I spent a lot of time acting like I didn’t care about ever knowing my dad. I cared.
I had one photo of my real dad for most of my life. He was sitting on a couch in the disheveled living room of what you could tell was an apartment. According to my mom he was around 17 or 18.
In this photo he is shirtless and wearing a straw hat, a sly little smile on his face. He’s staring right at the camera and you can’t help but notice his blue eyes even in this old faded photo. They sparkle. Knowing what I know about him now, I bet those blue eyes must have been the downfall of a lot of young ladies along his path.
On the cluttered coffee table in front of him sits a bowl of cereal but also a bottle of vodka, leaving you wondering if it was morning or afternoon. From the stories I have heard over time, it could have been either. The days and nights frequently ran into each other for him. I would lose that photo at some point along my life but I can still see it quite vividly in my mind.
That was all I knew of my dad until I was 12. In order for the chaplain to adopt me, they had to get my real dad to sign his parental rights to me away. To find someone in the 1980s, you hired a detective. That’s what my mom and the chaplain had done.
I heard the conversation from another room, as the detective handed over the signed papers from my dad. I didn’t know that any of this was happening, but I caught on to what all was going on as I listened to that conversation.
My dad had been found, and he had been more than happy to sign the paper. It was not only getting him out of money he may have owed, but he also had a brand new daughter and wanted to start a new life with his new family. There were a lot of enlightening details in those few sentences.
First, my dad was alive. One of the explanations that is made up in the mind of a child whose parent has ‘abandoned’ them, is that they must be dead. Why else would they not want to talk to you? If they aren’t off exploring pyramids or on a secret mission, they must be dead. Now I knew he was not dead.
Second, I had a sister somewhere out in the world. It had always just been me. Now I had a baby sister. Although I didn’t know her, I felt very protective of her. That’s what you do for little sisters, right? That’s what they did on tv, anyway.
And finally, he didn’t want to know me. He had his chance right there. He now knew where I was now for sure, but he didn’t care. He could hand me over to the chaplain, and it was a good thing to him.
While I don’t remember the timeline of my denials, I imagine I probably started being a little more vocal at that point about my lack of caring about anything to do with my real dad. It was a defense. If he didn’t want me, then I didn’t want him. In fact, I would take it one step further; I never wanted him. If I didn’t want him first, then I won. Of course, that wasn’t true, but if you pretend hard enough…
I thought about him many times over the years. I can’t say it was constantly, but it was a lot. My wanting to know him morphed into just wanting to watch him from across a room. I would have loved to sit at a table next to him at a restaurant and just watch him. I wondered what mannerisms I had taken from him or which parts of his personality I had gotten.
I developed a game I would play with myself at malls or airports or anywhere I was surrounded by large groups of people. Is that guy my dad? That habit of people watching never left me, so I found a lot of potential dads out there.
Throughout my early childhood, I had this reoccurring dream that my dad would call. I’d answer and be confused at first, but he would explain it all and then we would just fall into comfortable conversations. Things sons and dads would talk about. What I had been up to or what he had been doing. At the end of this dream, he would suddenly act like he didn’t know me again and be angry about me calling him and I would wake up full of anxiety.
That dream went on for years. Not every night, but enough that I eventually taught myself to wake up from that dream before it got to the end, cutting off the conversation before it got uncomfortable. I eventually taught myself to stop the dream when the phone rang. At some point, the dream stopped altogether.
I was never angry at him through all of those years. I didn’t think too highly of him, but I wasn’t angry at him. That is until I was about to have my daughter. Having my first child really brought the fact that I had no one to look to on how to be a dad, to the forefront of my mind. I knew I was going to have to make it up as I went along, and it pissed me off.
I could translate my mom's and grandma’s role in raising a couple of boys into being a father to a daughter. I could find the similarities in the opposite thing. I could at least guess. But when my son was born, those lessons I missed felt even more important. I really did not know how to be a father to a son. It turned out it really wasn’t all that different, but at the time, it seemed like two completely different things.
After stumbling through having a son for a while and figuring it out a bit, I no longer felt like I needed anything from my real dad. He hadn’t given me even the most basic things a dad can give a son, and I had made it despite him. What did I need him for?
I was always curious about him, though. What did his life turn out to be? Who was this sister? What was she like? Did she know about me? I still had so many questions.
When the internet came around, I began to lightly look for him. I knew his name and roughly his age and that he had lived in Texas at some point. That was it.
These searches would happen randomly and usually late at night. It was always when the rest of the house was quiet and my mind was freed up enough to let those afterthought kinds of thoughts, creep in. He had become an afterthought, but he was always in there somewhere.
I never had much success in those searches. I would find partial matches to a name and a few ‘maybe’ addresses, but nothing that ever materialized into anything.
Several years after my kids were born, and I had stopped wondering about him as much, I was watching tv and a guy named Greg Gardener was being interviewed about a boat. That was my dad’s name. This guy was too young to be my dad, but him having the same name, reminded me of him. I had my laptop open on the couch next to me, so I just typed his name into Google.
The first thing that popped up was a “Gregory Gardner’ on a ‘Registered Sex Offenders’ website. Oh no…
There was his name and birthday, but the year didn’t match to the year we thought he was born. It was only off by a year, though. I didn’t want to click the link to the photo. I so badly wanted this to be a different Gregory Gardner.
After staring at that screen for a few minutes, I mustered up my courage and clicked the link.
The photo was of an older man, slightly balding and a little chubby. The hair he had left was the same brown that mine had been before it all turned white. Most striking of all, though, were his sparkling blue eyes. It was him.
That was such a worse feeling than just not knowing anything about him. Not only was he on the Sexual Offenders list, he was listed as a ‘Violent Sexual Offender’. He was also wanted for not checking in with his parole officer. His last known address was the streets of Los Angeles. He was homeless.
Those daydreams of my dad off exploring and doing secret good things for the world were so much better than the truth. I had always known they weren’t true, but man, I had never even come close to imagining this life for him.
I immediately sent the link to my mom and told her to click it. It wasn’t 2 minutes before she texts back, “Oh my god. That’s him. Please don’t think this will ever happen to you. You aren’t this person.” I hadn’t even thought of that, but she was right. I was nothing like this person. I didn’t even know him. Somehow, I still felt a tinge of guilt for being his son.
What had this guy done, and to who? I felt so horrible for whoever his victim or victims were. Violent sexual predator? He wasn’t even just a plain old sexual predator. He had to be a violent one. He was also homeless. What had happened to that daughter I had heard about? Was she the victim? If she was, then I hadn’t protected my sister. But I had never even met her. How could I have protected her? It was a lot to process.
I now knew I could find out much more about him if I wanted to. He had a criminal record, and it was quite public. I didn’t want to know anymore. I did want to know what happened to his daughter, though. That’s who I began trying to find.
When the ancestry home test things came out, I ordered one for each of my kids and myself. It was just to see where we were all from and learn more about our lineage, but our ancestry was the least interesting thing that came back with the test results.
There was a list of my relatives in order of the closeness of their relationship to me. There were my kids, each with half of my DNA. There was my mom, sharing half of my DNA. All very cool to see, but right under those, was a half brother. Under him was another half brother and attached to him were two nieces. All of these accounts were private, meaning I couldn’t see anything else about them other than their initials and that we were closely related.
I sent each of those a message and waited to hear back. While I was waiting for those responses, I started searching Facebook for any clues that lined up with the initials I could see or any of the other tidbits of information I had gathered.
I messaged all the 'Gardeners' that I came across that could’ve even been close and in less than an hour; I had a response from what turned out to be a cousin. He didn’t really know Greg, but his dad was Greg’s brother. This was the closest I had ever been to finding my dad or any of his family.
A few minutes after that first message from my cousin, he sent another. He had just spoken with my sister and she was very excited to talk to me. I was ecstatic, but nervous. I had thought about these people my whole life and I was finally just a few clicks away from talking to them.
Her name was Christy, and she was the oldest of 3. She also had two brothers, which meant I had two brothers as well. They had never heard anything about me.
We must have sent 20 messages back and forth before I finally asked where our dad was. She didn’t know.
The story, as I recall it goes like this:
He had been ‘dad’ until she was 11 or so. All 3 kids had what sounded like a pretty normal childhood. Their mom and our dad ran some kind of amusement park rides or games. Our dad was basically a carny but there must have been more because they had a house in Southern California and what sounded like a normal kid’s life.
A fourth child had been born. Another daughter. As I was told, our dad went into check on the new baby in her crib and found her not breathing. He had yelled for his wife and not hearing a response, panicked and grabbed the baby to rush her to the ER.
His wife saw him drive away and called 911. She told the 911 operator that her husband had just left with the baby and the baby wasn’t breathing. The operator took that as our dad had hurt the baby and was now trying to get her to help.
He was met at the hospital doors by police officers who took the baby and then arrested him. This is a father who was trying to save his daughter, but the officers didn’t know that.
While he was being questioned, the doctors in the ER declared the baby dead. She had died of SIDS, but the officers weren’t catching on to this yet. Our dad was being treated like he killed a baby.
I can’t imagine what that must have been like for him. His daughter had just died. He had just held her in his arms as he tried to save her. From the sounds of it, it was one of the few times he actually acted like a father should. And now he was being treated like he had caused her death.
The situation was eventually cleared up, and he was released, but it was the beginning of the end of their family.
Our dad got into drugs or back into drugs, I should say, to cope with the pain of losing his daughter. To sustain that drug addiction, he began committing small time crimes. Burglaries, petty theft… things like that. He wasn’t great at it, getting caught frequently, so he built up a pretty good rap sheet.
His wife apparently had stayed with him and tried to help him through all of this, I’m sure all the while having to deal with her own sadness and emotions about it all.
Those kinds of crimes don’t keep you in jail for very long, but they make it hard to live a normal life. You won’t do much time for stealing a candy bar, but when you’re caught for it 20 times, you have 20 thefts on your record. That looks real bad on paper.
Life got harder, and the addictions got worse. One night at one of these carnivals he worked at, he turned to point at something and in swinging his arm around, his hand brushed across a teenage girl’s breast who had been walking past him. He apologized and went back to whatever he was doing.
A moment later, that girl and her mother came back to him, this time with police officers. The girl’s mother said he had groped the girl, and the officers took him into custody. His wife had seen the whole thing and tried to explain what had really happened, but the cops had already looked up his name. He had that long record with a lot of crimes on it. He was going to jail.
Charged with sexual assault, he sat in jail for a few days before his public defender came to him with a deal. Plead guilty to sexual assault and he would be released and put on probation. He was a drug addict that didn’t have his drugs. He would have said yes to anything to get out and get whatever drug he was missing the most at that time. And that’s what he did.
He pleaded guilty to sexual assault, was put on probation and made to register as a Sex Offender. He was immediately released, upon which he went right out and put all the drugs he could get into his system.
His wife was still willing to help him through this all, but he had given up. He left his family in favor of drugs and alcohol and began to live on the streets. He would pop in from time to time, but those visits became less and less frequent. What began as a visit every couple of days, became every couple of weeks, then every few months, and then one day, one of those visits, was the last one they would ever get from him. He never came back.
His daughter didn’t have an explanation as to how the ‘violent’ label had been attached to him. As far as she knew, he had never been violent with anyone. By the time I found her, she had not seen or heard from him in years.
I spoke with his brother next. My uncle.
My uncle had tried to help him. He had been the last one my dad had not burnt, and he did what he could to help my dad pull it together. My dad ended up stealing a lot of money from him, causing my uncle to cut him off. My uncle had not heard from him in years either. I wasn’t the only one he had let down. He let down everyone that ever cared about him.
My sister didn’t know anything about the other two half brothers I had found on my DNA site, but she knew about another one that I hadn’t found. She even had a relationship with this one. He was another one, just like me. He had never known our dad and was raised by his mom, a short-lived girlfriend of our dads from those early years, and had found my sister through social media, also.
There was a difference in that brother and I though. He looked like his mom. I looked just like our dad. It was hard for my sister to look at me and not see our dad. There was also another weird thing for her, which was completely my fault.
I had searched for these people my whole life. I had known about her since I was 12. It was the coolest thing in the world for me to find her. I had spent my life feeling protective of a little sister I had never even had the chance to meet. That’s how I felt about her.
It wasn’t the same for her. She didn’t know me. She didn’t even know I existed until our cousin called and told her about this guy that had messaged him. She was meeting a stranger who was telling her he was her brother. I was meeting a sister I had thought about for almost 40 years. It was two different things.
I began to message her every day and tried to make up for 40 something years as quickly as I could. I see now where it was too much, but I didn’t at the time. I told her stories about my childhood and asked about hers. I asked about her brothers and her family. I wanted to know everything.
Her mom had just passed away, and she was dealing with that. It was also very painful for her to talk about her childhood. Now she was being asked about it by a guy who looked just like the guy that had caused all that pain in the first place. I was basically asking her to revisit the crime scene. To tell me all about the crime and the man who committed it and explain it all in great detail. It was a lot for her, but I couldn’t see that through my excitement and I just needed to get those answers.
As I dug deeper, she got colder and pulled away more and more. I felt it happening, but I needed these answers and she was the only one I could get them from. It didn’t help that we were speaking through emails and messages where you couldn’t hear the person’s tone. It was a lot for both of us, though for different reasons.
The time between conversations got longer and longer, and eventually we stopped talking all together. I talked to my brothers a couple of times but never connected with them very well. They both had their own issues with our dad, and I was the walking, physical embodiment of him. It was hard for all of them. I understand. It was hard on me, too.
My sister and I have spoken a few times in the recent years, but to be honest, the meetings of the ‘club’ we belong to, and not a ‘club’ we joined by choice; are kind of depressing.
What I ended up learning from all of this was that I had been the lucky one. For all of those years, I had felt like I had lost out on something; like something had been stolen from me. It hadn’t. I had been given a gift and I just never knew it.
That dude broke everyone he came in contact with. I ended up finding three half siblings through DNA matches and none of them ever knew him. He left 8 kids at least, with 4 of them made to go through life wondering who they came from. In the end, those of us that were left wondering, were luckier than we ever knew. We ‘wonderers’ were allowed to make up our own stories about why our dad hadn’t been around. Some days, he was even a hero. We never knew for sure if he was a hero, but some days we, at least I, pretended he was.
The ones who really knew him didn’t get that luxury. They got to love him and on the good days, he really was a hero–just by being a dad. They also had to lose him, and unfortunately, they knew exactly why. That had to hurt much worse than anything the rest of us ever felt. Sometimes not knowing what you don’t know can be a good thing.
Since that realization, I’ve seen similar scenarios playing out in many areas of people’s lives. We think we want something so badly sometimes, and when we don’t get it, it can feel like we lost the contest. Maybe we didn’t. Sometimes not getting the ‘prize’, is really the prize.
Gregory Young Gardner passed away in 2022, all alone in a nursing home in Sun City, California, at the age of 73. I never met him or even spoke to him. For a large part of my life, I wanted nothing more than that meeting. I can say now, I am grateful that meeting never happened.
I can't imagine that his little girl wasn't one of the main things he was thinking about as he was leaving this world. The shame and regret that guy must have felt for leaving that little one to wonder why she wasn't enough for him to stick around… it had to be enormous.
Safe travels, Greg. You sure missed out on a whole lot of goodness. I hope you do better on the next go around.