Shadley Grei remembers the awkward night he crossed paths with the father that had refused to acknowledge him for his entire life
My life has seen its share of ridiculous moments, those iconic culminations of twisted luck, awkward timing, and the sick humor of the gods. And I accept responsibility for kicking a few of the dominoes out of the starting gate in order to bring a bit of the peace and order tumbling down around me, just to see what might be found in the aftermath. There’s no denying that I sometimes find great pleasure in the obscure, the obscene, the ostentatious discoveries found in the outer limits, just to the left of acceptable behavior.
Paradoxically, I’m not a huge fan of surprises.
I like to know what I’m getting into, especially when the risks I might be asked to take are emotional. I have taken staggering risks and I can be ferociously fearless, but I just like to have some idea what the truth of a situation might be. I want to know it, see it, prepare for it, accept it, and survive it.
It was just going to be a stupid party. I thought I had prepared myself.
I thought wrong.
In December of 2001, I was trying to rediscover my life and what it was going to become. Nothing made sense at the end of that very complicated year. I had lived in New York City for seven years and had planned to fly to Los Angeles on September 16th to start working with a talent manager. One of this country’s most wicked punches knocked the wind out of the world on September 11th, taking with it my memories of working on the 103rd floor, the lives of some of my friends, and my belief that I might be fragile but at least my city was indestructible.
I had already quit my job in preparation for moving and, while the world stood in stunned silence for a couple days, I tried to figure out what to do next. Abandoning my city felt a bit like running out on an abused friend. But I knew I was on the verge of my own collapse. I had no idea how to function, how to see clearly, how to find the kind of drive necessary to survive the challenges of the entertainment industry. So I decided to take myself out of the race for a while and moved back to Iowa, feeling homesick for the first time in my life.
The film community in Iowa was growing and I had connected with the head of the Iowa Film Office upon arriving home. As a way of introducing me to some of the local creative professionals, he invited me to their holiday party. It felt like an important thing to do but I also knew it had its risks.
I knew my father was heavily involved with this particular community. I knew this fact but I didn’t know my father. Other than a single meeting when I was eighteen, I had never met him and I wasn’t sure how I felt about setting myself up for that particular confrontation. The only thing I had going for me was the fact that I had legally changed my name by then so I no longer had his last name. Any weirdness with introductions could be avoided and I wouldn’t have to give any explanations regarding the devastation of having my entire existence ignored by the man who gave me life.
I think part of me figured I was already at one of the lowest points in my life and had slipped into a comfortable kind of numbness, so I may as well go, regardless of the risks. I was going to be in town for god knows how long and this was my industry of choice. Sooner or later, we were going to cross paths. So be it.
So I crawled out of the hideaway fort on the makeshift bed of my mother’s sofa and slogged off to the party, in some ways I suppose, hoping for the worst. It felt like I deserved it. Exhaustion and devastation combined with a flair for martyrdom had painted me the gaudiest mask for the masquerade ball, complete with elephant tears and tiny bells that chimed “woe is me” with every turn of my head. I wore it with pride.
My mood offended even me. And that just added to the shame spiral. Of course I should go to a party that will likely be attended by the father that won’t acknowledge me, right? That should snap me right out of my funk.
Strangely, I had a good time at the party. I didn’t know anybody going in and quickly found myself at a table with the local casting agents, talking about my New York life and, of course, the recent attacks. The conversations came easier than I had expected and I was enjoying myself, though my head did snap up to see who entered as each new guest arrived, awaiting the arrival of Him. I had no idea what to expect if or when my father entered and I simply wanted to get it over with, whatever it was going to be.
And when he did come in, I actually felt a bit of relief for a moment. He was immediately pulled in various directions, obviously well-known and well liked in this crowd. I sat with my new friends and watched him from afar, not sharing my secret with anyone at my table. It was all going to be okay. He was going to be busy and I was going to get drunk, as planned.
What I had not planned on was him bringing a guest: the younger brother I had never met.
Tall and rail thin, this young man seemed to set a spark in the center of the room. Everyone was drawn to him. Not much of a surprise for the boy who grew up in the shadow of his outgoing father. He looked so much like I had when I was his age that it became my own personalized Twilight Zone episode—as if I had been dropped into a portal that crossed space and time and let me see the life that could have been mine if fate had laid down different cards.
It could have been me that knew all of these people because they were friends with my dad. It could have been me that had shared the stage with him in the local theater scene. It could have been me that heard my dad applaud as I took my bows. It could have been me that had become a man full of answers instead of continuing to carry a boy full of questions. It could have been me. It should have been me.
Luckily, the Universe did take a bit of pity of me and never led them to my table for conversations and introductions. That would have taken survival skills I don’t think I’d learned by then. It was hard enough to have them sit at the next table and talk with their friends about all the things they were working on together. It felt at times like this boy knew my secret and was taunting me, “MY DAD and I did this movie together,” “MY DAD is working on this cool thing,” “MY DAD and I are the coolest dad-son team ever and that weird guy over there is totally nothing. Poor thing.”
Every statement he made about his dad—the father I had but the Dad I didn’t—felt like spit on my face. It was a struggle to keep my cool and concentrate on the conversation at my table while also continuing to eavesdrop on their conversation with equal parts horror and hunger.
It wasn’t until the lights dimmed and we watched a film presentation on a new cutting-edge, low-cost camera coming available to independent filmmakers that I let the tears burst through the breakaway glass of my eyes. I just let them fall, quietly washing away my ability to pretend that I was cool. That I was okay. That I understood why I was sitting here and they were sitting there—five feet and two million miles away.
I think the hardest part was that I was alone with it all. None of these people were my friends. No one knew what I was going through—not even the person who had created this chasm in my life. He sat there with his friends and his son and his beer and his peace of mind and his oblivion. If not oblivion, then callousness.
Sometimes I envy people who can snap their actions off from their feelings, as if decisions don’t have consequences. Or if they do, the consequences are the responsibility of the person they are forced upon to rebuild, and not the person who smashed the sand castles. Yes, sometimes I wish I could feel less. But, the truth is, I live first from my heart and I accept that as one of my great gifts, regardless of the damage that wild dog sometimes drags across my front porch.
By the time the lights came up on the insignificant presentation, it seems I had made the point to myself that I had intended to make. I was ready to go. It had been important not to shy away, to not be afraid I would cross paths with my father while trying to rebuild a life in my hometown. It was inevitable. It would never be easy, but it would also never go away. So there, I did it. … Now it was time to just get the hell out.
Overwhelmed by it all, I was a bit light-headed as I left and stopped in the bathroom to wash my hands, my face, to catch my breath.
Though I’m not without my vanity, I actually don’t look in the mirror very often. I will check for wrinkles or lint or spinach in my teeth, but I rarely just look at myself. In the moments that I do stop and look fully at my face, it can be a bit startling to see the truth of my age, my build, the vanishing hair, the flashes of a little boy playing dress up in a big boy world. In the mirror in that crappy little bathroom, I just saw a man who didn’t feel like being brave but also didn’t feel like be defeated so he was just standing still, staring back, and breathing.
When the bathroom door swung open and my father entered alone and took his stance at the urinal, I watched him quite openly and with a certain kind of coldness that might have given even The Ice Queen a shudder. My vivid imagination played out several possible scenarios quite quickly. One of my favorites is what I would call the Insanity Snap where I lunge at him, kicking and clawing, screaming “WHY? WHY? WHY?!” until I’m dragged away by armed guards to a little padded room where I can reassess my behavior and eat pudding. Equally powerful is the simple thought that he would turn and know me and the truths of the situation wouldn’t exist and I would call him Dad.
I don’t know what possessed me to do so, but I crossed to the urinal next to him and just stood, pretending to pee.
“Hi,” he said. “Great weather we’re having for December, huh?’
It took a bit to get even a single word to form and make its way over the bumpy road of my mind, history, muscles, fear, tongue, anger, teeth, sadness, breathe. I wanted to say a million things but the time wasn’t right. And maybe it never would be.
“Hello,” I said back, looking away and taking a deep breath.
The noise from the party was muted beyond the doors and it was just me and him and the quiet. So I closed my eyes and savored the single most ridiculous moment of my life.
Credit—Photo: Michael Deming/Flickr