I met my dad when I was 18. Then it got complicated…
Transcript is below:
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My name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining, a podcast that showcases intimate portraits of queer and trans lives, and the issues that shape them. This week’s episode features discussions of death, loss, grieving, and dealing absent parents and hurtful family situations. Its the story of meeting and losing my father. As always, take care of yourself my friend…
Road trips in the fall are wonderful. Late October, just a few days before Halloween, I was headed to Atlanta. I was giving a talk to the Secular Student Alliance at Kennesaw State University. I heard a Messenger notification go off on my phone, and I glanced over. I just saw the little message preview notification thing pop up. It was my aunt from my dad’s side. She asked me to call her immediately. Celes was with me on this trip. I love when she gets to go places with me. I looked at her and told her I had a feeling we were about to get bad news.
We were about half a mile out from the next exit, so I waited until we could pull off the highway to call her. I pulled into a Shell gas station parking lot just off the exit and made the call. My dad was dead. My uncle had been trying to call him for a few days with no luck. He eventually went over to his house to check on him and found him.
Celes asked me if I was okay, and I really had no idea. I’ve done podcasting and public speaking for years and years. I’m rarely at a loss for something to say. I’m usually pretty able to put thoughts and feelings into words. But this time it all failed me. I had nothing. All I could say was that I felt weird. Just really, really weird.
My dad and I never met until I was 18. I know a lot of folks who grow up without one or more parents in the picture, and lots of those folks develop an anger about it. And I never did, at least not during my childhood and early adulthood. Growing up, it was my mom and I, along with my aunt and my grandma. This was normal to me. To their credit, it took me a long time to realize my family makeup was a bit different than most. They made it work, and I was mostly a happy kid.
My mom got married to my step dad when I was 7 or 8, but my step dad and I never got along. So I still consider myself the child of a single parent. My mom did all of the heavy lifting emotionally and psychologically. My step dad worked hard to keep a roof over our heads and kept us fed, so I’m grateful for that. But that’s not what constitutes a parent child relationship, at least not entirely. It was mom and I all the way.And she did amazing. I never really felt like I was missing anything.
My mom made it clear a few times throughout my life that if I wanted to pursue a relationship with my dad, that she would support me. I got the sense there was some anger and bitterness from her toward him, but I never worked up the courage to ask why or what happened. Given that my mom did such a good job fulfilling my needs, I never really felt the need to find out more about my dad. I had what I needed. Getting involved with an entirely new side of the family seemed like a complication that I wasn’t sure I was ready to invite.
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was having one of those late night talks with my mom. She’d punished me for something or other by taking my guitar away from me. I’d just gotten it back, and I was talking to her about what a big deal music was in my life. I was talking all about how I wanted to write music to help people and make people feel good. I wanted to tour the world and have a career playing music. My mom stopped for a second and she smiled at me. She goes “you know you get that from your dad’s side of the family right?”
And I stopped dead. I’d never thought about it before. But, musicianship often runs in families. It’d never really occurred to me, but I was literally the only musician on my mom’s side of the family. I asked her to tell me more. And she told me that my dad played bass in a blues band for a guy who was kind of a legendary blues musician in Cincinnati, and was an accomplished guitar player. She told me that almost all of my aunts and uncles on that side of the family were musicians of one kind or another. I was intrigued. I don’t remember exactly how that conversation ended. But I remember thinking about how my mom had always told me she’d support me if I wanted to meet and build a relationship with my dad. That stuck with me.
A few days later, I very sheepishly approached my mom. “Hey uhh, you know how you always said you’d support me if I decided I wanted to meet my dad? I think I want to meet my dad.” And just like she said she would, she helped make it happen.
For some reason, I had it in my head this was going to be a long process of trying to find his contact information and figure out where he was. To my knowledge, my mom had zero contact with him since she took him to court for child support when I was very very young. What actually happened was my mom grabbed a phone book, looked up his name, and there was his phone number. Oh shit. Well, like, this was happening like NOW, I guess. Well, not now, it was late at night. But I had what I needed. All that was left was to actually make the phone call. Which I did the next day.
He didn’t pick up, so I left what was probably the most awkward voicemail in history. “Hi umm, this is….your son…here’s my number….” This was long long before I’d come out as trans of course.
I went to work for the day and tried to go about my routine, but obviously nothing was routine about this day anymore. And a few hours later, sure enough, he called me back. “Hey this is Tom, your dad.” There were a few seconds of awkward silence. He broke the silence by saying “well this is awkward as hell isn’t it?” We both laughed and the tension broke. Yup, it sure was awkward as hell, actually. Didn’t really know what to do there. We exchanged a bit of small talk then made plans to meet for dinner.
A few days later, I was pulling up to an apartment complex. It was right down the street from the concert venue I spent lots of my teen years at. I was this close so many times and had no idea. That’s weird. My dad was standing outside to meet me.
I’m not sure exactly what my expectations were for this first meeting. I didn’t know him at all. So I had no idea how he’d react to meeting me. I didn’t know what he’d say or do. I’m sure he was just as nervous. Really, I think what I was hoping for was to find out what an amazing person he was. I was hoping to hear something along the lines of “hey sorry you went 18 years without a dad, but here’s all the amazing things I’ve been out doing in the world, wanna join me?” Of course I understood how unrealistic that was, but man would that have made things easier.
My dad looked exactly like me. It was eerie, like looking through a time machine. He was a bigger guy, full set of super thick hair just like me, same face shape, same body shape, even some of the same mannerisms.
We talked for awhile and we got along really well. After some of the getting to know you talk was out of the way, he decided to tell me exactly what went on between him and my mom. Like I said, I’d been afraid to ask my mom. I knew it was still a sore subject for her after all these years.
What it comes down to is that when he found out my mom was pregnant, he got scared and disappeared. To his credit, at least a little bit, he made no excuses, didn’t try to downplay it. He said he screwed up and he did wrong, and he didn’t even want to apologize, because he didn’t think it would mean anything he did a really awful thing. There’s nothing that could ever make up for it. If nothing else, I appreciated his honesty, and I appreciated him taking full unqualified responsibility for his actions. We talked a little longer and I went home. We made promises to keep meeting.
Not too long after that, it was time to meet the rest of the family. The first holiday that came after, I think it was Easter, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house. I met them, a bunch of cousins, more aunts and uncles, and my grandma. There were some brief introductions, but after that, I was just part of the family. We talked and laughed. It felt like one of those GOOD family gatherings, like what those are supposed to feel like. After food, we watched TV, we talked about TV shows and movies. Guitars came out and there were family jam sessions. It was amazing.
These kinds of meetings kept happening. And they kept being great. But I started to feel this sense of creeping anger working its way up inside me.
The more time I spent, the more I actually became aware of what I’d missed as a kid. They tell you not to dwell on the past, right, that’s the “good” advice we always get. It seems like good advice, but when you have a canyon sized hole in your past and have your attention suddenly and harshly directed toward that fact, it’s not quite as easy to do in practice.
As I realized more and more what I missed. I started to feel that anger that I never felt growing up. I spent more and more time with my dad. We had good food, good talks, we played music, watched movies, talked about Star Trek, talked about music, and I realized. What we were building was a friendship. I didn’t want a friendship. I wanted a father.
It became harder and harder to be around my dad, and by extension, his side of the family.
On one hand my anger is totally valid. Right? My dad fucked up big time, and I missed out on a lot because of it. But I also felt ungrateful. I had the chance now to have some of the time at least, and here I was avoiding it.
One of the last interactions I had with my dad was when I posted my coming out note on Facebook. When I stopped coming around as much, he created a Facebook profile. He eventually liked my coming out post. I felt like it was a subtle and unobtrusive way of reaching out. He was cognizant of letting me be in control of the relationship. He didn’t want to intrude. On one hand I appreciated it, but on the other hand, like, you’re supposed to be the father. You’re supposed to be the one reaching out and trying to cultivate a relationship. I’m still conflicted in how I fell about those boundaries.
When a lot of people come out as trans, they lose everything, right? Here I was with a family who WANTED me, and I was saying no. I know it’s more complicated than that, but at the time, that’s just how it felt.
I had to come to terms with the fact that if I continued a relationship with my dad that it would never be the relationship I wanted or needed it to be. Part of that was probably because he felt like it wasn’t his place. He wasn’t around, so why would he get to step in and become dad immediately? I respect that. But I needed more.
I had basically 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 with him would only be a constant source of hurt. I also knew that my mom put in the work. We’re adults now. She’ll always worry about me and mother me because that’s who she is. But we’re also adults and we can spend more time just enjoying each other’s company. She changed the diapers and cooked dinner and drove me to football practice and took me to concerts. I’m a mostly happy, healthy, well adjusted adult, and she’s the person most responsible for that. Why wouldn’t I just give my time to her instead?
But if I left my dad completely out of my life, I was afraid that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering about what might’ve been. I feared regret. A lot. I knew I was missing out on relationships with my aunts, uncles, cousins, their kids, and so on. It feels like there’s like an entire side of myself I’m missing out on.
So instead of taking action, for years I just wrestled with my feelings. I had so many long talks with people I loved and trusted. I have the best people in my life. No one ever told me what I should do. They just offered advice and insight and perspective, and challenged me and affirmed me. 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 aunts and uncles and cousins, but I couldn’t bring myself to force a relationship I didn’t want with my dad to get a relationship with them.
And then he died. And it was over. For better or worse, the struggle was over. This was one of those situations that had no potential for a happy outcome. Just different iterations of a sad one. I had my choice made for me. And years later I’m still a little unsure how to feel about it. I’ll probably wonder about it for the rest of my life.
There’s some feeling of relief, of course, in that I have no potential choices to make anymore. But I will just get to spend forever wrestling with the choices I *did* make.
My dad didn’t exactly have a funeral. The family got together at the place where he was buried to hug each other and say a few words. It was the first time I met them after coming out. They made me absolutely comfortable. My uncle hugged me and told me that he couldn’t apologize to me on his brother’s behalf, but nonetheless he wanted me to know they recognized what an ordeal this whole thing has been in my life. They were all so sweet.
My uncle told me he had my dad’s guitar. He said he’d like to give it to me if I wanted it, and I said yes. We walked to his car and he pulled out this old beat up guitar case. I opened it to find my dad’s blue Fender Stratocaster laying inside. This thing has character. It looks, sounds and feels amazing.
There was also some money. It was almost enough to pay for Celes and I’s bottom surgeries. That, along with the crowdfunding we did got us through the experience debt free. I’ll always be grateful for that, and I’ll always feel regret for never being able to tell him thank you.
After he died, most of the anger did too. At least mostly. I took a few days off work to work through things. When Celes was at work, I’d sit on our couch playing my dad’s guitar. I thought about how, as blood relations go, he’s the person I have the most in common with. He recorded bands, was an audio nerd, guitar player, Star Trek geek, and a music geek. If it weren’t for our past we’d no doubt have been incredibly close.
I’ll always be sad his choices so long ago put up this barrier between us I could never get passed. I wonder how much I might have missed. But that’s over now. And sitting on the couch, playing his guitar, I feel closer to him in death than I probably ever could have in life.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with me this week, my friend. Please stay in touch. I’m @calliegetsit on twitter and instagram, and search Queersplaining on Facebook and twitter to find us there.
Before I go, I want you to know that if you’re lost, you’re hurting, you’re scared, if you feel like no one cares and no one understands, you needy to know there’s a community out here that loves you, cares for you, knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you are worthy of love. If you’re struggling, please don’t be afraid to reach out. Until next time my friend, my name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining