A Father's Calling

Would he become a dad, or another deadbeat statistic? One man's journey to an unexpected fatherhood.

June 2008

I was in the middle of a nasty separation from my first wife, and our two children were staying with their mother, a result of our 50-50 custody agreement. The house was eerily quiet. I missed their giggles and the thumping of little feet racing across the floor to tumble into my arms. I missed their constant chatter and the way they would collapse on my chest as I read them to sleep. The photos on the walls were a painful reminder that our home was shattered. I should have started jamming on the growing to-do list around the house, but a deep depression began to engulf me. The bar sounded like a better place to forget about everything.

A few weeks later, I got the call.

"Brian, it's Sarah." I instantly recognized the unusual, raspy voice. It was the woman I'd taken home from the bar that night. "I just wanted to let you know: I'm pregnant, and I'm pretty sure it's yours." I said nothing. Sarah tried to gauge my reaction, seemingly delighted by the news. She began informing me of my obligations to her baby. I cut her off and told her I'd call her back, "once," I said, "the shock had worn off."

I'd considered myself to be many things—reckless, stupid, pious and unholy at the same time—but I'd never considered myself callous. And yet, there was an undeniable safety in having no emotional connection to this woman. I needed a moment, or maybe a few months, to figure things out. Right then, the one thing I knew was that I couldn't make the decision to be a father to another child overnight—to a child that was never planned, from a woman that I barely knew. All I could think about was that one sullen, drunken night was about to turn my world upside down—if I let it.

I initially decided that I'd have nothing to do with the child. I told Sarah that I would pay the court-ordered financial obligation if a DNA test proved that I was indeed the child's father. I called it being a "Paycheck Daddy." Sarah didn't care for that term. More to the point, she knew I was a good father to my other children, and I think she was confident I would eventually come around and do the right thing.

Months went by, and a couple of days after Sarah gave birth, prompted by curiosity, I visited the hospital. I needed to see if the baby resembled me. As I entered the recovery room at the hospital, Sarah was lying in her bed with her newborn daughter in her arms. She told me to come in, and asked if I wanted to hold the child. I walked past a row of flowers and teddy bears and approached the bedside, where Sarah handed me the tightly swaddled infant. I'm sure the expression of recognition on my face exclaimed an innate awareness of something familiar, of something intrinsically paternal. She looked every bit like me and, more so, like my two children—the ones I considered mine. She awoke as I held her, stretching and yawning, and I was finally able to peek into her eyes, the same striking blue eyes all my children possess. Her name, Sarah told me, was Olivia.

Exactly 30 years earlier, my old man had gotten himself into a similar situation. He'd knocked up his high school sweetheart, and for weeks he teetered back and forth between wanting to help raise their child and planning his exit from their life indefinitely. Their waning teenage love, combined with my father's concern about how his girlfriend's older brothers would react to the news, led him to lie about who the father was. He concocted a story of his girlfriend's infidelity, then simply left her, and his unborn child, behind.

Twenty years later, my dad got the phone call.

His forgotten daughter, Becky, had found him in the phone book, called him, and begun a dialogue two decades in the making. The past 20 years of my dad's life had been plagued with two dissolved marriages, his children's legal troubles, a failed business venture, and so many smaller problems and inconveniences that he referred to himself as a direct relative of the famed Murphy of Murphy's Law. He felt that his choices had led to a karmic payback of sorts, which could be traced back directly to his running out on his daughter. Now, after a series of pleasant telephone conversations, Pops, a traveling generator salesman from Aurora, had a business meeting in Arizona, where Becky lived at the time. He was going to fly out and see Becky in Phoenix. It would be their first face-to-face meeting.

Both Dad and Becky still cry when they recall that day. At the time, Becky worked at a Home Depot as a cashier. My dad had nervously driven around town, having landed earlier than planned, killing time while Becky finished her shift. Finally, as Becky was closing out her drawer for the night, my father walked through the bright-orange automatic doors. He approached the counter, and both of them instantly recognized one another. Becky, urged by a coworker, walked around the counter and hugged her dad. Onlookers, privy to the unfolding of the day's events, clapped and cried. A great deal of heartache from the past was seemingly instantly forgiven—or at least silenced for the moment—by the joy.