Sometimes, private investigators get the really rewarding cases, the ones that help change people’s lives for the better.
But when it comes to reuniting a daughter with her long-lost father, the PI’s job is the easy part. It’s up to the client to do the really hard work of reaching out…and maybe, forgiving.
Vanessa’s dad walked out on her and her mom when she was just three years old. “I have a vivid memory of him hugging me and saying, ‘Don’t forget me,’ and ‘I’m sorry that I have to do this.’ Very apologetic,” she recalls. “And that was the last memory that I held onto for 23 years.”
"I have a vivid memory of him hugging me and saying, 'Don't forget me,' and 'I'm sorry that I have to do this.' Very apologetic. And that was the last memory that I held onto for 23 years." —Vanessa
For decades, Vanessa wondered what had happened to her biological father. And then, she decided to try to find him. Her mom and stepdad, the man who raised Vanessa as his own, encouraged her to contact a longtime family friend for help.
Full disclosure: That friend is Hal Humphreys, private investigator and Pursuit’s executive editor. Me. I’ve known Vanessa since she was six years old. I’ve known her parents for more than 20 years. And she has graciously agreed to share her story with PursuitMag.
After her first call to me, she and I went back and forth on this project many times before she finally gave me the go-ahead.
It took me scant hours to find him, and three more days to get in touch, let him know his daughter was looking for him, and ask his permission to share his contact information with Vanessa. (*As any professional investigator knows, it is illegal, and can even be dangerous, to share someone’s personal information without their consent.)
When I called her to let her know I’d found her father, I think I took her by surprise.
Vanessa starts her story from the moment she received my call:
In Her Own Words
VANESSA: I literally stopped in my tracks, of course—feeling like my heart had just stopped. Because we have the same blood running through our veins! And I had to reach a point where I was going to accept his humanness, having made mistakes in life…me being one of them.
For me, the hardest part was finding the words. Should I call him? Should I write to him? As a child, I thought about just like rolling up to his doorstep and saying, “Hey, I’m Vanessa. You named me. I’m your daughter.”
So I finally felt compelled to sit down and write the letter on Father’s Day. He came to mind, and I couldn’t shake the thought of whether he was thinking about me.
I sent the letter Thursday and I received a response from him on Monday. The letter from him was very simple. It was seven lines: “Hi, it’s your dad. I have seven children. I work as a handyman to take care of my family. When I read your letter, I cried. I’ve been clean for 13 years. I’ve been married three-and-a-half times (whatever the half meant). I’m eager to hear back from you.” And it was on a dirty piece of paper, half-ripped, not even a signature on the bottom.
Got off the plane in San Francisco; I’d written this letter on the plane, “Hey, I’m coming to California. In fact, I’m here and here’s my phone number. Call me.”
He calls me. And of course I don’t answer. I’m so nervous, I’m ready to throw up. And he leaves a voice mail. There’s a little bit of silence, and he, with his hick accent, comes on and says, “Hey. It’s Daddy. Got your letter. Yeah, we’re ready to meet you.” It was the first time I had heard his voice.
I’m emotionally preparing myself for this encounter, blaring this like, really angry chick punk band that I love, feeling crazy! And so we pull into this pretty massive trailer park, pull up pretty slowly to the curb. I’m sitting in there, drenched in sweat because it’s like 98 degrees during the day in the desert. Looking at my friend, and she’s like, “OK, are you ready?”
And I’m just clenching my jaw, opening the door, and seeing that he and other people had come out onto the front porch. Looking at each other from afar and walking towards each other, and we’re both sobbing, just out of control. Holding each other and sobbing, like almost buckling over because we’re just so overwhelmed with emotion.
It felt like a whirlwind of, like, “ Hi! Hello! Nice to meet you!” Grandma and Grandpa, and his new wife, and the kids are like bringing their favorite toys to me. And it was Easter morning, so I was getting inundated with pips and chocolate eggs.
Really Seeing Him
When I went into his house, there were pictures of me on the wall as a kid. And the best part was hearing all of the things that my dad and I had in common. He was truly my dad. We didn’t look alike at all. I looked at him, and he was shorter than me. I’m pretty athletic, and I have big red hair and a very like big square jaw, and he had all these fine features. But there were times, it was interesting, when we were sitting on the couch, and he was just looking at me smiling, huge the whole time, and I noticed that I had his smile. He really smiled just like me or I smiled just like him. And that was kind of cool to see.
He was truly my dad. We didn't look alike at all. But...I noticed that I had his smile.
To put it bluntly, we come from different socioeconomic groups, but there was no problem with communicating. He had had a hard life. He didn’t treat himself well for many years. It seemed like he was just full of so many regrets, which was especially hard to see. You wish you could tell someone that they could fix it, that it could be better, that they can turn things around again.
And I was so proud of him to hear that he’d been clean for so many years. But he still was coping with alcohol. He was drinking the whole time I was there. I get it, I totally get it. In fact, when he offered me a drink, I was like, “Yes, please.”
But I wish I could share with him how to take care of himself, how to eat well…how to be the best dad possible.
I’m so grateful that life has afforded me the possibility to find some kind of closure to that question that I had had all these years, “Where is my dad and why did he leave me?” And to know that all along he was completely regretful.
Now as I’m developing into a young woman and understanding that people are inevitably flawed and make epic mistakes, I can find understanding and I can find forgiveness through that, and accepting him for just another broken human.
Listen to Vanessa’s story—the first feature in the Sound of Pursuit Podcast, Episode 3: Land of the Lost. Thanks to Transunion TLO for sponsoring this episode, to Vanessa for sharing her story, and to Kim Green for producing it.
Hear Vanessa tell her story by clicking below: