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A Father's Day Remembrance
OK, so the good news is that I'm not going to have to battle for a parking space and shop at the last minute for a Father's Day gift, like so many of you. And the bad news is, yeah, my dad died just a few months ago. But, wait: I'm not gonna get too maudlin here. Sentimental, sure, but I'll do my best to skip over the breast-beating.
And this you should know from the start: Dad died the way he wanted to, peacefully, in his sleep. He had been struggling against prostate cancer for more than a year--did the chemo thing and was just about to enter into the "painful phase" of his cancer when he drifted away mid-slumber. There, I've given you a happy ending right from the start.
Ah, but it's those start-up years that trouble most gay men. For many of us, memories of the old man conjure a pain we'd just as soon leave on the shelf. Someday, someone far brighter and more insightful than I will conduct a landmark study about gay men and their fathers. Someone will shed some light on this miasma, break the taboos, and we'll talk about it. But for now, "dad talk" hardly rates among idle conversation. As gay men, we seem to either dismiss our fathers entirely, or merely chronicle their grievous sins. For many gay men, "Dad" is the person who is most unlike us, and we wonder, "How did I spring from him?"
And my father committed his share of sins. I remember the look on his face when he was finally convinced (I was all of 7 years old) that I would never be able to catch a baseball properly--much less throw it like a boy is supposed to. And I remember his flustered expression when he discovered me, in full animation, playing with a neighbor girl's Barbie dolls. To his credit, he didn't berate me, but the look of utter disappointment on his face seared the marrow in my bones.
I was 19 when I came out to my family during my sophomore year of college in 1974. My father's disdain and bitter disappointment landed me in a mental institution for a brief respite. My parents had taken me there for a "cure," I think. And I remember my father's purple rage when the shrink told him: "Your son is gay, but that's not his problem. His problem is that his parents don't accept him for what he is." And somewhere in all that drama, Dad said, "The dog at home loves me more than you do!"
But he was wrong, because I loved him as much as he loved me. As much as he was entirely opposite everything I craved and stood for, I loved him. Even when he banished me from the family and cut off all contact ("I don't want you polluting your younger brothers and sisters with your perversion!"), I knew that nasty Neanderthal dad of mine loved me. I don't know how I knew it, I just did. Never mind that he cut off all college funds. Never mind the Christmas and vacations they experienced without me, their eldest son.
But if there were sins, there was also redemption. About a year after the banishment, I was allowed back into the fold. He struggled then to learn how to love me anew, and with wiser eyes. Of course, my only task was to be true to myself, to be the "good son" I had always been. Though I was entrenched and preoccupied 10 miles away with a new lover, I visited my parents every Saturday. I complimented Mom's cooking and shared the mandatory beer with my dad. And somehow, my dad saw through my "perversion" and discovered that I was the same "good kid" he had raised--just different.
One night, after a visit with them, he followed me out to my car as I prepared to leave. He rushed out and appeared at my car-door window with tears streaming down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen my father cry.
"I have to tell you," he began. "I'm so sorry for the way I acted when you told us you were gay. You're such a good kid, and your mom and I were crazy then; we said terrible things, and I wish we hadn't sent you away."
He went on and on, and I cried, and suddenly I saw him for the man he was: frightened, clumsy and terribly ashamed of himself. In short, he was feeling all the same things I had felt in revealing my "awful secret" to him. And I was helpless but to forgive him. "It's OK, Dad. We were all a bit crazy then."
In the end, it only took a certain amount of decency for this epiphany of a reconciliation. Two men, bound by blood, surrendering to a love that was always there in spite of the wide gulf that separated them--that was me and my dad.
Years later, he flew out to Los Angeles for the opening-night premiere of a gay play I had written. Never mind the scorching reviews; he was there in the front row and sweetly charming at the opening-night party my lover and I hosted. Later still, this life-long Republican voted against Ronald Reagan because of his clearly anti-gay stance. "He's mean-spirited," huffed my dad.
Finally, I moved from Los Angeles to Cleveland, in order to be near him during his last two years of life. It was a happy transition, and I craved it even before I left--even before I knew his diagnosis. During these months, I was privy to his fear of dying, his musings, failings and remembered triumphs. He knew he was destined for a hospice; he dreaded the tubes and helplessness that seemed his fate.
"I always figured I'd die in my sleep from a heart attack," he said wistfully. "Not this fucking cancer."
I watched his optimism fade, even as he girded himself for yet another chemo treatment.
When we found him that January morning, he was all tucked in his bed, his hands folded peacefully across his belly. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be sleeping the sleep of kings. Whatever took him, took him gently. In the end, he got his wish after all.
Last fall, I landscaped his yard, and planted the tulips, irises and azaleas that he requested. "We could use a little color around here," he said. And I was only too happy to oblige him. He never lived to see those tulips bloom, but they comforted me. And you can be sure that some of those irises will grace his grave come Father's Day.
Yep, I was lucky. In an age where most gay men remain at odds with their fathers, we managed to maintain a truce that enriched us both. All this from a man I had too often given up on as a "lost cause." Did I ever want to emulate him? Not at all. Unless, of course, you factor in the tenacity of his love and his willingness, ultimately, to meet me on ground that was unfamiliar and sometimes frightening to him. Yeah, that's a quality not to be discarded.
And isn't it that "second look" we all crave? Isn't it peace and acceptance that might quiet our uneasy psyches, as we contemplate "Dad"? If you have even the most basic of ingredients, it can be a mix worthy of exploration.
I never did learn to catch a ball properly. But I learned that harmony between straight father and fey son can be achieved with the blessings of time and diligent effort. I presumed my gayness had cut me off forever from the pride and manly acknowledgment all sons crave from their fathers, but I was wrong about that--thankfully so.
I am sure my dad rests peacefully in his grave. And there is this extra little bonus: He has left behind a son who walks a little taller and is a bit more gracious and humble--simply because he loved me. In the end, this is why so many dads stick by us, this is why we strive to honor them in spite of their faults and failings. This is why we hope and yearn, and sometimes mourn--not just for our fathers--but for the adoring and trusting little boys we all once were, so very long ago.
James Bloor was a 29 year survivor of AIDS who died in early of March 2015.