From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Letter to a Stranger

Only the brave know how to forgive; it is the most refined and generous pitch of virtue human nature can arrive at.

Lawrence Sterne

“You’ve got a letter from your dad.” My husband’s words stopped me on my way into the bedroom to change clothes. It was late in September, and we were already running late for the Friday night football game where our boys were marching with their high-school band. We left the house a few minutes later, with the letter still sitting on the counter, unopened. I wanted to have a fun evening, yelling with the other band parents, not wondering and worrying about what the letter contained. And I did have fun—but I did wonder, and worry.

I had missed having my father in my life as a child. By all accounts, we had been extraordinarily close before the divorce. Most kids I knew in the sixties and early seventies had a dad, and being different was painful. Information regarding my father was always scarce. When Mom said anything about him, she just told me that he was a good dad. But the question always plagued me: If he was such a good dad, why didn’t he want to see me? Whatever the reasons, I had seen my father a grand total of three times since second grade.

As the years went by, the emotions I felt about him ran the gamut: hurt, disappointment, anger, indifference. At one point, in my thirties, I wished secretly that he’d just die so that I wouldn’t have to worry about him trying to come back into my life. I was doing well—a happy marriage, two children of whom I was extremely proud, a job that gave me satisfaction—why did I need a father? But the years continued to pass, and though I still felt very angry at times, I found myself turning forty and wondering about him. Was he happy? Did he have other children? What had really happened between him and my mom? I asked a colleague who was visiting the town where I thought my father lived to check the phone book for his listing. She found his name and brought me his address. I carried it in my checkbook for six months.

A few months before my forty-first birthday, I wrote the letter I had been contemplating all summer. And rewrote it, and rewrote it. After all, the man was a stranger to me, and I to him. The finished product was short and matter-of-fact:

September 13, 1997

Dear Bill:

I apologize for calling you by your first name. I have no idea how to address you—everything I can come up with sounds too weird, so I hope “Bill” will be okay for now.

I don’t have many questions, but they are the ones I need to ask. It may be that your ability to answer them is long gone—and if so, it’s okay. You don’t have to worry about starting something here that you might not want to finish. I really want nothing more from you than a few facts, but I’d particularly like to hear your side of things. But please, if you decide to answer, do it in writing. I don’t think I’m ready for more than that right now.

It was a very self-protective letter, designed to minimize the hurt I felt sure was coming: no answer, or worse, a cool “thanks but no thanks.”

That Friday night after the football game, I read:

Dearest Karen:

Wow, what a surprise to hear from you. . . . Your question about why I did not keep in touch—I made a decision that it was better for you and your brother not to be sent back and forth between your mother and I. . . . I now realize that was a wrong (underlined twice) decision. That was a long time ago. . . . I miss you so very much, and only hope that someday I could be a part of your life again.

My love,
Your dad

There was more, of course, but I focused on those two parts; he was sorry he hadn’t been a part of my life in the past, and he wanted to be a part of it in the future.

It took me a month to sort out my feelings enough to write again:

October 29, 1997

Dear Bill:

Truthfully, this father-daughter thing scares me to death. What if you’re someone I don’t like? Worse, what if I’m someone you don’t like? What if we write a couple of letters and then you quit writing and it’s like I’m five years old again? I guess it’s about forgiveness. It requires no action on your part; I will be satisfied whether or not you ever respond again because I made the effort. I hope God will take the effort and make it into something good. I’m sorry if a writing relationship is less than you were hoping for. A year ago, even writing a letter would have freaked me out . . .

November 5, 1997

Hi Sweetheart:

The fact that you wrote back makes me feel so good, like the void in my life is starting to be filled. I do understand your feelings about me, all I can hope for is our starting to learn about each other will hopefully become a comfortable situation for us both.

His future letters were full of details about his happily married life and his past. In each one, he reiterated his love for me. Mine were a little more restrained, full of questions and misgivings:

November 13, 1997

Dear Dad: (I had progressed!)

I have to tell you that it was kind of uncomfortable for me to read that you love me. I mean, you don’t really know me, so how can you know that you love me? But then, I thought about my children at five years old and knew that I would love them if I never saw them again. So it’s a different kind of emotion for me; I can’t say yet that I love you, or if I will. All I can say at this point is I, too, am full of emotions and want to continue to learn about you. I will leave the rest to God to work out.

We continued to write to each other, usually within a week of receiving the other’s letter. We decided to meet after the holidays, and on Christmas Eve I spoke to my father on the phone for the first time in more than fifteen years. We both cried. On January 9, 1998, when I walked off the plane and saw his face filled with joy (and looking so much like mine), I knew God had indeed worked it out.

Now, I speak to my father almost every day, and our lives have become irrevocably entwined. Each conversation ends with “I love you,” and now I believe that he means it, as I do. The anger I felt so often has mysteriously disappeared, and a wonderful sense of peace has taken its place. My life has been changed, in joyous ways I could never imagine, by that letter to a stranger.

Karen L. Cooper

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