A Father, A Daughter And A Continent Between Them

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, on this Father's Day, we bring you a story about a father and his daughter and a whole continent between them. Longtime NPR contributor Jon Kalish lives in New York City. For years, he struggled to maintain a relationship with his estranged daughter Meleia, who grew up in the Bay Area of California. Distance made that difficult, and then tragedy made it impossible. Here's Jon's story.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: I didn't meet my daughter Meleia until she was three months old. I never got to see her take her first steps, and the first time I heard Meleia speak was on my answering machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELEIA: Hi, Daddy. Hi, Daddy.

KALISH: Meleia was born after her mother and I had divorced. I wanted to move to the Bay Area so I could be close to my daughter. But I was rooted here in New York by my frail father and autistic brother. So instead, I managed to scrape together enough money to visit Meleia three or four times a year. Once in a while, she came to me in New York. I took her to Vermont in the summer, and here in Manhattan, a friend recorded her sing in his studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELEIA: (Singing) Old McDonald had a pig, e-i-e-i-o. With an oink, oink, here and an oink, oink there. Old McDonald had a pig, e-i-e-i-o.

KALISH: My relationship with her mother was acrimonious. And over time, it got worse. She took my last name out of Meleia's hyphenated surname and eventually replaced it with her new husband's. Adding to the tension was the fact that he was also named John, and Meleia started calling him Dad. But she still looked forward to my visits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELEIA: Hi, this is me Meleia. I want to say hi 'cause today I am going to see you, Daddy. Wake up sleepyhead. Daddy.

KALISH: Each time I saw her, she spoke better and was a little harder to lift onto my shoulders. When I visited Meleia in 1989, she cried for the first time when I left. Back in New York, I cried too. It was often a struggle to connect on the telephone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELEIA: Hello. Hello. I don't hear anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

MELEIA: Hello, Daddy. You're not here again. I wanted to call you and see how you were. You're not here so bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

MELEIA: Oh, Daddy guess what. In soccer, I scored three goals. And you know what? I was in the newspaper. Can you believe that? I was actually in the newspaper.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

MELEIA: Daddy, guess what. I'm graduating in a couple of hours. I'm so excited. I will be officially a seventh grader.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

KALISH: Meleia's mother stopped working after she remarried so I stopped sending money. She was all right with that. Six years went by, and when Meleia was 12, her mother decided to go to court for back child support. I didn't have the money. So friends raised enough to settle the case, and once again, I started sending a check every month. When I was in court over child support, I broached the idea of letting Meleia's step-dad adopt her; a proposal her mom and stepfather decided to share with her without my knowledge. My relationship with Meleia quickly unraveled.

Meleia and I didn't see or speak to each other for four years. Then out of the blue, she showed up on my doorstep in Manhattan. Her high school class was on its way home from a trip abroad. I remember little about the visit other than it was brief and strained. When she came again the next year, she told me she was being recruited by an Ivy League college. I said I was impressed, and she informed me I'm brilliant. Those were the last words she said to me. I called her at Dartmouth on her birthday, but she didn't answer the phone and never called me back. More than a year passed, and then I heard the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Police in Berkeley are still searching for a gunman who fired into a group of women striking and killing a 19-year-old early yesterday morning. A memorial now marks the scene of the shooting, and friends and relative...

KALISH: In July 2005, Meleia was shot to death by a close friend from high school. She was intoxicated when it happened and had been arguing with some young men outside her apartment in Berkeley. According to witnesses, Meleia asked her friend to bring a gun. In 2008, I spoke at the sentencing of the young man who shot her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KALISH: My name is Jon Kalish. I'm Meleia's biological father. And I wish to inform this court that I lost my daughter when she was 12 years old.

I cringe now when I was according. I went on about how my daughter's mind had been poisoned against me. I assumed that would be the only opportunity I'd have to tell the world how horrible it was trying to be her father. In the years that followed, I've been learning about the young woman my estranged daughter became.

RICK AYERS: She was very contrary in the sense of challenging authority.

KALISH: Rick Ayers was one of Meleia's high school teachers.

AYERS: She was quite the debater, and she had a sense of entitlement, and I mean that in the best way.

KALISH: Another teacher sent me video of her class trips to Cuba and Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

KALISH: I watched her interact with kids at an orphanage outside of Hanoi. She was passionate about social justice. Rafael Casal, one of Meleia's classmates at Berkeley High, told me that she was a dynamic presence in school.

RAFAEL CASAL: She was always sort of the hub of anything we were doing. And she sort of knew how to be friends with everybody and was just, like, always trying to make everyone get along.

KALISH: I've spent a lot of time wondering what might've happened if I had reached out to her during the four years we didn't speak. And now, 10 years after she's gone, I regret that I didn't do it. Last month, I talked to Meleia's stepfather for the first time in years.

JOHN STARBUCK: I didn't instill in Meleia any kind of resentment against you. It was there. It is one of the gut-wrenching inequities of her death that neither she nor you were able to experience that reconciliation.

KALISH: Do you think there was some sort of possibility that someday Meleia and I could've reconciled?

STARBUCK: It was a certainty as long as you lived old enough and she lived old enough, it would've happened. I am confident in my heart that that would've happened.

KALISH: You know what's worse than having your only child shot to death? Having it happen while the two of you were estranged. I am filled with an odd mixture of anger and sadness because now all I have left are the pictures and those answering machine messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELEIA: Daddy, when you get this message, I want to call black back please. I love you. Bye-bye.

KALISH: I love you, too, Meleia.

MARTIN: Reporter Jon Kalish lives in New York City. There are pictures of Jon and his daughter on our website, npr.org.

Copyright © 2015 NPR