“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 saw their hearts break right in front of me. I wasn’t trying to break their hearts, and I wasn’t looking for sympathy. I was simply sharing something that has affected my entire life. Something that happened before I was born. Something that might come to define my life purpose.
What do I mean by that? “I have never met my dad” is an increasingly common reality for so many people. Whenever a dad is present, he has a chance to be a role model. If, for whatever variety of reasons, a dad isn’t present, physically or otherwise, then the child must look elsewhere for role models. I see being a role model as part of my life purpose. 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 it to them or read it to them. In cases like mine, such a thing isn’t possible. Sometimes writing the 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. You married her in her hometown. And you lived together in Victoria, British Columbia where my mom got pregnant with me.
I know we’ve never talked before, Dad, but it’s definitely time now for that.
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 about what happened instead of what really happened.
My story is that I’m unwanted, unloved, and worthless. The truth is that I am wanted, loved, and a high value man.
What really happened is that my mom moved back to her hometown. You and my mom were separated before I was even born. You never got the chance to accept me 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, yes, you never had any contact with me. And you died when I was eighteen. You lived just long enough to pay child support until I reached legal age.
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 be sleeping in separate rooms. I didn’t get to ask you what it was like to see a marriage die right in front of you, 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 years old.
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 wondered many, many times what it would have been like to meet you.
It took many years for me to find out your name. I noticed it by accident on a document my mom received in the mail. The document was lying open on the dining room table. It felt like I was discovering a secret that I wasn’t supposed to know.
As if somehow in all this 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.
It was many years after that when my mom showed me pictures of you for the first time. It’s been a very long process to find out about you. There’s a certain heaviness that comes with that.
It has felt like you aren’t important, and by extension, that I’m not important. Of course, that isn’t really the case. It’s simply the impression that 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 really 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 abusive or verbally abusive. Could it really 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 and adding more to it. I feel like it’s my lifeline to you. I love you, Dad. I respect you, and it’s a pleasure getting to talk 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 glad that you had a job, and she was sad that my mom didn’t stay with you. How different things would have been.
But at what cost? For all we know, 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 that it would be too much for me to be a dad.
I can’t help but think that you felt the same way, that you weren’t ready to have children and that you didn’t want to have children. We both lost a marriage, Dad. Through that experience, I’ve really learned to identify with you and to have empathy for you.
The main times I’ve mourned for you are 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 wasn’t for you, even if I was unplanned and you really didn’t want to have children. You are the most important person to me that I never met.
Without you in my life, I’ve had to look for father figures both in real life and in fiction. In fiction, I chose Batman and Spock. They’re both high performers, but they 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. Now that I think about it, 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 both very much 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 got to make 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 as a result of 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 5 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 really are. There are countless times where I haven’t given people a chance to accept me and get to know me. I’ve been a stranger to myself, too.
It’s been torture spending so many years not knowing who I really am.
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 give myself permission 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 I choose to 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 the role you played in my being alive. May you now experience the peace that I suspect you never had while you were alive.
Just because you had multiple failed marriages doesn’t mean that 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 in writing your own letters of gratitude and forgiveness to yourself and to others, then please let me know.
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