I remember rifling nervously through the photographs. Click, click, click. The life-long membrane of fear that had always kept me from finding my father was about to be broken, and I was terrified, thrilled and obsessed. I had skipped a meal. I hadn’t washed the dishes.
When I first saw his picture on Facebook, it sent a coded message straight to my body, bypassing my brain altogether. My head had no reason to believe it was him. I had never seen him except in a blurry, tattered photo from the ‘70s, where he was only recognizable as a tall, slim shadow. But my arms, my chest, my large intestine — they all knew, instinctively, reflexively, and without need of further evidence, that they were looking at a previous iteration of themselves. That, they said to me, is your father.
The need to know who he was — who I was — had always been inside me, hiding someplace I had never looked. The first time I felt it stir was in Málaga, Spain. I was on a research trip and wound up bunking with an Argentine student. Maybe it was because we were in an unknown place. Maybe it was plain boredom. But that night, we talked as if we were old friends; as if each other’s thoughts and feelings were old hometown roads; some loved, some loathed, but all familiar. I remember him telling me his dad was his best friend in the world. I told him I’d never met my father, and his eyes widened.
“And you’ve never wanted to meet him, David? Never?”
“I guess not. It’s just never been a thing, you know.”
“Man, you’ve gotta think about it. I mean, what if you never meet him? What if he dies before you get the chance? Don’t you think you’d regret that?”
Those words turned a little knob inside me I didn’t know was there. Father. Best friend. Death. My 20-something brain reached for patterns, and suddenly the love between my newfound Argentine friend and his father felt analogous to a hole in my heart. If the thing that was supposed to fill that hole — a father — was as good, as sweet as this guy had just said, then maybe I should seek it out. And if death was already sniffing out my father, maybe I should do it now.
Fast-forward through four years of terrified searches for my father, like looking for landmines with your face. Noel and I had gotten married and had our first son, Eli. She was struggling through postpartum depression, which gave me lots of time to bond with this quiet little alien who had my nose, her eyes and a full head of hair that stood on end.
One night, I was putting Eli to sleep. We entered the sanctuary of his nursery; a place devoid of harshness, all pastels and soft shadows. I sang. He stared up and made an ooh shape with his lips. I swore that I’d be right there again in the morning, every morning, forever. And then suddenly, whatever had been holding back the pain of fatherlessness broke.
The pieces aligned perfectly that night in our Salt Lake City basement apartment: young father, infant son; a mirror image of another night 26 years earlier somewhere in Guatemala’s capital. And in that quiet, holy place, where baby and I worshipped trust and love with words and music each night, where he depended on me like a fish on a river, where I ached for his happiness like God might, I understood what my father had abandoned. The 2,800 miles between those two nights — my arrival to the US at 9 years old with my mom and sister, an adolescence of swearing my father didn’t matter, my marriage to Noel, our leafy street, our brightly colored accent walls — all shrunk down to nothing. The two nights slammed against each other like bones sans cartilage, and waves of pain shot through my unsuspecting body.
I walked away from the nursery disoriented, bewildered. I crawled into bed with Noel and I cried as if my father had left me that very night.
Years later, the night I saw his picture on Facebook, my facial features started talking to his: a fast, excited inventory of their similarities. It was without my supervision, without my approval. At the time, I still hated him. It upset me how much my jaw wanted to look like his jaw, how much my hairline longed to see itself above his forehead, how much our eyes knew about each other. I didn’t know where all this chatter was coming from. I wanted them all to shut up.
There, staring at his photograph with something far too much like love, I understood. See, Eli was 5 by then, and had discovered that he could climb a tree like an expert, almost without trying. He was bragging about it at dinner one night when Noel suggested, “It’s because you’re small and strong, just like papi.” He looked at me, mac ‘n cheese sauce on his smiling lower lip, and said, “Papi, ¡tú y yo somos iguales! Daddy, you and I are the same!”
That night I let my desire to look like my own father breathe, move its stiff joints, rise to its feet. It frightened me to no end, but it felt right, the way a pointer feels when it puts its paw up in the middle of a field.
My search became bolder over the next couple of years. The fear was still there, but I had intentionally run it over, left it bleeding behind me. After a few months, I found an estranged cousin in Guatemala on Facebook who gave me my father’s email address and told me to write to him. It was the first sign of life from my father’s side of the world, the first time I had any evidence that he wasn’t imaginary. I was thrilled. I wrote to him on a Monday afternoon at 3 p.m., when I should’ve been working.
What do you say to your estranged father after 33 years of radio silence? I wrote in a blend of candor and formality, of awkwardness and boldness, and then I combed through the words slowly and obsessively. I didn’t hit the send button until 5 p.m.
By the time I reached the parking lot, I felt my phone vibrate. He had replied. In 60 seconds: “I’m so glad you reached out to me. Congratulations on your beautiful family. I’m at work in a meeting right now, but I’ll write back to you later, when I can take more time.”
HIs reply sent a flood of hope and excitement through me, and for the first time I allowed myself to need him, want for him to write back the way a kid wants dessert. I wanted him to tell me his side of the story. I wanted his words to undo the damage his absence had done. I needed him to heal me.
That night, I let my mind off leash and it ran eagerly and excitedly through scenarios of catharsis and reconciliation. He would write back. He would come visit me. I would go visit him. We would talk. We would click. It was inevitable. We were so much alike. In every scenario, I would learn that my father had always wanted to contact me, that he had been waiting for the right time. In every scenario, his side of the story made perfect sense. He had never stopped loving me. He had thought about me every day.
He never wrote back.
But it was too late to put my hope and my pain back in their hiding places, and I spent the next year wrestling them. I learned that year to retire the phrases “It’s all right” and “It doesn’t matter” as my most trusted instruments of emotional first aid. It wasn’t all right. The man had left my mother, my sister and I without a cent, without a note. It did matter. It hurt like hell. I could feel it inside myself as if the wound were fresh.
And then the pain began to teach me.
It taught me that when he left, I blamed myself. That I believed that, had I been cuter, had I cried less, had I slept more soundly, he would’ve stayed. It taught me that I was blaming all fathers for his choices, including myself. That the feeling of guilt I felt when I left for work, the feeling that I was abandoning my family, that I was failing them — ultimately came from how I felt towards him.
I emailed him every few weeks. Sometimes I let him have it. I told him he had destroyed me. I asked him to be a man and come forward and write back. Other times I pretended nothing had happened. I told him about my week as if we were talking over Sunday dinner. One night, I told him I forgave him. It wasn’t a lie, I wanted to mean it. I was just wrong. I hadn’t really done it yet.
The fall Eli turned seven, I flew to Guatemala City to meet my father for the very first time. I realize now that my emails and this trip were all based on the belief that I could single-handedly repair our relationship, that if I just worked harder at it, I could fix us. I proposed that we meet at a nice restaurant and chat. I promised a pleasant experience: no drama, no messy feelings, like a first date with a polished veneer of manners and small talk. I offered to pay for dinner myself. I reached out to the cousin I had met on Facebook and arranged for he and I to meet as well.
That week in Guatemala felt eternal. Each morning I checked my email compulsively. Each evening I could feel the burden of expectation become more and more concentrated over fewer and fewer days left in my visit. And still I hoped, still I needed. It wasn’t until I got off the plane on a layover in Mexico City that the fever finally broke, and I knew neither he nor my cousin would show. And I didn’t have the wherewithal to cry.
Noel always falls asleep before I do. One night about a week after my trip I was laying in bed, my mind racing, her steady breathing next to me in the dark. With no one to talk to and so much to say, I prayed. I opened up to God as if he were my first girlfriend. I told him everything. I said I had done my best to heal, to move forward, to be whole. I had even gone down there to try and reconcile, to try to forgive, but none of it had worked. I didn’t feel any better. I wasn’t any closer to healing. I looked inside and for the life of me I couldn’t find forgiveness for my father.
Praying made me feel loved, as if I’d just finished one of those hours-long conversations with my mom that left us both teary-eyed. And there, sleepless and quiet, God talked back. A simple phrase entered my mind, and a feeling of belonging washed over me, like warm water on my chest.
Don’t look to him for restitution. Look to me. I will pay you what he owes you, every penny and more.
Courtesy of the Lindes family
A few days ago my mom found two dozen childhood photos of me. Noel and I showed them to our kids. There are four of them now: Eli, Diego, Savannah and Raquel. They did their best to find me in every picture and they laughed at the idea of Dad being a kid. As they walked downstairs to bed I heard Diego ask Noel, “Mami, Papi never knew his father?” “Nope,” said Noel. “He’s Bruuuuce!” the kid responded, referring to the aspiring vegetarian great white shark in "Finding Nemo." The kids all broke out into laughter and Eli, the oldest, delivered his best Aussie impression: “I never knewww my faaathah!”
I chuckled at my desk, watching my childhood self stare back from the old photographs. To me, fatherlessness is a bloody machete whose marks are all over my body. To them, it’s a joke on the way to bed. They don’t know that pain. And that’s the way I like it.
David Lindes is an independent singer-songwriter and producer. He immigrated to the US at age 9 and spent his adolescence in the agricultural communities of California’s Central Coast. He later graduated in Latin American Studies from Brigham Young University.