THE BLOG

Facebooking Frank

06/18/2011 02:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2011

The friend request came through on Facebook last January. But there was no photo, only that silhouetted shadow of a man's image. I ignored the request for a couple of months, but then when I logged on to accept a friend request from somebody else, there was his profile picture -- the picture of a face I had seen only a few times in my life. My father was wearing an institutional blue smock and thick square-rimmed glasses. He was balding with whips of brown hair, and the dark brown eyes staring back at me were just like mine. The photo didn't tell me much more than the silhouette had. I probably wouldn't recognize him if he walked by me on the street, or sat next to me on a subway.

Frank Ross Schienberg went missing from my life when I was 13. The truth was that he had really missed my entire life.

It was a strange thing -- Facebooked by the man who abandoned me while I was still in my mother's womb. In 1978, my father left my pregnant mother and my 18-month old sister to fend for themselves. He was battling a cocaine addiction, and had dropped out of law school. He told my mother he was depressed and said he desperately needed to go home to Chicago for a little while to stay with his parents and recover.

He never returned.

What could he possibly want now? Was this a last ditch effort to make amends, or was he simply curious to see what his son looked liked -- as I was curious to see what my father looked like -- so many years later.

Maybe I should give him "limited access" to my profile, instead of complete access? But did he even deserve "limited access" to my life?

I thought about denying his request. But instead, I let it sit there still longer, relegated to the box of "outstanding friend requests," a collection of old high school acquaintances, or people I didn't know at all, and would probably never approve.

His Facebooking of me had started with some Facebooking of my own -- all when I discovered my cousin Kim Schienberg a couple months earlier. Three hours after I sent her a message, Kim called me and told me how excited she was that I'd found her. For 30 years I hadn't known a single family member on my father's side, and now that was magically reversed by the click of a button on a social networking site.

Halfway through the conversation, she said that her father, my uncle Marvin -- who my mom once told me gave my father a job and paid him under the table so my father could avoid child support -- asked to speak to me.

"It's so good that you called, Jonathan, because Frank is having a tough time in the nursing home," Marvin said. "He'd be so happy to hear from you.

Five months after my father fled to Chicago, I was born into the same house where my mother grew up in small town Connecticut.

The first time I ever met him was for about an hour during an airport layover at O'Hare, when I was three.

I never knew much about him because my mother rarely spoke of him, and he never knew much about me. And although he was never there to play catch with me in the backyard, he called every other weekend to chat briefly when I was a toddler.

The one thing he seemed to know was that I loved baseball.

During those awkward bi-weekly phone calls, the only time we seemed to hit it off was when we'd talk sports. He'd always promise that I'd soon come to Chicago and we'd go see the Cubs play at what he called "baseball's greatest stadium," Wrigley Field. Other than that, the only communication from him came in the form of $10 checks in birthday cards up until I was 13. Around that time, my mother tried unsuccessfully to enforce the child support order ($25 a month for two children). The calls and the birthday cards suddenly stopped.

Thirteen years later -- two weeks before Father's Day in 2005 -- I made a decision to track down my father to learn why he did what he did. I arrived unannounced and unexpected at his unlisted Chicago location, confirming his address through a pay-for-people-find website. I feared that if I called in advance he would slip out the back door.

His address was listed on Lake Shore Drive, a curiously conspicuous location for a man who had been hiding from his family for so long. The soaring building of condos sat perched above a main strip of highway across the street from Lake Michigan and Chicago's famed Lincoln Park, a mile from Wrigley Field.

I scanned the parking lot for a balding pot-bellied man with thick glasses and a few fine strands of dark hair molded into a combover. That was all I had to go on -- faded images from the few times we had met.

I felt nauseous with fear. I decided to circle his block a couple times to regain my confidence. I thought about walking away, just as he had. But in that moment of indecision I realized why I had come. The desire to confront him was the desire to confront my own greatest uncertainty: Could I someday be a good father, different from the one I never knew?

I forced myself toward his apartment. The doorman asked me for my name.

"Jonathan," I said determinedly.

"Jonathan what?" he asked, as he picked up the phone.

I paused. "Schienberg," I said nervously.

Then he turned to me with a strange look and said, "You his son? He walked right by you earlier, you didn't see him?"

"No," I said, my voice trembling, waiting to hear what my father had told him.

"Go right up. 12J," he said.

My heart pounded harder as the elevator climbed each floor. Twelve floors felt like fifty.

When the elevator doors finally opened, I immediately heard a voice.

"Jonathan, is that you?"

My father was waiting for me in the hallway. He put out his arms, and we embraced.

In that dramatic moment of a father hugging his son for the first time in 13 years, shockingly, I experienced nothing; nothing toward him and nothing inside. I had felt overwhelming anxiety and fear upon arrival. Sadness, anger and hurt for so many years; but in that one climatic moment: nothing.

As soon as we let go, my father said to me, "Let's go downstairs and talk in the lobby. I feel much safer there."

What I mainly recall from the conversation in his lobby was meandering tales of his ailments, mental and physical: "... and I started to lose weight, and they thought that I had cancer... and then I had to stop playing golf because of pain in my shoulder... And I also lost a chunk of money in the market... that's when the depression got worse."

Stock market, golf? I thought. What about paying the child support? But before my angry thoughts boiled over to my lips, my father began -- unprompted, in a preemptive strike -- to talk about it.

"... And I tried to pay the child support for a while... and the system was just so confusing," he said. "I remember the state of Connecticut was after me, but I had no animosity. Had I not had the mental problem, things could've been a lot different."

As my father carried on, my thoughts drifted to something my mother had once told me: "Frank exhausted" her. After meeting him in his lobby -- over just a few hours, having not seen him for 13 years, I completely understood why. At the end of our talk, he put out his hand, and this time we shook goodbye, agreeing to keep in touch.

But over the last five years, neither one of us reached out.

Until the Facebook request.

This is odd, I thought initially. I do have many Facebook "friends" I barely know, but I didn't want my dad to be one of them.

And because of that, I didn't click. I continued to let his request linger for months. I was bothered by the idea that my father, who wouldn't even let me into his apartment, could just click his way back into my life -- erasing decades of parental obligations.

But Facebook struck me as the perfect instrument for a father like mine: a networking tool that provides a non-verbal platform from a safe distance, where the term "friend" is used loosely, and a derelict dad can be accepted into my virtual world, despite never having been a friend, or a father, in the real one.

If only Facebook existed 25 years ago, my father and I could have been virtual father and son. He could've watched me grow up online through endless postings of pictures and videos and followed my life's progress through Facebook "status updates."

My cousin and new Facebook friend Kim, who is in her 30s, grew up with my father in Chicago, as Frank's little niece. She appealed to me to approve his request.

"I'm not sure if you understand how serious a thing addiction and depression is. You really can't function and have little capacity to care for others," Kim said. "It just makes me so sad because Frank used to have such an engaging personality."

But I had already reached out to my father. When I found him five years ago, he wasn't engaging at all. In fact, he was completely disengaged. In a way, I told her, his behavior helped me reach some sense of peace after the visit, and I didn't really want to open that door again.

Kim persisted a bit. At a certain point her making excuses for him angered me. "All he did was make excuses... he couldn't even apologize for his failures," I said.

"He went on and on about his ailments saying it was nobody's fault. In the end, I realized what had helped me move on -- I was actually lucky I didn't have to grow up with him," I said.

"A lucky bastard."

There was silence. I was sure I had upset her.

After a brief pause, she said quietly, "I'm sure he realizes that too, Jonathan."

The conversation ended shortly after that, and Kim's comment has since haunted me.

My visit with my father five years ago was the last time I expected to hear from him. But now, whenever I get a new friend request, I see a couple of other old faces I have no interest reconnecting with, and then my father's outstanding request. His blank-faced stare lingering there in my inbox.

Maybe Kim is right, I thought recently. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to virtually accept my father, or let him into my life in a limited way, given his limited capacity for relationships. Maybe this is the only way to have a relationship with my father -- in a virtually perfect world.

Then I might even post some of the photos I took at Wrigley, when I went to visit him five years ago, so he can know what I did right after our last meeting.

I went to see the Cubs play. Just like he had always promised me.

I think he might be happy to know I made it without him.

And with the click of a button, "Jonathan and Frank Schienberg are now friends."

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