My father died today. Well, more accurately, on this date four years ago. Our family affectionately refers to it as The Day Dad Got His Motorcycle.
I didn’t often tell Dad that I loved him—just often enough so that I knew that he knew it. In fact, one of the ways I loved him was by not telling him explicitly, to spare him the clear awkwardness he felt after receiving that communication from another man (or at least from me). A career military officer, he was a creature of his place and time, and he was never going to be as comfortable with such expressiveness as I was, given the hippie-dippie personal growth communities I hung in. The unspoken contract between us that I [mostly] honored was this: Yes, I know you love me and I love you, but for God’s sake could we please not have to say it?
In that vein, one of the most difficult things I ever said to Dad was that I was gay. That didn’t come till grad school in my early 30s, only after I had finally accepted it myself through a slow and painful process. I clearly remember that night in my parents’ living room. It was Christmas break, sometime in the mid-90s. (You’d think I’d have the precise year locked down, but no.)
I spoke The Words, and he was quiet for a long stretch, staring at the floor. Then he looked at me and said, “Well, Buddy, I’ll be honest with you. It’s not the news I wanted to hear. But, you’re the nicest guy I know in the whole world, and that doesn’t change.” Given where he had come from, that was a pretty awesome place for us to end up. And while he was never a PFLAG-waving zealot, he was also never anything less than completely welcoming to my various boyfriends over the years, and he never questioned my path or tried to dissuade me from it.
I have many other memories of my father–some of them painful, which shaped me in hard ways. But today, these are a few of the images that come easily to me:
The night he stayed up late to inexpertly sew the patches on my scout uniform before my first troop meeting
The reassuring scent of his Old Spice as I leaned my sleepy head against his steady shoulder in church
How at dawn he would stand at the door to my childhood bedroom and sing the “Good Mornng to You!” song in his gravelly off-key baritone and then tickle me till I got out of bed
The grin on his face as he walked down the LAX concourse towards us after returning from another tour in Vietnam
The night in junior high when he took me out—just us two guys—to see my first R-rated movie
The way his voice caught and how he hurried out of my room when he saw the picture I was holding of Charlie, our sweet Boston terrier that had gone missing
The small fold of bills that he would secretly and inevitably press into my hand as I left home after a holiday visit
The blue-and-white-speckled metal camp mugs of steaming coffee we shared at the table in my uncle’s cabin in Montana one quiet snowy morning
I wish he was still around, so that I could gingerly not tell him one more time how much I loved him. Hey Dad. You know what? Yeah, that. I know it, too.