My father died last Friday.
If you feel badly for me, please don't. It's okay. I don't remember a time when the relationship I had with him wasn't complex and difficult.
It could not have been easy for my father to raise a gay son throughout the 1960s and most of the '70s. On a personal level, I'm sure he found homosexuality repugnant. He was a tough guy, a man's man, a bully.
I can't imagine I was anything but an embarrassment to him. How could he not have wanted a normal boy, just like all the other normal boys the neighbors were raising around us–one who didn't attract attention to himself for the wrong reasons.
Long after all the other boys my age had had the training wheels removed from their bikes, I still had mine on, no doubt causing my father to shake his head in shame, as I rode around the local streets and back alleys in full view of everyone. I recall my childhood was all about trying to protect myself from being physically hurt. How could I have known the emotional hurt from all those years would be so much worse?
My maternal grandmother bought me a Ken doll, Barbie's handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend, after I literally made a scene in Kresge's. I was proud of Ken–so proud I took him for walks so the other neighborhood children would see him. Believe me, no other little boy paraded his dolls outside. To this day, I can't believe my father didn't grab that doll and beat me with it. It probably took everything he had to stop himself.
When the other fathers and sons played baseball in the summer, at the local diamonds, or hockey in the winter, on manmade, outdoor ice rinks, I didn't. I didn't know the first thing about the games, nor did I care to know (remember, there was the very real possibility I'd get hurt by an errant ball or puck). Instead, during the summer, I played safely in our backyard sandbox, often with the local girls, who I related to much more than the boys, and, in the winter, I stayed indoors, playing with my Legos, Mechanos, and Hot Wheels.
I was the little boy who spent hours in the kitchen with my mother, watching her cook, connecting with her, while my father sat in the living room by himself, watching the news, reading the newspaper, and smoking a pipe.
I was the little boy who couldn't wait for the arrival of the seasonal Eaton's and Sears catalogues, so I could seek out pictures of the handsome men in them. I especially liked the summer catalogues, when the men wore swimsuits and showed off their toned bodies and hairy chests.
I was the little boy who spent hours pouring over my mother's monthly "Cosmopolitan" magazine, then under the editorship of the late Helen Gurley Brown, usually filled with pictures of near-naked men, in sexy, alluring poses. I was drawn to them, in part, because I hoped to grow up and look like them someday, and in part, because they excited me in ways I didn't yet understand.
I was the little boy who joined Cubs or Scouts–I don't remember which–in the process probably giving my father the first hope he had that his son was actually normal (as I think about it, I'm sure I was talked into joining). Only to face the overflow of teasing and taunting from the boys I went to school with. A few short weeks later, when it became apparent I fit in there no more than at Canalta Elementary, I never went back.
I was the little boy who played hopscotch, jumped rope, and Chinese skipped with the girls at school during recess. And I took the grief for it, too.
I was the little boy who hid in the house and read, when I imagine my father would have preferred I be outside, trying to play with the other boys, doing what other boys did for a change.
No, I can't imagine it was easy having me for a son. It's clear now that, as far as my father was concerned, I was a complete failure. And he let me know it.
At first, I saw my father's anger and hostility. When he wasn't spending long hours at the Legion, avoiding coming home and no doubt drinking away frustrations and disappointments with his family in general, and his effeminate son in particular, he was at home, either keeping his distance from me or, worse, finding some reason to take out how he felt on me.
Years later, when I'd become too old to hit, my father was indifferent toward me. The two of us crossed paths in the house or the yard from time to time, and we spoke to each other, but we were utter strangers. I did my thing, and he did his. The less I saw him, the better. Then he wouldn't have something to pick on me for.
I couldn't wait to get out of his house. My sister, who was younger than me, left before I did. It wasn't long before she announced she was leaving Canada to work in Saudi Arabia for two years. None of us understood why she was doing something so drastic. I thought she'd lost her mind. But I get it now. She may have been the only sane one amongst us.
In January 2010, I wrote my father a letter, after having no contact with him for over fourteen years. I was hopeful that maybe he'd softened over time. He was in his mid-seventies, he had no relationship with his only two biological children, and I thought he must have regrets about what had happened in the past. I was hopeful he was ready to get real with me.
More than anything, I needed him to answer why. Why had he treated me the way he did all those years? Why had he denied me his love? Why had he robbed me of the only father/son relationship I would ever know?
Between then and his death on January 4th, I got almost nothing out of him. I tried, but it didn't happen.
Over three years, I wrote a number of emails, reaching out to him, encouraging him to open up, as if saying, "This is your chance. This is our chance. Please take it. I want to know more about you. I want to know more about you as a human being and as a father. I want to understand what happened between us, why we're at this place today, what we can do to close the gap between us." No surprise, there were always long waits for his responses. And when they came, they added to my frustration rather than resolved issues.
He admitted he was harder on me than he needed to be, I'll give him that. But he never explained why. And he never apologized.
He wrote that he'd always loved me, but I told him the words rang hollow. I couldn't process them, accept them. I doubt I'll ever be able to accept them. For me, love doesn't look like what he did to me, how he treated me when I was growing up. When all I wanted was to be held in his arms and feel like I mattered to him.
Yesterday, I came home to a message on the phone from my aunt, my mother's sister. Obviously, my mother had told her that my father had died. My aunt said she was concerned about me, and, if I needed to talk to, she was available.
I appreciated her offer, but, as I told her when I called back and left a voicemail, I'm fine. Life goes on.
I was a little shaken when my father's second wife emailed me last Friday to say he was gone, but his passing wasn't unexpected. He had been hospitalized nearly a year earlier and diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and congestive heart failure. Twice he'd been resuscitated when his heart had stopped, and he was eventually able to go home.
But all of us knew his condition wouldn't improve. In fact, it would get progressively worse. The question was, what would his quality of life look like for the short time he had left. And I couldn't help but wonder, would this be what he needed to be more open with me than he ever had been before? (It wasn't.)
My aunt's call came from a place of concern for the loss of my father. I understand that. But I can't look at it that way. In every respect that mattered to me, I never had a father. As insensitive as it sounds, the only thing I lost in his passing were the answers to the questions I've had all these years.
You cannot lose what you never had.