I said goodbye to my father for the first and last time, after his death, in the quietest place in the United States. Located in the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, a small red rock marks the spot called “One Square Inch of Silence” amidst a Seussian marvel of moss-covered hemlocks. In life, I never knew my father. His absence loomed over me like a large shapeless shadow. In death, I cradled him in the palm of my hand, contained in a tiny urn of ashes—a most surreal family reunion.
Growing up, I never knew much about my dad: I was told that he left my mom and me when I was a baby, but never given an explanation as to why. It felt dangerous to ask too many questions of the people on my mother’s side of the family, like if I pressed on the bruise of mystery, my finger would pierce all the way through the skin. Children learn early what not to ask; the elasticity of our young brains absorbs the silent, intuitive language of secrets.
My father’s family presented another kind of dead-end: I didn’t know the names or contact information of anyone directly related to him. I vaguely recalled meeting an aunt and a cousin when I was quite small, but over time, the memory dissipated into an ephemeral image: two blonde heads glinting in the sun, ghostly wisps of hair floating in the breeze.
From what little I had been told, my father sounded like the boogeyman. Once, in a fit of rage, he smashed my mother’s fish tank with a frying pan. Another time, he tried to kidnap me when I was a baby. I’d been missing for hours before my father, weary, eventually returned with me in tow, still vowing to steal me for good one day. As my mother’s side of the family cautiously traded scraps of lore, I caught the way my mother’s jaw would tighten, the way her eyes would flash with panic—so I practiced cultivating my fear into humor, shock into schtick. Why did my father steal but not keep me? The punch line seemed obvious: screaming infants are effective hostage negotiators. It’s an uncomfortable superpower, eliciting nervous laughter. But what else is there to do when the beginning of your life story is missing more than a few pages?
As an adult, my curiosity would periodically get the better of me, and I’d surrender to the impulse to Google my father’s name, holding my breath to mute any expectations about what might pop up. But my searches only yielded a bleak confirmation of what little I’d already known to be true: An ever-growing list of arrests for petty theft, drug possession, and disorderly conduct painted a one-dimensional portrait of a troubled man’s existence. And so whenever I thought about tracking my father down, I’d inevitably conclude that he was probably a man who didn’t want to be found, and I’d suppress the impulse for a while longer. That’s what I told myself, anyway—that my father didn’t want to be found. Perhaps I was protecting myself from the dark cloud of chaos that seemed to follow his name. Or perhaps I was afraid of giving him an opportunity to reject me a second time.
In the fall of 2021, a newly reawakened impulse—exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic—led me to type my father’s name into a search bar one last time. It was then that I discovered his obituary: a few thin sentences revealing nothing beyond when and where he died and the names of a few of his immediate family members. He had died a year prior, it turned out—almost exactly to the day. And though I hadn’t seriously attempted to meet him, the realization that I now never could hit me like an anvil. I was too late: I would never know my father. I sat alone in my apartment, a strange sense of loss settling over me. I burst into tears but I didn’t know why—it felt like my body was attempting to ground the surreal feeling of losing something I never had with a predictable physical response.
After the initial shock, my thoughts whipped back and forth between guilt and helplessness. Should I have tried harder to find him, or was I subconsciously waiting for him to find me? Whenever my phone rang, I’d always felt an anticipatory jolt from unknown callers. It did something to me—never knowing where half of me came from, and being perpetually on edge, wondering if that mysterious other half would ever come calling. But now perhaps I would never know. Whatever ambivalence I’d felt about finding my father while he was alive had transformed into a compulsive urgency to learn more about his cause of death. The pandemic had given a new shape to loss, and as someone who was living alone and working in the field of global health, the dimensions of Covid felt especially complicated. My own sense of solitude and safety had become distorted by fear, and my professional life became steeped in response efforts to mobilize the global delivery of vaccines. I’d had colleagues who died, suddenly and tragically, people with whom I’d worked closely. All of this created a new desire for definition and details around my father’s death, as if this would enhance my understanding of who my father had been while he was alive.
I called the hospital where the obituary mentioned he’d died to glean whatever I could of his last moments. But no one would answer my inquiries since I wasn’t listed as the informant on his death certificate. Another dead-end.
I ultimately resorted to a background check, where I was able to locate a few of his relatives. It was then that I learned that most of his family—my family—lived north of Birmingham, Alabama, 2,500 miles from where I live in Seattle. I took a deep breath before messaging an alleged second cousin, D, on social media. Whatever lifelong caution and restraint I’d once exercised in trying to find out about my dad had gone out the window. Something urgent and decisive had taken over, and this new impulse was rewarded with an almost immediate response: We’ve been looking for you for so long! D replied quickly. Upon reading those words over and over, the deeply-held story I’d been telling myself about how I was unwanted broke open, and a wave of grief flooded through me. Had I searched for my father in earnest when he was alive, I would have found him in twenty minutes. After forty years, I confronted the source of my deepest wound in less time than it takes to watch an episode of a sitcom. The ease with which I could have found him was shocking and painful.
During an immediate follow-up phone call with D, I learned that my father had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he attempted to manage for most of his life through habitual alcohol and drug use. It was typical for him to disappear for months at a time, hitchhiking around the country. Every so often he would show up at his sister-in-law’s house, and she would take him in, buy him new clothes, and feed him—but he only ever stayed for a few weeks at a time, until the voices in his head would inevitably make him leave again. For decades, he was in and out of jails and psychiatric institutions. He tried to take his own life several times.
After my conversation with D, I wasn’t sure what I should tell my mom, if anything. I was worried my discoveries might bring up painful memories for her. But maybe it was too big of a revelation to hide—and maybe knowing that the root cause of his violent behavior was tied to a formal diagnosis of schizophrenia might help contextualize the past for her. Was she still holding onto something unresolved from their time together? I couldn’t be sure, but maybe telling her these details might help us break apart old familial scar tissue, and to heal some of the residual guilt and resentment that had built up over the years in our relationship.
When I told my mom what I’d learned about my dad, the conversation was not heated or awkward like I’d anticipated. It was as if she’d already made peace with the possibility we’d eventually find ourselves and each other at this juncture. She seemed to be nothing but receptive and supportive of my reaching out to my dad’s family, and encouraged me to keep in touch with them.
My mom confessed she’d only known my father for six months before they’d gotten married. They’d met while working in a factory that manufactured motorcycle parts (another thing I never knew—my brain lit up in amusement as I tried to picture my mother, who has worked in the graphic design and printing industry for decades, holding a crash bar in her hands), and in the two years they were married, my dad was barely around. It was typical for him to disappear on her, too. It was while my father was on one of these infamous sojourns that my mom made the decision to move and change her phone number unannounced; she had a baby who was only a few months old to think of, and she was frightened of my father’s erratic behavior. I had not known any of this. I thought he had simply left us.
Growing up, I’d never heard clinical language used to diagnose my father, had never received a compassionate explanation to describe his behavior. My discovery of his fraught medical history prompted me to think about how we perceive and talk about severe mental illness, how we redact and mistranslate familial stories, and how these stories, in turn, become internalized and passed down through generations. We, the descendants, perpetually see ourselves as more evolved. We like to wave off humanity’s past failures. It was a different time, we so often hear. Except it wasn’t—and it never is. The past is always alive. Our generations are connected through time, as history informs our future and breathes through us in the present. We hold vigils to our dead, to our lost ones, simply by moving through the plane of this existence. The candles burn and flicker, and when our bodily forms eventually extinguish, too, we will be absorbed into the great cosmic altar for our surviving loved ones to carry us forth in spirit and in memory. We know this intuitively, just as we know on a factual level that matter is neither created nor destroyed: none of us ever truly gone, despite how our stories are changed by time’s erosion.
There’s a heavy cost for stigma, its price incalculable. For the duration of my childhood and young adult life, I lived believing I’d been unloved, abandoned, and I struggled with feelings of self-worth. My mom had acted from a place of fear for my safety and a desire to protect me. But I’d spent years being resentful because I didn’t understand why I didn’t have a father. The truth has always been hiding in plain sight. My father wasn’t the boogeyman: he was simply a man whose mind kept him from holding his life together.
Through my father, I am reminded to keep searching for answers to uneasy questions, to keep uncovering and expanding my sense of compassion in service of our shared humanity. Since learning more about my father’s life and death, I’ve been looking around with new eyes at the proliferation of homelessness and encampments where I live, at people holding signs on highway medians. This is how my father must have lived for much of his life. Though I work in global health, I’ve often turned away from the discomfort of human suffering in my own backyard, failing to see that those raving and begging are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. That one of them could have been my own.
Some mysteries have been solved: my father died of cancer; I was his only child. In the seven years before his death, my father lived in Athens, Georgia. He’d gotten sober, regularly attended a support group, and received treatment for his schizophrenia. My cousin D describes my dad as a hippie, and everyone’s favorite uncle. Despite the noise and chaos in his brain, he was fiercely intelligent and full of stories to tell about his travels. She said he talked about me all the time and never stopped looking for me—and though I know I’m not difficult to find online, I choose to believe this is a kind of truth. Other mysteries will always remain.
Before his death, my father asked to be cremated, and for my cousin to reserve a small portion of his ashes in case they ever found me. I offered to reimburse D for the expense of shipping his cremains. “It’s on me,” she insisted, as if buying me a drink. Thanks. I’ll get the next round, I wanted to say, though I didn’t.
When my father’s ashes finally arrived in an envelope marked “Human Cremains,” I couldn’t bring myself to open it. The idea of storing the remains of a father I’d never known in my apartment felt deeply unsettling (he’d already haunted me enough when he was alive). So I shoved the envelope under the passenger seat of my car, where it remained for several months—at a safe distance from my home, but close to me everywhere I went. Whenever I had a passenger with me, they would inevitably try to adjust their seat, and when it wouldn’t move I’d have to casually explain that my dead dad was under there.
In the spring of 2022, I took off from work on a Wednesday, and drove through the lavender-lit morning to scatter my father’s ashes. The roads were largely empty. In my rearview mirror, a funeral procession of blackbirds swelled in the sky. As we dipped along the S-curves of the 101, I told my father the story of my life, catching him up on everything he’d missed in the last forty years. I told him all about my adolescence, and the years I’d spent trying in vain to find him in other people—alternate versions of father figures (some healthy, others destructive). I guess in a way I had been searching for him all along.
With my dad in my backpack, I followed the muddy Hoh River Trail, trying not to slip on the wet tree roots veining the undergrowth of the dense canopy, scrabbling with my dad’s ashes in my backpack over fallen logs, pressing my cold bare hands into tufts of moss for purchase. I nodded to a few hikers as they passed, but the trail, much like the roads leading there, was mostly empty. Without music or a living companion, I filled the silence by working to stay as present as possible, taking in the staggering beauty of the forest, and mentally filing away each shade of green like lines of living poetry.
Approximately two hours into my hike, I veered off the path and pushed forward until I reached the approximate coordinates of “One Square Inch of Silence,” the place audio ecologists deemed the quietest spot in the contiguous US. My research confirmed that its exact location would be marked by a small red stone sitting atop a fallen log. Since my father had spent his life suffering with schizophrenia, I settled on a place I hoped would honor his mind and offer peace, at last, from the voices that plagued him.
But when I arrived at my supposed destination, I couldn’t locate the red stone. I searched frantically among the fallen logs and moss for a glimmer of red, but no luck. Giant mosquitoes started to swarm within minutes, and as I circled the area in search of the stone, my vision began to meld into a vertiginous blur. Was the trail I’d wandered off from in front of or behind me? A fear of being hopelessly lost shivered up my spine. My life would end with the ultimate punchline: dying while attempting to scatter the ashes of a father I never knew.
Though part of me was still determined to find the exact quietest spot after coming this far, a survivalist practicality ultimately won out. I freed the tiny urn from my backpack, pried its lid open, and sprinkled its contents. Perhaps I hadn’t found the very quietest place, but I’d gotten close. In the end, it felt like a more poignant metaphor—laying him to rest in the place between finding and seeking.
Even now, it’s hard to reconcile the meaning of loss with the absence of having. In some way or another, I’ve grieved my absent father my entire life. And with each new detail of him that I uncover, another layer of grief is revealed, as he becomes more fully formed to me, more human. In the wake of my father’s death, and in the wake of learning more about him, I feel the peculiar strain of grief that accompanies the absence of new possibilities. Some would call this “closure” or “finality,” but I also feel the once-blurry context of my existence coming more into focus. I feel my past becoming more aligned, crystallizing a brighter future ahead. It is in that future, I know, where healing resides.
As I stood in uncertain proximity to the quietest place, I struggled with how to say goodbye when I had never gotten the chance to say hello. How do you construct a narrative—let alone a dialogue—out of absence? And yet, it occurred to me that we make somethings out of nothings all the time. My father and I had practically been strangers to each other, yet there was no denying our bond. What could I offer him now, in the aftermath? What would he want from me? Understanding? Forgiveness? A joke? I could do that. I could offer peace and ceremony, a desire for reconciliation, a spark of humor held in my heart at meeting my father for the first time in death. For my entire life, I have loved him in shadow.
I learned my father had kept a photo of himself holding me as a baby, and when he died, this photo of us was tucked away in his wallet. My mom has this same picture: the only one I’ve ever seen of him outside of a mugshot. After four decades of transience and hospitalizations and jail cells, I can’t imagine how he managed to hang onto it—to hang onto me.
I scattered my father’s ashes among the moss and fallen logs and trees, in the quietest place I could reach, to put his tortured mind to eternal rest. Maybe this is enough, or maybe it is more than enough. Maybe it is everything. For what could be bigger, more beautiful and bright, than to faithfully carry his never-knownness like a photo kept close for the rest of my days? To say amidst the greatest silence, quite simply, that my father was.