If you had a chance to talk to your long lost father after 30 years what would you ask/ or say?
February 27, 2012 12:19 PM   Subscribe

If you had a chance to talk to your long lost father after 30 years what would you ask/ or say?

Here’s the background. My father left us when I was 5 and my sister was 8. He moved to Florida, a popular location for deadbeat dads who want to avoid child support and alimony. Our family, mostly my sister and I, are in contact with his sister by ways of yearly Christmas cards and major life updates, but other than that there is no contact with that side of the family. Throughout the years my sister has been contacted 3 times. The first time she was out of college and working in a bakery, when and a man that she recognized as her father walked in, handed her a note and walked out. The letter was short, filled with regret, and written basically from a 3rd grade reading level. 10 years later he reaches out to her by phone (he got the number from his sister) and wanted to know how she was doing, she had 2 children at this time, and was feeling sentimental about them not having a father and heard what he had to say, mostly more regret. He told her he loved her and wanted to see her and her kids. She reluctantly agreed and said I love you back and never heard from him again until 2 weeks ago when he cold called her again. This time he called to ask if he could add us to his will. I think he is thinking of his own mortality, which lead to this last phone call. My sister was stronger this time, especially after being disappointed by her over eagerness to connect with her long lost father during the last conversation and stood her ground and told him how awful he has been and let a lot off her chest. He took it all, asked some questions about me and asked for my phone number. The question is, do I call him? Do I get anything out of having a conversation with him? My initial reaction is not to call. My only emotional reaction is that I’m feeling upset that he has never attempted to call or write me. My sister rebuttals that he was not given a phone number, and he identified that he has severe dyslexia which is why he probably wrote like a 3rd grader. So letter writing is probably not his strong suit. The dyslexia is curious to me. I have some pretty significant learning disabilities, including dyslexia, so knowing his health background seems like a reason to talk to him. I am not pining for a dad to be in my life, but what if I have some suppressed emotional need that I am not feeling, but is healthy for me to confront? I’ve like to hear from all of you on arguments for and against, and if I should what should I ask? I’m thinking Fathers Day would be a good goal date to call if this were to happen, or am I just sounding bitter?
posted by brinkzilla to Human Relations (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You don't sound bitter, you sound confused. Which is perfectly understandable; you're sorting through a lot.

If your first instinct is to not call, then maybe you're just not ready yet. Your sister may have a point that he wasn't gven a phone number, but that doesn't change the fact that maybe you're still just not ready to talk to him just now, and that's valid. I also have the feeling that if you're asking US what you should talk to the guy about, maybe you're not sure you want to have a conversation yet (it's coming across like "I don't even want to talk to him right now but my sister's making me feel guilty, so what should I even say").

It's okay if you're not ready right now. Later you may be. You also may not be. Your father may also try to call you himself and take care of things that way. You're very kind to consider that he may have not contacted you for reasons other than negligence, but that still won't help you if you're just plain not ready to talk to him yet.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:30 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I would ask him for his side of the story, and maybe try for some medical history, since that's actually fairly important to know, whether you have more siblings you might contact, that sort of thing. But I wouldn't expect his story to fit with what you know or suspect, and I wouldn't expect this to be the beginning of a new future. You've got some pretty concrete examples letting you know that he cannot handle being family. So mostly I would call to try to fill the gaps in information that having Dad AWOL has left, and automatically assume he's lying about anything he says regarding being in touch in the future. Good luck. You don't have to call if you don't want the pain (because there WILL be pain, I am sure of it), but there may be a few constructive reasons for YOU that merit calling.
posted by Ys at 12:31 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I’m thinking Fathers Day would be a good goal date to call if this were to happen, or am I just sounding bitter?

That doesn't sound bitter, it actually sounds hopeful. Not for a relationship, but hopeful that your actions (calling, calling on a specific day, saying or not saying a specific thing) will make a difference.

The only reason to call would be if you want to learn something practical (health background) or if you want to say something without any expectation of a satisfactory response, change, epiphany, etc. on his part. As it is, you could learn his health background from his sister, who you already have regular contact with.

So what do you hope to accomplish? The few times he has reached out, your sister has been open to some kind of relationship, and he has disappointed her by disappearing again. As long as you are hopeful that you will be able to have some kind of impact, you will be disappointed. So if you contact him, do so absolutely 100% for yourself.

My son told his father last year to stop with the sporadic phone calls, the unfulfilled promises, etc., and to leave him alone. He said I might want you in my life in the future but right now I am just trying to get through high school and your coming and going makes life too hard. My son is the bravest, kindest soul I know.

It's ok for you to not call.
posted by headnsouth at 12:34 PM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you're not ready yet, well, there's your answer.

That said, I would write instead of call, if that could somehow be worked out. Calling puts both you and him on the spot, and after all this time, who knows what could come out? Writing allows you to be more measured and careful with what you say.

In any event, I would be somewhat guarded on the initial contact, and keep things on the light side, trying to build a foundation for the more substantial stuff later on, like his medical history, or your feelings towards him.

Calling on Father's Day seems like a terribly bad idea.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:35 PM on February 27, 2012

I think this is a question where anecdotes may confuse you further, so I'll spare you mine. But I will say that I think that if you aren't sure, do nothing until you are more sure. And if you do speak with him, try to keep your expectations in line with his past behavior. I think that if you had some suppressed need to get something off your chest with him, you probably would feel a greater sense of urgency and purpose to whether you should even contact him or not, but it may be something you simply need to think through. It's okay if you decide you actually don't want to have contact with him at all. It's also okay to change the format of the contact to something you are more comfortable with.

I actually think calling on Father's Day is a terrible idea, myself, but I'm having a hard time wording why I think that is.
posted by sm1tten at 12:40 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

To start off, I don't think you have any suppressed emotional needs you are not aware of. You sound like you have a pretty good grasp on the situation and the effect it's had on all of you. You are understandably hurt and mad that he's been missing all these years. Contact with him can't ever fix that, so you have to weigh what would be the benefit for you of having contact now.

The positives are that you might find out about family you didn't know you had, you might find out medical history that would be important for you or your family to know, and you possibly could develop some kind of relationship with your biological father.

The negative? He's got a pretty well-established history of not being able to follow through with relationships with family. You are very likely to be disappointed when he's not able to follow through with you.

The complicated stuff: You find out that you and he share some traits. He becomes more human to you (e.g., learning disability possibly stopped him from writing), or you see some of the things you don't like about him in yourself. These aren't necessarily bad or good things, they're just what make us human, but can make sorting these things out that much harder.

You are not obligated to do anything. If you can't think of something you want to ask him or know, that's ok. If you meet him and it's a bust, that's ok. If you forgive him that's ok. There are no right or wrongs here, just what you think you can handle.
posted by goggie at 12:42 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was at a mental health related workshop where the presenter asked everyone in the room who was between the ages of 18 and 25 to stand up. He told the rest of us to look at them and notice what we see.

I look around and, being over 40, I see... you know...a bunch of kids. Cute, lively, restless, whatever... no offense to anyone... but they're a bunch of kids. Filled with a sense of how they know lots of stuff and have had lots of experiences - but what I know is that most of their major life choices are ahead of them.

After a bit, the presenter says, "That's what your parents looked like when they made all those stupid decisions you've been pissed off about all these years."

A light went on for me, and I came to feel different about my resentments toward my father (who also abandoned us, etc.). Somehow I was able to see him in a different light, not so much as the guy who abandoned us, as ... just a sad old guy who made some really bad decisions and was becoming pretty ill and downtrodden. He had caused me lots of pain in the past, but really, what did it cost me to extend myself toward the old guy, not with the aim of making it all better, but just with the aim of getting to know another human being.
posted by jasper411 at 12:42 PM on February 27, 2012 [62 favorites]

Perhaps you need to think about how much you want him in your life if you do call. Would a phone call be enough to satisfy you? If there is no contact after your call, will it bring you grief or would you feel satisfied that you tried, and there's nothing else to be done. Make sure you're not putting yourself in a position to be hurt. Personally, I would try contact, with reservations. Calls, a card, letters, maybe even a visit, but not much more than that, assuming it would get that far. People who make a habit of not being there, tend not to be there.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:54 PM on February 27, 2012

To be honest, it sounds as though your father is incapable of turning over a new leaf. He has chosen to contact your sister alone all these years, and now that she does not want to communicate with him any longer, he has finally chosen to get in contact with you. He has reasons for this, and none of them could possibly be good for you. Pathetic all around.

I'll share my own story in order to give you an example of how this sort of thing can work out, although your experience may be somewhat different, obviously.

My father was a deadbeat, too. After floating into our lives every five years or so with big promises and no follow-through, I was no longer interested in seeing him. When I was 17 my mother emotionally abused and threatened me into seeing him against my wishes, repeat of similar let-downs, with one other difference; he told us, out of the blue, that he had made up his will so that his estate would be divided equally among my brother and I and our half-sister. I was obviously confused by this gesture as he had to be literally jailed before he would pay the child support he owed us. Despite one last sincere attempt on my part to stay in contact (he refused to return my calls, etc.) he immediately disappeared again, and when he died five years later, it was discovered that he had decided, in the last month of his life, to alter his will and give all his property to my half-sister.

So the moral of my story is, some men are just unwilling or perhaps incapable of honorable conduct, and engaging with them is basically an invitation to be disappointed at best and hurt/betrayed at worst. I think your father's track record is abysmal, both past and present. I wouldn't trust anything he says, as his character is quite set at his age.

Find a way to exorcise your anger privately and then forgive him any way you need to, for your own sake, but please do not let this negative presence into your life. He will not add anything of value, and he may really trigger a lot of emotional pain.
posted by devymetal at 12:59 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think the issue is if your father has changed. Likely he has not or not much. He does seem willing and even anxious to let you know of his regrets. If your goal is just getting to know your father a little or getting to know about your father a little before he dies, then I would contact him. If you are looking to have a father son type relationship with him, don't do it to yourself. It won't happen.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:09 PM on February 27, 2012

I wouldn't ask anything that I might not want to know the answer to unless I was really ready to hear the answer.

And don't call on Father's Day - it's not a neutral day. It's too burdened by a variety of expectations/issues/concerns and too likely to not meet someone's expectations of what's supposed to happen or not happen for them. Just call on some idle Tuesday.
posted by Miko at 1:22 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

One easy breakdown for you may be to ask: what's in this for me? What will this add to my life, will it make me happier, more fulfilled, or more miserable? If you can figure out a way where any response from him would= win win for you, I guess that would make things worth it. Hell, I'd say you need to make this win win for yourself even if he doesn't pick up the phone (could happen), but only you know how much risk is worth it to you.
posted by devymetal at 1:23 PM on February 27, 2012

Like the other mefites have said, you really don't seem at all bitter about it. If you were, you'd be saying "absolutely not, hell no, never!" If you do decide to contact him, which I'd agree, writing a letter would be best, I'd ask for his story. Tell him you want to know about his medical history, and what his life circumstances have been that have prevented him from contacting you for all these years.

Don't set yourself up by having any expectation of a relationship with him. It does seem that he may not be able to do that. But you can decide what type of relationship you want with him. If it's calling him or writing him once in your life, that's okay, it's your choice. Good luck.
posted by Sal and Richard at 1:42 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: I can't say whether you should contact your father, or what you might say to him if you did. But then again, your question asks what I would say to my long lost father, not what you should say to yours. And, well, I'm not exactly sure, though I've certainly thought about it.

It's been 11 years since the last time I saw or talked to my father. My mom divorced him when I was 6, and I occasionally visited him on the weekends. He still had an interest in seeing me, so I don't feel that my father "left" me or my mom. However, our relationship was lukewarm at best. I don't think either of us was particularly motivated to see one another. It's possible that he had more desire to see me than I did to see him.

I make a point of this detail because your father's note was written with a 3rd grader's capacity for language, and this reminds me of the fact that my father had never even made it to high school. My father had such a limited repertoire of knowledge, ability, empathy, wisdom, and skill, that even at the young age of 8 or 9, I distinctly remember feeling pity for him. He was completely alone, living with his mother, unable to support himself financially or psychologically; bitterly racist and a total shut in, plagued with extreme social anxiety, he had a very dim conception of human relations; I always felt, in the back of my mind, that "I knew better," and also, that I was "lucky not to have turned out like that." He was a self-confessed alcoholic, deeply regretful, and openly bitter and sad about the decisions he's made in his life. Even as a child, I felt I was intellectually superior and emotionally stronger than my father, and this always left me with an uncanny, morbid feeling whenever I visited him. I could not respect him. In a sense, I felt like I was babysitting him when I took the time to see him.

Now, these specific details may not directly relate to the relationship or non-relationship you share with your father, but I believe they put both of us in a similar position.

As I mentioned previously, I have often tried to imagine what I would say to my father if I ever saw or spoke to him again, and how he would react, and whether the effort to reestablish contact would even be worth it. Like you, I am not yearning for a father figure in my life--or, if I am, I know for a fact that he cannot fulfill that role. I am not bitter about losing touch with him, I don't place blame on either of us for the long silence. He never had much to offer me, and I don't resent him for it. However, sometimes I get deeply curious about what he's doing these days. Sometimes I feel the void in my mind, the void of my non-relationship with my father, and I wonder what exactly I've missed out on in my life. Sometimes I wonder if he's even alive, and then I feel genuinely nervous and anxious, because as empty as our bond is, if he's gone, then that's that--I'll never know what became of him the past 10 years, and I'll never know what he might have thought of me, and whether there might have been something positive we could have offered each other.

But if I'm realistic about it, I can't imagine that he's changed much, or if he has changed, that it's been for the better. He had so little going for him. He has no conception of complexity in human relationships. He has no sense of maturity or responsibility. He is totally weak and craven and paranoid and bitter and resentful and hateful. He's sick. What exactly could I communicate to him? What exactly could he communicate to me? He would not understand my accomplishments, he would not know how to feel proud of them. Would he even know how to feign pride? When I picture myself sharing the details of my life with him, I cannot imagine that he would appreciate or even comprehend the value of the things I've done. He is a child in a man's body. And from the sound of it, your father might be as well. It's a sad, disgusting thing to feel you must condescend to your parent. That you're humoring him. Babying him. Because deep down, you know you've far surpassed anything he's ever done with himself. If I saw my father, I think he would realize this. He would feel it. And I would be able to sense that he feels it, that he feels inferior to me. And that I was able to succeed without his help at all.

And I think that... that could make both of us so much more sad, than if we just never see each other again.

I can't tell you what to do. But these are the thoughts that run through my mind when I meditate on seeing my father again. I want to see him, but it's more out of curiosity than love. If we do see each other, it might end up being worse for both of us. In my mind, I feel that my reasons for seeing him are selfish and short-sighted, without a clear aim to bring about positivity in either of our lives.

You might be in a similar situation. You make a point that your father is badly uneducated and deeply regretful. How feasible is it that you'll really be able to communicate with each other? How likely is it that you'll just end up pitying him, and he'll just end up pitying himself, and both of you will simply feel reduced, and saddened?

However, he is also writing his will. 30 years is a long time. He's not going to live forever. If you don't try to talk to him now, you might be giving up your last chances. But if it hadn't been 30 years, and if he wasn't that much closer to death, would you have any desire to see or talk to him? I don't know the state of my father's health; if I learned he was close to dying, I would try to see him or talk to him. But as far as I know, he's alive and healthy, and I can't conceive of a good reason for us to see each other until I learn otherwise.

I wish I could give you any clear advice. I hope my thoughts are able to help your decision in some way. There's no right or wrong answer though.
posted by Sine_Agraphia at 1:50 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a mostly deadbeat dad who died when I was 24 and for the past 10 years I've regretted not having a chance to know him nearly every day. It's the possibility lost that's sad. I think I'd rather have known by personal experience that he was a jerk rather than always wonder what if.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:52 PM on February 27, 2012

I'm going through this myself right now -- I've never met my father, but I just tracked him down last week. Still trying to decide what to do... and he hasn't responded to the email I sent to what may be his email address, so now I REALLY don't know what to do. But I think if I were to call him and speak to him... I would ask him about any medical history in his family that I need to be aware of. (I already know his father died of a particularly nasty cancer, but I want to know if there's anything else.) Maybe I would ask him about why he opted out of being involved in my life -- he had the choice to be involved, I'd like to know what guided his decision back then.

But I don't know if I'll actually work up the ovaries to call him. I should. I went to the effort of finding him. But I'm pretty apprehensive about the whole thing.

Anyway. You, me, we're sharing a canoe. MeMail me if you need to vent.
posted by palomar at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you sound so unsure about phoning him, I'd have to suggest you don't do it, at least not now: you can always make such a call later, but you can never take one back.

Perhaps he could write to you instead? (Or if he'd prefer, considering the dyslexia, he could make a recording for you.) Since he's apparently in contact with his sister/your aunt, he could send that letter to her address, and your aunt could re-mail it to you --- maybe it's just me, but I would NOT want to hand out my phone number, email address or home address to a stranger, and I'm afraid that your long-lost father currently qualifies as just that!

Either way, a phone call or a letter, I think I'd want HIM to make the first move.
posted by easily confused at 6:00 PM on February 27, 2012

I know someone whose dad was mostly absent. They reconnected a couple of times when the son was in his 20s, and then the dad died when the son was in his mid-30s.

The son still looks at those reconnections as important. He got some of the dad's family history (names of grandparents, where they had come from, etc), where the dad had grown up, a few bits like that. The thing he remembers most is finding that he and his dad had a similar sense of humor despite not having seen each other for many years.

The son has no illusions and no romance about the ways his dad screwed up, but has more sympathy for his dad, and a clearer sense of who his dad was, than he might have if they had not reconnected.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:48 PM on February 27, 2012

Ok look out, I have been here; actually only a few months ago.

I thought a meeting with the man would explain a lot of things and we ended up talking about the weather for a couple of hours. There was a great buildup to this event and it turned out to be the essence of anticlimactic. It was nothing like I had expected, so don't be disappointed and lower your expectations. I haven't seen him since, and my calls have not been returned- it was a bit painful at first but I don't want the same thing to happen to someone else.

I went to meet him because curiosity got the better of me, it was as good of a reason as any. In the end I guess it has given me some peace that there really was nothing there because there was never a relationship to start with.

Fathers Day may be a bit much (perhaps since he hasn't been one) but hey go with the flow and lower your expectations I'm sure it will work out for you.
All the best
posted by ibakecake at 9:16 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ask about your lineage/bloodline. Especially if your father has a common name, that sort of thing can be really tough to find on your own.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:24 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I really appreciate the feedback.
posted by brinkzilla at 2:24 PM on February 28, 2012

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