I vividly remember the last time I heard my biological father’s voice. It was May, 1998 and I was weeks from graduating law school. I had just come home from class when my then fiancé said that my dad had called. I grabbed the phone to return his call, excited to share my upcoming graduation plans. I remember I got his voicemail and assumed he was at lunch given the three-hour time difference in California. I left him a long and excruciatingly detailed message. I explained how insanely busy I was with finals and how I would be equally as busy over the summer preparing for the bar exam. I gave him the details on my graduation ceremony, and provided a day-by-day schedule of my bar preparatory course and independent study plan. You see, I had learned a few years prior that he had no problem cutting me out of his life (ironically, around another graduation too), and I was hoping to avoid a repeat. So I gave him all that detail not because he cared one bit about the intricacies of my upcoming schedule, but to make it as easy as possible for him to reach me whenever he so desired.
Despite my best intentions, I never spoke to my father again.
When I was in high school, my father and his wife moved to California to run one of her family’s business locations. They paid for me to come visit them once shortly after the move but never again. And because the average college student can’t typically afford to buy cross-country airfare on the regular, I basically only saw my father at Christmas when they came back east. You’d think that would have made him eager to be a little more engaged with his only child. Granted, this was before Facetime, social media, texting…even cell phones (FUCK. I’M. OLD.) But there were still ways to make an effort. Yet he failed. Miserably. So when it came time for me to graduate college, I figured it was a perfect opportunity for him to make up for this lackluster performance. I mean, he was never going to be Father Of the Year. But seeing as I was the first person in my entire family to even go to college, including his wife and her 3 kids, I assumed he’d come to Philadelphia to celebrate his only daughter donning a cap and gown and receiving her (magna cum laude) diploma. Especially since he had paid for a portion of it (never mind that it was court-ordered). I remember calling him exuberantly one day with all the details, hoping to make plans for his visit. (Sounds familiar, right?) Instead, I was advised rather matter-of-factly that he would be coming east the following month for his step-daughter’s daughter’s first birthday party and he would just “see me then.” Let’s digest that, shall we? His only child was graduating from college, a first in his entire family, and instead of coming even just to see how his financial investment had panned out, he was flying home a month later to sing happy birthday to some kid who probably couldn’t even say “birthday.” I was crushed.
That was in 1990. He never called to congratulate me or came to see me the following month when he was in Philadelphia. What he did, however, was send me a card for my birthday a few weeks after my graduation in which he essentially called me an ungrateful brat who only wanted him to buy her things and otherwise to leave her alone. I was stunned. Other than the partial (in-state, pretty cheap and court-ordered) tuition and some other mandated child support, my father spent nothing on me. And unlike a lot of kids with divorced parents I knew, I never asked him for a dime – a fact my mom wouldn’t let me forget. So while missing my graduation was, in my mind, reason enough not to speak to him, the birthday note tipped the scales and I decided that unless he reached out to me, I was done trying.
I think I was halfway through law school when his mother died, prompting him to reach out after radio silence for over 2 years. I went to the funeral and we spoke. The conversation was stilted and superficial. There was no apology, no remorse, no explanation whatsoever for his failure to speak to me all that time. Eventually I brought up the elephant in the room and he vowed to never shut me out like that again. And because he was my father, albeit a shitty one, I wanted badly to believe him. So I did. And though we stayed in semi-regular contact until that last voicemail message I left him in 1998, the scars of his rebuke never really healed.
Fast forward to December, 2018. My father had been dead for 9 years, and I’d had little to no contact with his family until my step-sister messaged me on Facebook a week or so before Christmas. She wrote to tell me my step-mother had passed and that her lawyer had some “paperwork” for me. (Interestingly, a Facebook message from my step-sister is also the way I found out my father had died 9 years earlier). So there I was standing at my mailbox the day after Christmas, holding a large envelope from a law firm in California, my hands shaking from a mixture of nerves and the subzero temperatures. I didn’t need a $100,000 law school education to know it was about my step-mother’s estate; what I didn’t know was whether my father had finally made good on his promise to always take care of his only child.
Now, I say this with no snark or judgment whatsoever: my biological father came from nothing. He grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, one of two sons raised by a mechanic and a homemaker, neither of whom had high school educations. He never went to college, delivered packages for a famous Philadelphia pastry brand 40+ hours a week, and from what I can remember, preferred spending time with his bar mates more than with his wife and young daughter. So why, you ask, would I even be wondering about the estate of a man who probably would have drank away whatever inheritance might have been available for me anyway? Well, unlike me, he had managed to successfully marry for money the second time around (soooo…clearly not genetic). While she had always done well for herself, sometime in the early 2000s, my step-mother and her brother sold their parents’ Mom & Pop shop-turned international manufacturing company for multiple millions of dollars – a fact I learned at my father’s memorial service. Thanks to the Pastor’s eulogy that day, I also learned that when my father wasn’t putting around his exclusive golf course community in his personal golf cart (not speaking to his only child), he was cruising around the very expensive California town of Palm Desert in his $150,000 Aston Martin.
So there I was, envelope in hand, freezing my ass off wondering if my father had finally been true to his word. While I had been working steadily for several years after leaving the practice of law, the financial scars of my divorce and subsequent lay-off were still rather fresh, so an influx of cash that significant would have undoubtedly changed my life. The fact that I had just been sent paperwork while my step-brother and sisters and their families were Facebooking their Christmas trip to Disneyland did not bode well. Knowing my step-mother’s provenance, I trepidatiously opened the envelope and began flipping through forty-some pages of the “2000 Deevers Trust.”
“Lucky” for me, that “Esq.” after my name had afforded me the ability to skim legal documents with ease:
Identification of next of kin – check.
Description of the trust – check.
Identification of trust beneficiaries –
Step-sibling #1 – check
Step-sibling #2 – check
Step-sibling #3 – check
My name wasn’t there.
Blaming my anxiety and the cold for perhaps missing it, I read it again.
Identification of trust beneficiaries…
Nope, definitely not there.
Maybe it was somewhere else, I thought? So I kept reading. Maybe since I was his kid and not hers, it was in a different section from her children? Maybe it was in a separate document altogether? So I continued to skim, page after page, looking for anything that would quell the sinking feeling growing in my gut. And then I saw it.
17.2 – Disinheritance – General: Except as otherwise expressly provided in this instrument…
the Settlors specifically disinherit KAT DEEVERS
I numbly stared at the page.
My father had disinherited me.
Now, clearly I’m not royalty (legally, that is…in my own mind, I’m totally a princess). So it’s not like I was deprived my rights to the throne. Or a fancy family crest to hang in my even fancier castle. Or whatever other shit royals leave to their kin upon their passing. I was just some girl from Northeast Philly who got cut out of the will of a former Tastykake delivery guy from whom she happened to get half her chromosomes some 47 years before. The same man who (drunkenly, probably) promised he would always make sure his only child was taken care of – no matter what – had gone out of his way to make sure, legally, that his promise would be as empty in perpetuity as it was during his lifetime.
I must have re-read that section at least 5 times before I finally chucked the will in my purse and ran to get coffee. Before my second sip, the numbness had given way to incredulity, and very quickly thereafter, to anger. My father had delivered one final fuck you, and in the process, guaranteed that any future success I may have in my life would not in any way be attributable to any financial assistance from him.
Sitting at my dining room table trying to make sense of the morning’s events, I remembered my step-sister telling me my father had suffered a stroke the year before he died. I’m not a therapist, but I’m pretty sure a large number of people who survive what are often life-ending medical events, like strokes, end up thrust into periods of forced introspection where, at a minimum, they take stock of their lives. Admittedly, I don’t know how serious his stroke was, but from the way I understood it, as a man in his late-60’s with diabetes and a major drinking problem, it could have ended him. He’d had a year after that stroke to evaluate his life and the choices he had made. Maybe he stopped drinking. Maybe he started eating better. Maybe he started going to church. Or exercising. Or playing Mahjong. I’ll never know. But what I do know is during that remaining year of his life, my father never tried to contact me. The thought that the man who helped bring me into this world could have been staring his own exit from that very world right in the face, and never thought to make amends with his only child was truly gut-wrenching. And with that, the true depth of the situation hit me. You don’t have to have lost a child (or even have a child at all) to comprehend the magnitude of pain of parents who have. So as a parent, with very few, very extreme exceptions, I cannot fathom ever choosing to never speak to your child again. Yet that’s exactly what he had done. The thought that he had cheated death yet never reached a point where he decided he didn’t want to die never speaking to me again was beyond painful.
I picked up the will and through tear-weary eyes read the title again – the “2000 Deevers Trust”. It was written in 2000, just 2 years after that last voicemail message I left him. I don’t know for sure if the version I was holding that day was the original one drafted in 2000, but nothing in the document itself suggested it had ever been updated. That meant that my father had decided almost 20 years earlier that his then-28 year old daughter should never benefit from his dumb luck in landing and marrying a very wealthy woman. It meant he decided it didn’t matter if he never met his future grandchildren. It meant nothing about my life or my well-being mattered to him. Despite my name in the very title of the document, it was as if I never existed. Compounding that pain, neither his wife nor any of my step-siblings ever reached out to me to try and help mend things before he died. And in the 9 years between his death and hers, my step-mother didn’t mind sending me Candy Crush invites on Facebook, yet never had a change of heart about whether I deserved any of the “family” estate, an estate my father was at one point told explicitly by her would be split evenly among the four children.
As the days went on and New Year’s approached, I couldn’t stop thinking about my father’s decision. I had struggled majorly with finances after my separation: my car repossessed, my power shut off countless times. Undoubtedly, the money I could have received as an inheritance would have been a game-changer in my life. But instead, with the help of my dad – not the biological one but no doubt the real one, I regrouped and am more financially sound than I’ve been in quite some time. But it was more than the money that weighed on me. I still couldn’t grasp that my father had willingly chosen to have no contact with me for most of my adult life. Sure, there were times during that decade when I felt guilty for not contacting him. Events like my wedding(s) when I thought about him for a fleeting second. Moments when I thought I should have been the bigger person, even though I had done nothing wrong. He was my father after all. But then I had children of my own, and whatever residual guilt I may have harbored completely vanished. From the second of my daughters’ births, every atom of my existence vibrated with an innate need to protect and nurture them. I spent countless hours watching them sleep, awed by their very existence. I reveled in their successes, and agonized in their pain. I loved spending time with them and I missed them terribly when they were gone. I clawed and scratched and clawed some more to give them a better life than the one they had been born in to. And there has not been a single millisecond since they came into my life that I have been able to imagine a day without them in it. So my guilt in not reconciling with my father before he died eventually turned to sadness – for him. He had made a choice, but so had I. And while I may have lost out on a few hundred thousand dollars, he died having lost out on something far more valuable – me.