The Best Gift My Dad Ever Gave Me
I was an enigma to my father. He didn't know what to do with me nor how to relate to me. I was my mother's child. Unlike my much older brothers, I had no interest in sports, rough play, fixing things, building things or any of the other stereotypical "masculine" things he knew. The only thing we did together was work. He insisted that I know how to work, so through various projects around the house and yard he taught me to work. He was a man of few words. He rarely laughed. He rarely praised me unless it was about using my talents for God. He never said he was proud of me for anything. Probably because pride was a sin in his book.
My father was a very critical man. As a first pressman in a printing company he had years of experience in looking for flaws in every piece of printed material that came off the press. He was no different about everyone and everything around him. He was quick to point out the faults, sins, and shortcomings of others ... including me. I always knew what I was doing wrong, but rarely heard anything about what I was doing right. This taught me at a young age that dad was not a safe space for me. I learned to share less and less with him so he would haven't the opportunity to correct, criticize, admonish, and judge me. I kept a safe distance from him. I disliked him. He was prone to angry outbursts. He was stern. He was intimidating.
Needless to say, me resigning my church, ending my marriage to my wife and coming out as gay was beyond anything he or mom could comprehend. It dissolved any remaining glue of our relationships and cut off all but a few casual conversations about the weather for the remainder of his life.
My mother's dementia and Alzheimers was taking her life. I knew her days were extremely limited, so I called my dad and said "Dad, I know mom isn't doing well and I'd like to see her before she passes. My partner David and I are driving down to see her and you tomorrow. We've booked a hotel and will be there tomorrow evening."
I slipped that comment in quite casually hoping he wouldn't pounce on it and begin preaching at me. He said nothing about it. After I hung up I wondered if he had even heard what I said. "Did he understand what I meant when I referred to David as my partner?"
This was the first time I had ever referred to David in a conversation with my Dad. I knew that he most likely had heard through my siblings that "Joel is with a man." But the relationship with my parents had all but ended when I came out to them several years earlier. We didn’t talk unless absolutely necessary.
On the way to Effingham, Illinois from South Bend, Indiana David and I wondered what our experience with dad would be like. I was sure dad - who was not shy of confrontation - would be very quick to share how disappointed he is in me, quote scripture to us and warn us of God's judgment on us for our horrible sinful life.
A few minutes before we arrived in my hometown, I received a phone call from my dad asking if we could stop by the house before we went to our hotel. I agreed, but my heart began beating in a panic because I knew this was his way of setting up a confrontation with David and me. I sat in fear and dread for the final leg of our trip.
When we arrived at his front door, he opened the door with a big smile, embraced me warmly and shook hands with David after I introduced him. We sat down in the living room I had grown up in. He asked about my children and my job. He then turned to David and began asking him questions about his life, job, and upbringing. I could barely concentrate on the conversation. Inside I was trembling. I sat in dreaded anticipation of the confrontation I was certain was about to happen. Dad seemed genuinely happy to have company in his home. The more he chatted with us, the more I let my guard down and began seeing something in him I had never seen before. He was lonely. He was isolated. He and mom had spent their lives alienating most people from them because of their judgement and condemnation.
I saw my dad through new eyes that day. I felt a sense of regret in him. He seemed to truly want to know me and David. It wasn't simply a cordial meeting. It was as if he was saying, "I'm all alone in the world now and I realize I sacrificed my relationships for the sake of my principles and now I don't even know my own son."
For the first time in my life I felt empathy for my father. I saw his humanity. We talked for an hour or more and never once did he quote any scripture to us, express judgement for our "lifestyle", or say anything confrontational to us. I sat in amazement. Who was this man? This is not the father I had known all my life.
The hour was getting late and he was getting tired. "Dad, thank you for having us over tonight. We're going to head to the hotel now and meet you at mom's nursing home in the morning."
What happened next was the most beautiful gift my father ever gave me.
He motioned to the ugly floral sofa from my childhood and said, "You know that sofa pulls out into a daybed. You're welcome to stay here tonight."
Time stopped. Did my dad just invite my partner and I to spend the night and share a bed in his home?! Did he really just say that?
David and I politely declined. We made plans for the following morning and said goodbye. Dad hugged us both and with tears in his eyes and a crack in his voice he said "You're welcome in my home anytime."
A few short months later I stood at my Dad's funeral service and told the church crowd about the greatest gift my dad ever gave me. The moment dad accepted me and began a relationship.
Happy Father's Day Gerald J. Barrett. I wish we had gotten to know one another before it was too late.