'In the early 1980s, a friend whose father had been killed crossing the street and whose mother had committed suicide on Mother's Day advised me, "If you have anything to work out with your parents, do it now. One day it will be too late." This thought nagged at me and I began a fifteen-year effort to reconnect with my parents [p. 195].'
The above quote comes from an unexpected place: Steve Martin's Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life. Yes, that Steve Martin. Those growing up in the 1970s remember him as that "wild and crazy guy," arrow sticking through the head, singer of the hit "King Tut." But he's also a talented writer--not just of comedy material--and capable of heartfelt sentiment and profound insight.
I wonder how many gay men and lesbian women have solid, close relationships with their mothers and fathers. I know I don't, at least not with my father. I'm 50, my father's in his mid-70s, and we've never known each other as human beings. I spent most of my years growing up at home avoiding him, so fearful was I of his harsh tongue and his ready hand. I couldn't wait to move out on my own, and, when I did, I spent as little time around him as possible.
More recently, my father and I have had no communication for almost fourteen years. He might tell you that had something to do with the terms of the will he drew up in the mid-90s, but I would tell you his will wasn't the issue at all. I'd reached a point when I no longer wanted this man in my life. I had started the hard work of liking myself more, and I didn't need occasional dinners with him to remind me of how miserable my home life had been, and how much we'd never said to each other.
Recently, I've begun to wonder if, as I was growing up, my father became indifferent, sometimes even hostile, toward me because I wasn't the son he'd expected, because I wasn't like other little boys. Perhaps he saw how scared I was of getting physically hurt. Perhaps he saw how disinterested I was in sports or most activities normally associated with boys. Perhaps he saw how I gravitated toward my mother, related to her more, took more of an interest in her pursuits.
As I write this, it occurs to me that I'm doing the same thing sexually abused children do: blaming myself for what happened to me. The fact is, I don't know where children get their ideas of what they like and don't like, what they're comfortable and not comfortable with, but, instinctively, I knew what my preferences were, and they weren't those of other boys. I can no more blame myself for being who I was at the time, and for what happened to me, than a sexually abused child can blame himself for the heinous things that were done to him.
What I do know is that I completely lacked constructive masculine influence in my life. On my terms. When he saw I had an interest in being creative--drawing with pencil crayons, painting with water colors, writing short stories--my father should have recognized my early abilities and encouraged me. When he saw that I didn't like sports, he should have been bold enough to find out what I did like and to join in doing it. In other words, he should have been the father I needed, not the father he thought I should have.
Lately, I questioned in another post ("Middle Ground," January 19, 2010) if an effeminate boy had the chance of going either way--that is, becoming straight or gay, based on the amount of positive masculine attention he received as he was growing up. There may be something to this--and I'll leave the conclusions to scientists and researchers--but I don't blame my father for me being gay. The fact is, the signs were all there from the beginning, and blaming anyone for who I am would be counterproductive.
Have I regretted not having contact with my father over the past fourteen years? I don't know if regret is the right word. Honestly, most of my interactions with him since I was a little boy were not good ones, so, in breaking off communication with him in the mid-90s, I didn't think I'd miss anything I never had in the first place. Could I use a father in my life now, particularly since he's still alive? Yes, but only under the right circumstances.
This has been a season of rekindling relationships for me. For a number of reasons, I broke off a close friendship with a high school buddy around the same time I stopped communicating with my father. Late last summer, I located the buddy on Facebook, contacted him, and since then, we've worked on getting reacquainted. Both he and I have appreciated getting back together after all this time, and the experience has been a positive one for both of us, so much so, in fact, that he strongly recommended I give my father another chance based on recent experiences with his own father.
After much consideration and thought, early this past January, I sent my father a brief letter, one that I worked on for some time to ensure the words said exactly what I wanted them to. I told him that I expected receiving a letter from me after all these years would likely surprise him; that I'd thought about him over the years and hoped he was well; and that I wasn't ready, until then, to open the lines of communication between us again. I also wrote that I hoped we could get to know each other because we didn't know what might come of it. Then I gave him my address, and I told him I hoped to hear from him.
About a week later, I received a letter from him father. Was I excited? Yes. But I was also cautious. Before I opened the letter, I thought there was the possibility he'd say too much time had passed without being in contact with each other; that the time had come and gone to work on our relationship and to try to be close; and that he didn't want to hear from me again. There was always the chance that he'd moved on, that his life didn't have room for me anymore, and, more importantly, that he wasn't prepared to go down any road with me to reconcile.
Fortunately, that wasn't the case. In the first paragraph of his letter, he wrote: "I was so surprised and happy to get your letter, that I got tears in my eyes." My father was never an emotional man, so to read that he'd been touched by my reaching out to him, well, that brought tears to my own eyes. He went on to say that he'd thought of me over the years, too, and that he was sure we could work at patching things up between us.
Over the past several weeks, my father and I have exchanged a few emails. The waits between them have been difficult and filled with anticipation for me, but we promised each other to take things slowly, not to rush into anything without thinking it through. In his last email, my father wrote: "I hope you know how happy I am that we have opened the door between us, and I am happy we can try to get closer together with our feelings. I am prepared to answer any and all questions if I can, and possibly get together some time down the road."
This is not the father I grew up with. Now, he's talking about getting closer with our feelings--something I didn't even know he had--and he's more open than he's ever been to hearing what I have to say and to answering questions I have about what happened between us over the years. I attribute this to the fact that we're both a lot older now, and we're trying to relate to each other more man to man, than father and son.
For either one or both of us, time is running out, and, if we're ever going to have some kind of a relationship between us, now is the occasion to do what Steve Martin's friend urged him to do back in the 1980s. Martin goes on to describe in his short but powerful and well-written book how he made peace with both his mother and his father over fifteen or so years, how truly difficult it was for all of them, but how, ultimately, their efforts resulted in them becoming closer before his mother and father passed away. Martin writes of his father, then in his eighties:
'...One afternoon, perhaps motivated by a vague awareness that time was running out, we hugged each other and he said, in a voice barely audible, "I love you." This would be the first time these words were ever spoken between us. Several days later, I sent him a letter that began, "I heard what you said," and I wrote the same words back to him [p. 196].'
Am I going to sit here and type the words that I believe my father's and my efforts to open communication between us will have the same happy ending as Steve Martin's? I can't do that, in part, because it's too early to tell, I don't know what will happen, and I don't want to be disappointed if unarticulated expectations are not met. What I do know is that my father and I have considerable ground to cover. I have not yet forgiven him for everything that happened to me in the past, but I'm open to what he has to say in the hope that it will help me to understand them better.
Why was it important for me to write this post today? Because I know there are other estranged family members out there. Because I hope that my story will inspire other gay sons and lesbian daughters to begin the process of thinking about getting back in contact with their parents. Admittedly, you have to decide for yourself if and when the time is right for you to open communication. It took me fourteen years, but I was motivated to do it because I'm aware now, more than ever, of how quickly time passes, and how, without notice, the opportunity could be taken away from us at any time.
For years I told people that my father was dead, even though I knew he was probably still alive and well. I believed what I'd heard on TV talk shows--that you might be related to someone, but that was no reason to have them in your life if they were toxic to you. I had no intention of contacting my father, even though, over the years, I knew having nothing to do with him didn't feel right. Sometimes, I worried that I'd regret not making the effort while I still had the chance.
I can't tell you what the right thing to do is. You have to decide that for yourself. But if anything I've written here shows you how difficult it was for me to open myself to my father again, yet how hopeful I am that I made the right decision and that the result can only be for the better, then putting these words down will have been worthwhile. Just begin the possibility of opening up the door to communication between you and your estranged parent. Open up even just a small crack from which to get a glimpse of what might be. You never know. That's all I'm saying.