On Wednesday the 6th, it will be twenty years since I went to see my father for the first time after sixteen years of no contact.

Luke dueling Darth Vader on Death Star II.
It didn’t actually turn out like this.

(Oh, no. He’s talking about his father again? Yes, he is.)

If you don’t know by now that my father was a terrifying and chaotic presence in my family’s lives during his reign, let me offer this brief anecdote:

For years, my father swore that if my mother ever left him, he’d find us wherever we went and kill us. It ended up that my father left my mother for another woman instead, but we were still terrified that he’d come looking for us one day.

One incident that reinforced that threat happened during a hearing for my child support after the divorce. There had been an altercation in another courthouse a few days prior where someone had attacked a judge, so there was a newly-installed metal detector at our courthouse. My mother and I went through to the other side, and we watched as my father walked up to the metal detector, looked it over, and then left.

He preferred to get a contempt of court charge than to walk through that metal detector.

So we all stayed as far from him as possible for sixteen years after the divorce, following his life as best we could as a matter of security. Luckily for us, his criminal activities made his status and location easy to find in the state offender database.

So sixteen years went by, and I grew up in a slow, circuitous fashion, still believing that I should one day confront him as Luke Skywalker did with Darth Vader. I didn’t want to reconcile with him or save his soul…mostly, I wanted to gloat that I’d turned out okay despite his best efforts.

In 2004, I decided it was time. The state database listed his address (back in Arcadia) as a condition of his parole, so I took a day off from work and drove the five hours down to see him (and also some friends who still lived there at the time).

My father's little house

I pulled into the driveway of his mobile home, decorated to disguise that it was a mobile home, and I parked. I walked up to his front door, which was ajar behind a screened door. From inside, I could hear hymns playing loudly on a radio.

I’ll say that again. Hymns.

I knocked a few times and got no answer. On my way back to the car, my shoulders tensed expecting him to shoot me in the back, but he didn’t.

I visited with my friends and then on the way out of town decided to try once more. This time there were no hymns and my knocking was louder, so I heard heavy footsteps coming to the door. I realized that I had no idea what I intended to say or do.

For years, I’d considered decking him or even shooting him, but I wasn’t armed and I’ve never been much of a fighter.

My father and his cat
This was a little later on and he didn’t have the cat yet (whom we’d later inherit), but he looked basically like this.

An old man squinted out at me through the screen door. He was thinner than my father had been and his face was bloomed red with broken capillaries from years of drinking.

“Can I help you?”

I didn’t have a line prepared. One good choice might have been, “Hey, go fuck yourself.” Another might have been to say, “Karen and Mother send their regards,” while jabbing my knee into his groin.

I settled for, “Hello. I’m Will.”

He squinted harder and then threw open the door. I braced for a swing, but instead he wrapped his arms around me in a terrifying Klingon bear hug that my arms were too pinned to return, even if I’d wanted to.

He pulled back weeping, which wasn’t something I’d seen him do before. He shook his head and pulled off his hat and rubbed the white stubble on his scalp and then replaced it. He kept doing that, apparently amazed that I was there.

My father standing on his front porch.
I didn’t take this picture, but this is what he looked like at the time.

We chatted on that porch for about two hours. He had a slight Southern accent which faded away the longer he talked to me. He said a few half-hearted things about Jesus. He told me that his second wife had died of cancer recently and he was by himself, that he was tired of all the rubes and rednecks in town but at least they left him alone, and that he was looking into finding a lawyer to prove he was innocent of the crime he’d been sent to prison for.

“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers about that,” he said.

I did do some gloating, mentioning my fiction publications and graduate school, and—always class-conscious and into cars—he admired my parked Volvo.

He said he couldn’t drive a stick shift anymore because of arthritis, and though it could have been one of his cons, the man standing in front of me looked like every single member of my family including my youngest toddler niece could beat him to the ground.

That’s what I’d come to see: that this figure who’d terrified us for decades was now weakened by his own choices, living a life far worse, far emptier, than any punishment we could have wished on him.

People think that karma is some magical ironic force that sweeps in to serve justice, but the meaning is more about “suffering the logical consequences of your actions.” Karma had indeed come for my father, and it was all self-inflicted.

He was still strange and creepy and bizarrely tone deaf to feelings – “I wish I’d thought to run up my wife’s credit cards before she died because they can’t come to get you for that” – and there wasn’t much sign that he was aware of anything he’d done wrong. He asked about my mother and my sister, and I gave vague answers to protect their security.

He asked if I’d ever gotten to Eagle Scout and was disappointed when I said I didn’t.

By then, it was getting late and I’d gotten what I hadn’t known I’d come for: assurance that justice had come for my father and we’d all far outgrown any threat he could make.

We traded phone numbers and I said goodbye. He waved as I drove away, and years later when we cleaned out that house after he died, I saw that he wrote my name with an exclamation point on that day in his calendar.

I drove home in a weird kind of relieved euphoria. Yeah, he was still a predatory shark in his heart, but he had no teeth.

More importantly, I’d done something I’d always sworn I’d do.

My mother and sister were horrified that I went to see him, and an ebullient blog entry that I wrote about the encounter didn’t help. I unintentionally implied that we’d reconnected for a new beginning when the truth was much closer to discovering that the Soviet missiles in Red Square were just empty metal tubes.

I’d gone to find out that he couldn’t hurt us, and though I knew that now, it wasn’t my place to risk other people on the gamble.

I was his informal parole officer for the rest of his life. For the next several years until he died, we had stilted awkward phone calls every six months or so. He asked computer questions. He tried to sell me his mother’s wedding ring. He talked about lawsuits he wanted to file and encouraged me to go to law school.

He deftly avoided all questions about what he thought about his actions or his crimes. The closest he ever came to admitting his abuse was to say that living in Florida away from the life he’d known in New York had made him anxious and angry: “flapping in the breeze” was his expression for it.

I didn’t see him in person again except on his deathbed from colon cancer, where he asked me how my car and cats were doing and complained about the ambulance ride to the hospice while ignoring my sister standing next to me.

Not the most contemplative man in the world, certainly not one who’d write this much on the twentieth anniversary of something.

I’m not sure what good my reckless visit did. It was handy to know about his doings from a safety perspective, and that thin channel of communication perhaps sated his curiosity enough to prevent him from looking for us.

Maybe I needed to look at him with adult eyes and know I was different than he was. Maybe I needed to know I’d “won,” ignoble as that is. Maybe I wanted to give him the slightest chance to show any growth of consciousness.

Unlike Darth Vader, he never did.