Sometimes, while watching a trashy daytime talk-show, I imagine my father sitting before a rowdy studio audience awaiting the results of a paternity test. Growing up, I remember Dad being loud, stubborn, and masculine to a fault--like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. I, on the other-hand, had bright cheeks, curly blond hair and thick eyelashes. I was often mistaken for a girl. Dad never said that this bothered him, but often tried to make me more of a boy, forcing me to stop playing with dolls, insisting I help him unclog the toilet, and, at one point, forcing me to play baseball.
Then my dad nearly died before he and I could come to terms with my being gay. It was a freak accident: He choked on a piece of steak, tore his esophagus, and slipped into a coma. During the crisis, I couldn't imagine my life without him, and yet, he and I had never been close.
Living in a working-class Irish-Catholic family, we didn't have a lot of money, yet Dad was so excited to see me put on a baseball uniform that he bought me a fancy new bat and a glove. Unfortunately, I still couldn't hit the ball or play the field, two shortcomings that earned me the name "Daryl Suckberry." When I finally swung and didn't miss, I was so excited to circle the bases that I ran in the wrong direction. Dad made the sign of the cross and mouthed an "Our Father" while everyone on the field screamed at me. Then, my jock strap snapped off, fell from my pants, and landed on second base. Everyone laughed, and Dad lowered his head in shame. I stormed off the field and hid in the back of our station wagon until the game was over, vowing to never played baseball again. Dad, however, was determined to make me excel at sports.
"Let's try something easier," he said, hurling a Frisbee that sailed straight through my fingers and smashed into my nose. I stood there and cried, while Dad once again lowered his head in shame. I expected him to say something like "man-up" or "don't be a sissy" but, to my surprise, Dad wrapped his arms around me. His embrace felt strange, yet comforting--until I realized he wasn't hugging me, he was trying to stop the blood gushing from my nose. When Dad recognized he couldn't, we got in the car and sped to the nearest emergency room in the Bronx. Dad circled the blocks in search of street parking because, even in a crisis, he refused to pay for a garage. Hours later, my nose was fixed and we were ready to go home, but a doctor delivered some unexpected news. My red blood cells and platelet counts were incredibly low; I had leukemia.
We were shuffled to a small room that was oddly quiet and smelled like cleaning supplies. Dad held up a hospital gown and asked me to put it on. His voice was softer than I was used to, and even cracked a little bit. I wondered if he thought this was his fault for hitting me with the Frisbee. Then, I felt guilty for making my father sad.
Over the next five years, Dad was there for the spinal taps and the surgeries and even transformed into an unofficial member of the hospital's staff who gave med-students advice on how to draw my blood, yet he was emotionally distant. It often felt like he was afraid to touch me or be alone together. Mostly, we just watched television until I fell asleep.
When I was feeling better, I set out to show Dad that I could be a normal kid, and the son he'd hoped for, so I decided to build him a birdhouse for his birthday. He'd always said he wanted one and nothing screamed "masculine" like working with my hands. I toiled away on the project for almost two weeks, giving myself blisters and bruises, and getting frustrated to the point of exhaustion. And once again, with the manly finish line in sight, I jumped the gun.
"Where's the hole?" Dad asked, examining the birdhouse like he was a real-estate agent.
Horrified, I realized I'd messed up, but I couldn't let my father go on thinking I was even more of a disappointment. I told him the lack of a hole was intentional. "This birdhouse is for woodpeckers," I quipped. My dad faked a smile, said "thank you," then shoved it to the back of his dresser, where it remained for two years before being tossed in the garbage.
In my teenage years, Dad and I grew even more distant. I began to develop feelings for male schoolmates, and was worried Dad would find out and throw me out of the house. He wasn't a hateful person, but sometimes I'd hear him pass a homophobic remark or two and, given Dad's strong ties to Catholicism, it was easy to assume he wouldn't approve. Yet, I knew I couldn't keep lying. I promised myself that I'd tell Dad when the time was right. First, it was my 18th birthday, but Dad worked a double shift and was in a foul mood. Then, I decided on my junior year of college, when I fell in love with a guy for the first time, but I chickened out again. Years flew by, and several excuses went with them, until I was in my late twenties and still in the closet. With changing times and growing social acceptance, I felt like I had to come out. Then, Dad got sick.
He spent six months in the hospital, and I did my best to be there for him. I hated seeing him in pain, but I appreciated that, for once, he didn't feel the need to act so tough. He'd vent about feeling angry or even afraid, and in the process, he was finally letting me in. It was the total opposite from when I was in the hospital, and I appreciated the moments we had together. I wanted to let my guard down and tell him I was gay, but I still wasn't ready.
When Dad got better, we took a ride to Long Island to see my sister and her kids. Halfway home on the L.I.E., he took an emotional detour, shifting the conversation to talk of children, like his granddaughter, my niece. "Do you want kids?" he asked. His question caught me off-guard. I'd been watching the trucks whiz by. "Maybe," I said. There was an awkward silence. I could tell my dad's gears were turning, but in what direction? I nervously flipped on the radio: George Michael's "Faith," of all songs.
"So, would you adopt?" my dad continued. I realized this was one of the few honest moments he and I had ever had--I didn't want to spoil it. "Probably," I said. "Or maybe I'll try it the biological way." A pause. I asked him if he was going somewhere with this. "I was just curious about how," he said, "because you're gay."
And there it was. No more secrets. No more closets. No more walls. "So, you know about that?" I asked. He told me that when he was in the hospital, I came right up to him and said, "Dad, I'm gay," and that he said, "OK." I had no memory of this, and I blamed his warped recollection on being drugged. But nevertheless, it was out, and it was okay. My dad spoke firmly, and with confidence: "Mark, this doesn't change a thing."
This should have been a magical moment, with rainbows and confetti and fireworks, and my dad and I acknowledging that our lives were forever altered. But we let it be. We let the moment breathe, both of us knowing how far our relationship had come. I had my doubts then, but my dad was right: not much changed after that conversation. I still can't hit a baseball or build a birdhouse, and my dad will still get on my case when he thinks my hair is too long. Though, to his credit, Dad started asking about my love-life. When I told him I had a serious boyfriend, he didn't even choke.
"How serious?" he wondered.
"We live together," I said. "We have a joint bank account and I just signed up to be on his health insurance."
"Oh," Dad paused. "But you didn't get married, right?"
"Nope," I laughed.
"Good--because I'd want to be there if you did," he said.
I couldn't believe what he'd said. Marriage? I wasn't sure about marriage for me, but my Dad was totally fine about the idea. He'd even sounded a bit excited. I really have no idea how we reached this point. Maybe it was our near-death experiences or simply the changing times. Either way, I'm glad we've arrived at a place where we could accept each other's differences -- especially if it means we get to be ourselves.