The 23-year-long wait
Joseph Parnis's pregnant wife left him and returned to England in 1983. After 23 years he finally met his son Piers. Fiona Galea Debono interviews them after Piers’ recent marriage in Malta.
The first time Joseph Parnis met his son was 23 years after he was born. It was a reunion that marked the end of a “lifetime” search and the start of the relationship he had yearned for, but was “stolen” from him before it could begin.
One evening in 1983, Mr Parnis received a call, eight months into his marriage, informing him that his pregnant English wife had disappeared. She had fled the island with his unborn child and he was never able to track them down… until 2006.
Until then, he had lived with the sadness and frustration of missing out on Piers Parnis’s upbringing.
“I had reached the point where I would see children and want to know how old they were so I could try to imagine my son…” But he could not live on imagination alone.
To this day, Mr Parnis cannot understand how a woman, who was seven months’ pregnant, was allowed to board a plane. He was left numb, unable to fathom what had hit him.
“I always wanted a big family and was looking forward to having a child. Suddenly, I had nothing!” And he had nowhere to look either.
Shortly after, Mr Parnis received divorce papers, but since contact only took place between the couple’s lawyers the father had no idea of his son’s whereabouts.
“The 1980s were an ugly period,” he recalls, mentioning the stigma he had to face as a man whose wife had run away. He felt everyone was always gossiping about him.
Mr Parnis grew close to one of his nephews, who is about his son’s age, and was blessed to be the proud father of a 19-year-old daughter – the fruit of his second marriage, following the eventual annulment of his first.
But again, while his daughter, whom he loves equally, filled his life, he never forgot he also had a son somewhere. While she grew up in a privileged environment and Mr Parnis made sure she lacked nothing, he often wondered and agonised over whether his boy had food on his plate.
“You can never forget. The worst moments were always at Christmas and on his birthday. You cannot see your son and cannot give him a present. You do not even have an address to send it to!
“If only I could have glimpsed even half his face, I would have died a happy man,” the burly security guard used to say.
It has been a long and costly journey for Mr Parnis, who engaged private investigators before he was advised he was wasting time and money on a fruitless search. He then sought the assistance of the Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service.
Mr Parnis travelled to the UK twice, once accompanied by his own father, who had always been his rock, but, unfortunately, never lived to meet his grandchild. There were moments when he would throw in the towel, although he believes the will to meet his son always remained ingrained deep inside him.
Fortunately, there were also “lots of good people out there” and he is eternally grateful to his cousin, Mary Kean, who lives in the UK and supported him along the way, never tiring of looking for Piers. It was Ms Kean who found his birth certificate to start with, proving that Mr Parnis had had a baby boy.
But over the years, the search got more complicated: Piers’s surname was changed to Smith – “as common as Borg in Malta”. (Always aware of his roots, he changed it back to Parnis at 18.)
The defining moment came when Mr Parnis had reached breaking point because he was not finding the right direction. The late Fr John Abela intervened in 2006, and the ball started rolling again when he managed to track Piers down on the UK electoral register.
Ms Kean took over from there, finding his address and instinctively travelling from Farnborough to Birmingham in adverse weather conditions, without any plan of action.
The next day, she and her husband waited outside the young man’s front door in the car, contemplating what to do. Eventually, they decided to buy a card from the newsagent down the road, wrote him a note about how his father wanted to meet him, dropped it off and drove away.
But Piers had moved by then… and instead, the card was collected by a little boy, who lived in the house and was celebrating his birthday. It could have been misplaced, or even dumped, and Mr Parnis would have spent the rest of his days thinking his son did not want to meet him. But bad luck was finally running out.
With a fairy-tale twist, the birthday boy thought he had received yet another card and went to show it to his mother. When she read it, she realised the significance of its contents and called Piers. Less than a week later, Piers called his father.
For the first time in 23 years, they spoke… or rather, cried. Piers picked up the phone and said: “Dad?” And that was it. Mr Parnis bawled away, unable to even take down his son’s address. The rest is a blur.
No more than a couple of weeks later, Mr Parnis travelled to the UK, in the company of his brother and two nephews, to meet his son for the first time. Piers surprised him by turning up at the airport. He wore a smart suit for the big occasion. “Someone behind me said: ‘OK Papà?’ I turned round and it was him.”
So what do you tell the son you never met? “Well, you have no idea what he likes, what he hates, what he eats… We just went for long walks… I tried to get to know him. It was the beginning of a difficult journey, but today, we are like two close friends.”
Today, Mr Parnis describes his long-lost son as “caring, protective and a thinker”. He is pleased he received a good education.
“I would have accepted him however he turned out, but would have been angry if he did not have the upbringing he deserved.
“I tell him I will support him whatever he does, except if he ever dabbles in drugs,” the doting father says.
Their reunion was not without sadness too. When Piers produced a pack of childhood photos, including images of him in his school uniform, it was heart-wrenching for his father, who realised more and more what he had missed out on and that he would never really retrieve it.
The similarities between the two make it unmistakable that they share the same blood.
Their mannerisms are almost identical; they both like pepper; they both work as security officers – and they both first worked as butchers!
The whole family, including his 80-year-old grandmother, greeted Piers at the airport the first time he visited Malta, and he has always been impressed by the unity among them, happy to join the clan.
Such is the magnetic connection that he chose to get married in Sliema last month in a “happy and intimate” setting – a return to his roots. He is even “frantically” trying to learn Maltese.
“Since I was not able to grow up here, I could think of no better idea than to celebrate the most special day of our lives in Malta, with the family I have missed out on all my life… To see my father, my nanna and the rest of my relatives in that room was amazing… It also gave me a stronger sense of being part of the family, and of the island,” he said of his traditional Maltese wedding.
“It was perfect,” he recalls, thanking his newfound father for making it possible.
Piers opened his heart about meeting his dad: “After not knowing anything about him, other than his name, and having only seen a couple of pictures of him as a young man, it was a dream come true. To finally be face to face with him, to talk to him, to ask him questions and get to know him was something I never thought could happen.”
Piers has tried to make up for lost time, saying that in a short period, he managed to get to know his father and discover what a “kind and loving” person he is.
“All I wanted was for him to be proud of me, and my wife and children, and I’d like to think that he is,” he wrote.
“It upsets me that I missed out on the early years of my life with him – something I was essentially deprived of,” he said.
Piers returns to Malta as often as he can afford to – about three times a year. He is eager to soak up his Maltese origins, so Christmas is his next stop and he has surprises in store for his dad.
And he is not deterred by the fact that he has to check into a hotel when he visits – due to Mr Parnis’s current family situation, he cannot be accommodated in his home. Despite the happy ending, Mr Parnis’s dream of seeing his entire family reunited did not fully materialise for reasons he claims are beyond his control.
When the 56-year-old recounts his traumatic life experiences, he almost finds it hard to believe he is talking about himself. But he does not waste time questioning the past and is focused on his “precious relationship”, building on the future, with his two grandchildren, who make his heart smile when they call him “nannu”.
Mr Parnis is confident his son and family may eventually end up living in Malta – a thought that comes close to compensating for the high price he has paid to meet them. “What do you think? We’re not getting any younger,” he smiles when asked what that would mean to him.
But his wish right now is that his story could serve to offer hope to anyone in his desperate situation, trying to track down a lost child. “If it would help one single person find their missing child…” his voice trails off.