My father was nothing more than a name to me for most of my childhood. I didn’t know who Bruce Sundlun was, where he lived, or who got gifts from him on Christmas. My story is not unusual in that way. In the United States, biological fathers are absent in the homes of about one in three children. Those children suffer from the absence: They are more likely to exhibit behavioral issues, struggle in school and suffer from health problems. At the age of 10, I attempted suicide — though I don’t think I really wanted to die, I was dying for attention.
Sigmund Freud said, “I cannot think of any need in childhood greater than the need for a father’s protection.” Without the direction of a dad, too many kids, like me, grow up feeling lost. Fatherlessness has become such an epidemic in our country that our own fatherless president created a White House task force to help stop it.
Even though I was 17 years old by the time my father entered my life, I experienced a transformative before-and-after effect. Having a relationship with my father made me feel more confident about myself and my life. I made better decisions about my future and chose better men to date. But I was one of the lucky ones. The way I found my father and built a relationship with him isn’t the typical ending for stories about absent fathers. Bruce Sundlun, I discovered in 1988, was a wealthy businessman and a candidate for governor of Rhode Island.
In my new memoir, “Finding Dad: From ‘Love Child’ to Daughter,” I share my journey in hopes of inspiring others to heal broken relationships and realize the power of forgiveness. The following is an excerpt:
ELECTION NIGHT 1988
I was thirteen years old and had never even seen a picture of my father, when suddenly the invisible character of my childhood had a face. I don’t know what woke me up that night, but my eyes popped open with a sense of urgency at the very second a CNN news anchor was announcing the results of the 1988 gubernatorial election in Rhode Island.
“It was a close one in the Ocean State for Bruce Sundlun,” she announced. She talked about how this war hero/business tycoon-turned politician had captured forty-nine percent of the vote .. .almost beating the incumbent Governor Edward DiPrete.
Seeing his picture staring back at me on TV, Bruce Sundlun was suddenly real, and not just a faceless man who broke my mother’s heart.
I reached over and shook my mother, who was sleeping next to me. “Mom, wake up! Is that him?” I shrieked.
Bleary eyed from the move to a new house which had us spending the night in a hotel, she looked up and answered me in a scratchy, shocked voice, “He must have gone back to Rhode Island, where he’s from.”
She hadn’t laid eyes on Bruce Sundlun, the man she always referred to as my biological father, since 1977 when she was forced to settle her paternity suit out of court after he refused to claim me as his flesh and blood. There was no such thing as a DNA test back then, so she caved to his big time lawyers and agreed to a $35,000 dollar settlement, and promised to never contact him again or let me use his surname.
That was how my parents’ story ended. But I wanted — needed — to write my own story. That moment, seeing the face of my father for the first time, awakened me in another way: I knew I needed to find the other half of me. It wasn’t easy. Eventually, my father won the governorship, but my letters to the state house asking to meet him went unanswered. I hired an attorney and eventually got my father to agree to meet me in secret and take a DNA test.
My father entered the room and extended his hand to me. “Hi, Bruce Sundlun.”
Wow, Mom got it exactly right.
“Hi, Kara Hewes. Nice to meet you,” I said, giving him my best firm handshake. I was too nervous to make real eye contact.
“Nice to see you. Sit down,” he said motioning to the fancy couch as if to welcome me.
Breathe Kara, just breathe.
I tried to look at him without making it seem like I was staring.
Like a real life Daddy Warbucks, he was powerful, polished, and intense. I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated, but I refused to show it.
We bonded over our photo albums and talked about our lives, while the Washington Redskins game played in the background. We avoided discussing why I was really there, but I could feel my heart connecting to his on a deeper level.
Though he wasn’t saying much, a part of me was connecting to the softer side of my father, the side he tried to never show. I saw glimpses of it when his eyes softened when he looked at my pictures. There was an unspoken transfer of energy as we talked about our lives, as though we saw our reflection in each other. He was the other half of me. In fact, later, my new family would joke that I was the female version of him. We really were so much alike, and each held the missing piece to heal the other. He could be my rock solid source of stability and safety, and I could be the one to soften his heart. Like a new puppy, I was eager to give him the kind of unconditional love he needed, but never let in.
The DNA test came back positive and I waited for him to call me, excited to move on with getting to know each other. But nothing happened. Six weeks before I turned 18 years old, my attorney advised me to file a paternity suit, or risk losing all my rights when I became a legal adult.
I took the legal advice and the story of a teenager from Michigan suing the governor of Rhode Island for paternity became the water cooler talk of the day. Numerous news outlets reported on the millionaire Governor who had a “love child.” Then, after about a week of intense media scrutiny, my father shocked everyone. On live TV, he said he would pay for my college education, but asked that I come live with him so we could get to know each other. It was the only way he could simultaneously govern a state and get to know his new daughter.
I immediately decided to pack my bags and leave all I had ever known, for the chance to know my real father. I left suburban Detroit to move to Newport, Rhode Island, the land of sailboats and mansions. The news cameras rolled as my father escorted me into his estate on the famous Cliff Walk and across the threshold of my new life. Together we faced the press and took a pledge to become a real father and daughter.
Every day was take your daughter to work day as my father toted me around to cabinet meetings and political pot lucks. We healed with humor, like the time a woman asked him to kiss her baby, and after he did, he gestured to me and said, “Have you met my new baby?” We bonded over similarities, like our love of chocolate, as we shared Oreos each night before going to bed. We made a new family, as I met my three half-brothers that summer who willingly opened up their hearts to me, and forgave him too.
My father would eventually walk me down the aisle and give me away to my husband, Dennis House. I’m not sure if I would have ended up with such a rock solid guy if I hadn’t reconnected with my father. After growing up fatherless, a person often subconsciously recreates that feeling of abandonment in romantic relationships. I used to date the bad boys, but as my father showed up in my life, his daily doses of love fed my self-worth and I began to change my expectations of men. I’m so glad I gave my father a second chance to make it right, and I’m so glad he took it.
My father died three years ago at the age of 91 surrounded by our family — the family I would never have had if I had not made the choice to forgive. I feel blessed that I knew him one year longer than I did not know him. I hope other fathers will hear my story and know they matter. A lot. And it’s never too late to heal.
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