Dear Dad is the story of my life told in the form of letters to my father, Walter Michael Jaworski, who died of a heart attack when I was five and whom, therefore, I never got to know. It is not a maudlin story of regret, but the tale of how one’s entire life — conscious and unconscious — can be shaped by the defining moment of a parent’s death, and how my own fatherhood lifted me from a lifetime of pain.
The idea of a letter to my father was suggested by a kindly psychotherapist who, during my mental breakdown in mid-life, suggested it as a form of healing. Though I was healed, I never wrote that letter — and now I know why. Instead of a farewell letter to my dad, I needed to tell him all about my life, to share with him all the things I might have shared had he lived. I wanted not a “goodbye” but a “hello,” an introduction even; for he never got to know me, nor I him.
These letters, then, are for the father of my imagination, as well as for all those who in childhood have lost a parent, and for the surviving parents, siblings and relatives of such families. But there are elements to the story that may elicit a broader appeal. For personal loss and the struggle for redemption are themes that transcend parental loss; indeed, they evoke, perhaps, the central features of our contemporary lives.
On the day that you died, Stephen and I were playing in the woods behind the house. We were sitting near the place where the big Easter egg hunt was held earlier that year, and where I found the “golden egg,” because you showed me where it was hidden. Stephen and I did that often, I think, sitting on the ground there and fashioning objects from scrap pieces of wire and wood. This time, I was shaping wire into a triangle when I looked up and saw the flashing lights of an ambulance in front of our house. “I hope nothing’s wrong with my mother,” I said, and bolted home, running around the fence that divided the woods and our yard. When I got home, Mom was okay but you were gone. I never saw you again.
Years later, we cut a hole through that fence for easy access, and to fulfill my secret wish that had I gotten home sooner, things would have turned out differently.
I ran into the porch and encountered a row of people, neighbors mostly, lining the path from porch to kitchen. I tried to run back outside to escape from the terror of the unknown. Why were these people here? Clearly, something was wrong. But someone grabbed me and brought me to Mom. A minister was there, too, and he and Mom brought me into my bedroom to explain what had happened. I ran away from them, refusing to listen.
That’s all I remember of that day. Nor do I remember the next day, nor the next, nor most of the following three or four years. I fell into a huge abyss, which I filled with the fear and terror of the unknown, and into which I poured in all my pain. There I remained for over 30 years.