I am the oldest of 5 children. All of us were born on even-numbered years (I lead the way starting in 1962; my first brother was born in 1964; my first sister was born in 1966; my youngest sister was born in 1968; and my youngest brother was born in 1970), and amongst the 5 of us, we were born in 4 different states (Ohio, Florida, California & 2 in Tennessee). Considering the foregoing, I’m sure the 60’s were just a haze of diapers, formula & screaming babies for my parents. Being at least part-time, quasi-Southern Baptists, I think it would be fair to say that my parents were (probably inadvertently) faithful to the biblical directive to “be fruitful & multiply”.
Neither of my parents (both of whom were born in Virginia) graduated from high school. Living most of their young lives in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains in the ‘40s & ‘50s, I’m sure they weren’t alone in that fact. The work available in their neck of the woods during that time was pretty limited & almost always physically-demanding. Though I never got a chance to ask him, I imagine that my father must have dreamed of a world beyond those mountains that offered more than the almost-nothing that was his everyday life back then. I suspect that it was those dreams of what might be in the valley on the other side of that mountain that drove my father’s wandering spirit, which probably accounted for the fact that in no place where we lived during my childhood, did we usually stay longer than about a year.
My mother was 12 years younger than my father. She was/is a thin, quiet, unassuming person who still is sometimes so painfully shy with people she doesn’t know. As her children were born, and her husband worked at least 6 days a week from sunrise to sunset, she was practically alone in the care & feeding of the “young’uns” (in case you weren’t aware, that’s Southern for “kids”). To look at her then (and even now) you couldn’t tell that she was as obviously strong as she is…strong in lots of ways.
My siblings & I didn’t really get to see much of our father as we were growing up. The jobs available to him, back then, offered no sick time & no vacation time, so he had to get up every day & head out to jobs he must have hated before we even awoke in the mornings; many times, we’d be back in bed before he was able to come back home. I can only imagine how broken & defeated he must have felt all those years, knowing that no matter how many hours he worked & no matter how good he was at the job he was doing, his lack of education meant that he would never go far & that he couldn’t properly support his family by himself. For my entire childhood, most of the meals we had were provided by the US government (we lived on Food Stamps at home & free lunches at school. Most times, the Food Stamps didn’t even last us the whole month. We literally had no idea sometimes when our next meal would be—especially on weekends or during the summer, when there was no school).
Looking back at those painfully-unfortunate circumstances through my now-adult eyes, I can see why my father never smiled much, and why he never spent much time with us doing “dad stuff”. He was too tired (both physically & spiritually). He literally gave all he had to the world, and he had nearly nothing to show for it (except a family who counted on him for everything). As a child, though, I could not be so gracious & so understanding. All I knew was that my father didn’t really seem to like being around us. My family may have been bereft of many physical things, and we may never have known the true meaning of “home”, but—for me—it was not the things I could hold in my hands that I missed, it was that vital connection between a father & a child for which my heart sorely longed.
As I grew older, I never grew used to the rootless, joyless impermanence of the life that the fates had seemed to assign us. Coincidentally, I began to realize how “different” I was from the rest of my family (and, as far as I knew, from the rest of the world), and I intuitively knew that I couldn’t risk giving away my secret by getting too close to my siblings, my friends at school, or any other living soul. I couldn’t even figure out myself why I felt the way I felt, so how could I hope to explain it to anyone else? With the near-constant pain of having to leave people & places that I had allowed myself to become close to and what seemed like a loveless family life added to what I saw as the deep, dark secret of my sexual orientation, I began to shut down. It has been said that no man is an island, yet, as a child, I worked diligently at trying to be.
After many years of trying, I was “successful” at building a huge wall around my heart, and I was the consummate actor, playing whatever role I figured the world demanded of me…anything that would throw them off my track. It had gotten to the point that I hidden the real ME for so long, I didn’t even know who that was anymore.
As a young adult, I saw my father grow sicker & weaker as the effects of many years of untreated hypertension had taken its toll on his heart & his kidneys. He never had health insurance, and only finally got treatment for his condition when his headaches got so bad he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he went to the emergency room. Hypertension generally has no symptoms unless it remains untreated, so by the time he got help, it was too late to fix his heart or kidneys. This man, who—I am ashamed to say—I grew to hate because I thought he hated his own children, had worked hard nearly every day of his life went from being a larger-than-life figure to a helpless, pitiful, sad, little man who was in physical pain during most of the last years of his life. He had to travel 40 miles round-trip 3 times a week for dialysis, and he never seemed to recuperate fully from the previous session before it was time for the next one. In the waning years of his life, he knew very little peace and he never got to enjoy his well-deserved retirement after a lifetime of giving all he could give and then some.
Watching my father slowly die, I was forced to examine more closely the complicated relationship that existed between him and me. I felt guilty hating a man who was now in so much pain and who could never seem to come to terms with his own short-comings because he never had many free moments to take stock of what had comprised his life. I decided during his last few months of life that I had to forgive my father for all he was not and—as I came to realize—could not be for my siblings and me. To accomplish this, I had to learn the difference between “forgiving” & “excusing”.
Even now—14 years after his death—I find it difficult to excuse his inability to show his family the version of love that we had expected & deserved, but I forgive him for hurting us, when he worked so hard to give us all he knew to give. I forgave him, too, because I knew that, in my pending post-closet life, which sadly came shortly after his death, I couldn’t afford to carry such a huge burden any more.
The hatred I had for my father truly hurt me more than it probably ever hurt him, and as much as I wanted his pain to mercifully stop, I NEEDED my own pain to stop, too.