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Letter to Follow - The Moment Everything Changed

"I hate you. I wish you'd never been born. You were never the daughter I wanted and you never will be! I'm writing you out of my will, you're never getting anything from me again." My father was almost spitting he was so angry. I don't remember what I had done or what the argument was about, only that he had given me a ride to my apartment and we had a blowout.

"You're not exactly the father I wanted either! And I don't need you for anything!" I screamed and I stomped off. I didn't talk to him for 15 more years. He wished I'd never been born? Fine. I was dead to him then.

I went on with my life, noticed five years later that he was sitting in his car, circling my workplace in a city 8 hours from home where I now lived, stalking me. I stared at him through an upstairs window as I wrote him a letter and told him to leave me alone.

I learned years later he was in town with his new daughter who was born with a rare birth defect that could only be treated at the University of Virginia. His greatest fear in life was having a special needs child. He and his second wife had had all the tests run to ensure their second-born would be *normal* so they could abort it if it weren't. No cripples or retards for him, he always said. All the tests came back normal, but when I looked at her belly I saw the defect and named it.

"Your child is deformed, some kind of rare defect," I said, seeing a vision of the fetus as I looked at her. The stepmonster smiled and patted her bulging belly. "No, all tests came back normal," she said, saccharine sweet. I shook my head and left. When the girl was born, I was right. My brother sent me photos of her. Her skull was twice the height of a normal skull, requiring extensive surgeries over the next decade. He would risk her being blind, losing her sense of smell and her brain to "look normal." Two daughters he never wanted. One deformed, one rebellious. He would never be happy. Things would never be normal.

My grandmother called me a witch. No one was speaking to me and never did, convinced I had "cursed" the baby.

15 years later my brother called. I was driving at the time I think. He told me my father had a brain tumor and stage 4, terminal brain cancer.  I pulled through the drive-through at McDonalds after getting the news, ordered an egg MacMuffin and considered my options. Then I called my father.

"Hey old man," I said evenly, friendly, matter-of-fact.

"I hear you have cancer."

"Hey Bec," he said, as though we'd spoken only the week before. Fifteen years of silence under the bridge.

"Yeah, stage 4. That's terminal you know."

"Yeah. I do."

We talked for 30 or 40 minutes, then I drove home and cried.

A friend emailed later that week. Tim Russert was asking for essays from readers for his new book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers, Letters from Daughters and Sons." Maybe I could write about my dad's tumor.

I banged out 1,000 words, emailed it and forgot about it, telling Tim about "my monster with the cancerous brain tumor."

My father and I emailed. We talked again. Weeks passed.

Tim Russert's editor, Bill Novak, wrote to tell me they loved my essay, that Tim was adding a chapter to his book called "Forgiveness," because of it. I celebrated the bittersweetness of it.

"Are you going to meet your father for lunch?" Novak asked.

"Yes."

"Let me know how it goes."

We met. We had the conversation we should have had 15 years, or 30 years ago. And I forgave him the years of mental, emotional, physical abuse so that when he died I could keep on living.

His condition worsened. I wrote him, "The only thing I ever wanted from you was you, your time, your love, your interest in me, your support of me. You, not your money. The only thing I want from you now is a letter telling me that you love me, that I matter, that you're sorry. I don't want your money. I'm not trying to get back into your will."

It was weeks before I heard from him again. It was to be the last mail I would ever get from him, shortly before Christmas. The envelope was familiar, his dental logo and business address on the outside. Inside was a check for $100 and stuck on top of  that, a yellow sticky note in wavery, spidery writing with his last words to me, "Letter to follow."

The letter never came, but the message did. And that was the moment that everything changed.

 

Epilogue: My father died almost three months later, in February 2006. Tim Russert's book came out. I quit my job as a newspaper editor in Colorado and took to the road in a used Chevy van with my Rottweiler, my cat and a plan to mourn and travel. What began as an adventure became a nightmare. I became one of the working homeless for the next 18 months. But I got off the streets, into a job, and then fell into another writing opportunity, won an all-expense paid trip to TED Global 2009, courtesy of author Dan Pink. I was selected from among hundreds of entries to also speak at TED and I did. You can see it here. Moral of the story? The moment everything changes is often the one you only see in hindsight. The moments that matter are subtle, like the fragrance of honeysuckle on damp night air, the flash of a firefly's light in a dark wood, the lingering taste of campfire smoke after a night of fishing, or the smell of coffee on a lover's lips after a morning good-bye kiss. Don't miss them. They are life itself.