Friday, October 28th, I was on my way to the last stop of my speaking tour in Atlanta at Kennesaw State University. I had stopped for gas and saw a Facebook message from my aunt telling me to call her immediately. I turned to my girlfriend and told her that I knew I was about to get some bad news. I called my aunt, and was not entirely surprised when she told me my father had died. She didn’t know much about the circumstances, only that my uncle had gone to check on him since he wasn’t able to make contact with him for a few days.
It’s really hard to describe exactly what I’ve felt over these last few days as I prepare for his burial the day after I’m writing this. My dad and I had basically no relationship to speak of. It’s pretty hard to grieve for a thing you never had in the first place. There are so many layers and complex circumstances to this situation. I’m going to try to lay them out here, both as catharsis, and as perspective for anyone else who’s relationship with any parent is complicated in this way.
My dad and I never met until I was 18. Contrary to what’s common with that experience is that I didn’t grow up angry. There was no point of reference for me to know what I was missing. It was my mom and I from the time I was born until she married my step dad. My step dad and I never really had a relationship to speak of, thus I still think of myself as the child of a single mother. My mom is amazing. I never felt that I was robbed because she did a good enough job providing for my emotional needs and giving me all the love I could handle.
It’s important to note here that my mom made it clear to me several times throughout my life that if I wanted a relationship with my dad, she would support me. This is much to her credit, given the circumstances. Simply put, my dad found out my mom was pregnant, got scared, and ran off. My mom was angry. She probably still is angry. I don’t blame her even a little bit. This didn’t stop my mom from encouraging me to explore that side of my family if it was something I wanted to do.
One night, I was having a very long talk with my mom about how passionate I was about music. I went on and on for hours about how I wanted to join a band and tour the world, help people with my music, and have a real career doing what I loved. My mom smiled at me and said, “you know you get that from your dad’s side of the family right?” I was intrigued. I asked what she meant. She explained to me that my dad played in blues bands when they were together. In fact, nearly every member of my extended family on his side are musicians. They’re good musicians too.
A few days after this, I sheepishly approached my mom and told her that I was interested in meeting my dad. True to her word, she helped me find his contact information. For some reason I had it in my head that I was going to be going through some immense process where I would spend time hunting before I was able to find a phone number or an address. Turns out he was in the phone book. My mom gave me his name, I found his number in the phone book, and I called that night. The message I left had to sound so awkward. Something along the lines of “ummm hi. This is…ummmm. Your son.” (this was obviously well before I’d come out as transgender)
He called back just a few hours later, and suddenly this person became real. I was immediately put at ease when just a few seconds into the conversation he said “boy this is awkward as hell isn’t it?” It was. It really really was. I had no idea where to start. We talked for a few minutes, then agreed to meet up for dinner soon after. A few days after that, I was pulling up to an apartment complex only about 25 minutes from where I lived. My dad was standing outside waiting to meet me.
It’s tough to quantify what my expectations were of this first meeting. I didn’t know the guy, so I didn’t know what he would say or how he would act. I have to imagine he was feeling the same way about me. To be honest, what I think I was hoping for was to find out what an amazing person he was. I was hoping to hear him say something along the lines of “sorry you’ve got 18 years without a dad, but here’s a list of all the amazing things I was doing in the world instead, wanna join?” Of course I knew that was unlikely to happen, but boy would it have made things easier.
We talked for awhile and got along famously. He decided to tell me exactly what happened between him and my mom. I was afraid to ask my mom, because I knew what a sort subject it was for her. To his credit, he made no excuses. He told me that he screwed up. He got scared and ran. He didn’t try to explain it away or make excuses. He fully owned his responsibility in the situation. If nothing else, I appreciated his honesty.
Soon after came time to meet the rest of my dad’s side of the family, and I was welcomed warmly and without question. At my first holiday, there were a few minutes of introductions, and it was immediately as if I’d been part of the family all along. There were great discussions, family movie watching, jam sessions, and it felt amazing. It was everything I’d wanted. Except not exactly.
The more I spent time with my dad and his side of the family, the more and more I started to become acutely aware of what I’d missed out on as a child not having my father around. I would spent time with my dad talking about music, watching movies, eating dinner, and I realized that what was being built here was not a parent-child relationship. At least not in the sense I wanted one. We were building a friendship. Frankly, I wasn’t interested in someone else to talk about music and movies with. I wanted a father.
I didn’t grow up angry, but I started to become very angry. I didn’t exactly know what to do with this anger, but I couldn’t stand to be around my dad anymore. By extension this led me to missing contact with his side of the family too. On the one had I totally own how justifiable my anger is at having grown up without a dad. On the other hand, I felt absolutely ungrateful. One of the last interactions I had with my dad was when I posted my coming out letter on Facebook, he liked the post. I had a dad and family who wanted a relationship with me and I was saying no. It felt like I was slapping the faces of all those who desperately want relationships with their family but aren’t accepted because of their gender identity or sexuality.
I recognize that the situation is far more complex than that, but these were the feelings I constantly wrestled with. I had come to terms with the fact that my relationship with my dad would never, under any circumstances resemble the relationship I wanted with him. I would never have him look me in the eye and tell me what a beautiful, amazing, compassionate, and strong woman I’d become. I’d never be able to come to him and expect insightful advice about handling life’s problems. I’d never be able to cry on his shoulder when I was hurt and feel him loving and protecting me the way I’ve always wanted a father to do. I’d never hear him tell me how amazed he was that his baby girl grew up to become someone who fights for the rights and lives of others.
I had two options. I could accept this fact, and make the best of the relationship that was possible, or I could leave him out of my life completely. I knew that any relationship I would have with him would be a disappointment given what I wanted and needed from it. My mom put in the work. I’m an adult now, and my mom has earned the position of simply enjoying my company. My mom has spent most of her life doing everything she could to make sure I was ready to take on the challenges I would face in adulthood. She earned whatever enjoyment and pleasure she gets from spending time with me as an adult. Why wouldn’t I just spend my time with her instead?
If I left my dad out of my life completely, I was afraid that I would spend my entire life wondering about what might’ve been. I feared regret. I knew I was missing out on relationships with my aunts, uncles, and my cousins who’ve had beautiful kids I’ve never met. It feels like there’s an entire side of life I’m missing out on.
Instead of taking action, for years I simply wrestled with my feelings. I had many long conversations about the situation with trusted friends and family. I have amazing friends and family. No one ever presumed to tell me what to do. They simply offered perspective and insight. I came down provisionally on the side of leaving my dad out of my life. I would wrestle with my feelings occasionally, but always came down in the same place. I missed my dad’s side of the family, but I just couldn’t bring myself to force a relationship I didn’t want with him to get to a relationship with them.
So here we are, a day before we bury my dad. I have a myriad of complicated feelings surrounding his death, and the choices I made around our relationship. What complicates things even further is finding out that my dad struggled with severe mental illness almost his entire life. This makes it harder to be angry. Was it his illness that kept him from being a father to me? If that were true, it wouldn’t rob me of my right to be angry. But it would be hard to direct that anger specifically at him.
I feel like if there is a silver lining in all this, it’s that I feel like there’s no barrier to my relationship with my aunts, uncles, and cousins on his side of the family anymore. I feel very guilty for thinking that way. They knew the side of my dad I couldn’t know. They had the benefit of decades of lived experience with him that I didn’t. They’re grieving the loss of my dad more than I am. It makes me feel awful that one of my first thoughts when I got the news was that a barrier to a relationship with them had fallen. That barrier happened to be a human life.
That struggle is over. I’m feeling some sense of relief that the struggle has ended. There’s no way the struggle ends that is satisfying, least of which the end that comes with his death. But nonetheless, the struggle is over. I’m feeling some sense of relief in that. It’s not a feeling of satisfaction or happiness, but relief. There are going to be some hard days ahead. I have some seriously difficult conversations to have with my aunts and uncles, and years of absence to make up for. It’s going to be difficult, but I think it will be worth it.