From No Father to Know Father

February 3, 2010

The topic of fathers, or the lack there of rather, has come up a lot lately. I recently finished Donald Miller’s new book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years where a huge part of the storyline was about him trying to find his dad who he had never known. Last week Caleb, a young sixteen-year-old boy I have known since he was about seven, broke down and started crying while we spoke about his father, who he has not seen since he was three. Another young guy I know just asked me over the weekend if I thought it was possible for him to get his father’s face tattooed on his back, and how much I thought it would cost. He never had the opportunity to meet his dad because he died before the little fellow was even born.

All of these interactions reminded me of the important role the father plays in the life of a child (most especially a boy), even if he is nowhere to be found. It is like there is something inside every boy who cries out for the attention, approval and acceptance of a father. I guess that’s why when there is no father around these needs often find warped outlets through negative influences, gang loyalty and so on. But as Caleb cried and spoke I could see this almost carnal need, deep within in him, to really know his father.

Caleb and I had tried in vain in the past to track down his dad. The other day when he was crying and speaking about it his voice was filled with pain and confusion, “I don’t even know what my own dad looks like. And he doesn’t even know what I look like.” Before the topic moved on to other things about how his “life is so effed up” (his own exact words) we decided to give the search for his father another try. He told me his dad’s brother lived across the street from his maternal grandmother’s mother; Caleb’s great grandma to make it simpler. I told him to get his grandma to get his dad’s details from his great grandma.

A few days later he excitedly called me to tell me he had gotten the uncle’s phone number from his great grandma. We called him together. The uncle said he does not know Caleb’s dad’s address but he can take us to the house. We took him up on this offer. Caleb and I made a plan to pick up his grandmother (because she knows where the great-grandmother lives) and go find his dad, and yesterday was the decided upon day. The day before yesterday I spoke to Caleb about his expectations, and tried to prepare him for both the best and worse case scenario. He said he felt nervous but glad he was finally going to get a chance to meet his dad.

He is also going through a, what I would consider to be fairly “normal”, 16-year-old rebellion phase, and is also displaying quite a bit of anger about…well, I don’t even think he knows why. As I said, a fairly “normal” 16-year-old phase. I had hoped that meeting his dad could be a good experience and maybe help him be a little les angry. But I also worried, if the dad was a total jerk, it could set Caleb back, deeper in his anger.

Yesterday on the way there I could see Caleb was pretty anxious about it all, and he expressed that to me a couple of times during the car ride. We went to the great grandma’s house and then to the uncle who took us to the father’s house. The long-awaited moment had arrived. Caleb took a big, deep breath and smiled nervously as he climbed out of the car. I asked him if he was alright. He inhaled again and, as confidently as he could, said yes. We entered the house and were first met by Caleb’s grandmother (whom he had never met). She did not seem to be bothered in the least bit that he was a blood relative, and more worried that we were coming to “cause trouble” in the form of demanding child support from the years not paid.

When we insured her that we were not looking for trouble of any kind, she called Caleb’s father from the back. It being an incredibly small house he must have already heard the reason we were there, and therefore knew very well that the tall, lanky, handsome young man in the living room was his son. But he shook Caleb’s grandmother’s hand first, and then mine, and then took a step back, without even looking at Caleb. I said, “This is your son.” And he finally took his child’s hand with about as much love and interest as someone greeting a stranger in the form of an old, boring rock. We sat. The adults mostly talked. Caleb’s father barely looked at him. But Caleb stared at his long-lost dad. I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I kept trying to direct the dad’s conversation towards Caleb, and the grandmother’s talk away from money, insisting that the reason we were there had nothing to do with money but it was Caleb’s wish to finally meet his father.

As the grandmother tried again to bring up the many years of child support not paid I interrupted her, rudely one might say, “Actually, the reason we are here has nothing to do with money and so I do not want you to get that thought in your head. Neither I nor your son care about this money thing. We are here because he,” I pressed my finger on Caleb’s chest, “wanted to come and see you. He doesn’t want your money. He just wants to know what his dad looks like, what his voice sounds like, if he bears any resemblance to him. He wants to know you!” The dad smiled a smile that was somewhere between pride and fear.

Caleb said nothing the entire time. When it was time to explain where he lived and what he was up to, he passed the mic to me. I explained that he lived in an institution for young men in Salt River. And then gave the father mine and Caleb’s cell phone number. After looking down at the page where i had just written Caleb’s name and number, Caleb’s dad finally looked at him, addressing him directly, “Your name is Caleb, nuh?” Caleb nodded his head as his grandmother suggested that she and I step out and give the two of them a chance to chat. I looked at Caleb on my way out and asked him if he was ok. He, maybe not so sure himself, said yes. The two grandmothers and I stepped out of the house and left the newly acquainted father-son duo, giving them a chance to “catch up”.

I stood out in the yard, protective of and, nervous for Caleb. I could hear soft conversation on the other side of the cracked door. It sounded friendly enough. I relaxed and played with my cell phone to pass the time. After a few minutes I heard Caleb’s father’s voice raise to a high decibel. I walked quickly over to the door, ready to bust it down and kick his face in. The last thing Caleb needs is a dad who just walked onto the scene, already yelling at him. But as I got close to the door I stopped and was relieved to hear it was loud talking inspired by laughter. Shew!

After about ten whole minutes Caleb emerged from the house. Promises of visits were made, goodbyes were said, hands were shook, and we climbed in the car and drove away. Caleb seemed pleased, but a little dazed, like someone who just woke from a dream. After we dropped his grandmother off I asked Caleb how it was. He smiled and said it was great to meet his dad, and then he began to tell me all about their “talk”. Caleb was pleased that his dad had remembered his birth date. Apparently his dad was also very pleased that Caleb mentioned the last time he saw him (when he was 3) he remembers his dad giving him five rand. His father promised to visit the place where Caleb stays. 

Caleb even had the courage to ask his dad why he left, and was very pleased with his father’s open and candid answer that had everything to do with his mother and nothing to do with Caleb. He seemed very pleased with the outcome of the visit and that made me happy. He had a certain peace about him that I cannot explain. Maybe it was a peace just knowing that his father didn’t leave because of him, maybe it was as simple as just seeing his father, knowing what he looks like, what he sounds like, and how he sits. “I wanted to hug him at the end but it was kind of awkward so I just shook his hand.” Caleb said shyly.

“There will be plenty of time for hugs buddy. This was the first of many meetings.”

Maybe ironically, Caleb is staying with me this week because he is suspended for a week from the place where he stays for his 16-year-old rebellious behaviour. Last night, as he laid on his bed I could see from the other room his mind was swimming through the events of the day. I went in and sat on his bed. “You think he will actually come visit?” Caleb asked. “I don’t know. But I do know that he really wants to. Sometimes things that people want do not always translate into action, but I could tell when he said he would it was something that he really, really wanted to do. Caleb was pleased with that answer.

“So is life a little less effed up now?” I asked with a smile.

Caleb exhaled a sigh of relief and smiled, “Yeah, it’s a lot less effed up now!”