Where Is My Father?

glen van alkemade photoI wrecked my car a few days after my dad disappeared. I spun out on black ice in Elgin, Illinois, wrapping the car around a utility pole. I had graduated college about six months earlier, and though flat broke I had bought a brand-new Pontiac secured with nothing but a job-acceptance letter. I am by nature a miserly cheapskate. After driving around in my Sunbird GT for a while, I called my Allstate agent and directed him to drop my collision coverage, reasoning it was over half the premium and I had no intention of damaging the car myself.

So when I wrecked the car, the loss was uninsured.

I owed General Motors $10,000 on the car. The body shop estimated $12,000 to rebuild it. I had a good job, but only $1,700 in the bank. And I found a note in my files that I had signed upon purchase of the car, wherein I had promised GM that as long as they held title to the car, I would protect it with collision insurance, and if they ever heard I had failed to do so, they promised to repossess it.

While I figured out what to do, I arranged to carpool with a stranger who worked in my office building in Schaumburg and also lived in Elgin. He was not thrilled with the arrangement at first, but over the four months it took to get my car back, we became good friends.

Shortly after his 53rd birthday, my dad went missing from his apartment in downtown Racine, Wisconsin, leaving my 16 year old brother alone and in the lurch. My sister came down from Milwaukee to handle things, as she always did. What my siblings found was a collection of three envelopes, one for each of us, each one containing a pile of cash. My sister’s envelope also contained the keys and title to Dad’s car. Nothing was missing from the apartment but his coat, and himself.

I sat at my makeshift workbench, a door balanced across a pair of cheap file cabinets, in a large closet in my tiny apartment. I stared bleakly at the repair estimate, and the envelope of money. I stared for a long time. Then I wrote my dad a note, in which I explained the circumstances, apologed for my recklessness and stupidity, and promised to pay back the money as soon as I could, probably within six or seven months. Then I took half the money, sealed the note into the envelope, and walked the cash to the body shop.

I spent the winter commuting with Mike, learning details of his life, tentatively sharing some from mine. My sister spent the winter filling out police reports, scanning the newspapers for clues, and arranging for a string of friends to stay with my brother, in the hopes he would finish high school, even as she tried to finish her thesis. And my brother, understandably, spent the winter angry and stoned.

By March, the body shop was out of money and so was I. The balance due on the car was similar to the balance in the envelope. I could not open that envelope. It contained a promise to my father to return the whole sum upon his return. To open the envelope was to abandon hope I would see him again. I took out a juice loan and paid off the mechanic.

winter field

In April, shortly before my 23rd birthday, a boy out hunting with his dog found my father’s remains. I met my sister in Racine. Together we met with the detective, saw a funeral director, arranged for cremation of the remains, collected the little box. My brother lay low.

On a wet, overcast morning, I tore open the envelope, tossed the note, paid off the juice loan and walked out to the body shop on the edge of town to pick up my restored car.

It was brilliant. It looked way better than new. It was hard to wrap my mind around it. Then I got in, sat in that cozy bucket seat that fit my skinny hips so well, and pulled the door shut. It closed with a clunk. I looked up at the mechanic.

“It feels different.”

He placed his hands on the door and hung his head. He softly said, “It always feels different. After a hit like that, it’s never the same.”

I took the car out on my favorite twisty stretch of US 20 west of town. It handled great. The shop had done a terrific job.

In the open countryside, at the crest of a hill I pulled off onto the shoulder. The clouds were breaking up and shifting shafts of shining wove across the landscape: wet fields of rich black earth rolling to the horizon, Tonio K’s “Perfect World” on the stereo. I wept.paul d healey photo

I had been to the abyss before. About five years earlier, a significant relationship had ended abruptly and inexplicably. I had staked all my hopes there. When it vanished, I had found myself plunging through darkness, alone, confused, frightened and nearly despairing. A few months before my dad disappeared, I had become a Christian, also abruptly and inexplicably. This time, the plunge was familiar in many ways: again the isolation, loneliness, confusion and terror.  But there was one difference. This time I was tumbling, not through darkness, but through blinding light.

This was a long time ago. Over many years, I often wondered “When do I get over it? When will I be healed? When will I be restored?” I have returned to that abyss several times, that plunge into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but as a guide and companion to others. I understand now that these hits are things that will never leave me. The deepest wounds are with me always and have shaped who I am. They are not to be gotten over nor left behind, but embraced and incorporated into my being, and carried forward. Forgiveness has enabled me to be reconciled to each of these hurts, and facilitated the restoration of my soul. Restored, and yet never the same.

jw johnson photo


4 thoughts on “Where Is My Father?

    • You’re welcome. I carried these things around for years and years, almost ashamed of my own pain, even while holding it so close. Writing gets it out in the light, where the wounds heal better; sharing it redeems the suffering.


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