Thoughts on a Phone Call

I think often, I think compulsively, about the last phone call I had with my father, certain portions of which feel permanently lodged into various portions of my brain, parroting the same phrases again and again in a 1,000-year half-life. I did not know it would be the last time I would ever want to speak to him. I used to speak to him often, and enjoy it, and looked forward to the next time I would speak with him again. Yet there was one thing I always knew, in all our talks both public and private, which was that it was not possible for a child of John Ortberg to express anger at John Ortberg. You might have suggestions, you might come to him as a supplicant, you might prayerfully encourage him to reconsider, petition in hand, but anger he would always reject right out. Sweetly at first, then with thunder. So often I would find myself choking on the one thing I wanted to say to him, the one thing I knew I couldn’t say, the one thing I would be endlessly punished for, and receive in response: 

Why do you hide so often? Why are you so evasive? Why can’t you just look me in the eye and tell me what you’re thinking? I feel like I don’t know you. I feel like you’re unknowable. I feel like you only ever tell me what you think I want to hear.

You can’t take this away from ____.

It’s a very — it’s a very unique situation. That’s the thing you have to understand, is this is a very unique situation, and so you can’t just —

There’s almost no studies done about this sort of situation. Almost none. And so it’s really difficult to say what to do in this situation.

Grace and I had written down a number of questions we wanted to ask him, questions about what resources he had sought out, how he was taking care of himself, what the general safety plan was — questions I imagined he would have spent a great deal of time considering, questions he would welcome answering — questions I had no idea would make him furious.

I do — I do think therapy would probably, would probably be a good idea — but _____ is worried they might get a weird or eccentric one, who would report them for no reason. So I think it would be good, but ____’s not going to go, and you can’t make someone go to therapy.

He sounded hell-bent. I have no other words for it; I heard evasions give way to sputterings give way to euphemism give way to recriminations. He sounded like a man who had spent the last 18 months quietly building a device that would bring about the end of the world and making sure nobody else noticed.

Well, I don’t really think you have the grounds to give advice to ______ since you don’t talk much since your transition.

No, I don’t agree with that.

You have to understand, you only found out about this today. I understand how you’re feeling, but we’ve had 18 months to get used to the situation.

Well, that’s way out of bounds.

At one point Grace had written the word “anger” down on the little yellow legal pad we’d used to draw up our list of questions. I had told her before we called that it was important to me that I had the opportunity to say I was angry he had kept this information from me for so long. As the conversation went on, and my father grew more and more indignant, Grace started tapping the word, then underlining it, then circling it in bold black strokes, then jabbing at it every time I said something like “I’m not sure I understand —” and “But don’t you agree it would be safer for everyone if —” and “I don’t know —”

I never said it, of course. I had always known that within our family it was not possible, it was not permissible for anger to be directed towards him. I did not know how well I had absorbed that lesson until that day.

I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’m not sure.

I don’t think so.

I think if _____ couldn’t do this work, they would want to — they would feel like their life had no meaning.

No, you misunderstand.

No, that’s not what I said.

It was remarkable, how simultaneously “uncertain” he presented himself as, and yet how immediately and intuitively hostile to any suggestion about trying anything else – alternately gentling, reassuring, using language about “journeys” and complexity, and then in the next moment fierce, adamant, paternal, speaking ex cathedra, with a perfect explanation for why secrecy was the only possibility, no matter how wrong that might look on first blush. A flurry of understanding.

I have no doubts in ______’s character. No doubts.

I think if you approach it so suspiciously, with such judgment — I think emotions are running a little high right now.

If you inform the church now, we’re worried ______ is going to commit suicide, and we don’t want you to be responsible for that.

The last one came to Grace through an intermediary.

It was a very unique situation the kind that happens all the time and I was born to get used to it but I never did and so far no one has committed suicide which means I’m not responsible for anything even the things I’ve misunderstood.