A letter to my dad

I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Colbert for a long time. Not that long ago, he had the cast of Queer Eye on the Late Show and I enjoyed their collective interview. It was something I didn’t know I needed in my life. I had dismissed the show as ‘just more reality television’ because it wasn’t science fiction or animated or stand up comedy or a number of other things I’m interested in. And because I tend to stay as far away from reality television as I can. After the interview, I decided to give the show a chance.

I’ve recently completed season one. There was an episode, number four I believe, about a young black man who was gay but closeted, and he mentioned how he wished he could have come out to his dad before he died. In order to tell his step-mom, he wrote a letter to his dad and read it to her. This struck me as a novel concept. I have an extremely difficult time talking with my dad. So, inspired by this one man’s regret and attempt to come out to his step-mother, I decided to write a letter to my dad.

I doubt I will ever find a point where I feel like I can give it to him because… well… just read and you’ll probably understand why. But at least I’ve gotten it out and ‘on paper’ so to speak. If anything were to happen to me, it would be found and maybe he would read it and I wouldn’t be around to have to suffer the consequences, because I don’t think I have the strength to do it face to face.

He’ll never find it here because he doesn’t use computers. He’s terrified of them. He barely uses his iPhone for more than phone calls. And mom won’t find it either because while she is somewhat web-savvy, I’ve been careful to exclude any mention of things that could be google-searched that might point her here. This is purely an exercise for my own catharsis and peace of mind.

Anyway, feel free to have a read if you are so inclined. Be warned this may be difficult for some since I’m sure quite a few of you have had some similar problem in your lives.

~ ~ ~

Dear Dad,

I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is for the two of us to talk. If I could only change one thing about our relationship, it would be that we could actually have a conversation, a real one, where one can say something and the other will actually listen. And vice versa. I know you are probably thinking I could do more listening, and you’re right. I could. But it’s hard to listen to someone who gives a very strong impression that what you have to say isn’t worth listening to.

I don’t think you and I have ever had the chance to go through some moment that solidifies the fact that I’m an adult in your eyes. This used to be some ritual, a rite of passage that parents in centuries past used to transition from seeing their children as children to seeing their children as adults. I feel like you were robbed of such an experience with your father because he died when you were pretty young. Because of that, as soon as [OLDER SISTER] hit her mid-teens, you were in uncharted waters and you were just trying to do your best. I can appreciate that. At the same time, I have to wonder what might have been if your father had survived until your twenties, or even long enough to for me to meet my grandfather.

I see how you are with [NEPHEW 1], [NIECE 1], and [NEPHEW 2]. You’re amazing with them. I have brief, flickering flashes of memory of that kind of interaction with you when I was that young. I wish I could remember more of that. Unfortunately, most of the memories I have of you are times when you were angry at me, or you simply weren’t interested in spending time with me. I do recall some happy memories, but they are so very rare. You even admitted to mom that you regret not spending more time with me when I was growing up. That could have been a pivotal moment between us. You could have approached me and told me that directly and made a gesture to try and reconnect. That didn’t happen.

I cannot help but think it boils down to one simple fact: I’m a nerd and you are the antithesis of that, the exact opposite. I can’t help but think you look at me and you’re at best puzzled because you just don’t understand my passions and my fascinations, and at worst, you are openly hostile towards the idea. It feels like I don’t measure up to what you think “a man should be” and that hurts so incredibly much.

On more than one occasion you have said “none of these people have lives, none of them are married” as though these are reasons to ridicule someone or dehumanize them. Whenever you say that, it cuts deep because I feel like you don’t realize that I don’t have a life and I am not married. So I see how you value those people because you say such a thing with such disdain, you don’t like them, you think they have little if any worth. Then I look at me and that I am exactly the sort of person you’re talking down to, and quite suddenly I know how much worth you think I have.

Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

You speak with such hatred and utter contempt of “those god damned bleeding heart liberals”. I hate to break it to you dad, but I’m one of those “god damned bleeding heart liberals”. So when you say things about how much you hate them or how they’re destroying the country, you’re saying that about me. You think I’m terrible, awful, not good enough for the air I breathe, and that I’m trying to destroy this country. You cannot tell me how much you love me and how great you think I am, then turn around and trash talk the very things I am, because that tells me how you really feel about me. It also tells me why you’re so distant, because you hate everything I am.

Which brings us to the next two things about me that are probably going to hurt you pretty terribly. I have to say I’m pretty nervous to even just write this down. I don’t think I could tell you to your face because I don’t think I could watch your reaction without either breaking down in tears or exploding in anger, saying some really awful things, packing a bag, and running away never to see you ever again.

First, I am an atheist. I have not experienced anything in my life that leads me to believe in the existence of any deity. This isn’t something that came about because of college. This is something that I struggled with for most of my life, going all the way back to Sunday School. It was a slow walk from “I don’t feel God’s love. Does that mean God doesn’t love me?” to “I no longer believe in God.” but it was a constant, steady road. It was sometime early in high school where I reached the end of that particular path and came to that conclusion. It took finishing high school and even most of college to reach “If I want others to respect my beliefs, I need to respect their beliefs” because for a time, I actively tried to turn people away from the church. I believed it was a scam, that there was no value to it at all, and anyone who believed it was simply deluding themselves. I still have strong negative feelings about the church, but no longer try to cause a crisis of faith in others. I do however have a distinct lack of respect for those who claim to be pious and use their faith as an excuse to dehumanize entire groups of people just because they’re different.

And this brings me to the second of the two.

Over many years, I’ve come to understand a great deal more about myself, including my sexuality. It took me a while but I’ve realized I simply don’t care what a person was born with or how they identify. Neither physical sex nor gender expression matter to me. What does matter to me is if I have a connection with the other person. I like to use the phrase “drift compatible” like from Pacific Rim. It just functions so well as a metaphor for how I feel about being in a relationship. I would rather be alone than be with someone just for the sake of not being alone. And to that point, I have been in a relationship with another young man for about five years as of the time of writing this. We make each other happy. We make each other laugh. When one of us is feeling depressed or frustrated or just generally negative, the other steps in and does what they can to make them feel better. There is no judgment between us except to try and make each other better. We both still have a lot to work on as individuals, but I feel like we can help each other share that burden. We’ll see how long this lasts, but I would like for it to keep going. I want to see where this goes.

I have developed a number of gay and non-straight friends who have been very supportive in my exploration of this side of myself. I don’t necessarily consider myself gay because that means an exclusive preference for someone of the same sex. As I’ve said, I don’t care. They could be the same sex, the opposite sex, somewhere in between, express themselves as one gender or another or whatever they identify as. All I care about when it comes to sex or gender is if that person is comfortable in their own skin, and I will do everything I can to help them get there. Since how I have described myself is more complicated than just ‘gay’ and while I understand there’s probably a term that describes me and I just don’t know it, for the sake of simplicity (and because I actually have a boyfriend), the term ‘gay’ fits just fine. Feel free to use it unless you’re interested in being more nuanced.

So, your nerd-liberal-atheist-gay son lays before you, his soul bare for you to see.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wanted to just scream it all out to you, but I’ve been so scared for so long. I’ve been scared of you. Even before I knew all of this about myself, I was scared of you. I’ve been scared of you my whole life. I was scared you might yell at me, take away my things, even hit me. A very wise, though very short and green, fellow once said “fear is the path to the dark side, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”.

Because I’ve been so scared of you for so long, I get angry at myself for being scared. I get angry at the thing or person that makes me scared. I get angry at you. I can feel myself pushing closer and closer to hate.

I don’t want to hate you, but I have been suffering. This is all written in the hopes of ending that suffering. I can’t say for sure about you, but I cannot believe that our less than ideal relationship has been a point of suffering for you as well. So why don’t we just end our suffering together?

I am unbelievably grateful for everything you have done for me throughout my whole life: the fact that I’ve never been homeless, that I’ve had access to food, education, medicine, and that I’ve never had to worry about a police officer coming to the door one night to let us know you were arrested for being a violent drunk or shooting someone you didn’t like or getting angry and ramming your car into someone or something. You have been an absolute rock. I’ve only ever known stability because of you. That is something most people would die for.

For all of that, for all the sacrifices you’ve made to make that possible, I thank you. I can never, ever repay you for that. Even if I managed to become a billionaire and give you and mom comfort and a complete lack of worry for the rest of your lives, I could not pay you back.

I feel so inadequate in your eyes. I feel like I’m failing to measure up to what you expect of me, because you had a very specific idea of what you wanted me to be as an adult and I’m not that. I feel like you wanted me to be more like [BROTHER-IN-LAW], or more like you, and I turned out like me. I feel like you’re so disappointed, disgusted, and uninterested that your son didn’t turn out more like you rather than a liberal-atheist-gay nerd. Given you’re from the south and you were born mid-century to a father who was in the navy during world war two, I would not be surprised in the slightest if you decided to disown me. Hence why I’ve been so damn terrified of you.

Just so you have it in writing and you can put your mind at ease about the subject, let me go ahead and spell it out:

I don’t care about the will, about anything I might inherit from you and mom.

If all I could get from the two of you is love and understanding and joy in the knowledge that I’m happy with who I am as a person, that would be enough. That is more important to me than money or possessions or property.

All of the mixed messages I’ve received from you and mom throughout my life, telling me how proud you are of me, that I could do anything, that I could go anywhere, it conflicts terribly with how you project an impression that you think I’m utterly incompetent, that I know nothing about the basics of taking care of myself or where I live. It makes the compliments and praise ring hollow while the denigrating language rings more true. The one thing you kept of mine from when I was a child was a note I wrote to you apologizing to you for something. Not a note saying ‘I Love You’ or a drawing a made for you… the memory you chose to keep of me was me apologizing for making you mad over something. I don’t even remember what it was. That is heartbreaking to me.

I have learned so much from you. I’ve learned many things I should do. I’ve learned many things I shouldn’t do. I watched the shop suck the life out of you. I decided I didn’t want to live to work. You taught me that. You taught me that I should have a better work-life balance. Yes, the shop provided a tremendous advantage in life, comfort, security… but at what cost? I would have traded some of that advantage to have a better relationship with you. I just wish I could have been someone you were more interested in. I wish you could have felt comfortable enough around me to talk to me about who you are, what life was like for you growing up, things you’re afraid of, things you’re hopeful about, or maybe tell me about my grandfather, your dad. I know next to nothing about him other than he died when you were young.

I want a better relationship with you. It’s okay for men to talk about the things bothering them. It’s not weakness. Keeping quiet about it and suffering in silence is toxic. I used to do that. Now, I have friends, an ad-hoc family that might be a little broken and busted up but it’s still good. We all have our flaws and our hang-ups, but we’re all working on them, and we help each other address them and make ourselves better. I’m stronger because of them, but the strength they helped me find, that was there because of you and because of mom.

At this point, the ball is in your court. It’s your decision where we go from here. I would like to try and make a fresh start, but I am not going to get my hopes too high. I’ve seen how you react to gay people. I’ve heard what you say about them. I’ve seen how you default to ‘the bible says…’ which, if you had read it proper, then you’d know it says that gay people should be stoned, which hurts that you might actually think that, that you might actually think your son deserves to be stoned because he doesn’t conform to what you think sexuality should be.

If you want to start fresh, we can start fresh. But you have to keep an open mind, and you have to be willing to listen. I mean really listen. You might hear me, but you have to go that extra step and really take my words to heart.

If you don’t want that; if you are disgusted or angry or both, then I will pack up my belongings, remove the SIM card from my phone so you don’t have to pay for my cell service, and I will move out. I will vanish into the world and you will never see me again so you don’t have to bare the shame of your son being what he is ever again. But know this; even if you do decide to cut ties with me, I’ll be fine. You may think otherwise, but I can survive. I have friends. I have a family of my own choosing to turn to for support and love. I know who I am. I like who I am. I have fought for thirty-five years to get where I am. I still have work to do, but when I look in the mirror, I see someone I finally like, and it’s because I took a chance and stepped outside myself. If you decide that this is how it ends, it will hurt me, but it will not break me. Because I’m awesome. It took me a long time to realize that, and unfortunately, it wasn’t because of what you told me, it was in spite of it. And I will never forget that.

I will never forget what you did for me, how hard you fought to give me what you gave me, that you suffered and sacrificed. It’s up to you now to decide the context in which I remember that. Will I remember it fondly? Or will I remember it as just another obstacle to get past in order to find the amazing person I had to dig so deep to find?

We are each of us the sum of the choices we make in life. I’ll be curious to see what choice you make here.