Dad was a strong man. His physical presents was one of strength and power. He was large and thick. Dad had broad shoulders and massive legs. His skin was permanently tanned and leathery. He was a ‘macho man’, easy to anger and short on patience. But what amazed me most were his hands. They characterized him well as they were powerful and forceful extensions of his personality. They could do many amazing things: build houses, buildings and swimming pools; wield large tools with both precision construction and destruction. Yet Dad’s hands could have the gentleness and caring of anyone I knew.
When I was young, Dad would squeeze our pinkie finger in half at the joint to see how long we could stand the pain-- sort of endurance tests. These tests of our endurance always drew me to the power of his hands. Most of the time we would end up in tears because it hurt so much. This is one of the ways he built our “characters”. I think he thought that through enduring pain, we would learn that the world is a painful place and we should build endurance against it. Sadly, I experience little of the love that I knew Dad’s hands were capable of. Their strength came from a lifetime of physical labor, but their power came from someplace else.
There is a picture of my father and me when I was eight years old. It is a portrait of my First Communion, standing on the front lawn of the home I grew up. I remember the picture because how it shows both truth and false. The truth of the picture shows the pride I had by standing next to my father and having his hand on my shoulder. It shows the world that my he loved me. I believe that he was proud of me on that day. You can see the strength in his hands but also gentle qualities.
My relationship with my father was always hard. Hard for me to understand my perceived rejection of me, hard for him to understand what was different about me. I don’t think he ever thought of me as a bad kid, but he obviously sensed something in me that kept him from getting too close. He provided our family with a physical environment that was safe and secure. But what Dad failed to understand, at least until the last weeks of his life, was that being a good father meant far more than buying groceries and paying the mortgage. I loved my father with all of my heart and I believe he loved me. But he was either lost or blind to know how to show his love and feared to seek out this knowledge.
I can’t help but begin to see that Dad’s illnesses were a manifestations of his inability to deal with his own life. He had a massive heart attack at 52 (a year older than I am now) followed by a cardiac triple bypass, followed in five years with another “near death” coronary. He died at the age of 62, not from complications of the heart but from lung cancer. Would my father have lived a longer life if he had taken the risk of being the person he was during that last week of his life? My instincts tell me he would have. I believe that the physical body pays the price for the starvation of the soul.
During his life, I could not have imagined telling Dad I was gay nor fathom his reaction. In any scenario, I was left with frightful and shameful images that only result in nausea and despair. I can imagine telling him today, but 22 years have passes since he died- there is no way to know what would have been different had he lived longer. The irony is that I am sure that my being gay was what kept us far apart. He sensed something in me. Neither of us had words or understanding of it. I feared it. I was ashamed of it. I am certain that Dad’s death gave me the freedom I needed to begin the process of coming out. Four months after my father’s death, I told the first living human being that I was gay. I admitted it out loud to myself and to another person. It was no coincidence.
Dad was a strong man. But his biggest weaknesses was fear. To see him would to deny he had any weakness. He was fearless! But I believe the one thing that he feared most was his love of his children. I think he feared that his children would grow and change beyond his capability to understand them. He brought us up to be independent. Yet it was that very independence that scared him the most. He expressed his fear through the one emotion he allowed himself, anger. As we grew up and he no long scared us, his frustration grew into rage and defiance. I’m not sure he ever learnt that he had no cause to fear us.
I dreamt about Dad last night. I was one of the best dreams I’ve had of him. In the dream, he was discharged from the hospital so he could die at home. However, in the dreamworld, he appeared perfectly healthy, largely the way I remember him in reality. But we all knew he would die soon. In the dream I hugged him, told him I loved him and didn’t want him to go. He told me he loved me and was proud of me.
We are all flawed. Life is about struggling with those flaws and learning from them. Hopefully, Dad learned what he needed to in the life I shared with him. His hands symbolize the strength one has to live life as well as the ability to care for it. As I get older, the Dad in my dream becomes more prominent. His life gave me mine and I continue to learned from it.
I love my Dad and always will.