When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
by Melody Carlson
Last night I found myself going through a dead man’s wallet. Okay, before you get too concerned, let me explain. The wallet belonged to my dad who passed away last week. A man who walked out of my life when I was three. A man who could’ve been a member of the sad AAA club—alcohol, abuse, abandonment. And although this man remained a virtual stranger to me throughout most of my life, I was the one who got to make arrangements for him after he departed this world. So for the last few days I’ve been trying to make sense out of a life that just didn’t. Not to me anyway.
For the record, I’d made peace with my dad a long time ago. As a teenager I became a Christian and knew I needed to forgive him. I began praying for him, and he continued drinking, playing piano in nightclubs, and keeping a safe distance from us (on separate coasts). But my life was full and busy by then—my need for a ‘daddy’ diminished. But more years passed and he eventually made some changes. In his fifties, he joined AA and got sober. He fell off the bandwagon a few times, but for the most part (from what I know) he lived an ordinary, albeit disappointing, sort of life.
A frustrated musician, recovering alcoholic, absentee father . . . I know his path wasn’t easy. But he was still a charmer—dapper dresser, great talker, well-informed, and a very talented pianist who played a stylistic form of jazz that really could’ve gone somewhere. But never really did. These were pieces of the puzzle that I managed to gather along the way, but I never really felt like I knew him.
I did know enough about my dad’s history to have real empathy for why he was the way he was. Born in New York City in the 1930’s, he was immediately surrendered to adoption, which landed him in a dysfunctional home where he suffered abuse that included cigarette burns. Removed from that home as an infant, he was placed in an orphanage—assigned a guardian. I read all this in his adoption papers. Another piece of the puzzle. But, still, it didn’t quite make sense to me. And, as a writer who likes answers to her questions, I had a lot of them about my dad’s life. When people ask me about my ancestral heritage, I can list everything on my mom’s side for generations. But my dad’s side is a blank slate. As a child, I used to just make it up. Sometimes I’d claim I was Jewish. Sometimes Native American or Irish. Whatever suited me at the moment.
I knew that my dad got adopted a second time when he was six. And although he loved his adoptive parents and seemed to have a fairly happy childhood, their conservative religious beliefs collided with his adolescence. As a teen he became ‘rebellious’ by falling in love with music. Particularly jazz. The church didn’t approve. Somehow this led to him enlisting in the Navy when he was only seventeen. According to my mother, his parents were glad to be rid of him—and the Navy taught him to drink. But I’m pretty sure there’s more to the story.
In my letters to my dad, particularly in recent years, I’d often asked him to share about his early childhood, the first adoption, life in the orphanage, his birth parents, etc.. I even made up a notebook filled with questions that I sent to him, an invitation for him to reminisce and write about his childhood, favorite memories, friends, family, etc.. Something to leave behind for his grandkids. But he never did. I asked him about doing a DNA test that I would pay for. But he ignored the offer. He was good at hedging my questions, sometimes making me think he had something to hide. But what? In his last couple of years, he promised that ‘someday’ he’d tell me ‘everything.’ But he never did.
As a writer, I’m pretty good at making up stories. A part of me says I can just make his story up too, fill in the blanks as I like. As I went through his wallet last night, I could almost imagine a story starting to unwind. I wondered how long he’d carried the old newspaper photo in his wallet. It’s a touching shot of Babe Ruth’s back while standing in Yankee stadium, taken the day the Babe retired—two months before his death. I discovered this interesting trivia by researching the photo. See, how a story gets started? And maybe I will tell a fictionalized version about my dad someday. Or not.
Because I’m beginning to realize something important. My dad’s story has been written in me. I am a product of my father’s seemingly senseless story. Many challenges in my childhood—stuff that got blamed on him like abandonment, poverty, loneliness—have helped to form the writer I am today. I’ve often said that if I’d had a normal childhood and adolescence, I would have little to write about. I can thank my dad for that.
So, as I’m trying to make sense of my dad’s confusing life, thinking that perhaps I need to ‘rewrite’ it so that I can understand it better, I realize that God has already rewritten a lot of that story. He is still rewriting it today. Because God is the Great Recycler. He salvages what appears totally wasted. He creates wholeness out of brokenness, restores beauty from ugliness. It happens all the time.
As if to prove this irony, as I placed my dad’s worn leather wallet on top of my latest book, it hit me like a ton of butterfly kisses. My new release, called Once Upon a Summertime, is about a fatherless young woman who grew up with some dysfunctional challenges that seemed to have trapped her in a dead-end existence. But suddenly life offers her the chance to start over—in New York City. Which is, ironically, the same place where my dad’s life began more than eighty years ago. And so, once again, God has helped make sense out of what I had deemed senseless.
Oh, I still have questions—and I might even write that book someday—but for the most part I am letting it go . . . trusting that God’s ways really are higher than mine. And I’m believing that, like my dad told his landlady shortly before he died, he is enjoying a happy reunion with his parents right now. And maybe even shaking hands with Babe Ruth. And perhaps some of his own questions—I suspect he had many—have been answered by now.
Melody Carlson has published more than 200 books for children, teens, and adults—with total sales of over 6.5 million copies. Several of her books have won various writing awards, including the Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award. She and her husband enjoy the great outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.
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