He barely remembers “Uncle” Willie leaving, just a blur of the man’s back. He’s just shy of two years old and that man who walks out the door is never truly his father. He’s a distant “uncle” his mom protects him from for the rest of his childhood.
She is doing what’s best for him, what she thinks is best for him. She’s putting his safety before a child’s need to have a father. She’s putting her fear of losing him ahead of the paternal wonder in his eyes.
Is his father really someone who should be in his life? His mother decides.
At 10 years old his only company on his walks home from school are the heavy metal bands on his Walkman. His mom isn’t home from her shift at the local bar, and he grabs a letter from the mailbox. The letter is addressed to him. The last name on the return address matches his. The letter is from a stranger, talking about stranger things. It mentions a sister, in a life someplace he’s never heard of.
He shrugs, throws the letter in the garbage. Not for me, he thinks. When his mom gets home, he mentions the letter. Her face goes white. He thinks maybe she ate a bad pickled egg at work.
He’s 19. Going to college in the big city and working two jobs is taxing, exhausting. One night he drags his tired body into his apartment and finds his answering machine flashing red.
The message is from a Willie.
“It’s your dad,” Willie says.
“Now that you are on your own, I thought I would call to say hi, now that you aren’t living with your mom anymore.”
He doesn’t rewind to listen to the message again. Once is enough. Like throwing that letter in the garbage when he was 10, he pushes the erase button on the answering machine.
He’s 25. Reality always catches up, and some news comes that he can’t hide from. He has gotten to know more about Willie, his dad, for better or worse. Willie is an alcoholic. He moves around a lot. A transient, his mom says.
He wants more, but it doesn’t really matter now, because in another town Willie is punched off a bar stool by someone who didn’t quite like Willie’s tone, and now Willie is in the hospital. Willie’s brain is bleeding.
His aunt asks him if he would like to go see Willie. He can’t decide if he wants to sit by the deathbed of a father he never knew. It might be like seeing a dying ghost.
A few days later, one of his uncles, Willie’s youngest brother, pops into where he works. His uncle drags two fingers across the neck, a universal sign of death. A crude way of saying “Willie’s gone.” Then, as if dropping off a parcel, his uncle pops back out.
This is the tragic end to a relationship that never was. It’s the beginning of a life without the father he was always without.
The only thing he can do is carry on, just like he always does. Unfeeling, uncertain.
A stranger’s funeral takes place a couple of weeks later. He attends, but he doesn’t belong. His aunt, his only consistent link to Willie through the years, leads a young woman over to him. She looks like him, nearly a twin. In death, Willie leaves him a gift.
He’s 46, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an affliction he realizes has hindered his ability to be the best father he could be to his own kids — four of them.
After separating from the mother of his children, not having his kids under his roof has brought him the toughest years of his life. As the kids become teens, and adults, he must find a way to let go, salvaging what’s left of his relationships with them.
He imagines how Willie must have felt. Walking through that door and leaving him, never coming back. The way that Willie tried so sporadically to reconnect.
He swore he would always be there for his kids and stay healthy, two things Willie was never able to do for him. He has been sober most of his adult life, avoiding his alcoholic bloodline, and tries his best to be a constant in his children’s lives. He hopes he was able to raise them without his mental health condition leaving scars.
He thinks about his deepest regrets. One has burrowed itself into his mind — not going to see Willie on his deathbed. He would have told Willie he understood and forgave him, like he was supposed to, whether Willie understood him or not.
Two weeks before his 47th birthday, he receives a text message from his youngest son.
“I don’t want to hang out today,” it reads.
He asks if everything is okay, he hasn’t seen his son lately for their regular visits.
“Everything is okay. I just don’t have enough time for my own stuff anymore.”
A couple months later he’s on a walk with his oldest son, an occasional custom when both of them are in stable moods. As they are nearing the end of the beach trail, the ocean breeze brushing by their faces, his son’s voice trails off and breaks down.
“I don’t even know why we do these walks anymore. What’s the point? It’s all so useless.”
He knows it’s not about him; it’s his son’s depression talking. But there it is, a lump in his throat, tears forming. He takes a deep breath and swallows.
All he can do is tell his kids he loves them, that he will always be there. The sadness of not having a father is even harder when he can’t completely be one himself.
His empty nest is speckled with balled-up bits of lint and tattered string. It has always been precarious, from father, to son, to father, to son.
Jason Schreurs is a writer, punk rocker, mental health advocate and host of the podcast Scream Therapy. The podcast and his forthcoming book, Scream Therapy: A Punk Rock Journey to Mental Health, are about punk rock as a catalyst for mental health. He writes narrative and literary nonfiction and enjoys dabbling in short fiction. Jason lives in Powell River, BC.