An Essay for Father’s Day
Posted on June 17, 2013
My dad’s birthday falls on Flag Day, June 14. That’s usually just a few days away from Father’s Day, which means he has to put up with shared celebrations for both dates. I don’t think he minds too much, and I’m hopeful that he doesn’t mind that my Birthday/Father’s Day post for him is going up not just as a combo post, but a late combo post.
There is a scene that I have described in a few different essays that captures the way I feel about my childhood with Dad. In it, I am three or four years old, and he and I are in the living room of the old farmhouse where we lived until I finished kindergarten. He sits at the upright piano where he works on the songs that will launch his music career, and I stand in the middle of the room, barefoot on the olive green carpet. I am the proud owner of a giant stuffed bunny rabbit that is as tall as I am. It is navy blue with white polka dots. I slip my hands and feet into elastic bands on the bunny’s white hands and white feet, and suddenly I have a dancing partner. Dad improvises a melody on the piano and sings along as he plays, and I twirl with my bunny. I am not a good dancer and never will be, but I can spin. Yes, I am an excellent spinner, and as my dad sings, the big blue bunny and I fly circles around the room, leaving behind us a trail of Styrofoam balls that leak from a hole in his foot.
Once Dad went into music full time, he traveled extensively. He was usually gone on the weekends, and a few times a year he would be gone for three weeks at a time on a tour. Even so, my childhood is full of these kinds of memories. I don’t remember Dad’s absences at all–just his presence and the fact that our house was always loud with laughter. Four kids and two really funny parents will do that to a home: make it busy and chaotic and noisy.
Running in loops through the dining room, kitchen, entryway, living room, dining room, kitchen, entryway, living room, dining room, kitchen. Chasing Dad, Dad chasing us. Everyone in the living room with popcorn and Coke, ready to watch Saturday Night Live and MAD TV, Mom with remote in hand ready to switch the channel should it become “inappropriate.” Lunches on Sunday afternoons, re-capping the previous night’s sketches over Pizza King pizza or Olive Garden breadsticks. Hanging out backstage at Dad’s concerts, eating the lasagna that a church provided for the meal, listening to the monologues we knew by heart.
Someone once theorized that because of Dad’s relative fame in the Christian world, our family turned inward. We became an effective and tightly-knit unit, completely self-sufficient. We became accustomed to people trying to peer in, asking us, “What’s it like?” or approaching Dad for an autograph during dinner. For as long as I can remember, my parents, siblings, and I have always liked each other. We’ve always liked each other’s company.
When Dad came out to our family at Christmas in 2004, there was a lot of fear in all of us: would we lose this unit that we had built? Our identity was solidly rooted in our togetherness–if we weren’t together anymore, what did that mean for our identity?
We had several years to figure out what Dad’s coming out meant to us before he came out publicly. In those years, we learned some pretty important things about ourselves. It didn’t take long before bloggers and columnists were talking about how Dad had devastated and broken his family, how he had decided to live selfishly, how he had given up on the people he loved, how he was hurting everyone in his life. By then, though, we knew what those bloggers and commenters and e-mailers didn’t: that our family was going to be fine.
We might not look the way they wanted us to–devastated and shriveled and lamenting Dad’s gayness–but that’s because we looked the way we always had: happy to be each other’s family.
We’ve changed shape a bit in the past ten-ish years. Each of us has traveled a different path based on our personalities, our faith, our beliefs, our relationship with Dad. Yet our family-based identity remains strong. We still like each other. We still like each other’s company. Even though my parents are divorced and Dad has a partner we all think is great, Mom and Dad talk all the time. Nothing makes their grandkids happier than knowing that Papaw is coming to Indiana for a visit. The memories that I have of running through the house, dancing with a stuffed rabbit, settling in to watch a movie–those memories are being recreated for my daughter and her cousins.
I don’t want to over-simplify things. It wasn’t easy for Dad to come out, and it wasn’t easy for our family to figure out how to move forward. There were tears. But when you love your family, and when you were raised by people as empathetic and truthful and faithful as my parents, then you don’t have any option other than to stick together. To figure things out. To move forward together. It may not have been easy to go through the changes that our family faced when Dad came out, but thanks to my parents, it was incredibly easy to always stay us. And as for us, we stick together.