Mom had been gone for two years. We lost my little sister in 1979. My remaining siblings were out of town. Today it was just Dad and me.
It was June, 2008. He’d turned 90 that March.
Even though I was by then middle-aged, and had long known my father was gay, I still clung to a childhood fantasy, the one where he was madly in love with my mother.
When I’d moved Dad into his studio after Mom’s death, I sulked when he chose not to display any family photos. Instead, he mounted posters from environmental and advocacy organizations, and the Gettysburg Address, and photos of himself in his prime on his new walls.
It was now more than three decades since he’d come out to me, since I’d found the courage to ask him if he’d been unfaithful to Mom. And now, as he neared his final days, I summoned my courage once again.
“Dad, is there one thing in your life you most regret?”
Back in 1975, I remember bracing myself for his answer. In 2008, here I was again, bracing myself for yet another disclosure I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.
Dad didn’t hesitate. Why, yes, there was one thing. I held my breath.
“I wish I had tried harder to live a life with that young man, Stanley Hughes,” he said.
Dad’s back was bent now. His big blue eyes had long lost their luster. But his face was brightly lit as he spoke.
He and Stanley last saw one another in the late 1930s. After a 1939 arrest for being gay, fear sent Dad back into the closet for the remainder of his life.
To my surprise, I detected no anger, shame, or even sadness in my father’s voice.
I was surprised that I didn’t feel those emotions, either, especially given the fact that I wouldn’t have been born if he’d stayed with Stanley.
I exhaled. Dad looked in my eyes and smiled. I smiled back at him.
Now it was my turn.
“I know, Dad. He really was special, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, honey, he really was.”
He gazed out his window at the tall redwood trees in the distance. A shy smile broke out on his face. I think he was probably off with Stanley now, down in Los Angeles, at the Huntington Library Gardens or the Mount Wilson Observatory or Cabrillo Beach where they’d spent time together so long ago.
I pulled the afghan up over Dad’s lap, the one he crocheted before I was born, and tiptoed out the door. I’d be back tomorrow.
I felt no self-pity that day, or since, over Dad’s revelation that he would have preferred a different life, one that didn’t include me in it. All I felt was love for a father who, despite having given up so much, had loved me without condition every day of my life.
In the process of my own healing that day, I was now able to reciprocate with abandon, with a love for my father that was, finally, unconditional.
One month later, on July 25, 2008, Dad died. Stanley had died in 1992.
I’d like to think they’re together now, my father’s cornflower blue eyes once again twinkling like crazy.
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