When I was a Mormon missionary, I didn’t trust others easily, I was too afraid of letting them see my real self. But from time to time, I would open my heart up, just a little bit, in small pieces, and see how it reflected off of others.
A random woman in one of my wards in Pennsylvania, an older and unconventional woman named Del, was a kindred spirit. We would find ways to laugh and share all at once. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding between us, an ability to say very little and yet see each other’s subtext somehow, to realize that with a few words we were conveying much more than that.
Del once told me I looked like Donnie Osmond, and we had a good laugh over that. My companion was talking to her spouse, and Del and I started talking about fathers for a bit. It was a natural normal conversation with a lot of underlying pain in it.
“My father was a difficult man,” she had told me. “He was stubborn. Unbending. He loved us, but he never said it. He showed it. Not with hugs, not with words, but with consistency. He went to work, he came home. He’d flash a look, a silly smile, then be gone for days. What about yours?”
I avoided speaking of my father at the time, having a difficult time taking the conversation in that direction. I remember trying to change the subject, but Del redirected me, not letting me get away with it.
“My dad was a quiet man.” I paused, and she encouraged me to go on. “He was always in a lot of pain, but he never spoke up about it.”
“Well, what kind of pain?”
I had grimaced, looking over to my companion to make sure he wasn’t listening. “The heart kind. But he was silent. He was a strong presence of emotion all the time, but his face never showed it. Well, not very much anyway. He would lay on the floor after work and just be there until he fell asleep for a while. He’d find reasons to be by himself almost constantly. He never laughed, never smiled. He’d lose his temper sometimes, but–”
“But mostly he was just quiet.” She stopped me, not even looking over. “When I joined the Church, years ago, someone explained to me that the way we see God’s presence in our lives is in direct reflection to how we have experienced our own father. I think there is a lot of truth to that.”
“So you see God as difficult?”
“Absolutely. God is stubborn and unbending, just like my dad. But he’s consistent. And he loves with force.”
There was several seconds of silence while she let me think things through. I thought of all the endless prayers I’d made both for myself, to help me be righteous and good and to let me be healed from my attractions to men, and for my family and friends, to ease their sufferings and improve their circumstances, prayers that had always come from the right place but which always seemed to be met with a stony silence.
I looked back to Del and just nodded. She knew what I meant. To me, God was quiet.
“Well, we learn from our fathers, too. We learn how to be different kinds of parents. I made my share of mistakes, but I made sure my children knew they were loved. I spoke it loudly and often. But I was also rigid and stubborn. And when it comes your turn to have children, you’ll be the same. You’ll do things differently and make your own mistakes.”
I didn’t mean to speak the next part out loud. “I don’t think I’ll ever have children.”
Del whooped and slapped my shoulder, this time drawing the attention of my companion and her husband. “Of course you’ll have children! You’re handsome, spiritual, you can sing, and you have a great heart. You’ll make an excellent father and a great husband.”
The conversation turned after that, but I remember thinking, loudly, to myself that I wanted to be a father, but that I couldn’t do that unless I stopped being gay. And at that point, I was 20, and the cures hadn’t worked yet.
I type this story now at age 37. This morning, I made my sons pancakes and cuddled them. I played with them and helped them clean their room. I set up my expectations for them when they got into an argument. I sang songs to them, and I reminded them, with an enormous kiss and hug, that they are loved.
And if my sons grow up believing in a God, I hope they see one that is consistent, and present, and loud, and affectionate, and playful, and funny, and strong, and clear.
Though she couldn’t possibly have seen this far into the future, and I doubt she would have predicted this set of circumstances, it turns out Del was exactly right.