Rhett sat across from the lawyer, who spread out the will on the large wooden desk between them. It looked thick and detailed.
He wondered why he was there. His father Philip died last year, surprising no one. “He’d been suffering from cancer, and it finally defeated him,” Rhett says.
Philip had been a precise, elegant man during his life, right down to his Savile Row-tailored suits. He approached the business of his passing with characteristic attention to detail.
Philip made sure his legal papers were updated, worked with financial advisors to make sure his estate was fairly distributed and even arranged to clear out his homes and offices. Even his sizable art collection was accounted for, donated to various galleries and museums around the world.
Rhett, as Philip’s only child, knew exactly what he would inherit: mostly money and real estate.
Rhett was surprised, then, when Philip’s lawyer contacted him, asking him to meet in his office in Zurich, Switzerland. Rhett’s art consultancy often took him to Zurich for business; he would be in the country in a few weeks and would stop by.
During the interim months, Rhett wondered about the meeting. Was there a problem with estate taxes? Some international legal snafu? And why did Rhett need to come to Zurich to figure it out?
The lawyer paged through the will. Philip made some last-minute additions to his will right before his death, mostly of a sentimental nature, he explained.
This surprised Rhett. His father was not sentimental. A wealthy man, he had owned many fine and valuable things, but not for sentimental value.
“My dad was the epitome of good form and taste,” Rhett says. “If something wore out or became unfashionable or unstylish, he was ruthless about getting rid of it. He had the tyranny of elegance.”
The lawyer riffled through the will, then found what he was looking for. In addition to the money and real estate Rhett already knew he inherited, his father left Rhett his stereo and record collection.
Rhett was confused, and then indignant. He had come all the way to Zurich to learn his father left him an outdated sound system and some old records? That was his final gift to his only son: a heap of old electronics. What kind of father leaves something like that behind?
Rhett arranged for the stereo to be sent to his apartment in downtown Los Angeles. A passel of packing boxes — dusty and careworn from travel — was waiting for him when he got home from his travels.
Rhett unpacked his father’s last gift. First, the records: a couple hundred, mostly jazz — a few rarities as well as premium reissues, but nothing too valuable.
Then he unpacked the stereo itself. It was an old one, from the 1970s or maybe the early 1980s. A Pioneer receiver, a pair of Audio Research speakers that looked like relics with their wood grain cabinets, a Dynaco amplifier and preamplifier, and an old-school Technics record player.
Rhett recognized the stereo. It was his dad’s old system from when Rhett was a child growing up in the 80s.
Rhett was surprised his fastidious father held onto such ugly equipment over the years. He also wondered what he would do with it all. Rhett usually listened to music on his iPhone, connected by Bluetooth to various speaker docks scattered around his apartment.
“I figured I would sell or donate the stereo,” Rhett said.
Rhett faced the boxes of dismantled stereo equipment. He sighed, mentally adding another item on his to-do list. He then shoved the boxes aside and went on with his life, letting the stereo components gather dust.
Rhett was puzzled at his father’s last gift, but it was just another mystery about Philip he would never solve.
For all of Rhett’s life, Philip was an enigma. Rhett was only a baby when Philip and his mother divorced.
Rhett’s mother had custody. She was a flighty woman with her own wealth, and she jumped from country to country, pursuing happiness and romance, often with Rhett in tow. He lived in four different countries by the time he was five.
When Rhett was old enough, his mother sent him to boarding school, and then college. He was on his own, emotionally and physically, from an early age.
Throughout Rhett’s childhood, Philip remained at a distance. He was based in New York and later in London for his work with an investment bank.
Though he was conscientious about supporting Rhett financially, Philip rarely saw Rhett except for the occasional holiday or vacation.
“My father and I always had a formal relationship,” Rhett remembers. “I would see him maybe two times a year as a kid, once or so when I was older.”
Rhett and Philip related to one another more acquaintances than as father-and-son.
“We would go out to dinner at some nice restaurant and he would ask me about ‘my studies’ and school,” Rhett says. “Conversation was never personal, though it was interesting, because he was a cultured and intelligent man. He encouraged my early interest in art, and sometimes he’d take me to museums if he wasn’t busy with work.”
Usually, though, Philip was busy, and the two rarely saw one another.
His mother, though warm and effusive, was unreliable, and his father was remote and distant. As a result, Rhett grew up feeling very much alone and isolated, even in his bubble of privilege.
He never felt much at home in his dad’s grand apartment, for example.
“I had my own room at my dad’s New York apartment, but it never really felt comfortable to me,” Rhett remembers. “It was this really severely minimalist home. I remember once I asked if I could put up a poster of a band on the wall and my dad said no. He had spent tens of thousands decorating his place, he wasn’t going to ruin it with a poster.”
As a kid, Rhett sometimes wondered if part of the reason why he and his dad were never close was because Rhett somehow violated his dad’s sense of good taste and refinement.
“I sometimes felt like this unwanted accessory to my dad’s lifestyle,” Rhett says. “Like I somehow got in the way or disappointed him. I never felt good enough.”
Rhett remembers one particular incident from his childhood with the stereo. He spent a week in California, where his mother settled at the moment, and had discovered the Beastie Boys’ record License to Ill. He took the cassette everywhere with him and listened to it incessantly on his Walkman.
He then flew to his dad’s apartment in New York. Philip’s company sent a car to pick up Rhett and drive him to the apartment. Rhett was left alone for a few hours, waiting for his dad to get off work to take him to dinner.
Hours passed. Rhett watched MTV, played with his G.I. Joes, read his books. His Walkman ran out of power and he had no batteries. So Rhett tried to play his Beastie Boys tape on the stereo.
The stereo was complicated, full of components and wires. Philip came home to find the boy fiddling with knobs, buttons and wires.
Irritated, the father scolded his son for monkeying around with all the expensive equipment.
“There was no hello, no hug, no nothing,” Rhett remembers. “Just yelling. Not that I was expecting a big show of emotion, but it still hurt my feelings that my dad seemed more concerned with his stereo than with how my trip was or how I was doing.”
Memories like these came flooding through Rhett’s mind as he stared at the stereo. “I thought it was perverse my dad left me something we fought over when I was a kid,” Rhett says. “Was that really how he wanted to be remembered?”
With this sad, lonely childhood, it’s no surprise Rhett grew up into a rebellious teenager and young man. He got himself kicked out of his boarding schools during his high school years for breaking various rules. In lieu of finishinf college, he decided to wander around the world.
“I’m a little ashamed to say I was more interesting in partying, meeting girls and having fun than doing anything challenging or interesting,” Rhett admits. “I came into some money and I just partied, acting like that stereotypical trust fund jerk.”
Soon, it was Rhett who was rejecting his now aging parents’ overtures and requests to see and reason with him.
“Maybe it was a combination of getting older and being concerned over my behavior, but my dad started making more of an effort to ‘get to know me,'” Rhett says. “At this point, I was so angry and resentful about my childhood that I pushed them away, like ‘I’ve gone this far without you, why start now?'”
If Philip was hurt by Rhett’s behavior, he didn’t let it show. Both men now ignored each other except for birthdays and major holidays.
Rhett also had his own demons to contend with as he grew into adulthood. “I was just a trainwreck,” he says. “Nothing like drugs, thank God, but I had other compulsions. Sex, partying, consumerism, I did it all and I didn’t care what toll it took on me.”
Occasionally Rhett would experience what he calls a “fit of virtue” and attempt to better his life — getting his college degree, for example. But he’d often slide back into past bad habits.
Things would’ve continued in this state of benign, passive-aggressive neglect, but there came a crisis point: Philip received the first diagnosis of ill health, a heart attack that required bypass surgery.
Rhett flew to New York to be near his father as he went through surgery and recovery, though he felt conflicted about his presence.
“I wish I could say this was like the movies and we reconciled in a warm and fuzzy haze, but we didn’t,” Rhett says. “I hung out at the hospital, made sure dad was okay, but we didn’t talk much except about logistics. Sometimes I felt angry about being there, about being the only family my dad had. Like I had to go through these motions when our relationship was such a sham.”
Once Philip recovered, Rhett wandered off again. “I took it for granted that my father would stay recovered,” he says.
The two men went back to their separate lives, Philip in New York and London, Rhett in Los Angeles, where he nominally worked in a gallery but “really just partied a lot,” he says. Overall the two left each other alone.
Months passed. Then, out of the blue, Philip called Rhett: he decided to settle permanently in London, and was going to clear out his New York apartment. He asked Rhett to help him sort through his belongings before the move.
Rhett was surprisingly rocked by the news. His father would be farther away than ever. Then he acted as if Philip’s request was highly inconvenient, and “basically made it a pain to schedule. At one point I was like ‘What do you need me for? Hire movers!'” Rhett says.
Rhett’s resentment carried over into the actual visit. “I basically came into the whole visit with this bored, contemptuous attitude,” Rhett says. “I treated most of that visit like I was just crashing, and spent most of the time partying and hanging out with friends rather than hanging with dad.”
One rainy afternoon, though, Rhett had nothing else to do but help Philip sort through his belongings. They decided to go through the electronics.
Philip was a fastidious man, so he didn’t have the mess of cords, outdated gadgets and tattered user manuals that often litter our tech pasts.
But his collection of devices outdated. Rhett pointed out what needed to be updated or thrown out.
“I told dad that no one had a stereo system anymore, really,” Rhett says. “I had just spent a few months earlier digitizing my CDs and records and putting everything in the cloud. I suggested my dad do the same. I thought it would appeal to a minimalist like him.”
Philip got quiet for a moment as Rhett told him it was the wave of the future — it was how everyone listened to music now. “I’m not sure how much of the future I’ll be able to see,” Philip mused.
“I wish I could say that suddenly I realized that my father was getting older and that we wised up and became a loving, happy family,” Rhett says. “Instead I chalked it up to him being weird or morbid.”
Philip usually made efficient decisions, but while sorting through his records, he took his time, playing a few minutes of a record here or there.
Philip occasionally told him some anecdotes about going to jazz clubs when he was Rhett’s age, and trying to learn jazz piano. Rhett only half-listened, checking his phone for messages most of the time.
After a few more hours of sorting, Rhett decided to meet his friends at a bar and left his father for the evening. As Rhett left, he turned back to say goodbye, only to catch his dad settling down in front of his stereo with a Chet Baker record and some headphones, lost and alone in his own private island of sound.
A few months after helping his father move, Rhett received some news from Philip: his heart attack and subsequent surgery had compromised his immune system, likely triggering dormant weaknesses in his body. Philip now had an aggressive form of lymphoma, and was going to start chemo right away.
Rhett flew to London to help shepherd his father through his latest illness. He was shocked to see how quickly illness weakened and diminished his once elegant, upright father.
The treatments often kept Philip unconscious, and when he was awake, he spent most of his time staring out the window of his hospital room in a silent, depressive funk.
“We never really had an in-depth conversation again,” Rhett says.
Over the next year, Philip went in and out of hospitals, dealing with treatments and complications from his chemo, which triggered other cancers in his body. Rhett traveled back and forth to London, playing the dutiful son and resenting it at the same time.
A year after his diagnosis, Philip passed away in a hospital room, alone, waiting for his son to arrive from California.
All of this fluttered through Rhett’s mind as he contemplated his dad’s final gift to his son. Was it a reproach? A gesture of affection? And why would his dad give him something he had no use for, having digitized his entire music library?
“Sometimes I felt the stereo represented how my dad maybe wanted to reach out — but also how he never really understood me,” Rhett says. “On one hand, it was a nice thought, but on the other, why give me a piece of outdated junk?”
But turns out, it wasn’t junk. Rhett had a friend over his place one night, who pointed out the stereo’s real value.
“He freaked out, saying it was a prime vintage system,” Rhett says. “He was a real audiophile and pointed out that each component was worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars.”
Rhett’s friend offered to buy the system if he wasn’t going to keep it. “He went through all the components and noted everything had been well-maintained over the years,” Rhett says. “It wasn’t just an investment of money, but of time and care on my dad’s part.”
Suddenly the big pile of boxes full of old stereo equipment weren’t useless junk anymore — they were unexpectedly valuable.
Rhett suddenly saw its place in his memories of his dad with new meaning — and those memories took on new layers as well.
He kept going back to that afternoon helping his dad sort and pack for his move.
“I wonder now, if my dad knew about his cancer then and just didn’t want to tell me yet,” Rhett says. “Maybe it was his last attempt to reach out to me. And of course, I pushed him away. But I don’t know. I never will. I’ll never really know what he intended — or anything more about my dad.”
The revelation sent Rhett spinning into a spiral of loss and depression, which he masked in a blur of partying. It was only after one particularly blurry weekend — a “real rock bottom kind of weekend,” he says — that Rhett realized he needed to come to terms with himself.
“I was grieving,” he says. “Not just my dad’s death, but the loss of any opportunity to create a new relationship with my dad. And for having never really known him, and for being so angry that I pushed him away when I needed him most.”
Rhett entered psychotherapy and spent over a year working through his layers of memories, emotions, resentments, anger and, ultimately, sadness.
“For me, I learned everything I felt — the rebellion, self-destruction, anger, pushing everyone away — was related to the deep sadness I felt that I never was able to connect to my parents,” he says. “My dad provided for me in terms of material needs, but he just didn’t have it in him to give me much emotionally.”
Rhett’s therapist gave him a choice. “I could either stay angry and sad about it,” he says, “or I could forgive him.”
Forgiveness, Rhett’s therapist explained, was less about how Rhett felt about his dad, and more about giving Rhett the peace and freedom to let go and move on.
“It’s not letting the other person off the hook. In fact, my dad probably went to his grave with his own regrets and sadnesses that were never resolved,” Rhett says. “Instead, forgiving him is something I do for myself. I had every right to be angry. But if I wanted to have a good life — a happy one — I needed to let that go and move on.”
Rhett’s therapist had him write a series of unsent letters to his dad. Rhett filled notebook after notebook of things unsaid to his dad, a process that took a few months.
But at the end, he finally felt a huge weight lift from his heart. He was light, and he was free.
A few months later, Rhett found himself unpacking the boxes that lay in the corner of his apartment. He decided to keep the stereo, and set it up in his living room, arranging it like how his dad did when he was a child.
And when he was done, he played one of his dad’s jazz records on it, thinking of the past, of the man he knew and yet didn’t.
“Finally I could see it,” Rhett says. “He did love me, but was only able to show it in the small ways he could. It wasn’t what I needed, but that was okay. And that was finally enough.” ♦