Meeting My Father for the First Time

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The first sound I heard on the phone was heavy, harsh breathing. Then the stranger introduced himself to me. “You don’t know me but my name is Sidney Moss … and I’m your father,” he said.

He sounded different than I’d imagined. The voice that, for so many years, I thought would surely sound like a superhero — big, booming, larger-than-life — instead sounded weak, rattled and sickly. His Texas accent was thick, and he called me darlin’. He sounded like an old cowboy. We didn’t stay on the phone long as my father explained that he was on about seven different medications and it wouldn’t be long before they started taking effect — which meant he would start talking crazy and then fall asleep.

I met him in person for the first time a few weeks later.

Dad’s call was prompted by a letter from my twin sister, Meri, who wanted to meet him. I cared nothing about meeting the man. I had lived 20 years without him and did just fine, and could go another 20 more without ever knowing him. At least that’s what I always told myself.

Nervous, excited and scared, I arrived an hour early to pick him up from the airport in Chattanooga, Tenn., the city where I was born and raised, and the city where he left my mother, then pregnant with my sister and me, so many years before.

I studied every man who came through the gate, looking for an older version of myself. Instead, I saw what looked like a dead man walking.

Dad was much smaller than the photograph I referenced in my head, the only image I had ever seen of him while I was growing up: a fantastically huge man towering over my small-framed mother on their wedding day. Now his head was huge and bulky, with heavy wrinkles and tough oak skin, dry, tanned and cracked, attached to a rail-thin body, twisted like some dead and gnarled tree. His thick, wavy black hair had turned gray and thin. He carried a handkerchief in one hand, which I later learned was to catch the blood he coughed up on occasion. At the corners of his mouth a white, flaky crust formed that reminded me of dried milk on a child’s mouth.

Instead of the handshake I was expecting, he pulled me close to him and hugged me tightly. I felt the sharp edges of his spine, contorted by time like some sort of punishment. His body shook, reverberating into my arms and chest, but I kept my distance, not yet trusting enough to give all of myself to him. There was little warmth in his body. As I pulled away, the tips of his fingers lingered on mine for a moment, clinging as if his life depended on me. He wiped his eyes as quickly as he could, hoping I wouldn’t notice him crying.

A former paratrooper in the Air Force, Dad fought in Korea. He told me stories about how he had to defend being Jewish and felt the need to fight anyone who challenged his faith. He told me about the time he held up a bank at gunpoint and, after a long car chase, served time in the Texas State Penitentiary. Not only was he a heroin addict, but he sold it, too. He drank a lot and had a temper, which often led to brawls and, in one case, he told me, murder.

When I finally gained the nerve to ask him why he left us, why he never called or wrote or seemed to care, my father told me he couldn’t be around my alcoholic mother anymore. She made her choice and he made his, he said. A few weeks before my sister and I were born, he went back to Houston, his hometown. My grandfather was the closest thing I had to a father figure until he died a week before my sister’s and my b’nai mitzvah at age 13. My father never once paid child-support or had ever acknowledged we existed, from what we were told.

It turns out, he married a woman in Houston a few years after leaving us and helped raise her daughter from a previous relationship. He told me how he defended them when his mother would not accept them as part of the family because they were of Hispanic descent.

I was proud of my father for standing up for them; at least, I thought, he had his convictions. I clung to those stories he told my sister and me for years. Though he often made poor choices, Dad stood up for what he believed, which is something I’ve always struggled with. He had this otherworldly confidence I never possessed growing up. In a strange way, my father represented all the things I wanted to be but never could.

For the two years I knew him, Dad was slowly dying. It’s been more than 20 years since he passed away.

A few years ago, my stepmother and stepsister from Houston came to Chattanooga to visit me, my wife, and my two young boys. That’s when I found out that most of the stories my father told me so long ago were lies. The man who presented himself as some sort of antihero or Johnny Cash song come to life, in reality, was a spoiled coward who never had the confidence to stand up for anything in his life. Instead of going to state prison for murder and heroin charges, they told me, he actually had gone to county jail for writing bad checks. And despite his claims, my father never once defended my stepmother or stepsister from his family’s racism.

Since then, my mother confirmed that most of my father’s stories of outlaw heroism were the same lies he told her when they dated. He was nothing more than a con man who used his gift of storytelling as a way to cover up his insecurities.

I was angry at Dad for a long time after I found out the truth about him. How could he lie to me after all the things he put my family and me through? Even as he confronted death, my father couldn’t face the truth.

Now with two boys of my own, I’m at peace with Dad. When my sons ask me about their grandfather, I tell them the truth: He helped make me a better father. I learned what kind of dad I wanted to be from his mistakes — devoted, present and loving.

Looking back at my time with him now, I believe my father was ashamed of how he treated all of us. The lies he told my sister and me were his attempts to make us proud of him, even if he wasn’t proud of himself. For me, Dad’s actions inspire me not only to be the kind of father my kids can be proud of but the kind I can take pride in as well.

When my father died, there were less than 10 people at his funeral. No friends, no extended family. It was the loneliest funeral I’ve ever attended. The rabbi leading the service talked about Dad’s struggle with faith, his pursuit of truth, his lifelong search for connection and meaning. I don’t know if he ever found those things. But when I think about the first time I met my father, I’d like to think maybe he came close.

Charles Moss is a writer based in Chattanooga, specializing in pop culture.