Out Of The Ashes

On Remembrance Day I have two fathers to thank for their sacrifices in World War II. The man who raised me and the one I called Dad, fought in the Canadian Army. He was wounded twice, once on the last day of the war. Gordon, my birth father, was in the RCAF and piloted a Lancaster Bomber on numerous missions. This is the story of how I found Gordon after 35 years of separation and how his memories of the war surfaced in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York City in 2001.

“This is Gordon and, yes, I am your father,” the voice on the other end of the line said in response to my letter in 1988. In one of the many amazing instances of synchronicity in my life, I had, after many years, finally found my birth father.

When I mailed the letter I had no idea what the outcome would be, nor even if it was the right man. Would he even want to meet me? I accepted that he might not want to do so.

Talking to him that day on the phone had seemed so natural and easy. It was as though we had just said goodbye the day before. In reality, I had not seen or spoken to him for 35 years. I had few conscious memories left of the man I last saw when I was four-years-old and, yet, I knew finding him was vital to my future. We talked and laughed for 45 minutes. I remember how excited he was and that I could actually feel the adrenalin running through the phone. A short two weeks later, I was driving down to New York State to meet my birth father.

When Gordon walked towards me in their kitchen and hugged me I knew I had finally come home. Not to a father or the siblings I was soon to meet, but to myself. I felt out of place my whole life because in my soul I had no tether. But I saw myself in Gordon and knew in that moment I had healed a large hole inside. Even if I never saw him again after the visit, I felt at peace, felt complete. Like me, he was supportive, caring, emotionally intuitive, interested in many facets of life and he had a slightly dark sense of humour. On the negative side, we both suffered from depression and had been through medical battles.

The next couple of years were good. We communicated often and he supported me as I finished writing a book that had taken six out of 11 years of my life to write, The Opening Act, Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953. The day I finished it he sent me a card and flowers.

We talked about healing the wounds of the past. He recognized my feelings of abandonment and understood he was responsible for those feelings. Mostly he nurtured me and I tried to help him heal some of his own pain.

I made the decision to move to the other end of Canada, ironically to the province of his birth. He encouraged the move even though he knew it meant we might never see each other again. We never did. Gordon’s withdrawn personality returned and he found his way back into his shell but for a space in time I gave him renewed energy and hope, “gave him back his life” he told me.

It was frustrating, though, to watch Gordon retreat emotionally. I was in Canada and he was in New York and it was hard to hold on to him.

Then 9/11 happened and out of the ashes of New York I was given a gift, a way to connect to a part of my father he had forever hidden away. It was September 13th and I was exhausted and discouraged from two days of trying to get through to New York. Finally I got his machine, and started to say I hoped he was ok, when he picked up the phone.

“Susan, you’re a miracle,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was really happy or on the verge of tears. He started crying almost as soon as I started talking. He told me how proud he was of the person I had grown up to be and acknowledged being bad at communicating. More than once Gordon kept coming back to being so joyous over my phone call. He was often crying or trying to control the sobs. I also could almost hear him saying “I’m sorry”. I don’t know why but I kept hearing that over and over in my head.

After talking about the horrific events of the week, Gordon started crying again and began to tell me about the Cologne missions during World War II. It was hard to imagine him being a bomber pilot. He once told me he never had any doubts about becoming one. I mentioned the horrible survival rate for pilots and asked if he ever found out how many of his group survived. He said yes, that after the war he felt he owed it to the others to find out who had died or, more accurately, who had actually made it. He was one of a group of 100 young Canadian men who received their wings on the same day. Only six of those boys came home. And, yes, I was born after the war.

As we talked on September 13th it became obvious the devastation in New York and Washington had brought old feelings to the surface for him and made him very vulnerable. Through a choked voice, he told me the ash and black clouds he watched rising from the ruins of the twin towers created flashbacks to the war. Gordon finally allowed me to see beneath his emotional armour and I felt a profound connection. I had my own flashback to our beginning when I was simply a little girl who was loved by her father. That would never change.

There would be one more phone call a few years later when I was told Gordon was dead. I feel sad he never lived to see me published. I hope he is still proud of me.

 

6 Comments

  1. Seema
    Nov 11, 2017

    Susan, this is such a moving and beautiful piece. What a wonderful way to honour the profound connection and healing you were able to share with your birth father.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Nov 11, 2017

      Thank you Seema. Finding Gordon and hearing part of his story brought great depth to my life.

  2. Cheryl Harrington
    Nov 13, 2017

    What memories, Susan! Thank you for sharing these intimate moments of connection with your father.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Nov 13, 2017

      Thanks Cheryl. These memories we have make up our life and I am grateful to have found Gordon and to allow that to heal a part of me inside.

  3. Chris
    Nov 13, 2017

    Thank you for this Sue. This is the first I have heard of this. I’m currently at a loss for words. Beautifully written and shared.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Nov 13, 2017

      Thanks Chris for your kind words. Gratefully received.

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