Updated: Mar 4
I sat in the clubhouse restaurant and watched the rain march up the 18th fairway of the Seven Lakes Golf course. I was a little anxious, and so I let my mind drift to the many times in the mid-1980s when I sat here doing much the same thing.
It was here in North Carolina where my brother and I hid successfully from our father for years—a time of respite from custody battles and psychological—and sometimes physical—abuse.
It was an analog era when one could still vanish, but even back then, we were eventually found.
In the spring of 1974, my mother, father and I lived in the urban sprawl of Chicago known as Wheaton, Illinois. I was two. Intermittently staying with us during that time were two of my father’s four sons from his first marriage, Scott and Jeff–the traveling musicians.
Unbeknownst to anyone but her, my mother was plotting her first vanishing act, an overdue divorce from my Dad, which made what happened next all the more difficult. David, the youngest of my four half-brothers at ten years old, was recently convinced by my father to come to live with us permanently.
Just two weeks later, pregnant with my new brother, my mother boarded a plane at O’Hare airport and left my father, taking up residence with my grandmother in Pearl River, New York.
Before the departure, there were several discussions between Mom and my grandmother about David, but it boiled down to having no legal rights whatsoever regarding his custody. David remained with Dad.
When the divorce finalized, Dad moved back to Stamford Connecticut—where I was born—and weekend visitations ensued. I would occasionally see Randy, my father’s second-oldest son. I never saw Jeff, Scott or David again.
Thanksgiving of 1993, my father was in the late stages of pancreatic cancer, and he invited Jeff, Scott, Randy, and my younger brother Robert to visit him at his home. I was not invited. My relationship with Dad came to a climactic end in 1987 with the Stamford police intervening. I asked my brother to inquire about David. There was nothing to report.
The parallels between David and I are eerie—a complete falling out with both sides of our immediate family resulting in a distressing vagabond existence through young adulthood, but I think David may have had it worse.
David’s mother had fallen prey to addictions and was making him pay rent to stay with her in New Hampshire. Dad had resolved to “rescue” him.
My father’s idea of a stable home environment was first to make David drive my mother’s station wagon back from long-term parking at O’Hare. He could barely reach the pedals.
Next, David became the focal point of Dad’s ritualistic drunken violence—episodes to which I can attest are not only terrifying but permanently damaging.
David hit the road, but he was quickly picked up by authorities hitchhiking out West. He was placed in a halfway house until his custody could be sorted out. The halfway house was both a blessing and a curse—the older individuals smacked him around, but they protected him when Dad showed up.
Eventually, David was forced back to his mother’s home where nothing had changed. A month later he forged a birth certificate to say he was 15 so he could get a job, and then David vanished. Eventually, he established random contact with his older brothers.
In November of 2014, I got a curious friend request on Facebook. My brother Robert had found Jeff Smith on the very day my Dad’s first wife passed away. Jeff and Scott, in turn, found me after 40 years. The digital era had lifted the veil.
It was the innocuous name of “Smith” and the fact that no one knew where each brother had geographically landed that had proven problematic for years.
Jeff and Scott live in Eugene, Oregon. Randy lived in Oklahoma has since passed away. I again inquired about David, and Jeff gave me the definitive lead.
I found his Linked-In page. He had changed his name. I researched the name of his company and found an old blog of his detailing various aspects of software information systems…and a phone number, area code 704—David had landed in North Carolina.
I unlocked my iPhone, punched some numbers, and continued to stare at the fairway. There was a receptionist, and then my Dad’s voice.
“Hello, sir,” I said. “I thought maybe I should call you because we are both living in North Carolina, and I believe we are related--that is if your father’s name is Walter Smith. This is Sean Smith.”
“Oh…oh yes, we are related.”
Needless to say, there was much catching up—a merging of timelines, a filling in of blanks.
On Thanksgiving of 2015, I spoke to Jeff and Scott on the phone. Jeff is a pastor of a church. Scott trains hospice nurses. I coordinate the services of the disabled. Together with my younger brother, a sheriff’s deputy, we were considering then a trip to see Randy.
There may be some residual dings, dents, and dysfunctions in our personalities, but we all have reappeared as good men, and now we know it perhaps runs in the family.