I have it on my desk right now. I tied a yellow ribbon around it. Not for any symbolic reason, just to make sure I don’t lose it or mix it up with the other paperclips on my desk. I first learned of this inheritance on a train platform in West Philly after getting off the Market-Frankford Line and waiting for the Norristown train. I was on the way to teach. My mother called to say, “Your father died.” His lawyers had reached out to her because they needed to contact his surviving children. Since I am still alive – along with my siblings – the lawyers needed to contact me about the paperclip (although I didn’t know about the paperclip yet and neither did they).

We spoke briefly. I asked how she was feeling. She said she wasn’t surprised; he was older; she just hoped her children got what they deserved (definitely not thinking of the paperclip). I asked about his name again. I couldn’t remember, and checking my own last name doesn’t help. My mother’s maiden name is my last name, which makes my passwords both less secure (if you know my name, you know her name) and more secure (wouldn’t Sweeney be the last name you’d pick?). When people ask about my mother’s maiden name, I feel awkward. Once as a child I lied and told someone she happened to have the same last name as my father but they weren’t cousins. Or I would tell people she wanted to keep her last name and pass it down to us. There is some truth to that.

We got off the phone. I cried, but not because he was dead. I had never met the guy. How do you cry for an absence? For something that isn’t there, a gap in the fabric of a family. I cried because there was nothing to cry about. I should have been weeping for other reasons, but I had no other reasons. I boarded the train with people looking at me askance. I went and tearlessly taught my classes. You can’t skip class for a man you have never met.

After that, there was not much news. I called my brother and sister. I talked with my mother, who insisted again that I deserved an inheritance. I looked him up and it did seem that he had been well off: a bank executive with enough clout to serve on the board of a university. My wife and I, who are not so well off, talked about whether I wanted an inheritance. Getting some money would help an artist (her) and a philosopher (me). With an inheritance, we could afford one of the houses in West Philly with a nice porch and tulips. We could have one of those big bay windows and put a lawn sign up about how we believe in science and that love is love.

At the same time, it would feel weird getting money from a stranger. What would one inherit from a void? He didn’t know me, and an inheritance didn’t seem like something you would leave to a kid you don’t know or, worse, to a kid you vaguely recall as your bastard. A not very charming word. Microsoft Word warns me that this language may be offensive to you, my reader. So I really have no excuse. But it is the right word; it is my word. To be a bastard is to be a person without a birthright and with only half of a family background. Ask me about my paternal uncles or my grandfather on my father’s side and I have nothing. A blank on the family tree. I could do some sleuthing, but the fact that I would have to do so is, well, sad. There is no received legacy to pass down. There is no inheritance.

A month went by and then the first letter arrived in the mail. It was a simple legal notice from a law firm on Long Island. They wanted me to verify my address so they could send me further material in the mail. The first letter let me know to wait for the second letter in the mail. I waited.

While I waited, I wondered what would arrive. Perhaps, amid the legal documents, a letter or a photo. I felt the hairs on my neck tingle like I had as a kid on long walks to the lake. Back then, I was sure that the car slowing down would be his. He would hop out and ask me where the Sweeneys lived. For some reason, he was driving with a baseball glove on. Imprudently, I would tell him the way. Returning home, I would find his car in the driveway and casually introduce myself as one of those Sweeneys. He would toss me a glove and suddenly we were having a catch in the yard between the lilac bushes and the broken-down Volkswagen Rabbit. Miraculously, I could catch and throw! He mussed my hair and then headed out.

Photograph by Bart Sadowski. Used by permission.

When the legal package arrived, there was no letter. Just like back then, I found myself at home and still bad at baseball.

The package consisted of a thick manila envelope containing three clusters of paper, each stapled together. Having determined that there was no letter from him to me, I went through the materials. There was in fact a lot of money properly doled out to the “issue of his marriage to ___.” The expression came up on page after page, just in case the question was unclear. I was not to receive the inheritance designated for his legitimate issue, the half-siblings I had never met. The only place I was mentioned by name was in another packet indicating how I could seek legal recourse for, well, being the wrong kind of issue. When drawing up his will, the man had not forgotten me. A man I couldn’t remember and so couldn’t forget had remembered me well enough to write me out of his inheritance.

I was reminded of this at Mass recently listening to Saint Paul: “if children, then heirs” (Rom. 8:14–17). But some of us are children and not heirs. Some of us had a father without ever having a dad. Yet here Paul is speaking of a deeper sonship, one that includes even us bastards:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. … When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

I felt that as a child. I found real solace as a kid saying the Our Father. It wasn’t the same as saying “my dad,” but the universal compensated for the lack of the intimate. Fatherless, I still got to have a Father.

Christianity is a religion for the illegitimate. As Rev. Will Campbell puts it, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” None of us are children of God in any legitimate sense; we are made legitimate by adoption. What’s more, we’re grafted onto a family centered on a man who was born to a not-yet-wed mother and didn’t get to spend too much of his time on earth with his (real) Father. We may get disinherited in this life, but we’re adopted by the Father no matter what our status.

As a boy, it was a solace to be able to pray to Our Father and know that even if he couldn’t play catch with me, he would stick around. With my own father dead, this prayer gives a bit of solace and connection even now. From the obituaries I learned that Catholicism is something I shared with my father. When I prayed the Our Father, I now know, he too may well have been praying the Our Father. A tenuous connection but more real than any in my fatherless youth.

I set the packet down on my desk and heard the light tap of metal on wood. A stack of legal documents held together by a paperclip. Nothing to hold on to, nothing to pass on. I took the paperclip off and dropped the will in the trashcan. I held the clip in my hand. A paperclip, well cared for, could last a long time. My father had paid the law office for the work, the documentation, and all the material that went into making sure I did not receive anything. The paperclip was an ironic consolation; he had left me something after all. I was to receive no inheritance, but my father left me a paperclip. Not much, but not nothing. I showed my wife; she held my hand. I tied a yellow ribbon around the clip and slipped it into my desk drawer.

Where my father had been there was only absence, a space that was barely there. In the rich tapestry of love that my family had woven around me, he punctured a whole. My whole life I had kept vigil for when he would step into a space that I had kept open. He died and left that space as empty as ever. I did not get money from his dying, but I got a reminder: I pray to a Father who has promised, through his Son, to never disinherit any of his children. Perhaps, because of this Father’s mercy, I’ll meet my father someday. Maybe he’ll teach me to play baseball. But in the meantime, I still need something to hold on to from the dad I never had. I have tried to live with absence my whole life, but you can’t live with absence. I have always needed something to hold on to. I have my paperclip now; I can live with that.