A farewell letter to the father who abandoned me – but could Caroline Gray forgive him for 30 years of betrayal
01:42 GMT, 8 November 2012
He walked out when she was seven and never spoke to her again. So when Caroline learned her father was dying, could she finally forgive 30 years of desolating betrayal
My father died on Thursday evening, but I didn’t make it to the hospital to say goodbye. He passed away just hours before I was due to travel north to see him. It was my fault; I’d taken too long to decide if I should go at all.
You may wonder why I deliberated for so long before resolving to drive from my home in Somerset to Yorkshire when I knew he was terminally ill.
The truth is, my father was a stranger to me, and there is no book of etiquette setting out the rules for a deathbed rapprochement between an estranged parent and his child.
Regrets: Caroline's father died before she could say goodbye
I felt racked by indecision. I didn’t know if it was right to visit a dying man I’d not seen or spoken to for 30 years; a man who’d left our family to live with another woman when I was just seven years old.
Over those three decades he had rarely contacted us. He sent the occasional birthday or Christmas card, and his financial contributions were just as sporadic.
It was the late 1970s — a time when divorce was much rarer than it is now.There was a stigma attached to being from a one-parent family.
We — my brother, sister and I — stood out as odd because just about everyone we knew had a dad. We had one; we just didn’t know where he was, or what he looked like.
Over time, my shadowy recollections of my father, John, faded. Even now I can summon up only a few disparate images.
He was tall, and he had reddish-blond hair, which I inherited. He taught me how to pour a glass of beer. He used to sketch. And that is the sum of my knowledge. I don’t know what he did for a living, whether he married again or if he had more children.
All I know is the man who gave me life disappeared one day without explanation or warning. I remember no door-slamming, no rows; just a short farewell kiss, then sorrow and tears. I did not know at the time that I would never see my father again, only that he was leaving.
I recall Mum telling us that she and Daddy would not be living together any more and I realise — with hindsight — that she masked her distress for our sakes.
She was brave, stoic and she hid her tears: after all, she had three children, aged nine, seven and five, to bring up.
As the years passed and my father made no contact, I eventually found it easier to tell people I didn’t have a father, because I didn’t.
When they had a father: Caroline aged 5, left, and her sister Vicky, right
Not in the true sense of the word. In fact I had more in common with people whose dads were dead. And that is how it was: to me, my father was dead.
Then, about 20 years ago, my sister Vicky, now 39, decided to find him. She thought he still lived in the same area of Yorkshire where we’d had our first childhood home, and with a lot of determination and a little detective work, she tracked him down.
It wasn’t, she told me, the big reunion she’d hoped for. There were stilted words, embarrassed silences and a complete absence of explanation or apology from my father about why he had chosen to cut us out of his life.
Even so, he and my sister kept in touch. They emailed occasionally — perfunctory exchanges about inconsequential events in their lives. She’d forward these emails to me and I’d read them, but I was resolutely opposed to having a relationship with him myself.
I refused to ask if he’d had any more children, and my sister — knowing my feelings — has never told me.
Vicky called me a fortnight ago to tell me he was seriously ill with prostate cancer and had only a week to live. My father hadn’t asked to see me, but she wanted to give me the chance to say goodbye.
The news of his illness was more upsetting than I had expected. I don’t cry readily, but I wept.
I had made a decision to ask nothing about my father’s life. I did not want to know if he’d had another family, and even now I have no need to know.
So why did I cry for a man about whom I knew so little I think I wept for the father I never knew, and for the relationship we could have had.
For the first time, I revisited the anger and confusion I’d locked away for so long, then asked myself how I would feel if he died and I missed the opportunity to make peace with my past.
Absent father: Like Caroline's father, Alex Reid has left the family home while his daughter is still very young
That forced me to act. I knew I would find a face-to-face meeting difficult, so I sat down and wrote my father a letter. This is what I wrote:
I find it almost impossible to know where to start this letter. I even struggle to find a name to call you. I can’t call you Dad; it feels so wrong. I don’t really know who I am writing to. You are a stranger.
I don’t know what makes you laugh, what irritates you. I don’t even know if you prefer coffee or tea. Sadly you don’t know these things about me either.
So forgive me if I just write from my heart. I need to start at the beginning, to explain all the anger I carried around with me for such a long time. I want to tell you why I didn’t want to have anything to do with you.
I couldn’t make sense of a person who had walked away from three small children and who seemed never to look back. All this time, did you ever wonder where we were What kind of people we’d grown up to be Did you want to know if we were safe, happy, or well
I didn’t want to see you because I simply couldn’t understand how you had done that, and how you lived with yourself.
I’m not sure if you have asked yourself the same questions. I don’t know if you have answers or explanations as to why you did what you did.
I have always truly hoped that you learnt from your mistakes. That, if you had more children, you would give them all the love and affection you didn’t give us. I wasn’t jealous; I simply wanted to have faith in you.
‘I needed to know you weren’t heartless, that circumstances had played a part in the decisions you’d made. I needed to believe that you’d tried to make up for it by taking extra care of your new family. Did you do that
It was a very pointed question. You see, despite everything that’s happened, I do know what it’s like to feel cared for — thanks to my mother.
That’s one thing I can never reproach my father for: he chose a wonderful woman to bear his children. When I look back on my childhood, what I remember most is laughter.
Our small house by the sea, near Torquay in Devon, was filled with family and friends. Our mum, now 72, is resourceful, kind and hard-working. She did not discuss our father much, and never with vitriol.
Through my childhood, money was scarce. Mum’s income from teaching dyslexic children was modest. But she imbued us with self-belief, aspirations and strength. She supported us in every way, encouraged us and loved us unconditionally.
It’s thanks to her and her close-knit family that we became the self-reliant and strong people we are today.
Granted, the road to adulthood was long and often rocky, but whose wasn’t We made it through university into good jobs — I’m a writer and broadcaster — and through teenage heartbreak into good relationships.
Single parent households make up nearly two million of the 17.9 million families in Britain.
I now live near Bath with my long-term partner Chris, who works in finance, and our son Jack, 12.
My upbringing contributed, too, to my view that families could manage without a dad, but it’s a view I’ve changed in the past few years.
Now it’s commonplace for men to reject the role of fatherhood, to disappear. Our quirky family set-up has sadly become the norm for many, and there are now millions of children who live with just one parent.
But it is tough not to have a male role model, someone to look up to, someone to protect you and help pilot you through the adult world.
The absence of a father figure affects a lot of the decisions you make. When I became a mother, I knew exactly what type of mother I wanted to be. My own mum was, after all, the perfect role model.
It wasn’t so easy, however, to know the kind of father I wanted my child to have. I realise now that not having a father left a big space in my life that even my adored mother couldn’t fill.
I don’t think you fully recognise it when you’re growing up, but when you have children of your own, you begin to wonder how different things might have been. I tried to explain this to my father in that letter:
When I had my son, the love I felt for him was overwhelming. It still is. I look at his little face (I see a bit of you), and I know that no matter what happens I will fight to look after and protect him.
I’m constantly surprised by the strength of the feelings I have for him. The lengths I’m prepared to go to ensure his happiness. Didn’t you feel like that about us
My child has often asked me about you. I’ve never had any answers before. Recently, I was able to tell him that I’d learnt you were ill. Straightaway, he asked if he could see you. I feel sad that’s not possible. Now he misses out, too.
I know that my son’s father loves him just as much as I do. We’ve worked hard to give him what I didn’t have — a proper family.
I watch him with his dad and I am touched by the joy of their relationship. He also has someone who can teach him the things I can’t; how to be a man and, in time, how to be a good father.'
Saddened: Caroline is sad that her son will miss out on a relationship with his grandfather
This letter was my way of trying to make sense of my father’s actions. I realise now that we all make mistakes. We sometimes make the wrong decisions for the right reasons, and that can have catastrophic consequences.
My parents divorced in an era when there were no rules for how to deal with the children when you split up, so they just muddled through.
My father subsequently told my sister that it upset him to see us torn between him and my mother, so he withdrew. After that, he felt, there never seemed to be a good time to re-enter our lives.
It was a short-term decision. He didn’t think of the future. He would have to live for the rest of his life with the consequences of an ill-considered choice he made when we were young.
He did, of course, have time later, when we were adults, to put things right. He chose, rather weakly I fear, not to do that.
I wonder now if he just couldn’t face up to what he’d done — if staying away made it easier to forget. Whatever his reasons, I decided my father’s deathbed wasn’t the place for recriminations. It was time for me to make peace.
I told him in my letter:
'Time has passed. I don’t feel angry any more. I don’t believe you are a bad person. Weak, misguided — perhaps.
I think you made a lot of mistakes in life, and I think you’ve paid a high price for those mistakes. You missed out on us growing up and setting out into the world.
You’ve not had the chance to enjoy the people we’ve become, and haven’t shared in our triumphs. Now there’s a new generation you’ll never get to meet. I’m sure you’ve suffered more from the loss of us than we were damaged by your absence. Perhaps that’s why you stayed away.
So I want us to be at peace with each other. I want you to know that I forgave you long ago, and I hope that before you die you can forgive yourself.'
I signed the letter 'with love from Caroline', but my father never received it. He died before it reached him. I deliberated so long about what to say to him that I failed to post it until last Wednesday, and he died the following day.
Neither Vicky — who was working — nor I were with him, and that is a source of regret. I do not know who, if anyone, held his hand as he slipped away.
There will, of course, be a funeral, but none of us children will go. It may seem odd, but we do not think it is right for us to join his mourners.
If my father has another family, I doubt they would welcome our presence at his graveside at a time of such emotional tumult.
I ask myself now: does it matter that my father never read my letter Perhaps it doesn’t. I wrote it as much for myself as for him, and, as I did so, my anger and hurt dissipated.
It was cathartic. It helped me decide that I did want to see him, to say a proper goodbye.
Yet I wasn’t there when he slipped away. In truth, I wish I’d had the chance to acknowledge him, to have shown him I cared enough to see him.
Above all, I wished I could have told him I forgave him. What I am left with now is sadness, and abiding regret for what might have been — for all the lost years I could have shared with my father, and for the memories I might now have of a man I never knew.