So, my dad died yesterday. Lung cancer. I know, I know . . . what a shock that several decades of inhaling tar might not be the ideal conditions for healthy lungs, but who knew?
Okay, we all knew. For a really, really long time.
I had a dream the other night that I was taking a long bus ride. We made a short pit stop, and for some reason my dad was there, with my mother and sister. He was in a wheelchair, with a nurse by his side. I walked up to him and asked him if I could help, and he accepted. He was helpless, with a sweet and gentle disposition . . . qualities I longed for from him as a child. The dream wasn’t much of a stretch: I’d done home care for the ill and elderly before, so it felt natural to change his diaper, get him dressed, stroke his forehead and tell him he was doing really well.
When I woke up, I lay in bed with a profound sense of loss and sadness. My own son had crawled into bed with us sometime in the night and lay snuggled up beside me, his eyelashes long and dark against his soft cheek. I wonder if my dad ever woke up like that, looking at me beside him, feeling as though his heart would burst with love. Given our strained relationship during my childhood, I find it very difficult to imagine even in the strongest flights of fancy.
But the feelings I felt in the dream . . . protectiveness, love, tenderness . . . they lingered. My dad may not have liked me much when I was an effeminate kid, never mind later on as a sissified teenager and openly gay adult. But I’ve seen his kindness toward others. His generosity. His humour. His way of helping people without making them feel like a charity case. In some ways, it made his obvious disgust toward me doubly hard to bear, but I saw it and, I hope, learned to emulate these humane qualities.
I can’t imagine disliking my son. I can’t imagine my lip curling in disgust at the way he speaks or walks or cries. I can’t imagine not looking at him, even in the midst of the worst tantrum imaginable, and feeling love for him. Not like my dad.
Like any pain or trauma caused in childhood, my dad’s rejection of me has lingered and shaped my personality. My aversion to unfairness, cruelty or rejection is such that I can completely disconnect from a friend or loved one whose behaviour manifests as such. Part survival technique, part avoidance, I think. I just move on, and I rarely look back. Perhaps that’s a gift as well, in its own way. I don’t feel saddled with difficult relationships and am free of friends who are a drag on my sense of peace and harmony.
I used to think my dad regretted kicking me out of his home. The few times we’d see each other, I fancied there was sadness in his eyes — a lament for his actions and the reality of our history. But last year, at the funeral for a family friend, I realized it wasn’t regret or sadness. He just seemed embarrassed to be seen near me. In some ways it was liberating: I wasn’t failing in forgiving my parents or in maintaining a separation caused so many years ago by their hatred of gay people. They’d maintained it, too.
My sister, who is very close to our parents, is handling everything right now. She’s struggling through her own fear and sadness of losing the dad who adored her. And she’s concerned for her own daughter, whom my dad treasured as the sports-playing, rough-and-tumble kid he always wanted. A while back she asked if I wanted to see our dad before he died. I said that if he wanted to see us, we would absolutely come. Her lack of reply told me everything I needed to know.
My dad excluded me from his life, from his love, from his support and nurturing. And now, surrounded by his wife, his daughter and his granddaughter, he has passed from this world. I inquired about a funeral service but was tactfully told that it was to be just a small graveside affair, as he wished. No dates, no location, no invitation.
He’s excluding me from his death as well, but in an odd way I’m okay with that. The dusty remains of our relationship as father and son are too fragmented to resurrect at this point. I’m relieved that he passed peacefully, and I’m glad he had his beloved daughter and granddaughter with him. In a way, and despite the sadness I feel at what was lost so long ago, I’m glad they were able to give him the kids he wanted, instead of the son he had.
A friend of mine challenged me this week, remarking that she remembered my father sometimes being nice to me, and quite nice to her. I pointed out that she was a hot, young redhead at the time, and my father was careful to be nice in public. But she was right, in a way. My dad did do some nice things for me. He’d give me lunch money, unasked. He’d bring home treats from their bulk food store. He’d occasionally try to soften the fury of my mother’s continual rage.
But his frequent expressions of disgust toward my effeminacy, toward my orientation, toward my personality as a gay person, were the mortal blows that killed our relationship. Enough time has passed that I can appreciate the things he did, or attempted to do. But the sneers, the expulsion from “his” home, the threats . . . they did their ugly work and they did it well. The wounds were never healed by a making of amends, or apologies, or explanations, or any show of remorse. There was no love given to keep it alive.
I’m sad. I feel the loss of something I never got to have. My dad was overjoyed that he finally got the “son” he wanted in my sporty, amiable and fun niece. But I never got the dad I wanted . . . someone who loved me unconditionally, who made me feel like I was of value, who protected me and nurtured me.
Now, in my middle-age, I am reconciled that I never will get that. But at least one of us finally got what they needed, and that’s just going to have to be enough.