As my father lay suddenly dying that awful morning, a bull of a man quite randomly and confusingly about to be slain by a cancer diagnosed just three days earlier, the voices of my husband and many others bounced around my head. “Say what you have to say now,” they sensibly urged. “Tell him whatever you need to before it’s too late.”
I tried. I tried because that’s what people told me that people do. I tried because I didn’t want to have regrets. I tried because I had never lost a parent before and hadn’t expected to be at this crappy crossroads for at least another decade. I was numb, so I did what I was told because the advice was earnestly rendered.
Yet even as I opened my mouth, as I thanked him for accepting me and loving me and never giving up on me, it felt strangely foolish. Almost melodramatic. What did I possibly have to say to him that he didn’t already know? What’s more, even if he didn’t have all those tubes obscuring his beautiful face and choking off his deliciously gravely New York voice, what could he tell me that I, too, didn’t already know?
Later, when I had a chance to reflect on the awkwardness of that part of this cataclysm, I had this epiphany: This is the thing for which I should be the most grateful. My father gave me many, many gifts – a loving, stable childhood, three sisters so I wouldn’t be alone with a lifetime of memories after he and Mom leave us, his entrepreneurial spirit, no student debt.
But the dividing line between who I am now and who else I might have become was drawn in the words he spoke that perfect, quiet (for Jews) Christmas Eve in 1992 when I gathered the courage to tell him I am gay and exploded his expectations for his only son. “There is nothing,” he said through the only tears I’d ever seen him weep, “you could do that would ever make me stop loving you.”
These days, most parents respond exactly that way. At least it’s not as remarkable. But I’m 43, he was 75. Those were prehistoric days for the gay movement, less than a quarter-century on from the Stonewall Riots and more than 20 years before support for marriage equality became a no-brainer for any sensible, modern American. For a man’s man, as my father saw himself, as someone who did everything he was ever expected to do – married a nice Jewish girl, had smart, well-educated kids, made lots of money – the adulthood ahead for me seemed horrifically, tragically, unimaginably unfamiliar.
Again, this all probably sound almost boringly obvious. But for gay men of my vintage and straight fathers of his, none of this was preordained. In fact, both of the men I’ve have had long-term relationships with had incredibly tense, intermittently nonexistent relationships with their biological fathers. There is a reason why films about gay people made in the 20th century almost always depicted gays who had created their own makeshift families in defiance of the “real” ones that had failed them.
Dad wasn’t perfect, but he set out a marker on that first night for what our relationship would be that soothed and encouraged me. It took him a year to be comfortable meeting my first partner and a few more years to actually hug him. But by 1999, he was paying for our commitment ceremony – another quaint vestige of a thankfully bygone era – and in 2002 he spent long hours on the phone with me as I worked through the anguish of that breakup. We had some fights along the way when I was impatient with the pace of his evolution, but they always ended with him understanding something better and putting it into practice.
Because Dad made the right choices here – to engage, to learn, to read, to do more than quietly accept me and then allow an unbridgeable chasm to open between us – he kept the promise of unconditional love that was the foundation of my childhood. Had this gone the other way, so much of my confidence and optimism would have been shattered. How does a man ever truly trust again after his own parent betrayed him?
Dad used to call at least once a week, sometimes more. Often, I’d be on deadline so I’d put him into voicemail and call back a little later without listening to the message. After he died, I realized I had dozens of unheard voice mails on my iPhone. I hoard them like leftover Halloween candy; when my grief is so deep that I need to hear from him again, I let myself listen to one.
I had a day like that last week, so I randomly chose one and hit play.
“Hi bud, congratulations!” that familiar, gruff baritone exulted. “In my eyes, you were already married. I can’t text you because I’m driving so I thought I’d call. I love you.”
It took me a beat to realize what he was talking about. This call came in at 10:16 a.m. on June 26, 2015. He must have heard on the radio that the U.S. Supreme Court had made marriage equality the law of the land. Even though Miles and I had been together for more than a decade by then and had had a commitment ceremony in 2007, we still hadn’t legally tied the knot because we wanted to wait until it was legal in Michigan, where we lived.
I’m sure Dad and I talked that day and shared a happy moment, but I just took it for granted then. Now that he’s gone, of course, his words take on a different dimension. I didn’t realize he had spontaneously called me to celebrate the historic moment. It mattered to him because it mattered to us. He proved to be a man of his word. He took pride and joy in my life even though it meant adjusting his expectations and overcoming his ignorance.
I still lost my dad. My family continues to struggle with that reality. But the story of our relationship had — dare I say it? — a happy ending. We were exactly where we should have been when we parted ways. It’s a cold comfort, to be sure, but in these days of sadness, I’m taking comfort anywhere I can find it.
Steve Friess is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose work appears regularly in the Post. He can be found on Twitter @SteveFriess. He and his husband are hoping to adopt soon.
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