“My parents were separated before I was born. I never met my dad. He died when I was 18.”
Whenever I shared those three sentences with people, I shared something that affected my entire life. Something that happened before I was born. Something that might come to define my life mission.
“I have never met my dad” is an increasingly common reality. Whenever a dad is present, he can be a role model. If a dad isn’t physically or emotionally present, the child must look elsewhere for role models. Being a role model is part of my life mission. I need to be the role model that my dad wasn’t there to be for me. I must be what I didn’t have.
I wrote a letter to my dad last year. It’s very personal. I share the letter below as an example of making peace with the past.
Whatever you’ve experienced where someone hasn’t been there for you, you can write them a letter. You don’t have to give or read it to them. In cases like mine, such a thing isn’t possible. Sometimes writing a letter has to be enough.
Now here is the letter I wrote to my dad…
Letter to My Dad: The Only Communication We Have
It’s your son, James Barnett. You met my mom in Toronto and married her in her hometown. And you lived together in Victoria, British Columbia, where my mom got pregnant with me.
We’ve never talked before, Dad, but it’s time for that now.
I’ve realized that what my mom told me about you includes a combination of what happened and her story about what happened.
I’ve been telling myself a story. My story is that I’m unwanted, unloved, and worthless. The truth is that I am wanted, loved, and a high-value man.
What happened is that my mom moved back to her hometown while pregnant with me. You and my mom were separated before I was even born. You never got the chance to accept or reject me. You never met me.
How could you? My mom had sole custody of me, and you weren’t allowed any access to me.
So, you never had any contact with me. And you died when I was eighteen. You lived just long enough to pay child support for the amount of time required of you.
It’s Like You No Longer Had a Purpose to Live for.
I don’t get to ask you about what happened, including what it was like for a newlywed couple to sleep in separate rooms. I didn’t get to ask you what it was like to have your marriage die, to have a son that you never met, and to wonder if I even was your son, at least until you got the results of the paternity test when I was two.
The only way I get to be complete with you is to write this letter to you over fifteen years after your death. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to meet you.
It took many years to find out your name, which I noticed by accident on a document my mom received in the mail. The document laid open on the dining room table. It felt like I was discovering a forbidden secret.
As if, somehow, I was supposed to feel ashamed of who I am, being alive at all, and being a male. As if I was supposed to be ashamed of you.
Many years later, my mom showed me pictures of you for the first time. It’s been a very long process to find out about you, which brings a certain heaviness.
It has felt like you aren’t important and, by extension, that I’m not important. That isn’t the case. It’s simply the impression I’ve had, the imagery that you and I are both victims of life. I do identify with you, more than I’ve dared to admit.
We Do Have a Lot of Similarities.
My mom didn’t want to talk about you. It’s been so extreme that I’m surprised she ever revealed anything. As far as I know, you weren’t physically or verbally abusive. Could it have been that bad?
My mom has shared more about you, especially since I first wrote this letter to you. I keep revising this letter. I feel like it’s my lifeline to you. I love you, Dad. I respect you, and it’s a pleasure talking to you. I accept you exactly as you were and exactly as you were not.
My grandma told me that you delivered mail for Canada Post. She was happy you had a job and sad my mom didn’t stay with you. How different things would have been.
But at what cost? The price could have been that my mom got an abortion just to stay with you. My ex-wife wanted to have children. It’s something that we ultimately disagreed on. I know how much of a responsibility children are. I also know it would be too much for me to be a dad.
I think you felt the same way: you weren’t ready to have children and didn’t want to. We both lost a marriage, Dad. Through that experience, I’ve learned to identify with you and to have empathy for you.
I’ve mourned for you mainly when I’ve written, revised, and read this letter. I get to keep having this conversation with you, perhaps the only one we get.
I Haven’t Been Able to Find Your Obituary.
I don’t know how you died or even what the rest of your life was like. I may never know. I haven’t had any contact with your side of the family yet. I don’t know if they would want anything to do with me. I could ask them at some point.
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, even if I was unplanned and you didn’t want to have children. You are the most important person to me that I never met.
Without you, I’ve had to look for real and fictional father figures. In fiction, I chose Batman and Spock. They’re both high performers but aren’t known as fun-loving, vulnerable men.
In real life, my main father figure was Dr. Keith. His son, Matthew, and I went to elementary school together. Matthew and I both played t-ball. We also spent time together twice a day during summer vacations during our early teenage years.
Through the years, Dr. Keith played a vital role in my development. I treasure the times we had together. I can credit a lot of the positivity of who I am as a man to him. He gave me a gift for my high school graduation, which I still have. We enjoy reading books, learning, growing, wisdom, and helping others however we can.
I think about Dr. Keith regularly. I want him to be proud of me. He now lives in British Columbia, too. I could get his contact information from people in my hometown in Ontario so I can reach out to him again.
I Want You to Be Proud of Me, Too, Dad.
I’m planning on moving to Europe. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for so many years. I wonder what dreams you made real while you had the chance. I don’t get to ask you about that.
I’m building a better life for myself. I’m letting go of the past. It happened, and I’m more powerful due to everything that happened.
I have let events that were out of my control control my life. I have allowed my baby self — or, at the oldest, my five-year-old self — to be in the driver’s seat of my life.
I have lied to myself, pretending that things are okay and better than they are. Countless times, I didn’t allow people a chance to accept and get to know me. I’ve been a stranger to myself, too.
Spending so many years not knowing who I am has been torture.
In trying to avoid looking bad, I’ve ended up looking bad anyways.
Being inauthentic has cost me a lot of fun, rewarding experiences and healthy relationships. I’ve avoided people obsessively and persistently. I haven’t given them a chance because I haven’t given myself a chance.
So, Here’s the Possibility I’m Creating:
I get to have fun. I give people a chance because I give myself a chance. I allow myself to have an abundance of fun, rewarding experiences and healthy relationships.
And even though my marriage died, too, I choose to release myself from the story of what happened and acknowledge what really happened.
I choose to continue creating possibilities that empower me. I choose to love myself completely. For in loving myself, only then can I love others.
I am not my thoughts. No one is a victim, and it’s nobody’s fault. I choose to live in harmony.
Thank you, Dad, for your role in my being alive. May you now experience the peace I suspect you never had while alive.
Just because you had multiple failed marriages doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You are greater than you think, stronger than you know, and more powerful than you realize.
I love you, Dad, and I forgive you.
Your son, James Barnett
If you’d like some help writing your letters of gratitude and forgiveness to yourself and others, please let me know.
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