A Father’s Day Remembrance: On Grief, Homophobia, and Growth

I can’t tell you what I was upset about at the time. I spent the better part of those years depressed. It could have been anything, really, but mostly it was nothing I’m sure, other than that one thing. But we don’t think about that one thing. Maybe once in a while, sure, but we try not to think about that one thing.

I’m not even exactly sure how old I was, but would guess around 15.

“Did a friend do something?” he asked.

“No.”

“Is it something at school?”

“No.”

He was being the caring father, and I remained the obstinate child. There was a pause. There was an effort to speak, followed by a longer pause. Then he said it.

“Are you gay?”

I didn’t pause. I shot back, “No!” quicker and with noticeably greater emphasis than my previous, otherwise identical answers.

He put hand to forward, wicked away imaginary sweat, said, “Phew!” as loud as I had said, “No!”

But I knew. And somehow, I guess he knew too. We were both just relieved I was still willing to lie, and we moved on.

 
Around this same time we were watching some shitty daytime TV show, where some shitty daytime TV show “expert” explained the true root of homosexuality was a lack of love from the same-sex parent.

One of my sisters was also in the room, along with her boyfriends.

“Jeff,” he said, turning to me. “I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you!”

Everyone laughed. I laughed too.

Does he know? Does he love me? Would he still if he did know, if he doesn’t already?

 
I don’t ever remember feeling differently about boys and girls any more than I saw a distinction between obsessing over the Buffalo Bills latest draft picks and wanting to play with my sisters’ dolls. Both were equally interesting, and I didn’t see a reason not to like what I liked. It wasn’t too long, however, before I began receiving clear messaging that one was accepted and rewarded while the other…not so much…in both cases. Stick with the masculine.

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So I stopped playing with dolls, and I stopped letting myself think of boys in the same way I thought of girls. Except when I couldn’t help it, and then I’d make myself suffer for it, promise myself I wouldn’t think that way again. Remind myself that it could be worse, that I could only like boys. At least I liked girls too, and as I grew up could have real relationships with women. I just couldn’t ever let myself wonder too long what it would be like to feel that way about another man.

It was impossible. I had been taught that enough times already. I had been called a faggot enough times already, had been fucked with enough already, without ever even letting anyone know what I was feeling. At least not on purpose. I was keeping up my end of the deal, or at least trying, harder than they even knew. So, why wasn’t it working? I was trying. I would just keep trying, try harder this time.

 
But we are never as invisible as we think we are, and our masks never that well-crafted.

And eventually it became impossible not to come clean.

As awkward and painful as life in the closet was, the half-in, half-out compromise I had setup for myself was even more impossible. By the time my sister told me my brother-in-law was anxious when everyone in the family got together because he knew, via her, that I was bi but my parents didn’t, I realized the situation had gotten out of hand. Why that was the final straw I couldn’t tell you, as is so often the case with final straws, but I decided lying, even by omission, even amidst obvious hints, was no longer an option.

 
I was working at a barbecue restaurant called Mac’s Speed Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the time, where I had moved after graduating college, my sisters having relocated there ahead of me for reasons too random and complicated to be worth going into now.

This time, speaking with my father, again feeling like I didn’t know how to go forward, I knew what was bothering me.

There was the poverty, the underemployment, the lingering heartache for my ex-girlfriend who eventually got sick of me not marrying her and found someone else who would. And there was that thing. That one thing.

But this time I was able to tell him when he asked, post-shift, half-drunk, wandering around a park less than a mile away from the restaurant, what was really wrong, everything that was wrong.

I had just been called a faggot again, in Spanish, by my manager this time, for the first time, to delight the line cooks who were fond of referring to me as such.

I was always close with my father. The moments of homophobia were random and rare, like his own father’s, whom I once heard say, amidst and partly inspired by the AIDS epidemic, that we would all be better off if all the gays were sequestered on an island.

“They’d be happy and we’d be happy,” he said, self-satisfied.

I had to remember the small town, Christian, conservative environment whence my father came, at a time when CBS was asking in prime time, “What’s to be done with the homosexual?”

It was always that much more jarring when these otherwise kind men who showed me nothing but love and support showed the ignorance they were brainwashed into and were now unknowingly passing on to me as trauma.

Even still, full of beer and anger as I was, and understanding of what he had been raised in, still I saved it for last. Still it was hard to say it. Until I did, finally.

“…Or the fact that I’m bisexual, and keep getting harassed about it at work…”

There was a pause. And then a longer pause. My heart sank. And then sank lower.

“Hello?” I asked, finally. Nothing.

I looked; the battery had died. But now he knew. He knew! Shit! Shit, shit, shit! HE KNEW!

 
We didn’t talk about it for awhile after that, even though we talked. We just talked about everything else. Everything but the fact that I had come out to him. I waited for him to bring it up, and he did the same, and neither of us did. It just hung there, known but unspoken of, same as it ever was, but this time different. This time it was a mutually conscious act. Eventually one of us was going to have to fully blink.

 
By the time I called him to come out again, this time with a full charge, I had already come out to everyone else in my immediate family.

The only thing I can remember from that conversation is that he was relieved that we were talking about it, and that he didn’t care one way or the other anymore, and I believed that was true, and he told me he loved me, and I knew that was true. And I told him what it was like to have one thing I thought I could never say, and how it felt to say it to the person I was most afraid to say it to: “I’m bisexual, and I don’t feel bad about it. If anything, it’s surprising to me that everyone doesn’t feel this way.”

That and the fact that my call with him lasted the exact same amount of time my call with my mom lasted: 59 minutes and 59 seconds, which I don’t believe means anything, because I am a skeptic, but is still one of the weirdest coincidences I have ever personally experienced.

Either way, it answered the question of how long it would take me to come out to my parents: Just over 30 years, plus one second shy of an hour each over the phone.

 
By the time he was dying, my queerness was as much an afterthought as my no longer being a Christian. These were things we still didn’t talk about, but now it was because it seemed beside the point. I knew who he was, and he knew who I was, good and bad, dark side and light. In some ways I think we came to know each other better than any other of the members of our family, and the specificity of labels grew irrelevant, the particulars of our differences more trivia than hot button issues.

We had more than come to accept one another, we had grown to understand and love one another in a way that prior to that point hadn’t been fully realized. By the time he was dying, our differences in ideologies, religious beliefs, orientations, were as pressing and meaningful as or taste in TV shows.

And even as I lied to myself about what was happening, waiting for an improbably happy ending, it was a comfort in the moments where I had to be honest with myself about how this story would play out that I had at least stopped lying about who I was, to myself and, now, seemingly as importantly, to him. So that as I sat with him in his last days, I knew there wasn’t anything I had left unsaid. I needed that peace then more than ever, and that would stay true.

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I was in a shared hospital room, in Rochester, New York—where my parents still lived and where I was raised—right before they took him to hospice. He was asleep, and I was sat in a chair, trying not to overhear the other family, less than a foot away, behind only a thin curtain.

I was fresh off the floor, my back going out intermittently from stress. I was also sleep deprived, having been on duty the night before to empty my father’s urinals, which he was convinced he was filling up faster than he actually was, as the tumors on his brain began affecting his thinking and paranoia set in about wetting himself. This meant my sleep had been interrupted roughly every hour or two, which is exactly what you’d do if you were trying to drive someone insane. My mother had been dealing with this longer than I was aware, she, like he, who never complained, though both had every justification to do so and then some.

I tried to be as resolute. But I was always more impulsive than either of them, and try to act sane while sleep deprived if you want to see how little control you possess if so much as one function is interrupted off and on for days on end. Add to that grief and you’ll really feel powerless.

But out of that fog, coming through clearly, there it was: That word again. Like a gunshot, impossible to tune out. Faggot. I was back into fight from flight, every cell perked up. Every indignity from the past rang out anew. I felt rage, and it felt good. Too good. Scary good. I wanted to destroy the entire hospital. It would have felt good to feel anything other than the mixture of depression, defeat, and anguish I had been feeling, and righteous anger was exactly what the doctor ordered.

“What?” one them asked through the curtain, as my blood pressure raised and my eyes narrowed.

“Her nephew, you didn’t hear? He’s a fag.”

I don’t hide anymore. I don’t lie anymore. My dad is dying, which means I am dying, which means you might as well kill me. Let’s play, assholes.

“Hey, don’t you love when ignorant, shitty people don’t shut their little mouths despite having no idea who is behind the next curtain?” I hear a familiar voice say, realizing it’s mine, off and running, coming out so quickly I’m even scaring myself. I’m ostensibly speaking to my mother, whom, I later learned, hadn’t heard any of what the family one sheet over had said; she who never had the word hurled at her, and isn’t set for React! when it is uttered in her presence. She looked up from her book, eyes-widening, witnessing the unhinged version of her son she hadn’t seen in at least several years.

“I just mean, it’s funny, you know?” I continue, growing loud enough to be heard in the hallway. “People just talk without thinking, they just talk and talk and talk, and you don’t know, you just never do know who’s around. Who can hear you, and what could happen next, at any moment, you just don’t know.”

The room on both sides of the curtain goes silent. I go silent. My heart is beating so fast I can feel it in my head and I want to keep going, want to rip the curtain down, stare each of them in the eye while seething, scare the shit out them further, leave in handcuffs. But I know I’ve already gone too far. I already know I’m only acting out, being a child, solving nothing. And what am I still trying to prove, anyway, and to whom?

I leave the room. Everything is fine again. Orderly and passive in my absence.

I’ve got to get it together. For them, if not me.

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And then, before I know it, I’m there with him as he’s dying, in hospice, too cancer-ridden and opiated to respond beyond squeezing my hand to anything I say.

It’s horrible, if commonplace, and one of the few saving graces is wanting him back because I can’t say goodbye, but not because I haven’t said what else needs to be said.

I had given him enough respect to allow him the opportunity to prove to me, as he indeed did, that ultimately he didn’t care who I fell in love with; that regardless, he loved me and wanted me to be able to love and to be loved, like any good parent.

I know when he imagined the son he would one day have I couldn’t have been the exact prototype he imagined, but he made the choice to know me, to love me, to understand and accept me, and I made the choice to do the same.

We challenged each other, agreed and disagreed passionately, and were always equally bad at bullshitting one another. I miss him more every year, and know he’d delight in hearing I was recently asked if I’d consider being a godfather, along with the mother’s brother, who happens to be gay (look out, the queers are taking over!), and would push me to be an even better role model than he was should it happen. If I manage to meet the standard he set, it will only be because I followed in his path, learning from the example he set to work towards understanding what you once wrote off, and allow yourself to be changed.

After all, what other point is there in still being among the living?

Journalist, editor, and artist.


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