I picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Marsh, this is Bill.”
“Hey, Bill, how are you?”
“I need to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“Is your daughter living on the street?”
“What!” It had to be Heather. I knew all the others were okay—all living on their own. But I worried about Heather. Things had not gone well for her lately. She was the youngest of two biological and three adopted kids. My eldest two, Kathi and Kim, both in their late twenties, had remained in Ohio when the rest of us moved to San Diego.
Bill told me he’d seen her walking along trailing a blanket over her shoulder.
I’d have to go look for her. See what was going on.
A few moments after I hung up, my son David called. “Dad, is Heather living on the street?”
“I don’t know, David. She left here yesterday. Didn’t say where she was going. She left while we were at the post office.”
Three months earlier my partner and I had let Heather move back in with us after her roommate skipped on the rent and Heather was evicted. The understanding was that once she’d paid the past due rent, she’d pay us fifty dollars a month. This included three meals a day and run of the house. She didn’t think that was fair.
“When I went out to my van this morning,” David said, “I saw some clothes on the back seat. They looked like Heather’s.”
My wife, their mother, had died when Heather was just four, Beth five, and David six. The two older girls were in high school. After that event, until just recently, Heather had been the one closest to me emotionally. Then everything started to change with her.
Maybe it was because my partner and I decided to leave the four-bedroom house after Beth and David moved out. We asked Heather if she’d like to come with us to a smaller place, an apartment. She said no, but did she really mean yes?
Heather’s very bright. During her last year of junior high, she was notified that, because of this, she could take college classes while in high school. She refused. She said she didn’t want to work that hard. No matter how hard I tried to convince her that this was a wonderful opportunity, she refused.
In high school, she tried out and became a member of the cheerleading squad. Soon afterward the teacher, who was the squad sponsor, began to call. “Heather didn’t show up today.” “Heather said she wanted to go to the mall and not practice.” “Heather has been missing too many practices. I don’t know what to do except cut her from the squad.”
I told the sponsor to go ahead and do it. When I asked Heather why she’d been missing practice, she told me, “It takes too much time. I want to do other things.” I couldn’t reason with her.
The school had always called when Heather or the other kids were absent. So I had no idea that Heather wasn’t attending classes. One of Beth’s friends said that for three weeks Heather had been going to a fast food restaurant and sitting there every day from the time school started till the time it ended. This was my daughter who could have finished high school as a college junior. Now, apparently, she was a high school dropout.
She was one class short on requirements for graduation, which wasn’t her fault. A counselor had overlooked the fact that she needed the class. However, the administration did tell her she could participate in the graduation ceremony and make up the extra class during the summer. “No,” she told me, “I’m not going to spend my summer going to school.”
“Heather, you have to finish!”
“It’s too late now,” she told me the day I confronted her about it. “I’ve missed too much school and I’m way behind.”
“I’m sure we can work things out.”
She refused to try.
One of Beth’s friends had started a day care center for pre-kindergartners and hired Heather to help her. A state inspector discovered that Heather had not been certified for the job. This meant she would have to attend a weekend training session, which the friend said she’d pay for.
In the meantime, Heather had moved out to share an apartment with two other girls. “I don’t have to do that,” she told Beth’s friend. “I know how to take care of kids!” So she quit. Now here she was, without a high school diploma and without a job.
She moved in with friends of my sons—a young married couple. They didn’t know what to do when she stopped paying rent. By this time, she wasn’t talking to anyone else in the family, except David, who had now moved to Mammoth Lakes but dropped in on the two friends when he came to town to visit.
My wife and I started the tradition with Kathi and Kim of taking the kids out for dinner to the restaurant of their choice on their birthdays, something I continued. My partner called to ask Heather where she’d like to go. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I have a life too!” she said and hung up.
I tried to fathom why she would do this. I had no idea.
The last time I saw Heather was on Thanksgiving Day, 1996. I had no inkling that this would be the last time. David, Beth, and Heather came to the house for dinner. David and Beth helped with preparation and cleanup. Heather didn’t. She just sat, doing nothing, though she seemed in a good mood.
In the meantime, my partner and I decided to move to Baja California, Mexico. We did so a little over two months later. We lived only a half hour from the border. For the first couple of years, I wrote to Heather and sent her birthday and Christmas gifts. She didn’t acknowledge receiving them and never contacted me. Finally, I gave up.
At this point, Heather speaks to no one else in the family, not even David. I did hear she has a very good job—as systems analyst for a San Diego firm. How did she do so when she quit high school? Shortly after this, David called to tell me I should try to get in touch with Heather. It was important. By now, I didn’t know where she was living, so I couldn’t. When I told this to David, he said she had a baby—a boy.
While in junior high, Heather had told me she never planned to get married. I thought it was just something a kid might say.
But she wasn’t married.
It was like the old movie where the intelligent woman picks out a handsome man with whom to have an affair—and a child. Apparently, Heather did just that. At least that’s what David told me. Once she was pregnant she ditched the child’s father. I know nothing more about the boy—not even his name—nor exactly how old he is. I suppose he must be in his mid- to late-teens.
About seven years ago—thirteen years after moving to Mexico—I received an email. “Hi, Dad. How are you?” It was from Heather. Finally, I thought. Finally. I felt tears flowing down my cheeks. Immediately, I wrote back asking about her and my grandson—how they were, where they were, what she was doing, and dozen other questions.
I don’t consider myself the best of fathers. I’ve always been too wrapped up in my writing. I should have given the kids more attention, but I did the best I could.
Still it hurt terribly.
I loved Heather. Certainly, I still love her—but it’s that girl, that young woman she used to be, that I love, not the mature woman. I know nothing about that woman. I think perhaps the biggest hurt for me came when David told me something Heather once said. “He’s not my Dad. I don’t know my dad. Marsh Cassady is just someone who took care of me.”
Maybe things would have been different had Pat not died. Maybe the kids all desperately needed their mother. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried for those few years to take care of the kids myself. There were times, as a struggling writer, that I had to take part-time jobs, teaching college classes, directing plays. At first the older kids took care of the younger ones when I had to work. But then we moved, and the older kids were no longer around.
I knew other parents that have no contact with one or more of their kids.
I know a father whose son disappeared decades ago. The last he and his wife heard the son was in South America.
Pat and I were friends with a family whose daughter ran away at eighteen and married a man old enough to be her grandfather. For years, she had no contact with her parents. But then finally they became reunited.
Will Heather and I become reunited? It’s been over twenty years now since I’ve seen her. She was little more than a girl then. Now she’s a middle-aged woman. I doubt we’ll ever be able to get together again.
For years, this caused me pain. It’s not my fault, I thought. I didn’t do anything wrong. But of course, I did things wrong. No parent is perfect. They make mistakes, do thing that hurt their children emotionally. But usually, I think, this isn’t intentional.
Every day I wondered what I did wrong?
Did Heather need support that I didn’t recognize?
Should I have forced her to take college classes in high school?
If so, how?
Would this have happened if Pat were still alive?
There wasn’t a day that passed that I didn’t feel guilty, that I didn’t miss Heather.
I began to dwell on it too much. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my kids back in Ohio. David is now a chef in Hawaii. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him too. I saw Beth a couple of years ago. She lives in Florida, about as far away physically as it’s possible to be in the continental United States But we talk on the phone. I talk with David on the phone.
For years, every time I spoke with David or Beth, I asked, “Have you talked to Heather?” There isn’t a day that I don’t think of her, wonder how she is, where she is, what she’s doing—and most of all why she divorced herself from me and then from the rest of the family.
I had to let go.
I knew that.
But how? She was my baby.
She was the one that my Pat spent hours with as she was dying of multiple melanoma. Heather was the one who learned to count and read even before she entered kindergarten, and all on her own. I loved her. I wanted her to be a part of my life and for me to be a part of hers.
Maybe it isn’t my fault things turned out the way they did, I thought. Maybe it’s because of something inherent in Heather’s nature. Maybe it has something to do with her biological parents? No matter the reason, I couldn’t carry the guilt and the doubts forever.
I miss Heather.
I’d love to see her.
I’d love to get to know my grandson. But I’m getting up in years now, so I have no more hope that this will happen, no more expectation. But one morning I woke up and knew something was different. You know how it is when you first come out of a night’s sleep. You’re not quite fully aware. That’s the way it was with me. At first I couldn’t figure out why I felt different.
Had something happened to cause me to feel as if things were right with the world?
Then it hit me.
I no longer felt guilty. I’d done my best.
Under different circumstances, things might have been different. But they weren’t. Heather had spent most of her life without a mother. But that certainly wasn’t my fault. And so far as I knew, I hadn’t done anything to cause Heather to react as she’d done.
For years I’d been trying to let go. For years I couldn’t. Now it wasn’t impossible. I took a deep breath and released it. Suddenly, it was as if a curse of some sort had been lifted.
I had finally let go.