Like many others of my generation, I grew up without a dad. I ended up being of that household that was lumped into “Unwed mother”, which often gave the impression that it was the fault of the mother that the father never stuck around. But that’s obviously for another article.
Not having a dad made things interesting in that earlier days in school were often spent explaining why there was no dad around. So, I used to invent all sorts of reasons why my dad was never around. As I grew up in the late 60s, early 70s, one of my earlier fantasies was that my father was missing in action from Vietnam, and that one day he would return. As years went by and he never returned, that fantasy switched from MIA to killed in Vietnam, because no one wants to have to wait forever. And then the fantasy sort of faded into some obscure belief that he must have been a veteran that may or may not have gone to Vietnam, and then it no longer really seemed to matter.
The fact is: My dad left when I was about one or two years old. He started by shouldering his responsibilities, and then he just disappeared, the common joke of “went out for smokes and never came back.” For years, I was convinced that it must have been something I did. Then it was a condemnation of my mom. And then, finally an acceptance that neither one of these possibilities were the case. I came to the realization that my dad was an asshole. He had responsibilities, and he decided he didn’t want anything to do with them.
For years, I was convinced that he would come back, because all sons want to think that their dad would care enough to come back. But he never did. Unlike other great stories of child abandonment, there’s usually that poignant story of how the dad showed up one day, did some magnanimous thing and then left again. But that never happened. He never came back. He never cared.
A friend of the family told me that she had seen him in town, kind of ran into him at a supermarket and said hi. He looked all embarrassed, responded quickly and then slinked away into the shadows, never to be seen again. Years later, I realized how very much like him that probably was.
Even more years later, I became a counterintelligence agent, which is only important to this story because becoming something like that means that I had at my fingertips the ability to find pretty much anyone I wanted to. Lumped with the skills that also come with that ability, I knew for the longest time that if I really wanted to know where he was I could find him. But I chose not to. At the time, I often told myself that it was because I wouldn’t like what I found, and another part of me believed he was probably already dead.
After I left government service, I decided, on a whim, to find him. So I went back to my mad skills of finding people and found him. Well, I didn’t exactly find him. I found his gravestone. He died in 1985, twenty years after I had been born.
For years, I had always imagined that he was secretly watching me, observing my accomplishments as I checked off a list of important moments in my life, like attending West Point, my military career, my education, my published novels, my victory in the struggle over whether to choose paper or plastic in the checkout line, etc., but he died before any of that ever happened. So he never would have known.
So I made a pilgrimage to his grave site, even if to complete some symmetry of the whole thing. And that’s when I saw it, his gravestone:
Kenneth Duane Gundrum
You’ll Be Missed
After all those years, he started another family and was remembered for it. I’m really at a loss as to what I’m supposed to say.