Dad’s Secret

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There is a photo. It’s my first Christmas. I am barely walking, and holding a giant red stocking, with a huge innocent smile on my face. My dad is sitting in front of the Christmas tree, reaching toward me. Grinning. It looks like a greeting card, like the perfect family. And if you didn’t know my secret, you might believe that lie. We were anything but.

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I don’t remember the moment I figured out that my dad was gay. What I do remember is returning again and again to his gym bag where I had been snooping. I was 12 years old. I suspected he was cheating when he went to the gym every night, and decided to find out. Inside of the gym bag I found a gay magazine. Then I knew. And I hated him.

I never sorted through the emotions. Was I angry because he was gay? Was I angry because he wasn’t telling the truth? Or was I really angry because he was cheating?

Over the years our relationship was tempestuous, at best. I harbored a lot of anger toward him, and he threw a lot of anger my way as well. It felt like he was always singling me out, comparing me to his brother (whom he hated), telling me how awful I was and punishing me. His insults were cruel and crushing. I learned to live with them. When he called me crazy, I started to believe it.

By the time I was in high school, I knew that he was gay and was going out every single night. I tried to hide it as much as I could. He had never, ever discussed it with me. My mother had confided in me that she had planned to leave him. She made it very clear that his sexuality was a secret that no one should ever, ever find out. I should never tell. His secret became her secret and I became an unwilling carrier of the secret.

One night when I was 16, my father didn’t come home. It wasn’t unusual for him to stay out very late, but he was always sleeping in bed by 4 or 5 am. It was 10 am on a Sunday and he wasn’t there. I don’t remember being afraid, but honestly curious as to where he went. When he showed up his face had horrible bruises, he’d obviously been beaten and his face was literally hanging down on one side. I didn’t say anything. He had a few scratches and some small bandages. When I asked him what happened he said, “Someone attacked me.”

Later that night the guy I recently started dating came over. He took one look at my dad and said, “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU!?” I felt mortified and all I could think was, “Oh god please don’t let him find out!” My dad just replied,”Don’t worry about it.”

Months later I found out the truth in court documents that I discovered. He and another gay friend went to a bar to confront the friend’s former boyfriend. They wanted the keys to a car back. My dad boldly confronted him and he reached over and beat my dad in the face with a large beer stein. My dad went to the ER that night where they bandaged him up, but never took x-rays and so they never discovered that he had broken nearly every bone in his face.

I was humiliated when another guy that I was dating (a few months later) confronted me and said, “I know your dad is gay. My mother was eating in a restaurant when your dad walked by and said hello. A friend of hers said, “How do you know that gay guy?” This was the early 90s in a small town and my parents were still married! The shame was often unbearable.

Our relationship got a bit better by the time I moved out. My parents divorced, and not living under the same roof made things better between me and my dad. Without the constraints of a family, his destructive lifestyle got worse. When I was 11 my dad had a liver transplant. Now I was nearly 19 and my dad still wasn’t taking care of himself at all. It was obvious how bad his health had declined.

By the time he was in the hospital and dying, I came across a letter that Dad had written to his brother. I knew that his brother was cruel to him, and abusive. But what that letter let me know was that it was much worse than I could ever have imagined. He had sexually abused him repeatedly. My father knew he was dying and in the letter expressed absolutely no desire to reconcile or ever see my uncle again.

When my father was dying and on a ventilator, he held my hand. He ran his finger over a scar and mouthed, “Doesn’t that hurt?” I remember explaining to him that it was a very old scar from a burn. It didn’t hurt at all anymore.

He died when I wasn’t there and I never saw him again. I had deep regrets and pain over not getting to see him. I also have regrets over the one conversation we had about being gay (although not particularly about him). Dad never told me he was gay and as far as I know he didn’t know that I knew. At the time I told him what I truly believed; that God said being gay was wrong. My dad never got to see me grow and mature out of those very small-minded beliefs.

Like that burn, it doesn’t hurt as much any more. I can’t focus on the bad memories. But I can remember things like the day Dad was there for me when he picked me up from school. My best friend had betrayed and hurt me so badly, that I couldn’t even speak. He drove directly to Dairy Queen. He didn’t say many words, but it was clear that a special treat could help to heal when there weren’t words to say. In those little moments, I knew that he loved me.

Every day I continue to grow and learn. I am learning that he had to find his own way and a lot of the pain he caused me wasn’t intentional. I am learning that holding onto ‘the secret’ was much more destructive than the truth could ever be. And I’m still learning that it never should have been my secret to keep.

 

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