John Proctor, writer, teacher and our Dad For All Seasons, continues his series What Is a Father? and reminds us to continue the momentum of love and appreciation that father’s day inspired.
So far I’ve been talking mainly about prototypes that are fairly accepted and traditional in American culture. But what about men for whom the traditional family has for generations been seen as asynchronous with their innermost selves? I’ve known my friend “Henry” (he prefers a pseudonym here for reasons that are probably self-evident) for a good ten years. We met when both of us were adjuncting at the same school. He’s married with two children, one of whom is now in college and the other of whom will soon graduate high school. I’ve had many conversations with him about how his acknowledgement of his own homosexuality threatened the stability of his family, and my Facebook post last week prompted him to put some of his experience in words:
My father died when I was 15 and I cannot imagine him accepting me as I am now. What I learned from him was that social acceptance comes from conformity. And being who I was and am would disqualify me for happiness. So I worked on myself. I concentrated on being straight. I eventually married and we had two children.
I watched my daughter start to grow up. At first we clothed her in feminine things. And she loved her twirly skirts! But as she passed from toddler to school girl I saw her. I saw that she was her own person and that her identity might extend beyond straight female. And I knew I had choices to make.
Repressing her was out of the question. The choice was subtler — should I support her but repress myself or should I support her and come out, so that I did not send her a mixed message to undercut her freedom to grow into an adult not hobbled with shame?
I had a sense that I should let her lead the process and not burden her with my issues. So there came an evening when she opened up to me, and she told me she was gay. Or queer. Or not straight. I don’t actually remember the terminology — I was too busy taking in the feelings. I listened and told her I loved and supported her. And I waited to come out to her so that this could be just about her. I don’t recall when I did tell her about me. Of course there were other issues attached, all about me staying together with mommy so that our children would still have an intact family. And the implications of what might happen in the future did not need to be addressed then.
What she got from me was enough support for her identity that she once remarked that she had never felt the sting that so many of her friends had experienced, of rejection or invalidation by their families. And 5 years after that first open conversation I had the delight of watching my daughter, resplendent in her tux, escort her girlfriend, gorgeous in her dress, to their High School Prom! She was happily, openly herself. I didn’t go to my High School Prom. I certainly could not have done so with a boy. And so nobody smiled upon me the way I proudly did at her.
Perhaps the sea change we’re undergoing is leading us toward more acceptance and understanding, and away from prejudice and willful ignorance. I don’t know, but I hope so. But this fluidity of understanding will not come without consequence for own senses of self, individually and communally. Knowing there is no one right way of doing things necessitates a willingness to embrace the areas of ourselves and others that haven’t yet been mapped.
While I was in Seattle for a conference last year a colleague, Paul, graciously allowed me to stay in the extra room at his and his husband’s house, even making me a cardamom cappuccino every morning. On the last morning, sipping the last bit of froth, I noticed a panoramic photo of a teenage boy and his friends that took up one entire wall of their living room. The kids looked noble and savage and full of love, for each other and for whoever was taking the photo. I don’t even remember what they were doing in the picture, just the feeling of warmth within the picture and the sense of cold on its outer periphery. Paul has since become my friend, and I recently asked him to retell the story of the photo that he and his husband told me that morning:
There was a boy, almost a young man really, wielding a machete in my back yard, clearing out brambles with joy and abandon and buoyancy, and I knew I loved him. I didn’t recognize this kind of love; I knew it wasn’t romantic or erotic (I know these loves). This was new, familial in a way, but not brotherly (I know this love too). An uncategorized love, I thought, unnamed but real and true.
My father was always generous and attentive. The physical presence of my dad’s love for me was cut off when he died several months before I met the boy. I still felt my dad’s love, although it was disembodied and unfocused. One day that hot August I asked the boy, “How about we knock off early and we go for a swim in the lake?” We swam, he dove, we laughed. I had not felt joy for over a year, no reason for it really with my dad’s illness weighing me down. Here I was lifted by joy. And it felt good and right that it was the boy who brought it back to me.
I received my father’s love for forty-nine years, now it is time for me to give this love away. My father’s love again has form and substance, channeled to the boy. Now I recognize my love for this boy as paternal. I never anticipated that I would be the giver of this kind of love. My partner and I never intended to have children, and we don’t, not genetically or legally, but now we have our boy. He was fatherless, it turned out, and receptive to my paternal embrace. What I have learned from my father is that being a father is more a verb, and not so much a noun. It is the doing, the loving, the listening, the being in togetherness, the laughing, the swimming, the wondering, and the sighing that makes paternal love happen. And my machete boy, he loves me back and calls me Paps.
Here’s hoping all my Dad friends continue to find themselves, their children, and everyone and everything else they love, this Father’s Day and beyond.