Saturday, February 7, 2009

Oh, Father

Teaching a class yesterday, one of my high school students spoke of spending time with his daughter this weekend. I shared with him that I had been a high school pregnancy - that my mother had me at seventeen - and that my eighteen-year old father did not stick around. I told him I was proud of him for committing to his child - that there had been many times in my life I'd wished to know my father. This seemed to mean a lot to this kid.

It was an odd moment for me...a deep haunting crept into my lower belly and did not leave the rest of the day. I wrecked my diet on the way home from class by buying nachos and gobbling them up like the drug of choice they are. I sat numb in front of the television for hours.

In the summer of 1997, only weeks before moving to Portland, I did meet my father. My last name comes from my adopted father - but my birth father is named Bill Whitley. And I found him through a national search service. The call to his home that summer was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. I think it took me more than five days once I had the phone number and address to actually dial. I did not know what his life was like. I did not know if he had a wife - or kids - or if they knew about me. I had no desire to inject myself into his life and create misery.

Luckily, all went quite well. I said, "I'm Laura Peterson's son." And he said very plainly and calmly, "I thought this call might come one day."

Turns out, he lived only twenty minutes from me, a little north of Dallas. Only days later, I traveled to meet him, his wife (who was remarkably close to my age and very kind) and my three half siblings...all little children. And days after that, Bill Whitley - also a trumpet player in high school - also a composer...came to see my musical Hunger at Youth Could Know Theatre. And at that show, he was reunited with my mother. And I watched them talk in the mother had been desperately in love with this much so she wanted to consume him...I'd heard a lot about him as a little kid...and now they chatted like old friends...laughing and talking with awkward pauses, then moments of was beyond surreal.

Bill and I talked twice after that on the phone. Once in Dallas. Once when I got to Portland. And for reasons I cannot explain, I never reached out again. And he never reached out to me. I literally have no idea why. Later, when asked, I would say that as nice as he had been, I did not find him that interesting...that it made no sense to build a friendship...but that was a complete lie. And I don't know why I lied. Or why I would be so mean. I don't understand any of this.

After eating myself into a coma on the couch, I found myself at the computer looking for him. The contact info I have is long defunct. So I Googled away...and luck was on my side. His graduating class of 1972 at Belton High School has their own website. A nice one. And in February of 2008, Bill Whitley had been found by his classmates - and there was his email address.

I looked at his high school picture...this awkward eighteen-year old whose features I share. I looked at how thin he is in the photo - and thought about how stout he was when I met him - and I realized I took the same physical path...(it's not nachos, you see - it's genes!). And...I wrote him an email. And I sent him pictures. I told him I regretted losing touch. I told him I'm human...and these blood connections haunt me...and I hoped to hear from him.

My mother and I have not seen each other in nine months.
My adopted father and I have not seen each other or talked in nine years.
And...maybe the father I never had will write back. And maybe he'll become more constant than the others. Is that the motivation?

As I said, I don't understand any of this.

For now...I wait.

(That was the end of my post. As I signed in to publish it to the blog, I discovered his reply email. I am deeply moved by it - and will share some small excerpts...)

From Bill Whitley to Matt Zrebski: 2/7/09

"I remember when she told me she was pregnant. It scared me half to death and I wasn't very kind to her. I didn't want to believe her and I rationalized my way out of it although down deep I knew she wouldn't lie. I was a stupid, young and scared kid. I got to go on with what I wanted to do and your mom was forced to grow up fast. It wasn't fair and I'm not proud of it! The fact that she apparently never told you that I was a selfish SOB is proof of how good she is at heart..."

"It's good that you've decided to stick to what you love to do. Even if things are hard, you'll be happier in the long run. It's taken me a lot of years to realize that. I didn't do it, and I've always had regrets. Follow your dreams! Try your best to never quit on them...I'm trying to learn how to play trumpet again. My dream is to quit work and be one of those old guys you see on one of the side stages at the jazz festival..."

"I'll look for some pictures to send you. We should at least be able to recognize each other. It's really good to hear from you and I'm glad you're doing OK. I enjoy hearing about what you're up to. By all means, stay in touch. Take care, Bill."

And now, I sigh big and deep...and light a candle...and cry a little...a lot...and try to embrace the wonder of this life...and its many paths, twisting, turning, over and over...

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