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Sarah Hampson's Generation Ex

In death, an estranged dad reveals himself Add to ...

When Sam Berns was 24, he surprised his mother with a present she only found out about when she went to the bank one day. "Your mortgage is paid off," said a manager. She cried. A single mother, whose former husband had left the family when their only child was 13, she had worked hard as a teacher to bring up her son. Her ex, a marketing executive who moved away from Ottawa, where the family lived, had never paid support of any kind after their 14-year marriage ended, and he was estranged from his child, whom he hadn't seen in almost 10 years.

The payment of the five-figure mortgage was made after years of hard work and savings by Mr. Berns, who at the time was living at home and in his first job after graduating from university. But the most stunning part of the story is that he also did it out of love for the father who had abandoned him.

"You know when you love someone and they do something wrong, but you still love them and you can't understand why?" the now 31-year-old man says, his voice cracking with emotion. "They are the way they are. It's beyond their control, and you almost want to cover it up for them. I always felt that if I did this for my father, it was almost like it was okay. It was like correcting the mistake that he had made. I could fix it, you know?"

Mr. Berns does not offer this information about his generosity and sense of responsibility easily. Initially, he didn't want me to include it.

Many people assume that children of divorce suffer from anger, resentment, low self-esteem and anxiety. Studies are often trotted out about the poor outcomes for children in fatherless homes who have a tendency to drop out of school and commit crimes.

But there are stories of love and forgiveness, too. Divorce, like many other painful childhood experiences - war, poverty, the death of a parent - can sometimes be a crucible that creates extraordinary people. "I think I am more empathetic than other people growing up," says Mr. Berns.

I first met Mr. Berns last summer, when he approached me to talk about a website he had started called withoutafather.com. It puts teenagers in touch with online mentors and offers advice on how to build a resume and budgeting as well as other tips, such as how to ask a girl out on a date. He works part-time as a consultant at an online interactive company in Ottawa to free up enough time to run the site and speak at schools in neighbourhoods with a high number of single-parent homes.

He told me his story then - the bare bones of it. He wanted to explain his desire to help others, who experience what he knew as a boy. He never talked about his absent father to his friends when he was young. "It felt like a weakness," he confided. But he suffered without a father figure as he went through puberty: "There is no one to show you how to be a man."

A few years ago, when he volunteered with Junior Achievement of Canada, a charitable organization that encourages leadership, work skills and entrepreneurship among youth, he could recognize those children who were from single-parent homes. "There were kids who didn't know how to tie a tie and some who had trouble with authority. It jolted me right back," he said. "I couldn't do nothing." He quit his well-paying full-time job to devote his time to the start-up.

Last month, Mr. Berns contacted me again, but this time the news was sad. His father had died unexpectedly while on holiday with a new girlfriend in the Caribbean and in the process of divorcing his third wife. The job of making arrangements for the funeral and clearing out his father's apartment in Toronto fell to him, as the estranged wife lived in the United States. "It was the hardest period of my life," he says. "I was on auto-pilot."

In the process, Mr. Bern encountered a father he never knew. "After his death, I found out things I didn't know before and I could see the challenges in his own life - the frequent job changes and having to move cities. I always felt like I was the victim of those things. I thought about how it affected me. And for the first time in my life, I thought about it from his point of view - how scary it must have been to live with that lack of self control. He was very smart and yet he couldn't make it all work for himself."

From books, which his father had annotated, and through friends, he discovered that the senior Mr. Berns may have had mental-health issues.

All he had known was that his father was unreliable. When his father left his mother, he visited him once or twice in Toronto, where he lived with his second wife. But contact was soon lost. "I never understood why [the estrangement]happened," says Mr. Berns. "It's one day passes, then a week, then a year, then two, three, four, five."

Out of the blue, when he was in his 20s, his father sent him a birthday card. They spoke on the phone. "It felt instantly familiar," he says, adding that he didn't ask any difficult questions out of fear he might risk losing their renewed connection. A year later, he visited his father in Chicago, where he was living with his third wife and three stepchildren after his divorce from his second wife. But the reconciliation did not go well. They were all trying their best, he says. "But I didn't feel like I belonged."

Another period of silence ensued until he saw his father again a couple of years ago when he moved back to Toronto, after the failure of his third marriage. He had little money and was living in a studio apartment without a sofa or TV. They had a long talk, walking for hours through Riverdale Farm, and at one point his father told him, "All those years we were apart, they were difficult on me. I never stopped loving you." And then he said, "All that distance between us, it was for your own good."

Mr. Berns thinks about those words now. They had seen each other a few more times before his death from a pulmonary embolism at 61 in March this year. But their relationship was still fragile.

"What frustrates me is that the word deadbeat Dad is so dismissive," he explains, when asked what he wants others to know. "It doesn't look at the underlying reasons or any real source of understanding, and without that, you can't make anything better." His father, he says, was "brilliant but unstable." He encourages children to reconcile with an estranged parent, and in turn, for those parents to work hard on their own issues to help their children understand them.

The story of Mr. Berns is about the enduring love children have for their parents, no matter how they have wounded them. His mother never gave him reason to question his father's worth. "She always spoke lovingly of him. She would tell me how they met, and how interesting and promising he was. She had every right to be angry, but she never was."

And he tried to reach his father with his love that stretched across all disappointments.

"I asked his permission about starting my website," he tells me at one point. "He couldn't have been more supportive. It was almost as though he recognized that I had turned out alright, and we both felt grateful for that, and in exchange, we did this together."

After his death, Mr. Berns had access to his father's computer. Withoutafather.com was one of his bookmarks.

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