By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
“Grieving is not a process of the ego, which only wants stability and to be in charge. Speaking generally, grief resists efforts to be rushed so that you can get back to work and become productive again.”
In his late 50s Olin Dodson, a psychotherapist with graduate degrees in both clinical psychology and theology, began his first book, a memoir called Melissa’s Gift (Bay Tree Publishing). The story is about Olin’s experience of learning he had a child in Costa Rica—the result of a brief affair he’d had while traveling through that country years earlier—the wonder of unconditional love as he threw himself headfirst into fatherhood, and, later, his attempts to come to terms with the grief that overwhelmed him when his child passed away at 18.
Here is Dodson on fatherhood, grief, writing, and the power of dreams.
Joan Schweighardt: How did you first come to learn you had a daughter in Costa Rica?
Olin Dodson: I received a phone call from a stranger. Think of it: I was at the time a 43-year-old single man who had reached the point of believing he would never have children. Then I get a phone call and learn I am the father of an 11-year-old Costa Rican girl named Melissa and she wants to meet me. My legs failed me when I heard that and I went crashing to the floor. From that moment on, I did not belong to myself. I was hers.
The call was but one of several remarkable occurrences. A couple in Chicago tracked me down. The couple’s daughter was a volunteer teacher in the little town where Melissa lived. She told the couple about Melissa and they devoted themselves to finding me. This was before the Internet made everyone traceable. They were at it for a while and very nearly gave up the search, but made one last-ditch, half-futile phone call. That call led them to a former coworker of mine who had seen me purely by chance a year or so earlier and knew what town I lived in.
For me, the experience of being found felt destined. I’ve talked to people who remember the circumstances around meeting their partner, mentor, or best friend. They know that if events hadn’t transpired just so, their lives would have looked very different. The same was true for Melissa and me; the cards had to line up just right.
JS: What was your first encounter with Melissa like?
OD: My relationship with Melissa was definitely not the fairy tale I initially imagined. Within a week or so of the phone call, I learned that she had an incurable genetic condition known as cystic fibrosis. When I read up on CF, I came to the terrible realization that we might not have much time together. I couldn’t even be certain she would be alive on our scheduled meeting date. But I believed and hoped that finding me would improve her mental and spiritual health. At that time the average length of life for someone with CF was only around 18 years, and that was in the U.S. It was less in Costa Rica. I was determined to provide Melissa with access to the best CF specialists in the Bay Area, where I lived at the time. So even with the sobering news of her incurable condition, I concluded that if her finding me wasn’t a miracle, it was close enough.
JS: After her initial outreach, Melissa more or less rejected you every time you flew to Costa Rica, and you visited as often as possible. As you came to realize, it was hard enough for her physically to make it to school every day. She didn’t have the stamina for a relationship with you too, though there were moments where you did connect. How did you handle this?
OD: Stamina wasn’t the issue. She was very conflicted towards me and kept me at arm’s length for several years, even ignoring me and refusing to talk. But I have to say, from start to finish, it was a remarkable time. Even with the suffering I went through and my fits of utter frustration, never had I been so continuously energized, alert, and alive. At age 17, she gave up her negative behavior and said she wanted to visit me in the States. Then, 15 months later, and just short of seven years from the date of the phone call, I received a fax from Melissa’s pulmonologist in Costa Rica. I was living in New Mexico at this time, planning and dreaming of Melissa’s upcoming visit to the States, when, unbeknownst to me, she went into the hospital. Her body was exhausted and it just gave in. I didn’t learn of her death until a day or two after it happened. It was the end of our dream.
JS: Why did you wait so long after her death to begin to write about what had happened?
OD: Our story, mine and Melissa’s, to that point, was filled with dramatic events, but there was no ending worth writing about. And I was in no mood to write it anyway. Seven years after Melissa’s death, when I was 57 or 58, I began to type. I wrote before I went to work, during lunch hour, and at night. I couldn’t keep the story inside me any longer.
I kept a giant box of journals during those years in which I recorded everything: memorable incidents, conversations, plans, frustrations, and of course dreams. Those journal entries, many of which I’d forgotten by the time I sat down to write, contained all the details of my years with Melissa and afterwards. I wasn’t writing for an audience, per se; it was simply a story I had to write. Bernd Heinrich, a biologist and terrific nature writer, expressed it beautifully: “And so I began to write, lest I lose the experience which had been so costly and precious to me.”
JS: By that time did you know how your side of the story would end?
OD: In truth the story never stopped, it only seemed like it did. In the years of greatest darkness and sorrow, my psyche kept plowing ahead. During that time, I hiked four “fourteeners” [mountains exceeding 14,000 feet]. Those climbs were damn hard, and I could not give a good reason why I was doing them at the time, other than as something to fill my weekends. Now looking back, I think those hikes were important. After what I’d been through, my heart and soul needed the beauty and magnificence of the Rockies and other places I hiked in New Mexico and Utah.
JS: But you did in some sense restart your life.
Aside from finding a wise woman to serve as my therapist, the best thing I ever did to restart my life was to return to Costa Rica to visit Melissa’s grave and see her mother and extended family. I had a limited number of experiences from my visits to Melissa over the course of six years. I craved more stories about her. So in 2004, almost seven years after she died, I returned to Costa Rica following a brief side trip to Nicaragua.
The pass through Nicaragua turned into something more. I walked south across the Nicaraguan border led by a small, chatty, Nica girl named Guisell. She was 11, but looked nine or ten. She took me to a man who changed my Nicaraguan cordobas into Costa Rican money. That night in a hotel just south of the border, I had a startling dream featuring Melissa and Guisell. Dreams of Melissa always captured my attention. I think of a wonderful line from a Bob Dylan tune, “Just when I thought you were gone, you came back.” The dream woke me with questions about what Guisell was doing at the border during school hours. Obviously she was trying to make money to support her family, but I could only think about her skipping classes. In the morning I took a bus north to find Guisell.
Long story short, I found her and later corresponded with her mother, Neyvi, and she gave me permission to put Guisell into a private school where she could get a decent education. Guisell had an intriguing interest in Melissa and her photographs. Although they didn’t live at the same time, their hometowns were only several hundred miles apart. Very quickly, Guisell became a part of me and I became a part of her and her family. In a real sense she also provided a positive ending to my story. It was after she enrolled in school that I began writing my book.
JS: You often refer to your journals and how helpful they were (and continue to be) to you in your writing. How did you come by your journaling skills?
OD: In my early 20s I was fortunate to take a workshop with Ira Progoff, a protégé of Carl Jung. When I met him, he was an elderly man. Progoff designed something he called Intensive Journal Workshops within the school of what I suppose you would call “depth psychology.” Spiritual without being religious, the process invites a person to keep a structured journal, listen to oneself in silence, and identify and reflect on patterns, themes, symbols, and movement; discover the threads and continuity of one’s life. After that weekend, I was hooked. Although I have used his template less and less over time, I still journal as a way of working things through. As many authors have said, writing helps me to know what I think. It has been a valuable element of my life for 50 years.
JS: What was the most important thing you learned as you went through your journey?
OD: By far the most important discovery I came across in my reading was the idea that I didn’t have to get over Melissa, let go, move on, and all those nice things our society tells us to do. Thomas Attig, an author of several books on grief, was very helpful to me in this regard. I had tried to move on but I felt like I was leaving my life and love behind. When I understood I didn’t need to do that, it was liberating. I could talk to Melissa. I could look for her legacy and her hand in my life. I could apply the love I had for her to others. Attig validated my connection to Guisell, saying in effect, Melissa lives wherever you love.
I made a concerted effort to learn what respected contemporary writers and researchers say about the grieving process. I also listened to friends, including a Native American friend, Jennifer Nanez, from the Pueblo of Acoma (Jen and I went on to teach grief workshops together). I quickly came to understand that everyone has to honor their loved one and their loss in their own way. “Talk therapy” is one option but for some it does not offer much. Books can help. Writing can help. In fact, some sort of creative response can often be highly useful. Grieving is not a process of the ego, which only wants stability and to be in charge. Speaking generally, grief resists efforts to be rushed so that you can get back to work and become productive again.
There is no question that some people are more or less permanently debilitated by loss. We’ve heard of people dying soon after their loved ones pass on. Nothing seems to elicit more critical judgment from others than an individual’s difficulty coping with loss. Few of us can truly understand what death means to others and why some people struggle with it so desperately. It makes us uncomfortable to see another in a dark place for a long time, or even a lifetime. We have the choice of judging another’s grief response and rejecting it or stepping back and examining why it makes us so uncomfortable.
JS: Did Guisell become something like a surrogate daughter?
OD: Guisell did not have a father, or to put it more accurately, he did not acknowledge her. But I never felt that she was a daughter. I was always godfather in Guisell’s eyes and she was, and is, my god-daughter. Depending on whether I could visit her or when she had money to email me from an internet café, our contact was sporadic at times. But I still see her as often as I can. She is now 25, married with a child, and she works steadily. I have assisted two other Nicaraguan children with their educations, one of whom was introduced to me by Guisell. Back home, I work with a number of children as a tutor or mentor. If I was still focused on “letting go” I never would have had half the life I have now. It is the theme of my next book, currently untitled, which I hope to finish in late 2019.
I knew Melissa for less than seven years but her life and our love have evolved in unforeseen ways. In truth, all the significant people and activities of my life for the last 30 years can be traced back to Melissa and our brief life together.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of Before We Died and other novels. Her first children’s book, No Time for Zebras, releases in October.
Author Photographs by Anne Staveley