Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Father...part Three: On Words and Silence

When I think of the contrast of words and silence, I remember this certain day over a year ago. It was a warm day, when winter began to loosen its grip on the college campus where I am studying for a new career. It had been cold that morning, now I actually took off my jacket. In the courtyard between the music and art buildings, small leaf buds appeared early on neatly manicured bushes and sunlight fell warmly across the sundial in the center of the square. I sat on a bench and turned my face up to the light drinking in the warmth. It was my long day, with a class in the morning and one later in the afternoon; I always stayed and did my homework. I was done with the morning’s assignment, and there were still hours till my next class. I picked up my cell phone and called my dad.
I could hear birds singing, and heard nearby the buzzing of first tentative black and yellow fuzzed bees as they bumbled around the early green shoots in the flower beds. The phone began to ring in my ear as the connection kicked in. I did not know yet in that moment, how this lovely day would change in an instant, or why it would remain marked in my mind forever after. Moments later there was the click as he picked up on his end and I smiled as his light tenor voice spoke in my ear.
“Hello Dad!”
“Hey there! How are you doing today? All going well, I trust?”
“Absolutely, Dad! Done with homework, waiting on my next class. How’s mom doing today?” I leaned back on the bench, relaxing into the routine of easy conversation. Mom was fine, her back was better. No, my homework was fun; I enjoy my studies so much. Their lawnmower needed a new wheel, and they don’t make ‘em that size any more. Yes, I have a paper to write this weekend, but it’s no problem, I know what I’m going to say in it already.

Our conversation wandered down familiar paths, the words comfortable and warm. Words have always come easily for my father and me. I remembered that the family story of our earliest “conversation” was his earnest attempt to teach me to say “doorknob” as my first word. (no one has ever understood WHY he wanted this to be my first word!) He evidently carried me around pointing at doorknobs for weeks, saying "Doorknob, doorknob..." as he held me in his arms. I was contrary from the very start –that summer, late in the evening while we were at the beach on vacation, he held me up and pointed at the soft white sphere glowing low in the sky and my first word turned out to be “moon”.

The shade spread across the little garden as I listened to his voice here in the present, lulled by it as though I was that little child again and not his forty-six-year-old adult daughter, sitting on a college campus for a second try at a degree. But as his words continued over the phone, I abruptly snapped upright on the wooden slats of the old bench. “Say that part again, Dad?”

“I said, didn’t you see that news report about the bill they’re attempting to pass in Washington about that whole gay marriage thing?” His tone had grown harsh and scornful. I felt my stomach clench. This was the moment that always destroyed the words between us; the dangerous words that I so carefully avoided at all costs. Here was the silence that lies behind out words -- the thing we do not speak of between each other. I tensed, with my eyes shut tight, lost in the darkness of his words. The harshest difference between us is here - me gay, and liberal and compassionate, him conservative, and paranoid and hating.
“No, Dad, I didn’t.” I kept my voice calm, still, normal. In my mind I was searching frantically for words, for a way to avoid the inevitable, as he spoke on.
“They’re trying again to push through some bill to legalize gay marriage. This country has gone so wrong!”

“Gays are ruining America right before our very eyes, every day! I tell you, gays are why God has withdrawn His blessing from out nation! It's all their fault!” I felt the air go out of me as though an iron hard fist had slammed into my body. I doubled forward, trembling as the trip hammer suddenly lodged in my chest beat heavily. The sunlight became harsh, and the shadows went jagged and cold. Dad’s voice went on, somewhere on the other end of the cell phone that I clutched so desperately in my hand. All I could hear were the words repeating endlessly in my mind: Dad, I’m gay. Dad, don’t you understand? Your daughter is gay! Dad, how can you say such things? Your only child is gay!
Of course, I never said the words. I took refuge instead in the silence. This silence over the years has become all pervasive, capable of ambush, gone out of sight until the worst possible moment – and then it is there. It comes to me at night and steals my sleep. It dams the flow of my thoughts as I try to write. And sometimes the silence rises when I answer the phone, and hear my father’s voice. This silence is the opposite of our words. It is the fear I feel when I try to imagine saying the words to him. I fear the loss of his respect and approval. I fear the destruction of our life long relationship. Above all, I fear to lose the words “I love you,” that we have spoken countless times to each other all the years of my life. Because for all his love and gentleness and grace, this is his flaw - his love is conditional, his views totally driven by the conservative world he grew up in, his stubborness to never yield and never for a moment see any other view point. And at his age and with that native stubborness he has, the odds are profoundly against him living long enough for us to reconcile and heal, should I ever come Out or be Outed to him.
I remember the silence of that day. How the odd stillness gripped the garden, as I listened to his loving voice speak words of discrimination and bigotry. I remember the silence of the words I did not say then. I still cannot say them. Dad, I’m gay. Dad, God hasn’t forsaken our country or our world because of people like me. Dad, don’t you understand that your words, though deeply and sincerely spoken, cause pain and anger and agony? Is he afraid I wonder? Does he have his suspicions of my relationship with Dreamweaver and the six years she and I have been together? Does he hide his fear in hateful, harmful words, because he, too, does not dare ask a simple question?
Somehow, I changed the conversation, shooting the rapids of dangerous words into much safer, quieter topics. Somehow, I kept my voice mild, calm, uninterested in politics and abstract condemnation. I felt like screaming the words at him – “How can you say these horrible things and cause me so much pain?” Instead our conversation ended as it always did.
“Talk to you tomorrow, Dad. I love you.”
“I love you too. Your mom and I are proud of you. Oh, and tell Dreamweaver that we love her too, and hope school is going great for her also.”
“I’ll be sure and tell her, I promise! ‘Bye, Dad.”
I remember closing my eyes and leaning back on the bench, my cell phone snapped shut in my hands. I remember the day feeling cold, the sunlight thin and weak. I remember the silence around me as though the garden had simply stopped. And that I put my head in my hands and wept.


  1. I wish I was still there so I could give you a hug. No one should have to deal with hiding, and I'm sorry that facets of your Dad clash so much with who you are and who you want him to know. You have my love and prayers.

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  3. "You're in trouble now... you forgot your socks!"

    Pardon the inside joke, folks. Those words are my earliest memory of Cameron's dad, a man with astounding love for his only child, but none at all for her best friend. I sometimes think he spends all of his love, gentleness and compassion on his family, to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. Still, watching his way with with you, Cameron, and seeing him through your eyes, I can't help but feel a grudging affection for the old curmudgeon.

    Tell him I said "hi".

  4. Thanks Light, I treasure you!

    And Starchild, I will tell him! *smile* I think it's a generational thing - in his era - your family was your blood, your family and friends were friends only. There was not really the concept of "family of choice" and certainly, "family of choice" was not rated on the scale of true family. It was an artificial devide created of the times he was born into, and the patriarchial veiws he is welded to. You are not alone - I had no friends that he EVER approved of (and that included my ex-husband!)with one STARTLING exception...Dreamweaver! For which I am eternally grateful, but I don't entirely understand. Mom and Dad embracing her as family where they would not totally accept my husband is one of lifes mysteries. It is this that makes me wonder if they don't on some level realize that she is my partner - wife - even if the words are never said. And of course, if the Gay word is ever said, this entire house of cards in it's delicate balance burns to the ground like it had gasoline poured on it. What a world. I have said it before - I am certain that mom KNOWS, not just suspects, due to unconnected comments she has made. Dad is a whole 'nother issue - a tangle of them! What he will accept subconsciously, he would reject violently, should it ever come to the light of day. So I walk the tight rope day by day...and pray a lot. You and Dad share one major thing in common...you both love me! And I love you both, with all my heart!

  5. This one took me a while to contemplate. I had mentioned last night as we chatted that i wanted to wait till morning to reply.... unfortunately I woke at 8:30, an hour and a half from work, not dressed, and 30 minutes after I was supposed to be there! Late nights caught up with me.

    The three parts that comprise this are great. I feel the connection between the two of you....and the longing to have your dad accept that part of your life which you have hidden for so long, fearful of loosing him. And the inability to celebrate and say "This is the woman I love, and will for the rest of my life." It's heartbreaking.

    But I understand. I suspect that is one of the reasons I kept things so buried for so long until my mother passed. I don't think she could have handled it...I still have to call her best friend and explain why my ex and I aren't together.

    And the one thing that hit me hardest when reading it all the way through....... and maybe the saddest in it's own way. The only ones who can really hurt us, and hurt us deeply, are the ones we love the most. Things we laugh off from others are devastating from someone we love.

    I wish for you the peace to deal with this, and the possibility that one day you will be able to tell him about the depth of your love and feelings for him and for Dreamweaver. Because otherwise, after he passes, the inability to talk to him about who you are will always color how you see him....as strongly as a pink highlight on the edge of a chin.

  6. I think I can live with him not ever knowing, rather than run the risk of spending last years we have in this life together with our relationship devided, separated, grieving and angry. I would rather see the lines here and there of color that mark that aspect of our lives, my dad and me, rather than see the memories drowned in darkness and sorrow. Remember - with his views and his stubborness, and his beliefs, unless we could pull off a reconcilliation - which I am not willing to gamble on - he would go to his grave, heartbroken, shattered, thinking I am going to hell, blaming himself for whatever reason why I might be *that way*...my silence is not selfish self protection - it is the choice to bear the burden of silance rather than him bearing the burden of knowledge. True...he might come around. He might suprise me. Stranger, more miraculous things have happened. Lets put it this way - if I am ever Outed, one way or another - then that miracle will become all my hope and prayer and everything I will work for. But until then - he bore so many painful buredensome things for me - he carried me in a body cast up those stairs all those years ago and never counted the cost - maybe it would have been easier to leave me in my room those 8 weeks. Maybe it would have been easier to move me downstairs for the duration. Instead, he normalized what might have been my darkest most uncomfortable moments, by carrying me down the stairs every morning so that I was truly a part of the family and up the stairs every night so that I could be in my own room.

    My turn to bear the burden, when he is immobilized and frozen in time and space by his own blindspots and sociatal schemas. My turn to normalize our day to day interactions and never show the strain of the weight I bear in doing so. My turn...and my gift, back to him.

  7. Nods. And it is a gift...a sacrifice. One of the biggest you can make. I wish you well in bearing it and send my thoughts and foci to you. May you always walk the path in light.

    Be safe and well.


  8. Reading over this, a couple of things struck me. First, from your reply to a comment above:

    I think it's a generational thing - in his era - your family was your blood, your family and friends were friends only. There was not really the concept of "family of choice" and certainly, "family of choice" was not rated on the scale of true family. It was an artificial devide created of the times he was born into, and the patriarchial veiws he is welded to.

    Actually, I have to disagree with that. Perhaps it's more true if you add "the time and place he was born into", but it's not just the times, or the generation.

    I expect that your Dad is somewhere in age between my parents, and my mother's second husband, Fred. (Remembering that even though I'm younger than you, my parents had me unusually late. They were juuust too young to serve in WWII, but only just; and Fred was old enough to serve in WWI.)

    My experience both with my parents and with Fred suggests that they subscribed FAR more to the "family of choice" ideal than to "family of blood". Fred made remarks that he came to prefer his family of choice to his own children from his first marriage. And I grew up seeing my parents' closest friends FAR more often than we saw my parents' siblings and their families. Partly, that was geography, but most of my father's family was fairly local, and we did see them; we just weren't particularly close to them. Meanwhile, the friends my parents had made were also "aunts and uncles" to me, and came to mean as much or more to me as my blood relatives. (I have no interest in seeing almost any of my blood family from either side, but would still welcome seeing some of those from the family-of-choice I grew up with.)

    So, something else going on there, perhaps. But it's not a universal to those generations.

  9. Second thing... :)

    Reading over this, it brings up a question for me: granted, you don't want to come out to your father. But... as part of your relationship with him, what are the reasons for the patterns that have developed regarding your ability to talk to him and debate with him, or disagree with him, without bringing up issues of your identity?

    I mean... in order to disagree/debate with him over the issue of gay marriage, you don't have to start from the position of "I'm gay". It should be possible to argue the issue apart from your own identity -- although I'm not suggesting that you be dishonest and try to imply to him that you're one of those straight allies who supports gay rights (although plenty of them exist).

    I say this just because, for years upon years, obviously, I was silent about my own identity issues with my mother -- but that never stopped me from arguing with her when she would say thing that I politically or socially disagreed with. That was true long before she did her own political/social 180 -- though, even today, I have to argue with her sometimes, as some kneejerk remnant of her conservatism rears its head and I have to point it out.

    Is it that you feel you're unable to get into such a debate with your father without the danger of it BECOMING personal? You don't actually have to say, Dad, when you say that, you are *hurting me*, in order to say, Dad, when you say that, you are saying a very hurtful and unChristian thing. Or is it just that in the past, you've tried to have these discussions/debates with him, and you've given it up for whatever reason?

    (I've also related that I have often wondered what would have happened if I'd gotten the chance to interact with my own father as an adult. I believe he and my mother were equally stubborn, but my father was far more volatile; yet, I consider myself more like him. I think we would have disagreed vehemently on a lot of things. The question is whether I would have persisted in arguing/disagreeing with him, or whether I would have just written it off as not worth the effort/upset it would have caused, and just worked to avoid any such discussions with him at all. Certainly, I avoid social/political discussions with my brother and his wife because I don't *want* to get into arguments, and suspect that we would. But that's different. They've never said anything egregious in front of me that I had to bite my lip and just ignore.)

    It does seem likely that if his close and much-beloved daughter doesn't disagree with him and show him that other viewpoints are possible, that nobody else is going to. And at the moment, he does love and respect you -- so might your disagreement with him not carry some weight? I don't want to make it sound like it's that easy (I know it isn't), and if you just don't want to deal with it, I can understand that. But what I read here seems to say that what he says sometimes hurts you, and you feel powerless to answer it without going into ALL of it. And I'm wondering: why?