In the small eastern Pennsylvania town where I grew up, homophobic bullying was like the noisy freight trains that thundered daily along the tracks at the edge of town: just part of life. Everyone ignored the trains, I tried to ignore the bullying, and my politically conservative evangelical Christian parents seemed happy to ignore both.
My father was like the trains, sometimes loud and fast, others rumbling and plodding, always mercurial, unswervingly single-minded. He and I were too much alike to get along and too different to understand each other, “strangers who knew each other very well,” quick tempered perfectionists with infuriatingly different ideals. He spoke little. I talked constantly. He could fix anything. I hated dirt under my fingernails. We were both complicated and neither knew what to make of the other. But when, after gathering courage for years, I finally came out to him in my mid-twenties, he betrayed neither surprise nor disappointment, only peaceful acceptance.
A few months later he slid into a coma during a Sunday afternoon nap. Hospital tests that evening showed brain tumors. He survived emergency brain surgery, gradually regained consciousness, and returned home late that week with a death sentence: aggressive stage four brain cancer. Another brain surgery followed four months later, then weeks of crippling chemotherapy and radiation.
The father I’d always feared and never understood became bedridden, confused, and slept around the clock. He died shortly after 1:00AM one frigid February morning, three months before his fiftieth birthday. Over three hundred mourners attended his funeral. Only two were there just for him, another two just for me. The last guy I’d dated had died suddenly a few months before, so I faced Dad’s funeral alone, mourning a paradoxical man I barely knew.
At the burial, a tent shaded the grave and cold wind whipped across the cemetery. A family friend slowly played Ashokan Farewell on his violin. Mom sat quietly on a folding chair near the grave, surrounded by my four younger siblings. I leaned alone against the windward tent wall and hesitantly trusted the wind like I’d trusted dad. The wind would have supported me if I’d let it. Maybe dad would have, too.