That's My Father

This Saturday, we are having a multiple-family reunion of sorts at the home of my parents. We are celebrating four birthdays simultaneously - my brother Rick's 35th, my brother Mike's 45th, my brother Jack's 50th, and most importantly, my father's 70th. All of my family, my father's family, my stepmother's family and dozens of friends will gather together for the first time ever in one place. The night before last, as I laid in bed, it occured to me that I should propose a toast to my father and I began to think of all the things I wanted to say. I could not stop my mind from thinking about it and ended up getting up and writing out what I wanted to say in the middle of the night. This is what I want to say about him and what I will say on Saturday:

That's My Father

My father did not have the best of childhoods. He was the oldest child born into a cold and often destructive family situation where his father never showed him any affection. My mother and my older siblings have told me that before I was born, he was to some extent like his father - cold and distant and unemotional. They've also told me that when he found out that my mother was pregnant with me, he decided that he was going to make a change. He didn't want to be the man his father was, he wanted to be better. My mother told me many times of the conversation they had after she became pregnant with me. She said he told her, "This child is going to know that he was loved." That's my father.

When I was growing up, he went to everything I was involved in, and I might add that this involved some personal sacrifice on his part. In the 8th grade I took up freestyle wrestling. For those of you who do not remember this dark time in our past, let me assure you that I was the worst wrestler in all of recorded history. Steven Hawking would likely have beaten me. I had a perfect defeated record for the entire season, not winning a single match and only once managing not to be pinned. My record was getting pinned once in 7 seconds - and it takes 3 seconds to count the pin! Because there were few kids in my weight class (119 pounds, if I remember correctly), I "won" a lot of medals and even finished 11th in the state - the top 3 from districts went to regionals and there were 3 of us; the top 5 from regionals went to states and there were 5 of us; there were a total of 12 kids in my division at states, but one was injured. Voila, 11th in the state without winning a single match. But as bad as I was, Dad was there every single week. After working all week, he'd get up early on Saturday morning and drive me to the tournaments. He'd sit there all day through what must have been excruciating boredom. The tournament would go on all day, but I would actually only wrestle 2 or 3 minutes total because I usually got pinned that fast. But he was there every time, cheering me on, giving me pep talks, and doing his crossword puzzles in the stands in between matches. That's my father.

When I was in high school, I met Rick Suwarsky and he would quickly become my best friend. Rick also had a difficult childhood, losing his parents very young and being raised by his grandparents and bounced around a lot. When things got bad for Rick the summer before his senior year in high school, I asked if Rick could come and live with us. Dad didn't hesitate to take Rick in to our family and treat him like a son. Years later, when Rick got married, he spent dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hours helping him build the home they now live in. I remember a few years ago having a conversation with Rick and he said that he couldn't think of anyone in the world he respected more and that he thought my dad was the best man he knew. That's my father.

One of the most vivid memories of my life was when I was away at college and my father called to tell me that Uncle Richard had AIDS. I was genuinely worried about how my parents would react. I remember just as vividly when he told me that he had asked Richard to come and live with them. He knew that Richard wasn't acutely ill yet, but that he would need some care and he insisted that he was the one who should care for him. I've never been more proud of my parents. When Richard decided to do something positive with the time he had left, Dad spent countless hours helping him. He helped clean up and remodel the Rainbow House. He spent day after day, week after week, month after month at Rainbow Resale, sorting and tagging clothes and working behind the counter. He helped establish the Brayton Foundation that would help educate and care for AIDS patients throughout the area. That's my father.

Best of all, in each of these examples, there was never any question in his mind about what to do. He spent all those Saturdays watching me get pinned because that's what a father does. He took in my best friend because that's what a good man does. He took care of Richard because that's what a brother does. This is his greatest legacy and lesson to me and to all of us: when someone you care about is in need, you're there to help - each time, every time, without fail. It's not negotiable, it's not open to question, and it never changes. That's my father.

Ralph Waldo Emerson gave us the definition of a simple life well lived:

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to learn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a little bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

By any measure, his life has been a great success. Not only did he succeed in making sure that I knew I was loved, he let all of you know it too. He is living testimony to the ability of people to overcome their past, to change and grow and become better. He is a 24 hour a day demonstration that a life well lived is a life lived with a sense of duty and a sense of honor. Arthur Ashe once said that service to others is the rent we pay for the space we occupy on this planet. No matter how long he lives, his rent is already paid in full. He is turning 70, but he's not done yet, not by a longshot. And I look forward to being back here to celebrate his 80th, his 90th, and his 100th with all of you.

To my father. To a good man. To the best man I know.

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Wow. Extremely well done, Ed. Your dad sounds like a man I would be proud to know and call a friend. I'm certainly proud to call his son a friend.

Beautiful Ed.

Thanks guys. My brother read this a little while ago and it brought tears to his eyes. He said, "It's well written, but more importantly - it's all true. And you could have said so much more." He's right. At 70 years old, he still spends his spare time building Habitat for Humanity houses. He works with a group in his area called the Tuesday Toolmen, a group of guys who go around doing things like building handicapped ramps at the homes of elderly people who find themselves in a wheelchair and need their home redone to accomodate it.
Most importantly for me, he's a man of insatiable intellectual curiosity. Some of my earliest memories are of our trips to the library, where he insisted that I have a regular adult library card so I could check out anything I wanted to read. The city librarian was practically a member of our family when I was growing up and Dad served on the library board. He instilled in me a love of books and the knowledge they contain, for which I am forever grateful.
The most amazing thing about my father, I think, is his ability to inhabit two different worlds simultaneously and be comfortable in both. He grew up in a construction company family and worked in construction safety most of his life, but he also has advanced degrees. He works primarily now as a consultant and expert witness, but to this day he is every bit as comfortable sitting in a Dunkin Donuts on a Saturday morning shooting the breeze with the roofers as he is in a deposition or attorney's conference. And he's not faking it in either one, he genuinely enjoys both worlds and the people in them. It's something I admire - and envy.

Honey, what a lovely tribute you wrote to your father and to your family. I got tears in my eyes too when I read this. Thank you for sharing.

I'm speechless. If all Christians were as kind as your father, this world would be a better place.

raj wrote:

If all Christians were as kind as your father, this world would be a better place.

There is a bit of irony in this as well. My father is an atheist; my stepmother, to whom he's been married for 28 years now, is pentecostal. I jokingly refer to her as a Shiite Christian. But the fact is that she was there with him during all of this, and she's very much the same kind of person. When Richard contracted AIDS, she took care of him as well and was there at his bedside holding his hand along with Dad and me the day he died. We have our disagreements, obviously, but she's a very kind and decent person. She may think the world is 6000 years old and lots of other loony things, but her actions are more often than not Christ-like and that deserves all the credit in the world.

Ed, your father was more of a Christian (regardless of what he considered himself), than more than a few Christians I have known. So was your mother.

I'll just let you know. I have not made it a mystery here that I am gay, and that I am in a long term relationship with another man. My parents--who were from the old-time Southern Baptist tradition--have accepted him into the family. There really are some Christians out there.

Regardless of what the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Fallwells of the world would like us to believe.

raj wrote:

I'll just let you know. I have not made it a mystery here that I am gay, and that I am in a long term relationship with another man. My parents--who were from the old-time Southern Baptist tradition--have accepted him into the family. There really are some Christians out there.

That's great to hear. I've heard more than enough stories from friends about how their parents will barely speak to them or, like Alan Keyes, threw them out of the family, to last a lifetime. I recently heard a heartwarming variation on this from one of my best friends. He's been out of the closet for years, and I've known his parents since I was in high school, but it never occured to me to ask him how his parents reacted when he told them (though I knew that now, at least, they're fine with it).
He said that his mother actually guessed that he was gay and asked him about it one day, much to his shock. So she sort of drew it out of him and they had a long talk about it, and she was very accepting of it as anyone who knows her would expect. His father was more conservative, though, and she suggested that he should write a letter to his father telling him he was gay and explaining why and all of that. So he did. His mother said that after he got that letter, his father cried for about 3 days straight and she just let him have his space to come to terms with it all. After a few days, she finally decided to talk to him about it and she reminded him that it didn't change anything, that he was still the same person he'd always been and that they've always been proud of. So why should it matter?
He told her, "You don't understand. I'm not crying because I'm upset that our son is gay. I'm crying because I just found out that our son has been going through such agony, having to hide who he was, deny who he was to himself and to others, and all this time we weren't able to help him through it because we didn't even know he was in pain. I'm crying because I didn't have the chance to protect him from this and comfort him and help him understand sooner that we are proud of him no matter what." That's HIS father. And I'm pretty damn proud of him too. It moves me to hear about those who are made more decent and humane as a result of finding out they have a gay child rather than attempting to shun them.

That is a wonderful piece of writing. I feel pretty much the same about my old man (71, still going strong, still very good looking, which hopefully bodes well!), who is a bit of a polymath: Air Force navigator, farmer, painter, sculptor, wine enthusiast. And it wears it all with a certain cool that puts him in the Sean Connery class, with even drier jokes.

It is good to appreciate our dads. If there is a fundamental social issue of our time, then it is that far too many people, especially young boys, don't have a strong but loving dad one can admire and be close to. It explains a lot of the bad behaviour one sees (I live in Britain)

Ed, I don't know whether you know how hard it is to tell your parents that you're gay. And I was not raised in an overtly anti-gay environment.

I notified my parents that I am gay at the insistence of my current partner--my spouse--in the early 1980s. From a practical standpoint, to me it didn't mean anything, but he wanted me to. I had graduated from university about a decade earlier. From a financial standpoint, it didn't matter. My parents had known my first boyfriend, and my second, and him, too, and so there should have been no issue from that standpoint. But it led to a self-imposed (from my end) estrangement with my parents for five years in the mid 1980s. I don't know whether they knew what I was doing with these guys, but that's irrelevant. Actually, I learned later that my younger brother, having observed me dealing with my first boyfriend, had outed me to my parents. And, you know, it meant nothing to them. They didn't mind it at all. None of my relatives did. And, you know, I did not know that he had done that for decades after that happened. And it didn't matter to my brother, either, or to his wife, or to my nieces and nephews.

My mother used to watch Billy Graham's crusades on television in the 1960s. She's of the old Southern Baptist tradition. So is my father. I'm sure you understand the difference between the "old" Southern Baptist tradition and the more recent Southern Baptist tradition.

Also, Ed, I'll let you know. My spouse was very attentive to the health situation in the early 1980s. I know that you know what I'm referring to. If he had not been, I'd be dead. But, he was, and, we'll be celebrating our first marriage anniversary in four days. Even though we've been together for over 26 years. Since the same day as my brother's anniversary, interestingly enough. And they know it--another factoid that I only recently learned.

I'll stop rambling.

I know how difficult it is only vicariously, through the experiences of others. It's one reason why I'm so committed to trying to get people to stop viewing gays as different than the rest of us, because I understand that something that I can take entirely for granted is denied to others. What caused you years of struggle - the thought of introducing the love of your life to your parents as the love of your life - is something that I would never have to give a moment's thought to. It wouldn't occur to me in a million years to worry that my parents would not accept the woman I love and our relationship. But for you, as for so many of my friends who have been through something similar, it's not only a source of great worry, it's often the prelude to being shunned by the people who are supposed to love them the most, their family. It's incredibly destructive. Lives are destroyed because of this. And it saddens me because I've seen people I care about go through this. I've heard the stories from Lynn about all of the people that she's taken care of from the AIDS support group, all the funerals she's had to plan because the families were nowhere to be found. So thank goodness for parents like yours, and like my friend Jeff's. They give us hope.