Today I visited my dad in the assisted living facility he has resided in since 2006. He was in good spirits, and it was nice to spend some time with him as I’ve not been able to with snow/snow days for the kids/being available for my mother.
The time we spend together is usually very pleasant and easy. We speak on a variety of subjects; we joke and laugh about things; and the time passes relatively quickly (to my disappointment). Sometimes Dad repeats stories I already know, which is a byproduct of his dementia, but for the most part the man is a wealth of information about Brownfield, Maine in the 1940’s and 1950’s. To drive Dad to Brownfield now he can navigate the area and direct you to various points of interest as if he was just there the day before. I enjoy the stories about his childhood, and even though he and Mom are long divorced, he even shares stories of their early years of marriage with no bitterness or resentment.
My time with Dad wasn’t always this easy. I chose not to have him in my life for many years; fifteen to be exact. I had no contact with him whatsoever for a long time. I was angry with him, and hurt by him, for his lack of understanding and tolerance in having a gay son. Truthfully he never outright rejected me. He never told me I wasn’t welcome in his home, or tried to ‘beat it out of me’ as I’ve known some fathers to do with gay sons. The hurt I felt came from him asking me, when I came out to him, what he did ‘wrong’….which translated, to me, as my father’s belief that there was something wrong with me…and it felt like my father, who was at the least ‘absentee’ as a parent during my childhood and following my parents’ separation, didn’t love me unconditionally. In fact it reinforced something I’d felt for many years – that my father just didn’t care about me.
I know this isn’t the truth. It took me many years to realize it, but my father has apologized for his choice of words when I came out, for being so distant in my childhood, and acting like, in his words, a ‘damned fool’. It healed so much for me, and was worth more than I can ever express to him. I apologized to him, in turn, for not trying to resolve it sooner – and for letting my wounded feelings keep us absent from one another for so long. I enjoy the rapport we have nowadays, as my dad is 83 now. It’s not as if we have decades left to us.
Every time I speak on the phone with him or see him in person, I always say ‘I love you’ to my Dad as I hug him goodbye. Sometimes he says it back; others he says, ‘Yup, okay, Dad will see you soon.’ It always feels good to have him say he loves me in return, but he doesn’t have to, really. I know he does. I know it in the way his eyes light up when I walk into his ward at the facility. I know it in the way he sits and looks at me as we visit. I know it in the way he hugs me with no reserve. I know it in the way that every time I visit he sends home a bag of crackers and candy and little toys he collects from parties in the facility and tells me to take them to the boys. But in truth the bag usually contains, in greater abundance than anything else, packages of Fig Newtons. They are my favorite cookie, and have been since childhood. I told him a couple of years ago how much I like them, and ever since then he’s never forgotten and stores them up in between visits from me.
I’ve learned to understand, via the repair and eventual enjoyment of my relationship with my dad, that there are people who are not fluent in their emotions – people who favor gestures over words – and people who you might think don’t give a damn who, if you look deeper, into their gestures, show you an abundance of love and caring in ways you just might not have noticed because it wasn’t the way you wanted it to be shown to you. Not everyone can be gifted with words. For some people the love itself is the gift they have for you, and you just have to learn to recognize it as it is given.
I know, without a doubt, that my dad loves me. I know that despite never having experienced a gay friend or (knowingly) a gay relative before me, he’s transcended that inexperience and anything he might have felt about it was long ago eradicated by the simple fact that I am his son, gay or straight, and that not being in my life was worse than being in my life, irrespective of what he felt about my life as I lead it.
I know that he cares, because my dad, who has almost nothing to give me now that he has ‘lost’ his home, his (second) wife, and his independence and shares a 10 x 12 room with another gentleman, an elderly Asian man whom dad refers to as ‘The Chinaman’ (and whom he likes more than past roommates), pays attention to the things I say and remembers well enough what my favorite cookie is, and makes an effort to supply me with plenty of them every time I see him. Every package of them he gives me is an expression of his love, and I accept them as just that. For my dad, who does say the actual words every now and again, nothing says he loves me like a package of Fig Newtons.
This visit to dad also garnered the usual crackers and candy and small party favor toys for the boys. As I emptied the handled paper shopping bag of what I always call the ‘contraband’ Dad sends home with me, I came across what has to be (aside from the Fig Newtons) the absolute BEST thing he’s ever sent home to me. I don’t know if he was actually ‘given’ the item or just sort of found himself in possession of it by whatever means; but it gave me one of the best laughs I’ve had in a long time when I saw it. I am assuming it belongs or belonged to ‘The Chinaman’ (as Dad calls him). I’ll return it of course the next time I visit, as I can’t imagine someone parting with it. The picture is below.
Thanks, Dad, for twenty individual packages of yellow foil wrapped fig filled love…and for the laugh about the probably stolen mug. You can’t imagine how they both brightened my day.