Each night I put my younger son to bed at about 7, 7:30. We climb the stairs, he slides under his covers, and I lay down beside him to ‘have a talk’ as he puts it. The ‘talk’ entails him asking me a series of questions that range from the completely innocuous; such as ‘How old are you?’ to true reflections of events, circumstances, and emotions; such as ‘Why do you love me?’ I answer each question with what I feel is proper attention and gravity – trying not to circumvent more difficult subjects or pass them off, and realizing that he is truly expressing himself in the questions he asks – and this is one way for him of showing interest, fear, appreciation, and so much more.
He listens attentively to the answers I produce, and in the followup to my answers, he shows me that he is able to process the information he is being given…to retain past conversations, and to reflect upon potential outcomes of his actions and words. He sometimes apologizes for prior events or behaviors, such as when he asks why I was mad at him for something he did, but most often he just looks down or to the side and tells me that what I’ve just said to him is truly making its way through his mind.
Once in a while he says, ‘Now you ask me a question.’ I try to choose very carefully to bring up an important and as yet undiscussed event where I wish to circle back with him and better express myself about something that may have gone ‘unattended’ at the time. I ask things like, ‘Do you understand why Daddy was upset when you did ______?’ He will think for a moment and then answer me – if he’s grasped the concept, I say, ‘Yes, that’s it.’ If not, I explain in more detail, age appropriately, and hope he will process it as he drifts off to sleep.
I often find myself not responding to things that are said to me for the reason that I need time to process them. My ‘perception’ of what someone says to me is heavily influenced by many extraneous factors: Amount of sleep I’ve had, ambient distractions, even my own history. Two people can hear exactly the same sentence, and offer up completely different interpretations of that sentence; irrespective of the fact that they heard the exact same words at the exact same time.
My memory is nowhere near an eidetic one, but over the course of time and my involvement with theater, I developed a relatively refined ability to recall ‘dialogue’…..I learned, after stumbling over my own lines when another actor paraphrased theirs to have my response or follow up make sense in relation to what they said, by memorizing the dialogue of actors who interacted with me on stage as well as my own. I don’t retain it beyond the end of the production, but it’s carried over into other areas of my life where if I have a conversation with someone, I can recall, for a period of time, their words with almost 100% precision. It doesn’t last forever, but if you were to ask me about a block of dialogue we shared two days prior, I can tell you almost word for word what you said. Certain statements made to me by people in my life have carried such weight and significance to me that I can recall them years later.
My own perception of past events and conversations has, of course, evolved over time. I’ve circled back with my parents on things they both said to me in childhood that ‘meant’ one thing at the time to me, and were carried with me into my adulthood, and have asked them if they recall the event or the words, and what they meant. Of course this is not an infallible system of healing as their own perception, in their 80’s, of what they said or meant at the time, can also change. Some days I find myself wishing I’d asked them certain questions or expressed a need for clarification decades ago. It might have saved me a lot of anguish in the ensuing years. I might not have believed that my own father could not possibly love me, his gay son, just because he made ‘fag’ jokes in my early teens that I heard and absorbed as a complete and utter disgust with homosexuals – something I knew that I was, and by extension what amounted, in my mind to his complete and utter disgust with me. I might not have embraced the idea that I had to cut him out of my life before he cut me out of his….to strike first rather than be stricken…..and lost 15 years of time with him that I can never regain. Over the past two decades my eyesight has diminished to the point of needing progressive bifocals. My hindsight, however, has grown.
My dad is in a locked unit in an assisted living in Portland, Maine. He had a stroke in 2006 which led to a need for greater care and vigilance in his day to day life than he could manage living alone. Dad also has dementia that is progressing as he ages. Some days he is very lucid, jovial, and upbeat, despite having lost his (second) wife a few years ago, and then so much else….his home, his independence, and in many ways his very dignity as he needs assistance with certain day to day ‘functions’ now. I visit him when I can, as well as calling him, and I can always tell when he’s ‘declining’ by his demeanor, his conversation, and the look in his eyes.
I have had the good fortune to be able to sit down with my dad and tell him how I felt, as a teenager, when I grew to know myself as a gay male, and how deeply and profoundly his words affected me when he’d make derogatory remarks about ‘fags’. I told him how hard it was for me, on the day I came out to him (in my early 20’s) and his first statement was ‘What did I do wrong?’ – and the perception I had at the time was that in his mind there was something ‘wrong’ with me.
I’ve had the opportunity to listen to him say, ‘I never thought there was anything wrong with you…I was a God damned fool to say what I said….there is no excuse for it….you are my son, and I love you…I always have loved you, and nothing will ever change that.’
I’ve had the opportunity to change my perception, 30+ years later, and finally see the scab drop off that has sat, for years, over the deep wound his words inflicted upon my heart all those years ago. I thanked him for his words, and told him he had no idea how much it meant to me, now, for him to say it. I had only one thing to offer him in return for the ‘gift’ he gave me that day, which I told him he now owned. My forgiveness.
I cannot always measure my words with the boys, or circle back with them in a meaningful way to better express or more fully explain things to them. I know they are going to grow up with a belief system that incorporates both my example and my words. Some days I fail, badly, at being a good example to them. I hope, in some way, that that means that they will never harbor any kind of misconception that I was perfect, nor feel they have any example to try to “live up to.” I will be the first person to tell them I’m nowhere near perfect, and no one is…..that I am flawed….that I say and do things that I deeply regret down the line…..but I am only human….and I cannot ever achieve perfection…. I know it’s useless to try….and I only hope I live long enough to apply a balm to any scars I leave them with….to explain my actions or my words to their satisfaction, rather than mine, so that they understand the depth of my love for them….the strength of my commitment to them…and the truth of my desire to leave this world seeing their faces with a smile upon them…knowing they are happy men. That’s my greatest mission in life….to have a positive impact on the lives I will leave behind.