For two decades, Father's Day was more like Memorial Day for Cincinnati-based writer Carrie Herzner — a day to remember the fallen. But in Herzner's case, the loss she was mourning wasn't her father Bill, it was her relationship with him.
When Herzner was 5, her parents divorced and her father moved in with the girlfriend that had ostensibly caused the split. Herzner and her sister Twig (short for her nickname Twiggy) visited her father every Sunday until one day when their mother brought the girls for their weekly visit and their father and his girlfriend were gone, leaving without a word of warning or farewell.
Herzner's father would infrequently pop back into her life from time to time after that, but when she was a teenager, he retreated to the shadows again and she made no effort to initiate contact. Many years later, Herzner's soon-to-be ex-husband made an offhand remark about the similarity between her and her absent dad, a man he'd never met, which set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately led to a reunion with her father.
Herzner has chronicled these events and the results of the reconnection after a 20-year silence in her slim but potent self-published memoir, Good Luck Bill.
For Herzner, the book began as simply a way to document the process of reviving her relationship with her father, and to organize her thoughts about it all as it played out. The idea of transforming what was essentially an audio journal into an actual memoir came slowly.
"I've talked to people over the years that have had a similar longing and absence within them in a similar situation, and I think sometimes we all feel kind of isolated and alone and I wanted to share my experience and connect with others and let them know they're not alone," Herzner says. "Plus I had a personal agenda when my ex-husband said my genetics were messed up due to my parental lineage. That got me going, because I was curious to see if there was truth to that and what that was about. It was like my father never existed for so long because no one even spoke of him. It was like, 'Tell me something. It doesn't have to be good or bad, but I'd like to know something.' I made up imaginary stories to get myself through. And then when he reappeared and we spent some time together, I decided I didn't like him at all and I backed off and didn't want to have anything to do with him."
Herzner gradually spanned the 20-year gulf that had existed between her father and herself through frequent weekend visits; her sister had re-established ties with him previously and had attempted to negotiate them back together with no success. Ultimately the act of accessing those happy as well as extremely painful memories from so long ago resulted in the realization that perhaps she had to examine them in the same light as her current life situation with her husband and the return of her long distant father, which reinforced the idea that she was really working on a memoir.
"Once I realized I was going to do this, I asked (my father) for permission, and I actually recorded all of our conversations because I didn't want to rely on my memory and I wanted the dialogue to be authentic," says Herzner. "I visited him every week and recorded everything. He didn't get to see the final project, but he was intrigued by it, and he thought it was funny that I was going to do this. But he was on board and I think he would be proud of it, at least I hope so."
Like most people from the last few generations, music has played an important role in Herzner's life and that love takes center stage in Good Luck Bill. Each chapter in the book is subheaded with the name of a song that serves as that chapter's "soundtrack." The first chapter is aptly introduced by The National's "Start a War." Music is, in fact, one of the things that Herzner and her father most deeply shared and the intersection where their revitalized journey was launched just after her first contact with Bill, which came in a phone call fittingly on Father's Day. During that call, he mentioned that he needed to sell his turntable, a limited edition rarity, in order to pay for dental work, which Herzner bought from him on her first face-to-face visit with him in 20 years.
On that same visit, Bill asked his freshly rediscovered daughter if she would make some CDs for him. At that point, he was living with his mother, who was suffering from dementia, and had lost all of his albums when he couldn't make the payment on a storage unit. As Herzner went through the playlist her father had requested, she began to regain a sense of who he was — to her and to himself.
"Music, for me, even as a small child, has been so important to my well being," Herzner says. "I have music on 24/7. I wake up with a song in my head; I hear song lyrics and I just want to die; I hear a beautiful symphony and I want to cry. And my father was the same way. I have such sporadic memories of him in my early childhood, but the one constant was always having music on and playing albums together and singing in the car. He had a beautiful voice and he felt the music and that's something we connected with. And when he gave me the list of songs he wanted to hear and I started listening to the music, it kick-started the entire book, because I knew I had to document this experience, even as just a serious observer to the power of music to connect two humans.
“I still wasn't thinking in the big picture of writing a memoir, but I thought, 'My God, it's been 20-something years and I'm listening to this music and I feel like those years are just whooshing by.' I started making CDs and sending them back to him, and it was also definitely a great conduit to open up conversations that might have been difficult to have in the absence of that common love. I'm so glad we shared that love because it's really special. And I swear, sometimes I think he's in my iPod — I hear a song and I'm right back with him and it's very comforting."
One of the interesting outcomes of Herzner's rediscovery of her relationship with her father comes near the end of Good Luck Bill, when Bill talks about how different he and his daughter are from each other, not long after she had done a good deal of soul searching about their similarities. In retrospect, Herzner has some ideas about their divergent opinions on that particular subject.
"I think he wanted to see the best of him in me, and I was looking for the worst of me in him, and I think we both, in a way, accomplished that," she says. "I'm a pretty positive, upbeat person, and I think I gave him a breath of fresh air. That being said, I'm also in denial about some things, and spending time with him and seeing his state of mind and where his regret and guilt and depression had led him showed me a glimpse of some of the darkness that's inside of me and that I try to fight. I think that's where we came to those two different conclusions, both very important to experience. I think we both saw what we were looking for."
The bulk of Good Luck Bill is devoted to Herzner's efforts to obtain the answers to several long unasked questions and to find the places, both good and bad, where father and daughter shared some common ground. And the remorse that Bill expresses for long stretches of his often misdirected life toward the end of the book, which coincided with the end of Bill's life, are genuine and heartrending.
But Herzner examines her role in her life's dysfunction, as well — her slide into teenage depression and accompanying substance and alcohol issues after the death of her first boyfriend (which tees up an ironic and completely unexpected response from her father years after the fact), her own failed relationships, both within and beyond the context of her genetic predispositions, her attempts at being a better mother to her sons and her crushing depression when she feels she doesn't measure up.
"It's really tricky, you know. We want to be perfect parents and we want to be perfect children for our parents, and I've decided it's impossible," Herzner says. "I'm pretty certain my children know I'm not perfect and I try to be as open and honest with them as possible. They know a lot and they see a lot. I know I'm not perfect and my time with Bill showed me that, because I was so obsessed with being a perfect mom prior to my marriage falling apart, but I finally had enough. The ripple effect of reconnecting with Bill hasn't been ideal and there have been bumps in the road, but my children are seeing a real human trying to make good decisions, and they see her fail and they see her succeed sometimes, and hopefully they'll be better for it."
Good Luck Bill is ultimately a heartening story that proves it's never too late to reassemble the jigsaw puzzle of one's life after it's been kicked to the floor, even if a few pieces went missing in the process. It shows the power of music to heal wounds that seem almost lethal in their depth and casual infliction. And above all, it shows that love can conquer all, even love itself, in its darkest and most inexplicably cruel incarnations. And Carrie Herzner has found a measure of peace in the context of her wounded relationship with her now late father, which in turn has led to a little more contentment with the fact that she can never be the ideal parent. And while not every question that plagued her received a corresponding answer, she knows that her brief reconciliation with Bill gave her enough to build upon going forward.
"There will always be some lingering questions, because I had such a tiny taste of that relationship," she says. "There will always be some 'what ifs' going on in my head, but I felt the time was so important for both of us, and the timing was completely cosmic in the sense of what was going on in our lives, particularly with him and his health. But I did feel I got a lot of the answers I was looking for and, as far as the big picture, it was very healing for both of us. We both desperately needed to reconnect with one another, and I have no regrets. And I know I would have completely regretted not reaching out to him, and I'm thankful for the experiences that led me to the point where I did seek his friendship and try to find out who he was. I'm very, very thankful."
Good Luck Bill is available in paperback or Kindle form through Amazon. Details are available at carrieherzner.com.