Letter From a Wayward Son
Can one phone call change everything? In this letter to his father, wayward son Gifford Keen shares the struggles and breakthroughs that helped him forgive his father and accept their rocky past.
Over the last few days, my thoughts have been drawn back to our last phone call time and again. I wonder if you have any idea how profound it was for me.
You were in a good mood when we spoke, not rushed or distracted. We talked about the book [Prodigal Father, Wayward Son], how to move forward, what we were working on, and we spoke of our lives, the kids, our travel plans, exchanging all the small details that knit the fabric of our lives together.
When I thought we were wrapping up you said, “I have been having one small problem with the book.”
“For the first time in my life, I realize how cruel it was of me to leave the family.”
With those words my mind went still, and without quite understanding why, I found my attention focused on the silence wending its way from Sonoma, across the Pacific Ocean, onto my lani in South Kona, and into my left ear.
After a pause I asked, “Why is that a problem?”
“Well, it makes me kind of sad.”
You didn’t seem to understand the significance of what you had said, but I was stunned.
I had been waiting forty years to hear those words.
After you left the family, you used to call on the phone (with astonishing psychic precision, invariably just as we sat down to dinner) and, when you were low, tell me how bad you felt about breaking up the family, how lonely you were, how you were tormented by guilt. By the time I was living in Boulder, I remember during these confessions, I would hold the phone away from my ear, letting your words blur to an indistinct babble of meaningless sound, waiting only for that change in tone that would signal an opportunity to end the call.
I didn’t want to hear it.
For years afterward, in the purgatorial period between leaving home and our watershed fight at Pasquals, whenever we talked about the Bad Years, I found your responses incomplete, self-serving, unsatisfying. I poked and prodded, wouldn’t let the issues rest. I was always looking for something. I didn’t know what. But whatever it was, I felt it keenly. Like a black hole, the gravity of that singularity grew so strong that light could not escape, and it became invisible, revealing itself to us only through a dense, impenetrable absence.
More than once during these years I remember you turning to me in frustration and asking, “What do you want from me?”
With those two short sentences on the phone last week, the answer to that question snapped into crystalline focus. In all of those years of interminable, dissatisfying conversations, you only spoke about how you felt: your guilt, your sadness, your struggle to break free of your father’s taboos, your mother’s rigid fundamentalism, your need to resolve your issues with women. But now, for the first time you seemed to be filled with compassion for my suffering during those years.
You saw my pain.
Five years ago when you had your brain surgeries, I began to think about the relatively small number of times we would be together again and how I wanted to use that precious time. For all but the most heinous crimes there is a statute of limitations and I figured we had both paid our debt to society long ago. I lost the need to reopen old wounds. But I still felt them. The difference was that I owned them as mine and no longer looked to you for resolution.
The father/son injuries of my childhood haunted me for years, and for a long time I did not ever expect to be free of them. Then I had a son of my own, and being a father to him changed everything. It is as if my closeness with Jasper has granted me some strange, magical ability to travel backwards in time and change the past. The bitterness I felt towards you for so long has slowly eroded, all the happy hours with Jasper overlaid on the memories of your disapproval, your absence, your indifference, leaving in its wake an inevitable, comfortable sadness.
If this sounds a strange juxtaposition—comfortable sadness—really it is not. This is a specific sadness that requires nothing but to be felt. It is an undemanding feeling, devoid of blame, free of resentment, asking nothing of me and needing nothing from you, a simple recognition of the past bearing no need for analysis, discussion, or reparation. And now, after fourteen years as a father, I feel this sadness far more keenly for you than for myself—that you and I never knew the sweetness between a father and a young son that with Jasper has been one of the peak experiences of my life. It is an accepting sadness for the lost opportunities that will not come to us again.
So now, if at eighty years of age, you feeling this sadness for the time we did not have, for the pain and the wounds we inflicted on each other when, under other circumstances, we could have offered each other friendship and support, then entertain it. Welcome it. Court it like a long lost lover.
What I learned from Jasper is that sadness is the core emotion of our ancient past. But it was always hidden, repressed, unseen. So instead of being expressed for what it was, it changed, mutated, festered. For so many years, despite our best intentions and most diligent efforts, we were uneasy with each other, the potential closeness we both sensed so strongly always slipping just past the tips of our fingers. And this sadness, that perhaps you are feeling now, was the heart of all of the shit we heaped on each other for so many years.
Accepting this sadness in myself was a key precondition to invoking the statute of limitations and granting you absolution for your ancient sins. Accepting this sadness let me forgive myself for all the years of guerrilla atrocities I perpetrated on you. And I think now, if you let it come, let that comfortable sadness overtake you, it will wash away the final remnants of guilt, blame, frustration, and ambivalence you have felt towards me all these years, leaving us both free for the kind of father/son friendship we have always known in our hearts was our birthright.
© 2015 by Gifford Keen. Used with permission.