Saturday, December 16, 2006

Confronting my Absent Father

By Tom Sykes

Men who leave still shape their sons. When one son met with his dad after 16 years, he understood what an indelible presence absence can be.

ONE DAY ALMOST A YEAR AFTER I HAD MY LAST DRINK, I FOUND MYSELF SITTING AT my desk in my apartment in New York City writing a list of my "resentments"--all the people I hated and why I hated them. This, I had been assured by sober friends, would help me stay clean.

"Dad," I wrote at the top. "He abandoned me when I was 14. Never calls to see how I am. I always have to call him. Never explained why he left." This was the great trauma of my life.

I made an effort to see my father once or twice a year. When people asked why I bothered, I would tell them that it was so I would be able to go to his funeral with a clear conscience. But really, I liked hanging out with my dad. I could bask for hours in his intelligence, his wit, and his charm. It was fun, as long as I didn't expect any answers, as long as I didn't ask, "Why, Dad? Why did you walk out on us?"

Well, now that was going to change. I dialed his number in England.

"Hi, Dad. It's Tom."

"Tom! Hello there."

After a few minutes, I screwed up my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "So, Dad, I'm calling because I've got some questions I need to ask you."

"Right …," he said.

"It's been 16 years since you and Morn separated; and, you know, it's ridiculous we can't talk about it."

"Of course," said my dad. "Anytime."

"Well, how about now?" I asked.

"Now?" he said incredulously. "No, I don't think so. Not over the phone. But maybe we could get together next time you're over?"

"Okay," I said. "It shouldn't be too long."

I hung up the phone, logged onto the Internet, and booked a flight to London for the weekend.

I e-mailed Dad right away. "How about next Tuesday?"

He shot back, "Fine. Let's talk details nearer the time."


THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY WAS DRAB AND gray in England. I followed my dad's directions through winding village lanes to a pub in rural Oxfordshire a few miles from where he lived. As I drove through the countryside, I wondered what the hell I was doing. What was I hoping to achieve?

I turned my car into the driveway of the old stone pub and parked. I was 10 minutes early, and Dad wasn't there yet. I was annoyed that he wanted to meet in a pub.

I went inside, ordered a Coke. Bang on time, Dad pulled up outside. My hands were damp with sweat. I watched him get out of the car and walk toward the pub. As he came through the door, I hugged him hello. He ordered a pint of lager; I stuck with my Coke. We engaged in 10 minutes of desultory chat.

"I really like gloomy pubs like this," he said. "The gloomier, the better."

Dad finished his drink and said, "Right, come on. Let's go."


"I have arranged a delicious luncheon at my house."

I followed him to a quaint stone village, where he was living in a converted stable.

"My business associates keep telling me I should move somewhere grander, but I like it here." There was a coal fire going in the fireplace, two bedrooms off to the side, and a virtually unused kitchen with a table littered with prescription drugs. In the sitting room by the fire, the table was covered with cold meats--chorizo and smoked salmon.

As he opened the fridge door, I noticed it was stuffed with about a dozen bottles of champagne. Dad always drank champagne.

"Enough champagne?" I asked.

"One always likes to keep a little on hand in case of emergencies."

We sat down to lunch. I kept sneaking glances at my father across the table. He looked pretty good, but puffy around the cheeks and ears. He told me that he had been prescribed steroids. The previous Christmas, he had been so badly immobilized that he couldn't even get out of bed. His wife, Sandy, "the fourth Mrs. Sykes," had had to come down from London to help him. The steroids had fixed all the immobility, but they still caused "terrible mood swings."

We chewed chorizo in silence for a little bit until eventually I said, "So, I want to ask you some questions."

"If you look in the fire there, you will see that there are two potatoes wrapped up in tinfoil, baking away," he said.

"When did you put them in?"

"Before I went out. About 35 minutes ago."

"I don't think they'll be done yet." Then, before he could divert me again, I asked him how much he drank.

"Well, I don't normally drink in the day. Today is different, but of course so are many days." He laughed. "In the evening, I have the equivalent of a couple of beers and half a bottle of wine. I don't think that's a lot."

I asked him if he considered himself an alcoholic, and he replied, "Certainly not. Of course, I have frequently drunk far, far too much on a regular basis. But if you don't need a drink before 10 in the morning, you're perfectly fine."

I remembered when I had thought that an alcoholic was someone who had to have a drink in the morning. Over the past year, I'd heard a better definition: An alcoholic is a person who, once he has one drink, develops an overpowering craving for another.

Dad's tone was light and flippant, and he was starting to relax. Then I moved up an emotional gear.

"I came over just to see you," I said, my heart beating faster.

"I also canceled something," he said. "I was going to go to Baghdad this week to take part in a debate about Iraq."

I raised my eyebrows. "Iraq?"

"I think they might think that I am Sir Mark Sykes, the destroyer of the Middle East," he said, referring to my great-great-grandfather, a good-hearted politician whose noble attempts to mediate a peaceful solution in the Middle East at the end of World War I are seen by many today as having laid the foundation for a century of furious bloodletting in that region. "I do want to go there, though. It's such a great opportunity to see such chaos. Chaos is good, isn't it?"

I didn't have a chance to answer.

"I saw some horrendous things in Algeria in the late '50s. The things the French Foreign Legion did. Atrocities, atrocities, atrocities," he sighed. "It was 1957, and I was 20. I had dropped out of Oxford, and I started a club in London called the Whisky-A-Go-Go. Now it's an Irish pub called O'Neill's. We opened this club for £4,000. It was an unbelievable success, and we got the money back in 2 weeks. Then I went to Tangier to cover the Algerian war for Time-Life."

As he relayed his potted life story, he paused frequently to sip from his glass of wine. "In 1962, I was living in Paris with my first wife, Helen. I went to Australia with her in '63 and '64, and I made a lot of money in the illegal gambling business. We were doing it in a classy way, with nice girls, nice food, all that sort of stuff."

"When did you marry Mom?"

"Shortly after all this."

"And you were happy for quite a long time, right?" I asked.

"I should think we were basically happy until the money ran out," he said. He paused for a few moments. "Money--make no mistake about it--is unbelievably important. It doesn't matter when you have it. It certainly does when you don't have it."

And then he went quiet, and I squeezed my courage into a ball in my chest.

"Look, Dad," I said, "16 years down the line, I don't care why you and Mom separated. That's between you and her.…"

"If you want a baked potato, you will see a pair of tongs there.…"

"Er, okay." If I don't ask this, I thought, nothing will ever change. "What I was really wondering is why I never heard from you for so long. One moment you were this amazing dad, and the next…"

Dad was ready. "I was asked to stay out of it. I was told it would be a very bad thing if I stuck my nose in and communicated with you. Quite wrongly I accepted this."

At that moment my cellphone went off. I cursed as I dug it out and switched it off.

"Potato?" my dad asked.

"I don't think they're ready yet," I said.

"Okay, well, I'm going to leave that up to you," he said.

I pressed on. "What about Fred and Josh? Don't you ever want to know what's going on with them?"

"I don't think it's my place to initiate things. Because I said I wouldn't. If something is initiated, then wow, fantastic," he said. Then he added, "There's something else that I want you to tuck away at the back of your mind. My affairs are reasonably complicated. My will is going to be lodged at the central registry of wills, and I am going to be making you the executor."

I wondered how much my dad might be worth, then cursed myself for the thought.

Eventually I said, "So you were told, 'Stay away,' and you did? That's it?"


This must have been the first and last time Dad ever did what he was told. I said, "Weren't you curious, though?"

"Yes, of course. But what's the point in being curious about something if you aren't going to have an answer? And you know, I had so many things passing. Like getting cancer twice. Like building one amazing business, selling it, and suddenly being a couple of million ahead. I thought, 'If I whack out a million quid among those children, that might make a difference.' And then--boom!--like that, it was all gone. In that f--king crash. However, I've done it again. At my advanced age." My dad sat back in his chair and smiled.

"The thing that upsets me is that you were never in contact with us," I said. "And you say that's because you had…other exciting stuff going on in your life?"

"Well, not necessarily exciting, but occupying all of one's attention."

"But the shit that I went through from the time you went off to the time I left home!" I said. "Mom was so ill. And one day you were around, and you were this amazing, funny, wonderful dad, and the next you just weren't even there."

"Well, there we are," he said. "I regret that. I regret that. I regret that."

Another, space opened up.

There. He said it. It's over. Walk away. After an interminable pause, he added, "Sadly, we can't roll back the carpet."

Then, an even longer pause. "Don't forget your f--king potato."


I GOT BACK TO NEW YORK AND SPENT THE next 2 winter weeks in a daze. Nothing had changed. Nothing had been resolved. My dad was right. What was the point in being curious about something if you weren't going to get an answer?

While I was trying to work it all out, I went to see my sister Plum in her Greenwich Village apartment.

"I think it was a good thing that Dad left." Plum sat cross-legged in her armchair, focused, holding her cup of tea.

"What?" I asked, baffled.

"You know how everyone said it was so unfortunate and so sad at the time? Well, privately, between themselves, a lot of people said, 'Thank God that man has left Valerie and the children at last.'"

The world shifted under my feet. It felt like an earthquake cracking and resculpting the crust of the earth.

"Do you really think it would have been a good thing for you to continue to be influenced by Dad? With his dishonesty, his affairs, his drinking? Would you be who you are? Would you be sober?"

I felt sick as I got into the elevator. I walked down to the subway station. The world was spinning like it used to when I was drunk. As I rattled up to 55th Street, that familiar, well-rehearsed story suddenly looked so different.

I think it was a good thing Dad left.

Maybe Plum was right. Maybe something I had always labeled "Bad Thing" was really a good thing. Or maybe it was just something that happened, and that's just the way it was. And now it was finally time to get on with my life.

Rebuild your burned bridges
4 ways to reconnect successfully

Research shows that men with tow social support are more susceptible to coronary deaths. Which means that reestablishing ties with the estranged men in our lives can help us not only feet better but also live longer. Here's how to do it right.

If making amends means saying you were wrong, don't hesitate to fess up. Admitting your past mistakes is a sign of strength, not weakness.
A handwritten letter saying something like, "It's been a long time, and I'd like to reestablish our connection; I'll give you a buzz," followed by that phone call, is a great way to reach out.
If your expectations are too high, you set yourself up for a fall. "Go in knowing it might not work," says Holly Sweet, Ph.D., codirector of the Cambridge Center for Gender Relations.
Follow the Two-Contact Rule, which can include a letter, phone call, or voice mail One is not enough; three is too many. If the other party doesn't respond after your second attempt, it's probably not going to work. Let it go.


Post a Comment

<< Home