Jun 29, 2020

In the years after Doug’s and my first summer visit with my dad, he would scrawl letters to me detailing all his physical pain and problems, as I’ve said—all of which left me with a crushing sorrow about his condition, as well as a lingering guilt about having abandoned him.

 One Christmas I took a picture of Doug—crouched in front of our decorated tree—that my uncle Rob, my mother’s older brother, admired. An amateur photographer, he was impressed that I’d gotten such a beautiful hand-held time exposure. I had it enlarged and proudly sent the framed photo to my father as a Christmas gift, but his only response was to comment in his next letter that it captured Doug’s “coldness.” Among the letters I wrote my dad as a teenager that he sent back to me a few years ago is one that comes as a complete surprise to me:

“Doug did write you a letter—before Christmas. But you never answered it, and he felt really bad about it. He picked out your Christmas present too. I think you’re much too hard on him. He’s not the ogre you seem to think he is—although he is pretty hard to get along with some of the time. If he neglects writing to you, it’s not because he’s unfeeling; it’s just that he doesn’t stop to think how much a letter from him would mean to you. He’s too wrapped up in his own problems—which is natural for kids his age. And you can understand why he would have problems. He has to live with his burn, which he looks at as a major deformity, and he’s growing up without a father and has no one to model himself after or look up to. Here he sees you as practically perfect and defends you to the hilt, and then you reject him. I don’t think you can expect a little guy of fourteen to have mature compassion and sensitivity. I wish you would write him—he needs someone to care about him and what he does.”

What astonished me when I reread this letter was that I was able to stand up to my father to defend my brother at a time I couldn’t have on my own behalf.