Shadley Grei lived for thirty-five years without knowing his father. But, after he finally decided to forgive his father for their past, their relationship moved in a surprising direction.
As I stared at the blinking notification that I had a new email, I felt my heart swan dive into my slippers. Unsure what response was most appropriate, I settled for several nervous laps around my tiny apartment, flapping my wings like a proverbial headless chicken, alternating swigs from the wine bottle in my right hand with drags of the cigarette in my left. I repeatedly glanced at my computer monitor to make sure it was still there, as if perhaps the note had been sent accidentally and then retrieved.
When it refused to disappear, I dropped in my chair like a kid on Christmas morning, curious to find out if the box contained a GI Joe or a hand grenade.
There was only one way to find out.
So I clicked “Open.”
It was 11:54 p.m. on Sunday, May 7, 2006, when my father introduced himself.
That first note from him was simple: “Hello. I got your letter. We should have coffee sometime. Peace out. Big G.” There may have been a few more words and one less “peace out” but it was, in essence, a very simple note—and it hit me with all the emotional subtly of a sledgehammer against a life built from Legos.
And what had I written in this letter to make a man suddenly care who had ignored the entirety of my 35 years of life until this moment? What made this particular letter more magical than the multitude of letters I had written in my youth, requesting a simple meeting, other than I had learned some bigger words and stopped writing with crayons?
Simply, it was a letter of forgiveness.
I don’t know that I have any expectations of this letter but, for some reason, I felt inclined to write it during this Holiday Season.
This is B—, the “other” son from a thousand years ago. If you glance at the bottom of the page—as I’m sure you did when you opened this letter—you will see that it is not signed by “B—” That is because I had my name legally changed in 1994, partly because I no longer wanted to share the name with a father that didn’t want me, and partly for reasons that were integral to a bit of “rebirth” I gave myself when I moved to New York City in 1995. I am back in Des Moines now and have been for the last year. Since the first and only time we met in 1990, you and I have crossed paths a few times, though you likely don’t realize it, especially with the name change. The first time was in 2001 at The Iowa Film Office Christmas Party. You were there with (my brother). At the end of the evening you and I ended up alone in the bathroom. That was a particularly difficult night because I was there alone and had to witness the father I don’t know interacting with the brother I don’t know.
(You can read my recount of this evening here.)
The second time we crossed paths was in 2004 when we both attended the Scriptwriters Alliance screening of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I tell you these things because, frankly, the experiences were pretty awful and I don’t think it’s fair that I went through it alone since your decisions—and yours alone—are the reason they happened at all. As much as I hate that I don’t know you, it’s even more hurtful that I have siblings I don’t know. I have no idea if they even know I exist. (My brother) and I have even crossed paths a couple times and I have to just bite my tongue and turn away.
Ultimately, I suppose, this letter is to serve a few purposes. I wanted to make you aware that our paths still cross and I have no idea how to react when they do. They will likely continue to cross because I’m an artist, filmmaker and writer so we are involved in a lot of the same circles. I wanted to tell you that I still have a great interest in knowing you and your family, if that would ever be anything you are interested in. And, finally and most importantly, this letter serves as a notice of my forgiveness. When I mail this, it will also signify the release of 34 years of resentment, sadness, anger, and confusion. I accept the decisions made in the past and I’m letting go of my desire to change the unchangeable. You are free to do with that information anything you like. You will not hear from me again. I do ask that you share my letter with your children (and your wife) and let them decide for themselves if they have any desire to know me but that is a moot request.
Again, I accept it all for what it is but felt the need to reach out one final time and let you know that I do think of you and wonder about your life. There is no judgment in this letter and I do not wish for it to be interpreted as some kind of guilt trip. I’m in an interesting transition in my own life and a series of forgivenesses are a part of that transition. Forgiving myself for the mistakes I’ve made, asking those for forgiveness whom I have hurt, and offering forgiveness to those that have hurt me, whether they have asked for that forgiveness or not. It’s my burden to release.
Be well in this holiday season and always.
And, like a sick twist of reverse psychology, my decision to let him go finally made him want to say hello.
Two weeks after our first email exchange, I found myself sitting in his driveway, on the phone with my friend Connie. She was kindly pretending not to notice that the procrastination tactic I had adopted was to carefully read to her all of the bumper stickers on the cars in the driveway. When I ran out of stickers, I surmised that perhaps they had only lured me here in order to poison me with pork roast so they could bury me in the backyard, along with the rest of the family secrets. Connie knows when to let me pretend I’m not terrified. She also knows when to kick my ass. “You know you’re going in so why don’t you stop wondering what’s going to happen and go find out?”
I hung up the phone, rummaged for my false sense of composure in the glove box, and got out of the car.
As I crossed the driveway to the front door, I found the fear replaced by a certain kind of calm. I had spent nearly every waking moment since that first email exchange working through the various scenarios of how this evening might go. I had bought new clothes but then decided to wear something comfortable. I had spent more time in the gym than I had in the previous year. I realized that I had been trying so hard to make myself “good enough.” But good enough for what? The approval of people who hadn’t ever expressed an interest in knowing me? I had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. I had survived 35 years without him so I could certainly survive an hour-long meal with him.
Standing on the front porch, my heart was threatening to punch its way through my chest. The sad, confused little boy who still walks in my shadows was getting the only gift he ever really wanted. Acknowledgement.
So I knocked.
When the eternity of twelve seconds ended, the door opened and my father extended a hand and a big smile. “I suppose it’s weird to say, ‘it’s nice to meet you’, huh?”
The most interesting thing about getting to know my father has been the realization of the gifts that parents pass along to their offspring, whether or not they are part of their life or not. Apparently dropping a blunt statement into an awkward situation would fall into the Nature and not Nurture category of personality development.
“And whose fault is that?” I replied, with a smile.
“Touché,” he said through a startled cough and a pat on the back, leading me into the house.
His wife came out of the kitchen and I instantly liked her. She seemed so genuinely kind, funny, and both interesting and interested. It also helped that she was offering me wine. Well, a hug and wine. I accepted the hug but I needed the wine.
I quickly scanned the small house, absorbing as many clues as I could from the lifetime that had happened here without me. Pictures of the half-siblings I had yet to meet. The family dog that sniffed out the one that shouldn’t be a stranger. The collection of political cartoons framed and hung around the dining room. It was a house of books and jazz and the kind of perfect clutter that lets you know Life happens here. I was sad that none of the memories found within the walls were mine, but I was happy to feel the warmth of their presence.
I joined my father at the dining room table and raised my wine glass to him.
“What should we toast?” he asked.
Without waiting a beat, I responded, “Here’s to me.”
My stepmother howled with laughter from the kitchen and it bust open any reserve we may have individually been holding. Any fear was quickly replaced by a wide open acceptance of the situation and the words and stories just tumbled across the table like building blocks and Band-aids.
My father talked kindly of his memories of my mother. My stepmother told me how beautiful and brave she thought my letter had been. The conversations were actually fun because they both seemed willing to talk about anything. I asked bold and direct questions about why decisions had been made. He explained how complicated it had felt when I was young and how staying out of my life seemed the best for everyone involved. I told him that he was wrong. It had not been the best for me. He nodded and my stepmother wiped away tears. I poured more wine.
I didn’t have any fear about saying anything, asking anything, expressing my sadness and hurt over the decisions that had been made. I honestly wanted to know them and I wanted the evening to be enjoyable. It may have been my forgiveness that had created this incredible opportunity but that didn’t mean I had to make it easy. It was quite possible that I would leave and never see him again, so anything I had ever wanted to say, I had to say it now or let it go for good.
What I thought might only be a one-hour meal, turned into a seven-hour exploration of our various lives. As we talked, I discovered a certain amount of pride in myself while talking about my personal journey. I saw the surprise and respect they had for the things I had experienced and the man I had become. I had come through it all with my heart still beating, my wonder still strong and my faith in kindness still intact. They thought I was amazing. And for the first time in a long time, I thought “They’re goddamn right I am.”
It wasn’t until 3:00 a.m. that I made my departure, complete with a round of hugs and a promise to get together again soon. I had the strangest feeling that they were being sincere. At 35, was it possible that I was on the verge of knowing how it felt to have a “Dad”? Nothing in my weird life had prepared me for this.
And I couldn’t wait to find out what might happen next.
Credit—Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr