From the time I was a teenager and all through my college years, my father wrote me letters. In them, he’d express his deep and abiding love, and always reinforce my goodness, my character, and the gifts he saw in me. His letters were heartwarming in their simplicity, and they inspired me to strive toward his vision of the adult he dreamed I would become. I kept them all. In response, I sometimes wrote and sometimes called, but never did I write the one letter I wish I had. I just didn’t know how. Wherever he is, I trust he can still hear me.
It has been 42 years since you passed away. I was 27 when the administrator at Danby School of Business ushered me out of my classroom down the hall to his dimly lit office to tell me in private that you had died that afternoon. I still get chills when I recall how his words slid into me like a sword. And how, with that announcement, came the shiver of regret knowing what had been left unsaid between us.
I am grateful for all the things we did say to each other, even the night before you died, when I called home to thank you and Mom for the $5 bill attached to a note that read “White Lilacs for the Soul”—Mom’s signature gift to me during grad school to get something nice for myself. We spoke of how much we loved each other. I told you what a great father you were and you reminded me once again of your pride in my being your daughter. You expressed your admiration for my gumption, my compassion for others, and my fierce determination to master everything. I said I would choose you all over again to be my dad. You told me I could do anything and be anything-–and then you said “goodbye, Dear.” I can still hear your voice, as those words circle through my head. I didn’t know they would be the last.
What I failed to share that night, and the many other nights we had similar conversations, was the one thing I feared would shatter our extraordinary bond. The one thing that felt too risky to reveal even to myself. The one thing I thought you couldn’t possibly understand. I never told you that I was gay.
Your fierce embrace of Christianity and God’s saving grace, the deep faith that carried you through years of sadness and grief about your illness, made it impossible to share my fear of that same God. The God I grew to know was one of rage and intolerance, a God who instilled guilt and shame, a God who would send me to hell for the smallest of sins. Bible stories our pastor screamed from the pulpit on Sunday mornings provided searing images of hell and damnation, should I err. Even though you and Mom were not radical in your beliefs, the Fundamentalism practiced by the church we attended overpowered your more reasoned approach to spirituality and infused a fear that separated me from you—your God a savior; mine, a tormentor.
And then there were your words in so many letters describing your belief in my courage and my leadership—your trust that I could overcome any obstacle, tell the truth and rise victorious. Yet, I wasn’t courageous in telling you my truth. I didn’t have the capacity to unravel the complex emotions that accompanied my discovery at age fifteen, and I spent the next twelve years trying to be straight. Throughout that time, I nearly drowned in a river of anxiety each time we were together, worried that you would find out. I couldn’t bear the thought of you being disappointed in me. More than fearing God’s wrath, I feared your rejection. Yet, until your death, I felt my silence betrayed your belief in me.
All these years later, I am now certain that your capacity for love was bountiful and boundless, capable of crossing any chasm-–however imaginary or real. You would have been the father and the man I knew you to be. I never heard you disparage someone who was different than you. I never heard you put yourself above another, whether in terms of your faith or your convictions. I always heard you giving others the benefit of the doubt. And, I witnessed you, again and again, looking inside yourself deeply, to your values, for answers to life’s tough questions.
I am sad that my fear of losing you cost us 4,000 days of closer, more honest connection. I am sad that it cost us the peace of heart that comes with such authenticity. My greatest sadness is of having deprived you of the chance to show me the acceptance that I now believe you would have offered – in that gentle and fierce way you always brought me comfort when I was confused and afraid. I can imagine the words you would have spoken, and sometimes, I pretend that I can hear them.
”You know, Carol, the worst thing you can do to another person is to misjudge them. No one knows what is in the heart of another human being. I will always love you and I trust you to find your way.” You would put your strong arms around me and stroke my head with your beautiful hands. You would hold me close until I felt safe again. It is these imaginary words, this knowing, that compels me to write you this last letter.
What I want you to know now is that that I grew up to be the joyful, courageous leader you believed I could be. I had my own business for 35 years where I had daily opportunities to practice the values of integrity and kindness that you and Mom modeled for me. I have traveled the world as you had always longed to, when you joined the Navy. And through those journeys, I’ve experienced the beauty and wisdom of different cultures. Your encouragement and belief in me propelled me to academic success in multiple fields for decades beyond your death.
By far, my greatest achievement has been to find the love you and Mom always wished for me in a partner, someone who is much like you. She is kind and generous, sensitive and intelligent. She is a passionate protector of the Earth you so loved as a farm boy in your early years. She works daily to save our precious planet, applying her skills and talents in multiple spheres with dedication and perseverance. You would love our home, which sits on nine acres of woods, wetlands and open space. In honor of our mothers, we created the “White Lilacs Fund” to help others who are experiencing financial challenges due to unexpected circumstances.
The letters you wrote me remain in a special file in my office. I still take them out and read them, and hear the sound of your voice reminding me of who I am. The last photograph taken of us together sits on my mantle, providing me courage to act with strength and compassion, when I’m faced with a difficult challenge.
Most of all, I want you to know that I grew up to be the adult you always saw in me as a child, and that so much of who I am was made possible by your unabashed love and unshakable belief in me. I’m proud to say I am my father’s daughter and in the end, I believe I fulfilled your greatest dreams for me.
Love, beyond life and death ― your grateful daughter,
Carol E. Anderson is a life coach and former organizational consultant. She has traveled the world extensively for work and pleasure, most recently to Kenya on a photo safari and to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a philanthropic mission. She holds a doctorate in spiritual studies, and master’s degrees in psychology, organizational development, and creative nonfiction. She is the founder of Rebellious Dreamers, an eighteen-year-strong non-profit organization that has helped women over thirty-five realize dreams they’d deferred and women of all ages come into their own. Anderson’s debut memoir, You Can’t Buy Love Like That: Growing Up Gay in the Sixties, comes out this fall. She lives with the love of her life and their sassy pup in a nature sanctuary in Ann Arbor, MI.