Friday, August 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Dad

First August milestone reached. It’s always a relief when I get to my father’s birthday without having to do too much damage control. As I stated in an earlier post, August is Adventures in Crazytown for me every year. I still have to get to my sober birthday, but really this is the big one. I really miss my dad. In fact, I can’t type that sentence without getting tears in my eyes. It happens every time.

Now, when I was a kid my relationship with my father was complicated at best. I have some really great memories of him from my pre-teen years. When I was pre-school age (for most of my life everything that happened before first grade started, “When I was five…} we used to play Lion, which consisted of him growling and me pouncing on him laughing like maniac. Wouldn’t it be great if life could stay that simple?

Out of nowhere at 11 years old, I became a baseball fan (it’s when I started to like sports in general). I started not leaving the room when my dad was watching the Phillies games and I gotta tell you, Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas could make you love waterboarding. So, now I had this way to connect with my father on a whole new level – I think it was the first time we were talking to each other rather than either him talking to me or me talking to him.

Because I was still a geek, I went to the library and checked out every book I could find about baseball. At first I just read about the Phillies, but when I got to the 1950 World Series between them and the Yankees it was a whole new ballgame, so to speak. So before long I knew everything that had happened in ever y season since about 1901 (I had no interested in baseball before modern statistics were being kept).

My dad got a big kick out of that. He’d come home every night with a new trivia question or baseball puzzler for me to answer. Whenever his friends or my uncles would come over he’d quiz me for their amusement. It was a little bit like being a parlor trick, but I got to hang out with my dad and the rest of the adults so it worked for me.

The teen years weren’t quite so pleasant. There was a lot of anger (from both of us), fear (mine) and getting hit. I don’t think I was singled out. He hit us all. It just seemed to affect me more.

Things got a little better in college. When I would come home at 2 am after being out with friends, he would often be sitting in the kitchen. We would talk then. It’s weird though. It was the only time of the day we seemed to get along.

Then when I was not quite 24, I left. I moved to San Diego. I had just recently admitted to myself (but almost no one else) that I was gay and it seemed like my only real option was to get out of Dodge. At the time, when people would ask me why I chose San Diego I told them that I hit ocean and couldn’t get any farther away. I don’t say that to say that things were that bad. I say it to illustrate that everyone involved in this situation said some things we wish we hadn’t in hindsight.

When I came out to my parents the next year, the reaction was less than enthusiastic. A few days later when my father was driving me to the train station (I still can’t believe I once took the train across the country), he told me that considering the situation it was probably best that I lived so far away. That stung.

Fast forward a couple years of therapy later. I was harboring this ridiculous anger toward my dad. An anger that wasn’t really punishing anyone but me. By this time, he had taken to asking me if I thought I’d ever move back. He seemed to genuinely want me there, but I still couldn’t quite trust it.

The turning point came in 1993 when I took my partner at the time back home to meet them. My mother was a little bit of a disaster, afraid the neighbors might see us and talk. We were about two months from breaking up so they would have seen two people that were trying really hard to seem happy together without interacting with each other.
My father, on the other hand, embraced him almost immediately. He asked him about his family, about what he did for a living. Then he asked if he played cards. Yes. Hearts. That sealed it. We spent most of our family time the rest of the trip around the table playing cards. My father was friendlier toward me that trip than I had ever remembered him being before.

It was still four more years before I moved back to Philadelphia, but over those four years we got to know each other a lot better. By the time I moved back in to live with them for about a year, we had become friends.

We would sit on the back porch smoking cigarettes and talking. He didn’t always talk very much, but he said a lot. At the time, I was struggling to find work. He knew my last job had been as the editor of a gay newspaper and he asked if I thought people might be discriminating against me because I was gay. I was floored that he even considered that. When I told him it was possible, but that I really didn’t want to work somewhere I wouldn’t be welcome anyway, he nodded.

Then he said, “You know, when you first moved to San Diego I worried about that. And I was glad you were not here because if I’d have seen someone treating you badly I think I would have had to punch them in the face.” I don’t know if he remembered what he had said to me all those years ago, but I almost cried. I’d held on to anger for so long over something that I just misunderstood.

The next seven years I spent a good deal of time with my dad, although not nearly as much as I would have if I had known how long the seven years since he’s been gone would be. We played cards, smoked cigarettes, chased each other around the house with water pistols. And we talked a lot.

When he died in 2004, several people told me I was lucky that we had been so close; they didn’t have good relationships with their fathers. I bit my tongue, but I thought, “I don’t feel very fucking lucky. And if your dad is such a prick why can’t he be dead instead of my dad?” I didn’t really wish anyone else dead. It just seemed so unfair. It took almost 30 years for me to get to know my dad. I deserved more than seven to enjoy the friendship.

Seven years later, I miss him exactly the same amount as I did that first year. But now I do feel lucky. I got to see what a wonderful guy my dad was. And he didn’t die with me thinking he didn’t love me. Honestly, I think that would have been even worse for him than for me. He spent those last seven years showing me that you can always make things right if you want to. He didn’t do everything right as a parent. But as a man, he did the best he could with the tools he had. If someone says that about me when I’m gone, I’ll have done him proud.

Happy birthday Dad! I love you.

1 comment:

  1. Like most people, you have a tendency to tell the same stories more than once. Most of the time, there are subtle differences in the way you tell them. When it comes to your relationship with your father, though, the story is always told very clearly. Some times you leave certain things out, but the facts are always the same. There is no embellishing. There are no attempts at making the story "more interesting." You say what you think and I believe that speaks volumes. It says to me that, even though your father is gone and you still mourn him, you are at peace enough to be able to live your life.

    I'm glad that you chose to remember him today in this post. That's when keeping it real goes well. Also, I'm glad that you've gotten to a place where you can feel lucky to have had the relationship you had. I knew your father as a kind man who, whether or not he liked me, made me feel welcome in his home. I think of him a lot, too, and I always remember him on April 17th.