Updated: Jun 21, 2021
One thing has become more and more apparent as I've gotten older, in hearing other LGTBQ+ friends talk about the struggles they've had with being accepted for who they are by their family.
I have a great dad, and I’m lucky.
Dad could be tough on me and he had his flaws, but he always tried hard to do the right things.
My parents divorced when I was 8. I’m not trying to downplay the emotional impact of divorce on children, but I also feel that sometimes, maybe especially in my generation, it was treated with as a convenient excuse for kids who grew up to have problematic lives. It isn't really the divorce that causes trauma so much as the reasons and events around it, and after it.
Was it tough, was it an adjustment? Of course. But as much as “staying together for the kids” is a trope now, it doesn’t mean it actually benefits the kids. I know my parents were better off apart because I vaguely remember the arguments. There was no violence thankfully, but a lot of arguments. Maybe I’m speaking through the lens of decades of life experience, and my feelings would have been a lot different if you’d asked 7 year old me, or 15 year old me. But my parents deserved to do what they felt was best for their lives, and I don’t think you can just say “well this divorce is going to ruin our child’s life” because that is oversimplifying it. My parents made sure to try to make the change as easy as they could, and I respect that effort.
My mom got custody as most moms do, and since she tended to give me what I wanted a bit more often than dad (perhaps other than stability), it put dad in a tough spot. He got to see me every other weekend, and obviously wanted to make those moments count for the other 288 or so days he wasn’t going to see me. At the same time, he felt he was the one who needed to instill a sense of discipline in my life, to teach me that life was not always getting what you wanted and how to cope with that in a positive way. Of course, how to deal with the intense responsibilities of adulthood in an ever-changing, ever more constantly complex world is something that no amount of heart to heart father-son talks can possibly prepare you for.
My dad told me a story once when I was a teenager. He was returning home from having a few beers at a friend’s house a couple years after the divorce. He was almost home when a cop pulled him over for forgetting to signal or something. He blew slightly over the legal limit on a breathalyzer and ended up with a DUI. When he got to this point in the story, his eyes got wet.
“I screwed up, and I accepted that I had to face the music for that. But there was no way in hell....NOTHING was going to keep me from seeing my son and being a part of his life.”
I wish those words had been as significant to me then as they are now.
Looking back over the past 40 years of being independent from my dad, it’s difficult for me to grasp how it must have felt. To go from having a wife and a kid, to having no wife, and significantly less of a kid, had to be devastating. Of course, I was too busy thinking about my own life, my school, the things I wanted, the goals I had, mom, mom’s problems, etc, so the truth is that I probably thought about my dad the most when I was with him.
I loved my dad but I was kind of the kid that just dealt with whatever he had to, whether it was a new address, a new school, a divorce, bullying, whatever life threw it me I just learned to adapt and that has been with me my entire life, which is probably mostly a good thing but also can make you sometimes repress your true feelings about something, and also can cause you to overlook the emotional impact on others of things that are out of your control anyway.
My dad is a passionate man of passionate opinions. Whatever he did, he did it intensely and with an enviable lack of self-consciousness. When he remarried at the end of the '80s to an equally passionate and strong-willed feminist, it turned out to be just what he needed. I've had my disagreements with my stepmom, but as the years went on we developed a much greater respect for each other. Mostly I'm happy he found someone that has provided him with 30 years of love, patience and perspective.
It’s hard to meditate on just what little of a percentage of my life I’ve spent with my dad in 40 years. Still, we've had great moments, and I have a ton of little unimportant memories that have become important as they, and I, age.
Going on trips up north with my dad and listening to the mixtapes that I loved to make, because he liked a lot of the same music I did - to the point that he would ask me for copies.
Or the trip to Florida when I was 13, in the back of his covered Dodge pickup surrounded by pillows and blankets, handheld electronic games and Mad and Cracked magazines to read, my boombox and my cassette tapes, I was safe and happy in my own private space with everything I could possibly have wanted.
Dad would drag me up to his “fishing camp” every year or two which was an old, unkempt trailer up in northern Michigan where he’d do little more than drink beer, laugh with old friends and fish in a little stream. One year I got bored (well, every year I got bored but bear with me) and decided to wander off to explore the junkyard that was about half a mile down the path that led to the trailer. I had my trusty BB gun and there were an awful lot of things that were fun to shoot at in a huge junkyard! At no point did it occur to me that things in a junkyard were occasionally not just junk and that said owner of junkyard did not appreciate a teenager shooting windshields and headlights for fun.
One year at fishing camp I had brought my Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard, because it was small and easy to take places, and it has this feature where you could sample a few seconds of something and play it back on the keyboard, the sample being sped up or slowed down depending on which keys you played. I had a stroke of inspiration, because my dad was known to stutter, so one night as we sat around with his drinking buddies, I sampled his voice and then hit the key repeatedly, making the sample stutter. Everyone fell out laughing and I felt like a comic genius.
Sometimes it wouldn’t be fishing camp, it would be the hunting lodge, where there was little more to do than watch TV and look at the ample gratuitous porn magazines in the bathroom. I think my dad must have figured I was smart enough to handle my own sexuality because he definitely had no reservations about my access to such things. Sometimes I wonder if it was in the hope that it would trigger a more overt interest in women, but it was probably just confidence in my ability to handle it.
My interest in fishing was small and mostly died out in my teenage years, but my interest in hunting was entirely non-existent. Sitting in silence for hours in a pimped out wooded box in the hopes of finally getting to see a beautiful animal up close just to kill it was low on my list of things that sounded like fun.
Looking back, I guess someone else might say “you seem to have done a lot of things your dad wanted to do on the weekends he had you that you weren’t really into”, and I probably would have agreed with you at the time, but now? It taught me that love means doing what other people want to do sometimes, and that it’s important to learn to make the best of things. Besides, the long road trips with dad were enjoyable, even if all we did was listen to great music and watch the world go by.
A few years ago I bought my dad tickets to see the Michael Jackson One Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas, because we both always loved MJ, and the first concert I ever saw was when he took me to see the Jacksons Victory Tour when I was 11. This felt like an appropriate way to bring things full circle, one of the very few times I’ve been able to share a significant event with him and even more rarely, be the one footing the bill.
I remember when dad turned 40, and he got a cheesy gag gift shirt that said LORDY LORDY LOOK WHO’S FORTY. And I thought, damn, 40! That’s OLD. My version of which is a shirt that says BIG DAD WOLF, and it’s less for me than for the wolf I embody.
Oh, who am I kidding, it’s for me. It’s me learning to embrace that which I was afraid to accept, that I am fairly dad now in terms of my dress, my jokes, my tastes, my desire to be a positive influence in the lives of those younger than me.
So many things about me are so much like my dad, my dessert addiction, my unabashed emotionality, my temperament, my louder-than-average voice, my need to do the right thing and care for others, my love of corny jokes.
I wish he could have seen more of my life. It's not that he's gone, but I waited a long time to show him all of myself, because I felt we were so different and that he wouldn’t possibly be able to understand a gay son who loves to dress up as an animal for fun. Better to let him hold onto the teenager who seemed more normal, back when it was still feasible to dream of future weddings and the birth and raising of your grandchildren.
But as I got older, I wanted my dad to know who I really was, so a few years ago I sent him a long email and just told him everything about my life and how I felt. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made, even if I made it several years later than I should have. My dad, bless his heart, always made a strong effort to be supportive of me, even when he couldn’t relate to me. Like me, he always tried to make the best of a difficult situation, learning to appreciate whatever pieces of my life he could get.
Hair is grey and the fires are burning
So many dreams on the shelf
You say "I wanted you to be proud of me."
I always wanted that myself
"When you gonna make up your mind?
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
When you gonna make up your mind?"
Cause things are gonna change so fast
All the white horses have gone ahead
I tell you that I'll always want you near
You say that things change, my dear
I know he was disappointed when I failed to graduate from college, but I realize now it had less to do with being able to proudly tell his buddies that his kid got a degree and more to do with just wanting me to have a good, happy life that *I* could feel proud of.
I do have a good, happy life, dad. I have that because you always did the best you could. Because you taught me how to treat others with respect no matter how different they were from yourself. Because you showed me that it was okay to make mistakes as long as you did it with love in your heart and a willingness to learn and grow. I’m far from perfect, just like you. But I love without reservation, I take pride and joy in the chances I get to share myself and what I’ve learned with others, in the hopes that it will positively affect their lives.
I’m sorry you’ve gotten so little of me for so long, but you are with me every day, genetically, emotionally and spiritually. In many ways we could not be more different, you like to hunt animals and I like to dress up as them, but in many ways we could not be more alike, either.
I want you to know that for all my shortcomings and distance, you have made me into the kind of man whose relationships are paramount and fulfilling, who cares about the well being of others, who isn’t afraid to be corny and laugh at himself. And unfortunately, can't seem to finish a meal without wanting something sweet to cap it off.
I can’t turn back the clock and give you all the time with me that you deserve to have had, but I hope you know how much you are immensely loved and appreciated, and that your son is doing alright, quite a bit better than alright when it comes to the things that really matter in life. And I hope that still brings pride and warmth to your heart.
I also want to note that my stepdad Pete is an equally wonderful man, just as full of love and warmth as my dad, and although I haven't gotten to see him much since he came into my mom's life, I appreciate him and the joy he's brought to her. She's had a rough patch of health and financial issues, and I'm certain that Pete has been a total godsend that's enabled her to remain upbeat even when things have been quite the opposite. He's also been nothing but great to me.
Happy Father’s Day, to my father, my stepfather, and to all of you whose dads, real or affectionately termed, have made and continue to make a profound impact on your lives. Tell them as much as you can.