Love in the Time of Corona, Part 7- “Happy Birthday, Dad”


You should’ve seen my dad. He was beautiful.
Today he would have been 80. I don’t know that I could imagine Dad at 80. He was such a viral man. I was scared of him or mad at him most of the time from the time I came on the scene at 6:49pm, fashionably late for cocktail hour on Friday, October 15, 1965.  A lot  took place after that.

Dad was only 25 when I was born. I look at 25 year-olds from 54 and they look like babies! Mom was 19! This young boy and his wife had a house and jobs and were trying hard to make it in the world. They worked their asses off pretty much their whole lives to do it. I wouldn’t trade my parents, either one of them, for any other mother and father in all of time. Mom gets a lot of airtime in my writing. I want to let this day be about Dad. To do that, I’ll start off by talking about my favorite subject: me.

When I was 23, I took a razor blade to my wrists. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Take away 40 years of supposed sociopolitical evolution from current-day Trump-supporting Alabama and imagine that as the world I grew up in as a sensitive, creative, imaginative, empathetic, artistic, little skinny gay boy. My daddy didn’t really know what to do with me. I don’t say that flippantly or simply as the idiom but that he actually did not know what to do with me! A man’s job in Alabama is to make a man of all children born with a penis. A man is tough, hard-working, prototypically “masculine,” in charge of everything and everyone around him, an athlete, a hunter, a fisherman, a mechanic, hungry for pussy, quiet, brooding, and mysterious. I wasn’t many of those things. As an adult, I found out I actually was a lot of those things but the world of the male was a place I felt unwelcome because, after all, the boys who did all those things were the ones calling me “faggot” so they clearly didn’t want me around their football team or their huntin’ club.
By 23, I hated myself as much as they seemed to and, without telling that whole dramatically boring story, I did end up trying to make an early exit and after that failure to add to the list, I decided if I was going to have to live, I was going to have to get help and through the long process of trying to heal myself, my family got healthier too.

I began to follow a design for living that ultimately had me making amends to my father for my part in our very turbulent relationship. This was a man who at one time had a fishing knife to my throat threatening to end me. And I still stand by what I said that I wouldn’t take any other dad in the world in all of time over my dad, Arnold Key.

My mother had already had leukemia for ten years when my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I knew that we might be looking at ten years of my father not knowing who any of us were. He knew this too. My dad loved his independence. He loved to get out and get around and he loved to stay busy. If you know me at all, you know that when I’m in public, if somebody will stand still long enough, I’ll get into a conversation with them. I love to hear people’s stories from their own mouths and I love to tell them mine. That’s my daddy in me. Anybody who knows me can also tell you that you can ask me how I’m doing and I’ll barely take a breath for thirty minutes. I love to talk. I’m Southern to the bone in that way. That’s my daddy in me. The older I get, the more I look like him. That’s fine with me. My daddy was a good looking man.
As creepy as this might sound, my dad was the first grown man I ever saw naked. We all shared one bathroom up until 1977 when we remodeled the house. As a boy, when I saw my father step out of the shower, I thought he was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and something stirred deep inside me that told me when I was grown, I’d seek out a man who had a body like my father’s. Of course I had no cognitive context for anything like that at the time; all this was subconscious, spiritual.

The simple dynamic of my family of origin was this: both of my parents came from situations where they didn’t have too-great examples of interpersonal conflict resolution. No healthy boundaries, rife with abuse of one kind or another. When as kids of 18 and 24 they struck out on married life together they were just sort of sunk when it came to the simple disagreements all couples have. I hated trying to go to sleep while they screamed at each other. It makes me sad too because I’m sure that both of them had gotten through some of the rougher parts of childhood in very rural Alabama in the 50s by imagining that one day each would find someone to love and marry and all would be happy.

They went to war early on and stayed at war for most of their 49-year marriage and let me hasten to say I know that my parents loved each other. I’m crying as I type this because I wish that they could have avoided wasting all that time and just jumped straight to where they were in a photograph that my sister-in-law Krystle sent to me. It wasn’t a year before my father died, a photograph of the two of them, walking across a green meadow towards the dark and dense forest of Alabama pines. Why couldn’t they have somehow found that place early on? As it was, I (having shown up a year and a half into the marriage—broken condom actually) became the center of my mother’s universe and as soon as I could speak, learned to give my mother everything he couldn’t. “Mamma, the house looks so good,” “Mamma the dress you made looks so pretty on you.” It just wasn’t in his vocabulary. Therefore, my young father, fresh from an alcoholically violent upbringing, and hoping for what he imagined would be a wonderful life with this sexy drum majorette from the next town down the railroad tracks, actually ended up getting to be viewed as the enemy in his own home. He worked for Alabama Power and would take any extra shifts he could get. I remember a lot of times when he’d be at work and the phone would ring and I could tell by hearing Mom’s end of the conversation, he’d be working “a double.” He was so powerful and ominous to me as a boy. Now I look back and I can see this skinny little hardworking man, not much more than a boy. And if there is anything that can be said about my father it’s that he was a hard worker. He’d come home from working at the steam power plant and get on the lawnmower and mow until after dark, using the John Deere’s headlights to show the way in the dark, steamy, Southern nights. I remember seeing him drag in the door, exhausted. I’m at my best when I’m more like him.
Dad’s job as he saw it, as a Southern man raising sons was to make us hard enough to be men in that world. Now I can look back and see what a tough little fucker I was from the get-go from all I went through and survived. But in the wildly patriarchal, heteronormative paradigm of the world we were living in, strength in boys demonstrated in activities and affect different from what I was bringing. Killing deer, throwing the pigskin, and showing interest in girls just demonstrated that you were going to be willing to step when it was your term and continue that proud, male Southern heritage which seemed to be simultaneously our salvation and our destruction.
When dad got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I was living in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. In retrospect, knowing what my father had heard about Alzheimer’s, I now believe he decided that he simply wasn’t going to stick around for that. His life was centered in meeting and talking to people, in helping them if he could in any way and in being able to be mobile and independent during it all. I think he was afraid of what lay ahead. He began to have what the doctors described as “mini strokes” which seems like an odd thing because there’s nothing “mini” about any stroke. I think he decided that if he couldn’t live his life as he always had, he would just set his eyes on distant shores.
My dad had made a lot of progress with my homosexuality over the years. He went from “you know what the Bible says about that” to loving and accepting my ex-husband as much as he would have a daughter-in-law. I’m confused when I see the way Republican Christians operate politically around queer folk because I honestly think my dad’s evolution around gay stuff was a demonstration of his Christianity. My dad’s Bible was worn thin from use. He read it every single day and I have an image clear as a picture in my mind of my father kneeling by his bed to pray.

We made many amends after that first one and we developed a much better relationship after I became an adult. That’s not to say there weren’t still very hard times; there were. After my marriage failed and I came home to Alabama with everything I owned, trying to figure out which end was up and what I would do now since the “life plan” of the previous seven years went up in smoke, my father actually encouraged me to abandon my dreams of working in the Arts. He actually said that. He didn’t mean harm. He just didn’t know any better.
No matter what happened in the many ebbs and flows of our relationship, I did not want my father to die in a nursing home and it soon became abundantly clear that if that was to be the case, I would have to leave New York City and move home to be with my parents. That I did and I’ll never regret it.
My father’s body was weakening. I took care of him in the most intimate of ways. It was probably a month into it that I sorted out why my hands shook so as I shaved him. There we’d be in the hospital bed we’d moved into my teenage bedroom, by the window, so he could die in the warm sunlight he loved so much when the day came, me doing for him what I’d been mesmerized watching him do in front of the mirror in the bathroom as a boy. I figured out that I was afraid to be that close to him because as a child, often, when I was that physically close to my father there was a belt or a fishing knife in the other hand. He had hurt me a lot back in the day. When I figured that out, my hand stopped shaking when I shaved him.
One time, before he was completely bedridden, I was helping him go to the toilet. It was a struggle to get him back to his wheelchair and he needed my help to clean up. Our eyes met for an instant as we did this peculiar father-son dance that many have done before us. “You’re a good man, Jeff.” He meant it and I believed him. In that moment, all was forgiven. I will admit that I thought to myself without saying it out loud, “Damn, Daddy. If I’d have known that’s all it would take I would have wiped your ass in 1973.”

In the ways my father wounded me, he made me stronger and some of the things I’m proudest of in my adult life I accomplished because I’m full of fight. I learned to fight sparring with my father all those years. I guess in some ways he inadvertently did what he set out to do; he made me a man.
He’d try to take me fishing when I was a kid, even before Chad came along. If the fish weren’t biting one after another I’d eat up all the sandwiches, Buddy-bars, and Grapico Mom had packed for us and then “accidentally” make noise on the bottom of the boat scaring away any possible fish that might be in the area until finally he’d sigh in desperation and head the boat toward home. At least he’d get to bed early before work tomorrow.
I’d give anything to spend tomorrow fishing with my father. I’d stay all day and then some.
Happy Birthday, Dad. I look forward to fishing with you again someday.

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