I thought the day couldn’t go uncelebrated. Granted, it had gone by completely unnoticed the year before, but in the tumult of moving and changing schools and adjusting to life in a single-parent household, it makes sense now that I had let it slip by. But I thought, this year, I would make up for that error. I would find some way to celebrate Father’s Day. The only thing missing was a father.
My father was a deeply troubled man before he met my mother. The drug abuse and promiscuity he brought into their marriage were completely foreign to her. She had sought her dream–to marry a clean, hard-working man to be a good husband and a good father–but the dream turned into something worse than a nightmare. Early on, she tried to escape the beatings and forced starvation. When I was five months old, she fled with me to her relatives in the next county. But this was small-town America in 1975. Married women had only just earned the right to own property. And my father’s surname carried a lot of weight in their part of the country. He sent the law after her, who told her that she would have to return with me or face kidnapping charges. Like I said, women’s rights in small-town America in 1975.
For years my mother plotted her escape, during which time my sister and two brothers were born. My father grew more violent, and his plans to murder my mother grew more obvious, even to me as a child. But as time moved on, he cut off every possible avenue. He monitored my mother’s gasoline usage to ensure that she only went to the grocery store when he would come back from working as a long-distance truck driver. We kids weren’t allowed to see any of our classmates outside of school. If my mother had to go to a doctor, she could only see his doctor, to whom he would feed all sorts of lies about her before she went. He asked the phone company to set up our service so that no outgoing calls could be made at all, only incoming. (They couldn’t do that.) At last, our neighbor (whom we were forbidden to speak to) sneaked to my mother a clipping from the newspaper about the shelter for abused women and children. That got the ball rolling. My mother filed for divorce. The following ten months were a swirl of outrageous and bizarre happenings that I won’t get into here, but at last the court awarded custody to my mother and the divorce was finalized.
My father had been given the most generous visitation rights imaginable, especially since my father had tried to kill my mother. It began that he could see us whenever he wanted as long as he called my mother and gave 24 hours’ notice. But he showed up whenever he wanted, without a call. When my mother took him to court over this, he complained to the judge that as a long-distance truck driver, his life was far too unpredictable to be able to give 24 hours’ notice, so the judge rolled it back to one hour’s notice. Even then he didn’t call. The only other stipulation on his visits was that he couldn’t take us kids out of the county, which he also routinely broke and the courts would do nothing about. I recently asked my mother how, with as much of a danger to us as he’d proven to be, he was awarded carte-blanche visitation rights. She replied that her lawyer advised that he be given absolutely whatever he wanted, visitation rights included, so that what happened in Indianapolis didn’t happen. I of course asked what happened in Indianapolis. She said there was a man there who murdered his children, and when asked why, he said that it was because he’d lost visitation rights.
With all that flexibility, my father didn’t show up that Father’s Day when I was ten. He would show up less and less over the years as, in a way, he forgot about us. He would vanish for months on end, almost like how his child support vanished entirely three months after the divorce was final. The last time I saw him conscious, I was 18. At 23, I got word from his sister, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, that he lay in a coma in Louisville. He died three weeks after.
And so that Father’s Day when I was ten was fraught with mixed emotions. In a sense, the day had no real meaning for me, because I hadn’t had the kind of father one would want to celebrate. But I longed for some inkling of normality in my life. I wanted to be like other kids.
So, on that Father’s Day, I found myself at John and Laura’s house. John was 20, Laura was 15, yet they attracted a lot of the neighbor kids as they would tromp off into the woods and play soldier. Though I had trailed my brothers and sister to their house that day, I did not like playing soldier. So I found myself sitting in their kitchen, with their father in the house. Their father was a taciturn and unsettling man, the sort I have seen common amongst many of my generation’s fathers who had gone off to Vietnam. But I had determined that, for that day, he would be my father. I didn’t tell him this. I didn’t tell him much of anything. He wasn’t exactly a man a ten-year-old could converse with. But I wanted to salvage something of the day.
He had opened the freezer. I noticed a box of Pudding Pops. And, desperate for two words out of the man, I asked for one. He gave it to me, silently. And I ate it. And he apparently told John and Laura, who in turn told every kid in the neighborhood. That’s how I earned the reputation of being greedy and ill-mannered. Even as adults, my siblings have at times derided me with that story.
Years passed, and Father’s Day was still this huge deal seemingly wherever I went. I started going to church, and this church made a big deal of the day, handing out trophies to fathers with the loudest tie or whose children had traveled the greatest distance that day. Once again I felt cut out from this celebration.
As an adult, I found myself in ex-gay “therapy” for ten years. Some have asked me how I persisted in it for so long. One of the greatest motivating factors was the possibility of finding a wife so I could be a father. I wanted to be a father so desperately, even after I left the “therapy” and embraced myself as a gay man. But then I found myself in a train crash of identities–gay, low-income, disabled, and extremely single–proving that, no matter how deeply I longed to be a father, it would not happen. You can’t have everything you want in life. This is as true as the day is long.
So how now can I honor this day? I can only encourage the fathers and mothers and grandparents and aunts and uncles and nannies and everyone else out there raising children to raise them well. Do all you can to instill kindness and compassion in them. Our survival depends on it.
UPDATE: Not quite a retraction.