My father drew a portrait of me a decade ago. I just bought it back from a stranger on Facebook

Lost, then found.
Lost, then found.
Image: Alex Miller
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“Are you Elliott Miller’s son?” Said the message from the pretty brunette, who’d just randomly contacted me on Facebook. “I have something really important to tell you.” I waited a couple days to reply to this person for fear she was a scammer trying to hack my account, because I’ve been fooled before.

On the second day after I’d received the message, I exhaled and typed: “Please don’t be a daughter my father never told me about.” My dad’s black and she looked to be on the paler side of that, but I’m no geneticist so I never question what’s possible in that regard.

She wrote for about 10 minutes, and I held my breath. And then:

“My name is Karie Farman. I have been looking for your dad or someone in his family because my family buys storage garages at auction. One of the garages we bought had your dad’s artwork, pictures of you, and this unfinished drawing of you in a uniform.” She sent a photo of the portrait in the next message. I tipped backward and nearly spilled out of my chair.

It was a charcoal drawing of me in my Navy dress blues. My white crackerjack hat was still crisp and spotless, my one, lone ribbon was neatly centered above my left breast pocket, and my hands were on top of each other, in that awkward pose that photographers and portrait artists love to use. The portrait wasn’t finished. My face was detailed. My eyes expressive. But he’d only etched the outline from my right shoulder down to my right hand, and 50% of my left shoulder down to my left hand. He had started the drawing a few years after I joined the Navy, in 2004.

Maybe this was some kind of setup. Maybe she found some photos of my dad’s art someone else had posted somewhere, some crazy how.

“Wait,” I wrote, while lifting a cynical eyebrow. “How is it that you got in touch with me? This still doesn’t completely make sense.”

Karie typed: “I spent days looking for your father’s information online. I kept finding more of his beautiful artwork, but I could never find any contact info. Then, I saw your piece for Quartz about your dad’s masterpiece. And I really felt I found what I was looking for.”

I swore softly. Then louder. Then loudest. Was this real?

Shaking, giddy, still unsure if the deposed prince of Nigeria was tricking me, I called my father.

“Dad–I–I–just talked,” I was out of breath, a bout of anxiety the most likely culprit.

“Son, what… are you feeling okay?” My dad, in his most fatherly voice, was more than concerned. “What happened? Can I help?”

He was so alarmed, he forgot that I live in New York and he lives in Alabama. Partly because he’s a worried parent, partly because he’s been showing his age lately.

My breath caught up to me. “This lady has your pictures from the storage garage! The ones you lost, remember? ‘Cuz you didn’t pay the…”

“Yeah, Son, I get it. Well, how can you be sure? Maybe it’s some kind of scam.”

Wow. He really was my father.

“Yeah, well,” I gulped.” She saw the article I wrote about you online, and that’s how she found me.” The piece that I’d written mentioned growing up around art in Chicago, and learning that my dad sold his true magnum opus for $10,000 in the 90s. Since then, the painting has become a global phenomenon, amassing millions of dollars, none of which goes into his pocket, because he also sold the rights. It’s so famous in fact, many people I meet have seen the painting, and don’t believe me when I tell them my dad made it.

“So… what do I do next, Dad?”

My dad was silent on the other end. The cogs in his mind must have been spinning as rapidly as my heartbeat was thumping.

“Find out how we can get this stuff back, son. And give her my number, too.”

I nodded, like he would see this, hung up the phone, as if I’d said goodbye, then did a nervous jig, because nobody was watching.

Over the span of two months, Karie and I spoke often. She’d send me a photo or photos of some of the items acquired during the purchase. Initially, I thought most of the inventory was paintings and drawings my father did. But no. There was an intrinsic wealth of nostalgia.

A trophy: I’d won it during one of my track meets in high school—1st place. I used to get those often.

An old, silver trombone: I must have never returned that borrowed piece of school property. Uh oh.

Love-letters I’d received, shaped like triangles: Turns out, I was a lady’s man in school. More of a boy than a man, really. Also, I got dumped often, and fell in love every five minutes. Lady’s man might be a stretch.

At any rate, I thought back to that first piece of art that Karie showed me. Before any further business, I let her know that this was top priority for me.

“Listen,” I said to Karie one day, in a hushed, unnecessary tone. “I know you’ve been keeping in touch with my dad, but I want that unfinished picture of me, you know what I’m saying?”

She laughed. “Yeah, but it’s not finished.”

“And that’s why I want it!” My voice jumped along with my hands. “This is a super special work, from my dad, to me. It’s not finished, and I don’t ever want it to be completed. I almost feel like, even after he passes away, it’ll still be a special thing—symbolically like he’s still working on it, even when he’s gone. That way, maybe, he’ll never really die.” I felt a tear and a flutter in my throat. So sentimental.

One thing I didn’t mention was the fear that time was of the essence. In the past few months, my mom, siblings and I have seen instances of Dad’s memory fading, his awareness dwindling. And although it may be nothing, mental illness and dementia run in my family. Sooner rather than later, my family needs to take hold of whatever precious works of art we can. A couple of months or years lost could be devastating.

“It belongs in your family,” Karie informed me. “I would like to give it to you for free.”

“I appreciate that, but no… you’ve gone through too much trouble with this. Let me give something back to you.”

After I set a price, then waited for three months to receive it because there was a problem with the mail, I got the picture, of me. I was so handsome at 18.

I called my dad up when I was staring back at myself on paper: “I got it, Dad. I got it! Aww, I love you for this.”

“Love you too, son. You sure you don’t want me to finish the piece?”

I shook my head, “No. This is just fine the way it is.” I have a great part of our family’s history. And a physical representation of how much my dad cares. Finished or not, I’ll always have that.