After my father died one month ago, I hunted for every single memory I could muster. I felt I had to recall it all so that nothing would escape before it was too late, before things I hadn't thought about in a while slipped into his coffin and were lowered underground, never to be seen again.
I remembered the wrestling matches he took me to as a kid and his scrumptious Buxton Burgers, which were essentially hamburgers that tasted better because he made them. But I struggled for something truly definitive, something that could capture everything I'd lost.
I was really trying to find a summation of our relationship on my own terms. The way he died -- at 49 years old, in a crash of the motorcycle that he'd planned to sell the very next day -- was so sudden and inexplicable that finding some kind of meaning in it all seemed paramount.
It came to me as I steeled myself for his funeral and the public exhibition of grief it required of me.
"Don't wear a mask."
My dad repeated those words to me endlessly. Wearing a mask was his metaphor for living untruthfully. Whether that meant being someone I wasn't, succumbing to peer pressure or just trying to blend in, my father reminded me on countless occasions that to mask my spirit was to live half a life.
His death was the unexpected punctuation on a complex, unresolved relationship. We always found it hard to connect. He was reckless and rash, while I'm cautious and anxious. His struggles with addiction, his problems with commitment and his habit of taking my mother's kindness and devotion for granted didn't make things easier.
But something else kept me from getting close to my dad. I feared that if I truly opened myself to him, he would realize that I'm gay.
Of course, that's hindsight speaking. I can make that assessment now, as a 23-year-old with countless Oprah episodes under my belt. But back then, our emotional distance felt like the natural order. He didn't spend much time with me, and when he did, it seemed we had nothing in common. He loved fishing and gardening. I loved books and the Spice Girls.
I was too young to intellectualize it, but I intuitively felt the disconnect between me and the man whom half of me came from.
As a child I envied my father's joyful spontaneity and the way he inevitably found an old friend anywhere. He radiated warmth, but there was always a chill just beneath it. Soon I saw less and less of the great things people told me about my dad. Eventually I settled into indifference about our relationship.
Things changed as my parents' marriage dissolved. The divorce neutralized some of the conflict in our home, but still my dad's anger, hostility and toxicity boiled over and turned my indifference into bitterness. I was 14, and the combination of his behavior and the conflict of coming to terms with my sexuality made those years agonizing.
I had plenty to blame my father for. But I still couldn't see the fundamental reason for our detachment.
It was beyond clear by the time high school rolled around. My peers sensed my gay genes from a mile away (which tormented me endlessly), but somehow even my burgeoning Madonna obsession didn't tip off mom and dad -- at least not enough for me to notice.
But I fully recognized who I was and how my dad would feel about it. I could remember him talking about homosexuality with a smile only once: the time he joked about the upside of gay men: "more women for the rest of us."
Our interactions were pleasantly devoid of details about my social life. I was afraid to open up to him, so I wore a mask. We'd talk about school, my college plans, even his own intimate hardships, but not one personal peep crossed my lips -- except to answer that no, I still did not have a girlfriend.
That didn't change until my college graduation. By then I was wholeheartedly committed to a three-year relationship with my boyfriend. My father had become more spiritual and was getting into less trouble, but he knew nothing of the joy I'd found. That needed to change.
I told him about my boyfriend, whom I planned to introduce to the family at a post-graduation dinner. My dad couldn't go along with that. "You know how I am," he told me. He couldn't promise to keep his hotheaded expressions of disapproval at bay.
Immediately following that conversation, my father the longtime addict drove himself to the liquor store to fuel a bender that he blamed on being unable to cope with a gay son.
The next time we discussed my sexuality was also the last time I saw my father alive. The conversation turned out to be the most honest we'd ever had, even though I didn't like what he said.
He was confused and angry. The confusion, he explained, was that he couldn't understand why I "chose" a relationship with a man. Didn't I know it would keep me from God? Didn't I know people would distance themselves from me when they found out? He saw my upcoming move from small-town Louisiana to New York as an escape to a place where I could blend in and hide my lifestyle. To him I was resigning myself to a sad, lonely and secretive existence. He didn't want that for me, and he couldn't fathom why I wanted it for myself.
He was confused about my relationship, but his anger had nothing to do with my sexuality. The anger came when, minutes after I'd first told him the truth, he called my mother to deliver the news. But she already knew, because I'd told her more than a year earlier.
My dad was angry because he felt he'd been lied to. His eyes welled up on that day of our last visit when he asked how I could keep something so significant from him. I had hidden one of the most important parts of myself. I had worn a mask.
We parted ways that day with one of my dad's signature bear hugs. He said he loved me and that not being able to accept me hurt him. He promised to pray about it, but he couldn't promise that he'd ever make peace with it. I left scoffing to myself at his hang-ups, but I felt we'd turned a corner. We'd had a truthful, authentic, adult conversation for the first time. Sure, I disagreed with him to my very core, and he felt the same way. But I was completely honest, and so was he, and that was a first. It could take years, but I was hopeful that he would eventually come around.
The next time I saw my dad, he wore a mask of his own. A cake of pale makeup covered the wounds left behind by the accident that took his life. He didn't look like himself. He wasn't himself. There was no self anymore.
He couldn't hear me telling family about my great new job or my beautiful new apartment. I couldn't remind him that my boyfriend and I have now been together for four years. We couldn't talk about how instead of a hidden life in New York, I'm living magnificently open and free.
I mourned the loss of the relationship we had and of the one we never got to have. He never met my boyfriend, and now he never will. He won't get to see where my career takes me. He won't get to find out if I'll look as much like him at 49 as I do at 23.
I always assumed the years of hiding my truth from my dad didn't matter, that once I came out to him we'd have all the time in the world to reconcile our opposing viewpoints. Instead, closure was another thing we didn't get to share.
We won't get another honest head-to-head about my life. There's a lot I'll never know about my father's feelings and how they might have changed. But I'm comforted by the one thing I do know for sure: that, above all, he valued authenticity. That he wanted me to be myself no matter who disagreed, including him.
My dad's death is still fresh, and I'm left to wrestle with questions about forgiveness, regret and things left unsaid. But one thing is certain: My mask is gone for good.
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