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By Lorraine Sanders
Thirty-four-year-old Tamara Cocchiarella knew very little about her father, a man she had laid eyes on once, and then only briefly, since his disappearance from her life at age 2.
She knew snippets of information: His name was Stephen James Hebert. He had been jailed in Oregon for burglary and violating parole. His sister, her aunt, lived in a neighboring town in Cocchiarella's home state of New Hampshire. She knew the names of his parents. And she knew--despite years of distance, heartbreak, and dead-end attempts to learn more about the man who gave her life--that she still wanted to find him.
In June, Cocchiarella learned that she never would. At least not in the way she'd hoped. Prompted by a discussion with friends, Cocchiarella, who is an administrative assistant and student at New Hampshire's Plymouth State University, discovered during an Internet search on Ancestry.com that her father had died in California on Nov. 29, 2007.
"It was just purely by looking for his parents that I saw his name was listed there, and listed as deceased. I was shocked because there had always been this hope of one day finding him," recalled Cocchiarella, who lives in Plymouth, N.H., with her husband and two children, ages 9 and 11.
The news of Hebert's death launched Cocchiarella on a renewed mission to find out about her father's life and the circumstances surrounding his death. Over the years, she had tried to uncover details about Hebert, and had even discovered that he had at least three other children with women other than her mother, but a strained relationship with both her mother and her biological father's extended family had turned the search into difficult, sometimes acrimonious work.
Days after learning of her father's death, she got her first break. An online hunt for an obituary revealed mention of a Steve Hebert in two news stories, both of which happened to be published in a monthly newspaper tied to a San Francisco neighborhood with a curious-sounding name. Steve Hebert figured heavily in both stories, written by Kathy Dalle-Molle and published in the Noe Valley Voice (www.noevalleyvoice.com).
In May 2001, the Voice ran an obituary, "Walter Farmer, 1943-2001," that profiled a longtime homeless man and friend of Hebert's who spent his days in a wheelchair on 24th Street. In February 2002, the Voice ran "Steve Hebert Finds Where There's a Goodwill There's a Way," a profile of Hebert's attempts to transition out of homelessness as a participant in a Goodwill Industries employee training program.
The stories added more details to the patchwork history in Cocchiarella's mind. Her father had spent several years in San Francisco. He had married, though his wife had died suddenly in 1998, a tragedy that apparently precipitated Hebert's spiral into homelessness. He drove a Volkswagen van and occasionally worked as a laborer and sold copies of the Street Sheet to earn money.
"I learned more about him from reading that article than anything I could have found. I never knew he had a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast. Information such as that was so valuable to me. I didn't know he wore glasses until I got the picture of him from [the Voice]. I was the only one in the family who wore glasses. My mother would always say, 'I don't know why you wear glasses, nobody else in the family wears glasses.' It's really surreal to read details about somebody you've been looking for, in a newspaper," Cocchiarella said.
She also learned that Hebert was a gentle man who went out of his way to help a friend in trouble.
"It was kind of heartbreaking to find that the people of Noe Valley were like his family, because I was his family," Cocchiarella said.
Steve Hebert, while working at Goodwill Industries in 2002. Photo by Beverly Tharp
Still, years had passed since the publication of those stories. Understandably, Cocchiarella wanted to know more. She contacted the Voice, the Goodwill program that had counted her father as a participant, and the editor of the Street Sheet. Dalle-Molle from the Voice shared her memories of interviews, and the editors sent Cocchiarella copies of newspapers, but no one was able to offer much current information. There were no records of Hebert's work at Goodwill, nor did the Street Sheet count him as a current vendor at the time of his death.
Cocchiarella was left to wonder a litany of things: How did he die? Was he alone? Was he even still living in San Francisco at the time? And, of course, she wondered about the larger questions that she'd wanted to ask Hebert ever since she was a child.
"I would have asked and still wonder, why did he leave?... I don't necessarily blame him for walking away, but I don't understand if you leave a marriage, how can you leave a child behind?" Cocchiarella asked.
Finally, a call to the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office revealed that Stephen James Hebert had, indeed, died at age 56 in San Francisco on Nov. 29, 2007, in his apartment at the Pacific Bay Inn, a supportive housing facility located next door to Dottie's True Blue Cafe in the Tenderloin, and operated by Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco. His was categorized as an accidental indigent death due to pneumonia complicated by methadone intoxication. A veteran, Hebert was buried at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Merced, Calif.
Pain and myriad questions remain, but there are conclusions for Cocchiarella, too. "I have lived my life trying to learn from my parents' mistakes, my father walking away and my mother staying in loveless marriages. The difference is that I put my children's interests first," she says.
And armed with the new information that has flooded into her life in the last month, Cocchiarella has found a certain kind of freedom from the past.
After learning of the circumstances surrounding her father's death, she said: "It is time to...turn the page and begin to heal. I need to believe that my father wanted a better life for himself, and he wouldn't want me to dwell on 'what could have been,' but rather what is. His struggle serves as a window into my strength, and perhaps I am exactly the person I was meant to be, not in spite of him, but because of him."
Lastly, Cocchiarella has the following advice for fathers who find themselves estranged from their children:
"If there is another homeless man who has a child and is wondering, 'Should I make that phone call?' Take it from me. Make that phone call."
Tamara Cocchiarella is still seeking information, memories, and reflections from anyone who might have known her father. You can reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: Tamara Cocchiarella sent this essay, which she originally wrote to accompany an art class project, after contacting the Voice seeking information about her father, Steve Hebert. Her words inspired the newspaper to help her in her search for the father she never had a chance to know. If you remember Steve Hebert, Tamara would love to hear from you. Contact her by phone at 603-535-2822.
My visual memory has always been, in my opinion, slightly above average. Take me somewhere once and I can easily recall how to get there again. I walked into our neighbor's house once two years ago and can easily visualize the floor plan and the color on the walls. I can remember what my children wore on their first day of kindergarten. I can easily recall names and faces of people I meet, all except one, that is....
I have always known the man raising me was not my biological father. My "real" father's name was Stephen James Hebert. He was born on Oct. 14, 1951, making him one year older than my mother. I have no early memories of him. He left when I was only 2. I would fantasize that one day he would come back for me because all my relatives said I was "Daddy's little girl" and he just adored me. The thought of "Why did he leave me?" never occurred to a 6-year-old mind and wouldn't until I was older. My mother would tell me stories of this man, my father, and I idolized him like I was a princess in a fairy tale waiting to be rescued. A few years later, we moved to a new apartment building in a neighboring town (it was red, the kitchen was white, the carpet was brown), and my mother secretly told me that my father's aunt, Ora (my brother and I would affectionately call her Aunt Oreo), lived just down the street from us. I would convince my brother--younger than I but always my protector--to ride our banana-seat bicycles by her house. We did this for months before I could muster the courage to quietly knock on her porch door. She recognized my brother and me instantly and welcomed our infrequent visits, always with an offering of milk and cookies (Oreos...and my brother and I would giggle). My fantasy of one day seeing my father was sooner to becoming a reality, I thought. My life would never be the same....
I never knew of any other visitors to my aunt's house, except on one particular day when my father's sister--my godmother in her pink suit and black turtleneck holding me in a blue-and-white checkered dress, as pictured on the day of my christening--arrived unexpectedly. Aunt Ora exclaimed, "Your aunt Donna is here, but I didn't think she was coming until tomorrow...!" The visit was brief, as my brother and I needed to get back to our apartment before my stepfather returned from work and discovered our secret getaway. But before I left, I asked my blood relative, with curiosity and perhaps a bit of sadness too, if she knew my real father. She replied, "Yes." We rode our bikes fast, and I never even disclosed to my mother the exciting happenings of the day.
About three weeks later, I was sitting on that brown carpet, with my back resting against a chair getting ready to surreptitiously watch General Hospital. I was 10 years old. My brother came running in and said, "There's a lady in the driveway in a blue Bronco who says she knows you." I suspiciously went to the door and indeed recognized this lady as the aunt we had met a short while ago. She was sitting on the passenger side leaning forward. She smiled and said, "I've brought you an Easter present." Then she leaned back, and there was my father.
Partly in shock, I walked toward the vehicle and said, "Hi, Steve." I sat on his lap and asked him when my birthday was. He recited the date exactly, affirmation in my mind that he had loved me all along. We drove for a while until it was time for me to get back home. Before he left, he wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and wrote "Dad." I instantly felt this open wound seeping in my stomach, and I cried hysterically. When he asked what was wrong, I could barely get the words out. "I feel like you're going to leave me again." He promised he wouldn't, and I never saw him again.
I have played that scene in my head time and time again, remembering every detail: my brother coming in, me going out and seeing my aunt, her leaning back, and then the feeling of instant recognition of my father. But I cannot remember his face. It has become a blank canvas. I remember no physical details. Fast-forward. He drops me off and hands me his phone number. I still see nothing. He drives away. Nothing.
I can remember birthdays of childhood friends, exact conversations verbatim, paragraphs and pictures in a textbook, but I cannot see my father's face.