or, Fathers, Sons, and Missed Connections

I wasn’t there when Kurt changed. 

And everyone I’ve spoken to—including my siblings—agree that he had changed. His last stint in prison was long and something finally clicked. An addict since before I was born, he managed to stay clean. He joined a church that he attended regularly and he met a woman who took him in and helped him get back on his feet. He got and kept a job and bought himself a truck with his own money. He was moving into a new house when an eighteen-wheeler stopped short and Kurt drove his new truck under its wheels; he’d been five years sober. 

Everyone agrees that he had changed. 

I was smoking a cigarette in the parking lot of a hotel in South Bend when my sister called to tell me that we were officially orphans. Her pain was visceral and raw; the howling on the other end of the line was guttural and set my teeth on edge. She couldn’t believe Kurt was gone—so quickly and without warning. She’d forced our cousin to take her to the scene of the accident and soon after we hung up my cousin called to tell me my sister had collapsed on the highway. 

My sister knew Kurt after the change. 

Long after Mama finally stood up to his abuse and kicked him out, he’d still write to us from whichever prison he was currently in—long, rambling letters promising to change. Promising that he had already changed. He’d ask us about ourselves and our studies and our lives. In writing he could play the doting father he couldn’t be in real life. And while I’d thrown all his letters to me in the trash, my sister kept hers and read them and—I suspect—secretly replied. So when he got out of jail for the last time and promised that he’d changed, she believed him enough to start again. And over his last five years they grew close; he became her dad. 

But I stayed away—to me, he was still Kurt.  

I had too many memories that my sister didn’t have—of standing on the porch as Mama changed the locks and of Kurt’s violent roar when his key didn’t work. And of the officers who came afterward and of the sorry looks they gave me through the screen door. I remember things disappearing around the house and arguments about pawn shops and drug debts. I remember Kurt hitting her. And I remember their last fight on the way back from the store. And sometimes I can still remember how Mama cried for weeks after he left, even though Kurt leaving meant she didn’t have to sleep with money hidden in her bra anymore. 

But more than that I remember all the things Kurt missed. 

While he was writing us letters from prison; I was running a household at thirteen. I was negotiating with bill collectors. I was teaching myself to drive so that my sister and I could get to school and avoid the truancy officer. I was memorizing my mother’s medical records and scheduling her follow-ups. I was collecting coins from the couch cushions and junk drawers and teaching myself how to cook what little food we had by watching 30 Minute Meals with Rachel Ray. He wasn’t there the nights I distracted my sister (and myself) from hunger by making imaginary grocery store lists—everything we’d buy if we ever had enough money. 

Kurt wasn’t there the nights we still went to bed hungry. 

And his absence changed me. 

His absence forced me to grow up faster. It forced me to cobble together some idea of manhood without anything to pattern it on. And while I did the best I could, the version that I built for myself was empty inside; cold and distant. He put his survival and success above everything else. He was popular, with many acquaintances, but few close friends. He cut himself off from his feelings and the feelings of others. He was the type of man who only cried in his car or the shower, because those were the only places he knew he was alone.

It took a decade—and the death of my mother—for me to eventually kill that version of manhood and birth another. And then another. And then another. I changed, too, while Kurt was in prison. But no matter how much I grew as a man, I couldn’t find a place in my heart for Kurt.  

And so I wasn’t there when he finally changed. 

Highway patrol investigating the scene of Kurt’s accident noted that there weren’t any tire marks on the road; he’d somehow driven into an eighteen-wheeler, but never tried to brake. I cynically suspected he was under the influence, that his new sobriety was a lie, but I was wrong. His toxicology report came back clean. For a while the coroner suspected a stroke, but the scans were inconclusive and the family was left to wonder. It would take a while, but eventually my sister called and told me that the eighteen wheeler didn’t have any lights or reflectors on it. 

Kurt didn’t brake because he couldn’t see the truck. 

Old friends reached out to offer me their condolences. I received cards from former employers. A group of campaign friends from Michigan sent me an orchid that I somehow managed to keep alive for months in an apartment I barely slept in. I threw myself into my work on the campaign. I received updates on the investigation sporadically and when my siblings told me they wanted to sue the truck company, I signed whatever paperwork the lawyers sent. But I also made it clear that my sister had my vote and my decision making power. I was drowning at work and I didn’t want this lawsuit and their search for closure to distract from the campaign. 

But then the campaign ended.

I could finally stop for a second to breathe. I was suddenly free to go wherever I wanted, to work for whomever wanted me. It was freedom, and I used that freedom to go back home to South Carolina for the first time since I was a teenager.

I rented a beautiful apartment in an old cotton mill and spoiled my nephews rotten and floated in my Aunt’s pool and went to socially distanced birthday parties and played Fortnite with my cousins. I reconnected with old friends and drove across the country to revisit the old cities and towns where I used to live. I traveled to the desert to watch the election results and cement new friendships. I started consulting for a criminal justice organization focused on reforming probation and parole, and I reconnected with my brother who—like Kurt before him—is currently serving time in prison.

I felt myself starting to change. 

It took a while, but the truck company decided to settle the wrongful death lawsuit. Courts weren’t open during the pandemic, but recently the paperwork was finally submitted. A few days from now Kurt’s estate will officially close, I’ll meet my siblings at the lawyer’s office, and then we’ll all leave with a check.

It’s not an insubstantial amount. Two years ago it would have been enough to completely change my life. Even now, it’s enough money to ensure I can move to D.C. and start the next phase of my career. But how is that any comfort now that I realize what I lost?

It was a missed connection.
It was a mistimed epiphany. 

I didn’t know he was waiting on me to change, and I didn’t believe that his change was genuine. I changed too late for him to apologize; he changed too late for me to forgive.

I thought I had forever to forgive him, but I was wrong. 

My sister has been filling me in on what I missed during the last five years of Kurt’s life. She’s the one who told me about the church he attended and the woman and our cousins on his side of the family. She also told me about how Kurt had signed up for Facebook in order to find and download pictures of all his kids. He’d printed them out and put them in frames and hung them around his house.

I was silent, but my sister heard the question. 

“He had a lot of pictures of you.” 

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Kurt was not my father’s actual middle name—it’s Kirt. I’d never seen it written down before I wrote this piece. I’d never seen his birth certificate or his driver’s license. He never signed a permission slip or homework assignment. Kurt was how I spelled it my entire life. It’s how I knew him. But I want to acknowledge, as a sign of respect, that that’s not how he knew himself.

Also, I saw those same spelling errors. You don’t have to point them out. You can sit quiet in the comfort of knowing that that mistake you saw is eating me alive from the inside out.