saw your eyelids were heavy. Your face was wet with tears but at peace as you tried to keep your eyes open, your mouth moving slightly with muffled sounds but without words. I remember clearly hoping t hat you were telling me something, something that was only for me and which only I could hear. I heard, Michael!
I saw a rocking chair at the other end of the hospital ward and walked gently toward it with you in my arms, careful not to wake you up. I didn’t want this moment to end, I remember thinking but not understanding why. I eased both of us into the chair, and we spent nearly an hour together rocking gently back and forth, the two of us and no one else, just you and me and no one in the shadows to hurt either of us, no one who could steal this time from us.
You jostled only a couple of times as I held you, Michael, and each time I leaned down and kissed your face softly – and you went back into that state of sublime peace. Sitting there holding you, I began to understand that something was happening to both of us but I didn’t didn’t understand what or why. Analyzing everything I did and said had become an obsession for me, the product of years on the psychiatrist’s couch. This night, though, I didn’t care and I’d figure it out later, I said.
But I knew myself to admit I was selfish enough to make this time with you about me, that I was about to fall back into the dark of my own childhood and remember the emotional and physical abuse my father heaped on me. “No!,” I told myself. “He’s not here anymore. He can’t take this.”
Instead, Michael, strangely, I thought that this is how it’s supposed to be, that this is how it’s supposed to feel. This is what a father is supposed to be to his son, to be there for him with reassuring and unconditional love. And this is what a father feels when he has the unconditional love of the little boy who depends on him. I thought about your birth father in jail for hurting you and cursed him for it and wondered how the hell he could be so stupid as to throw away a son who clearly had so much love to give.
But, then, the selfishness in me: to hell with your father in jail. For now, you were mine and I was yours – no one else. Just you and me, both of us still kids emotionally but one – me – jolted into emotional adulthood because that wall I built to keep everyone out had crumbled like a sand castle, blasted to bit by what you made me feel.
All too soon, the nurse who changed your diaper told me that visiting hours would end soon. I was forced back into the reality that I would have to give you up to her and and I had an hour-long drive back home. But I knew I didn’t want to let you go again, Michael. I didn’t want to lose you, although you weren’t mine. Still, I didn’t know or understand what was happening, and I was terrified of what might happen after I left you, Michael. I understood loss long before I found you, and I feared this was another one I would not be able to handle. For the first time in nearly two years, I was terrified I wouldn’t be strong enough to get through this without drinking.
But I would deal with that later, I told myself, after I gave you up again, this time maybe for good. You were still sleeping in my arms as I walked reluctantly and quietly to the nurse to hand you over. “Shhh!,” I whispered to the nurse, not wanting to wake you. But, in her arms, you did wake up, Michael, and when you did …O, God that hurt! You bolted upward in her arms, your screams again at maximum pitch as your burned and bandaged hands reached out again for me. “I think you broke his heart,” the nurse said above your cries in what I understood was her attempt to ease what she knew I was feeling. But my heart had already shattered, and a second heartache was quick to come: “No! Help me!” you cried out to me, injured hands reaching for me.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered to no one in particular as I felt a sudden rush of moisture in my eyes and quickly put on my coat. I raced for the exit and didn’t look back. But your cries for help cut deep like sharp arrows. A light drizzle of cold rain was falling when I finally got outside in the parking lot. “Make it to your car!” I told myself as I ran through the parking lot with all I had. When I found it, I collapsed against the door on the driver’s side and thrust my face toward the sky, wanting my face to be drenched so I couldn’t tell if the wet was from the rain – or tears.
I don’t remember the drive back home, Michael, other than ditching a plan for dinner at some interstate dive and thinking that something had happened to me tonight, something I didn’t know or understand. I think I had to stop along the interstate a couple of times to wipe tears from my eyes because, I remember, I couldn’t see well enough to drive.
I woke up on my sofa the next morning still dressed, still wearing my coat that I flung myself into when I had to give you up – and with the worst kind of hangover, not of booze but of bared and scathed emotions. I don’t remember work that afternoon and night other than a co-worker telling me “you look like hell.” I knew what he was saying, and I assured him, honestly, that, no, I hadn’t been drinking.
This was a pain I couldn’t and would not endure again, and my selfishness – self-preservation – took over. I decided my niece didn’t need me to visit her at the hospital again and had more than plenty of other relatives hovering over her. I couldn’t risk finding you and giving you up again, my angel. I even tried to rationalize that you weren’t mine anyway, that you already had a father and my trying to dillude myself or hope otherwise would never be and would turn into another in my long history of acts of self-destruction.
In the years since my time with you, Michael, there hasn’t been a day – literally – when I haven’t thought about you. Writing has been my refuge most of my life, and I decided a couple of years ago that I needed to write about you for two reasons: one, to better understand what and why I felt what I did and, two, to give you a voice – if you can understand that. But I struggled a long time with writing because I wasn’t sure I could do it without muddling it with emotions that might undermine its “logic” – until a few months ago, when I realized I couldn’t write about you without feeling.
It was published on a website, but it took a wise and compassionate editor – and responses from readers – who clarified so much for for me. The editor framed my essay with a line about “being a father isn’t measured in time.” I also realized for the first time then that being a father also isn’t measured in bloodlines. And with that, I found my reconciliation.
I hadn’t lost you after all , Michael, because you have been with me literally every day of my life since that day more than 25 years ago. And I’ve been with you every day of your life, Michael, walking with you unseen and unheard and always loving you unconditionally as a father is supposed to love his son. And you, my son, have returned my love for you every day of my life. My love for you and the love I feel from you is still new in my heart every day, and the place you occuplay in my heart – in my soul – is one that no one has ever and never will possess.
You have been my son, and I your father. I always will be until my dying day, Michael. I have the faith to believe that you found the adoptive parents who gave you the love that you so desperately needed and deserved, and that they were the benefactors of the endless and boundless love you gave me more than 25 years ago – and which is still there, so strongly.
I love you, Michael, my son. My spirit will be with you always as it has always been, and I think my love is strong enough to see you through the challenges that a father is supposed to help his son get through.
My love now and forever, my beloved Angel Baby,
Photo: Flickr/Emily May