Flashes of hope in the darkest hour

My son, Sam, never knew his dad. One day he decided he wanted to meet him. Here's what happened.

By Anne Lamott
Published December 20, 2002 8:23PM (EST)

We have just gotten back from another holiday with Sam's dad. It feels like a miracle to be able to say that, and it feels that way every time his father and I spend time together with Sam, watching him ski or draw or sleep. Because for me to be able to write that first sentence seemed, for the first seven years of Sam's life, like an impossibility, and I want to tell you the story now, of how Sam and his father met, because in these dark and scary times, it always makes me feel hope again. I've said this before, but when God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.

I have written often about being a single mother, but rarely mentioned Sam's father except in "Operating Instructions," a journal of Sam's first year, where perhaps I said things that sounded a little -- what is the word -- victimized by and merciless towards Sam's father. I was a little angry. In early December of 1988, I had gotten pregnant by a man named John, whom I was dating, in the Biblical sense. We did not sit around all day making moo goo gai pan eyes at each another, but we hung out and loved to talk and go to movies and libraries. It was very nice. Then I got pregnant, and John already had two grown children, and was ready for independence and travel, while I was ready to have a baby. I was 34 and could not face more abortions, and my eggs were getting old, like eggs you'd get at 7-Eleven, where you don't know how long they'd been there. I decided to have the baby, and everything between us turned to shit and John went his way and I went mine.

Then I had this kid, and oy -- such a child. It was very hard in the beginning, and I hated that Sam didn't get to have a dad, but I provided him with the world's kindest men. I didn't even think of trying to find John, this man with whom I had such a bad history, who'd given me the greatest gift of my life.

When Sam asked about his father over the years, which was not often, I'd tell him the truth. Sort of. I did not mention how badly things had ended, that his dad and I had said things to each other that perhaps Jesus would not have said. I told him what a smart, sweet man his father was, which is true, that he was tall and good-looking. I told him I had two pictures of John he could see if he ever wanted to, that I'd help him if he ever wanted to try and find him. And I really, really hoped he'd never want to.

Then, out of the blue, when Sam was in first grade, there was a fine crack in the wall of silence. A letter arrived from John, in response to a story I'd published about Sam and his first library card. It was one sentence of sheer grief and pride and outreach -- but there was no phone number at which to call John. It just made me more confused, and in my swirl of blame and fear, I put it away.

Finally, six years ago, when Sam was 7, he started wondering more frequently where his dad was, and what kind of man he was. The man I was with at the time told me point blank that I had to help Sam begin his search. That it was time. I wept. I was so afraid -- sore afraid -- and hopeless with fear that Sam would never get to find his father or that, even worse, he would.

When Sam would ask about his father, I'd say, "Do you want to see his pictures?" He always said no, thank you. (He has good manners, which I believe can cover a multitude of sins.) But one day when he was still 7, we were sitting in the car after church. He looked solemn. It was clear he had something on his mind. He said, "I think I'd like to see those pictures now."

I felt like I had swallowed a bunch of rubber bands. But I got the photos out of the file, and handed them to Sam. He studied John for a moment, the big round eyes, small nose, dark hair, like his own.

"How could we find him?" he asked.

I didn't know, except that with writing, you start where you are, and you do it poorly. You just do it -- you do it afraid. And something happens.

I called John's old number, the one listed in the phone book, and no one answered. I called John's father's house, and no one answered there, either. I called his best friend, with whom I had lost touch, and there was no one there either. Then I prayed, because when all else fails, you follow instructions, and I began to pray the way my mentors have taught me: I prayed, "Help me, help me." I prayed, "Please. Please." I let go of an angstrom unit of blame. It was the hardest part. This batch of blame had more claw marks on it than most of the things I try to let go of. Blame is always my first response: Figure out whose faults things were, and then try to manipulate that person into correcting his or her behavior, so I can be more comfortable. I put a note to God in a tiny box, asking for direction. I told God I was taking my sticky fingers off the steering wheel, that He or She could be the driver, and I was be just another bozo on the bus.

Help is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn't matter how you pray -- head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or singing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. I wrote an essay for Salon years ago that began, "Some people think God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom." Prayer usually means praise, or surrender, acknowledging you have run out of bullets. But there are no firm rules. Rumi wrote, "There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." I just talk to God. I pray when people I love are sick, and I prayed when I didn't know if I should have a baby. I pray when my work is horrible, or suddenly, miraculously, better. I cried out silently every few hours during the last two years of my mother's life. I even ask for help in coping with George Bush. I pray that Bush will make decisions for the common good, which he has not done, but I pray that he might slip up and do it anyway. I do not pray for his success, as I do not pray for mine. I pray that he and his people not destroy everything on the way down.

When I am in my right mind, which is about twice a month, I pray kindly.

Sam prayed for his dad every night.

Nothing happened. I determined to take this up with God when we meet: "IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH SKIN OFF YOUR NOSE TO GIVE MY CHILD AN ANSWER?" I couldn't believe it. Usually if you pray from the heart, you get an answer -- the phone rings or the mail comes and light gets in through the cracks, so you can see the next right thing to do. That's all you need. But nothing happened at first. I secretly believed we'd bump into John at the market, perhaps, or the movies, but we didn't. I kept calling the best friend, but it turned out I had the wrong number. Finally I found the right number, but the friend didn't know where John was either, except that John's dad had been sick, so John was probably in town taking care of him. I called John's father again. No one answered.

Things got worse and worse. I decided it would have been better if we'd never even tried. Sam had been doing fine before we'd started looking. Now he was frustrated, mad at his dad, and mostly mad at me. He said that if I was a better person, I would not have driven his father away. I wanted to find him, for Sam, but at the same time, this was someone I hadn't seen in seven years, about whom I had, at best, mixed feelings. It was a mess. We got more frustrated, more stuck, less hopeful. But Wendell Berry said once, at a coffeehouse in Mill Valley on a rainy dark December day, "It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born." And he's not even a Christian. That line came back to me, out of nowhere, and I decided to practice radical hope, hope in the face of not having a clue. I decided that God was not off doing the dishes while Sam sought help: God heard his prayers, and was working on it.

And within a week, the local paper carried John's father's obituary. This is God's own truth. The story said Sam's grandfather had been cared for until the end by his only son. Sam's father was in town. I felt like a cartoon character who is standing too close to a huge Buddhist gong.

"I think I know where he is," I told Sam after school. "He's at his father's home." We decided to let a little time pass, so he could heal up from the loss of his own father, and then Sam would write him a letter.

His letter began, "Hi, Dad, it's me, Sam, and I am a good little boy."

He said he wanted to know him and to be friends. He put the letter in a small red mailbox, with his favorite action figurines, and some candy, and we took it to the post office.

A week later Sam heard from his father, who couldn't wait to meet him.

This is the only part of the story I am allowed to tell, except to say that a week after their first shy meeting, a few days after their first meal together, John was standing in the doorway of Sam's second-grade classroom when school ended for the day. He was holding a soccer ball. Sam reported later that all the kids turned to look at him, having been prepared by Sam's teacher for the introduction, but one kid said anyway, "Who's that guy over there?"

And Sam said, "Oh -- that's my dad." I mean: I ask you.

It's not perfect, because it is not TV and we are real people with scarred, worried hearts. But it's amazing a lot of the time. Where there was darkness, silence and blame, there's now a family, and that means there's mess and misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and sighs. But it is a family: Sam and his father love and like each other. Sam has a new stepmother this time, and she's great. Can you imagine how impossible a dream this was for Sam? He even gets to whine about our shortcomings, like any old child: "Why doesn't this family ever bring thermoses of cocoa, like the other families?"

It's cold when we get to see his father, because we usually visit in early winter. Things go wrong every time, but more things go well. We are mostly lit by domestic fires, logs in the fireplace, candles. But one year his father took us to a frozen lake on a mountain, that you got to by gondola, where you could rent ice skates, and buy hot food. His father and I watched Sam skate. We got to be really proud at the same time. Maybe married parents do this all the time and it is not all that big a deal. But it was to us. When we got too cold, we went and warmed ourselves over trashcans at the edge of the rink, in which people had built hobo fires with paper cups and wrappers, and twigs they had found in the snow.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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