My Father’s Grave

There it was. My name etched in stone. On the back of my father’s grave. My father’s grave. My father is still alive, yet he has a grave.

His headstone is in a family plot east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a remote pretty cemetery, the kind of Rocky Mountain Cemetery I’m accustomed to, with simple headstones in long rows with plenty of space, lush green grass everywhere.

As I walked through the rows, I realized that times and customs are changing, even when it comes to how people die. Headstones like this, family plots, are a thing of the last generation. Now everyone, for the most part, seems to be getting cremated. People are being sprinkled into lakes and on hillsides, or kept in vases, or put into pots for plants to grow out of. (Just this morning, I saw a headline about the state of Washington legalizing the compositing of human remains as another alternative. I mean, there are 8 billion of us now…)

My relationship with my father is difficult to talk about. It’s hard for me to even make sense of internally, and I do therapy for a living. It’s a big void, a question mark in my center. And this cemetery brings that to life more acutely than even being around him.

My last name is Anderson. It is the last name of both of my sons. It was my father’s name. He had five brothers and one sister; I’ve only met half of my aunt and uncles, and then only once. It was my grandfather’s name. Justin Anderson was a sheep farmer in southern Idaho, and I met him a few times when I was a child before he died. And Justin’s father was… I don’ know. My knowledge pretty much ends there. But there is my grandfather’s grave, just down he row from my father’s. My grandmother Alice is there. A few of my father’s brothers. And then cousins, children, infants, names I’ve never heard or seen before.

In some ways, I respect my father’s choice to purchase a headstone. It shows foresight. He chose the stone himself and paid for it. He had it etched with his name and birth date and the names of his children. It mentions both of his wives by name as well, acknowledging that those marriages took place, although he is divorced from my mother and not living with his second wife. He paid for the plot of land as well. When he goes, he will be buried near his parents, his family, the ones I never knew.

I look like my father. I have the same build, the same coloring, the same grey on the temples, the same baby face. Once when I was 22 (I’m 40 now), I was living in the mountains of a rural area of Idaho and performing as an actor in a dinner theater for the summer. A man and his wife attended the play, and afterwards they approached me. I’d never met them, at least so far as I remembered. The man asked me if I was K. Anderson’s son, and I told him yes. Then he introduced himself as my uncle. He said I looked just like my father. I had the same walk, the same laugh, the same way of carrying my hands, he said. I asked a few questions, bid farewell, and then went home and cried that evening, because that void at my center made no sense.

It still feels that way now. Yet my name is still on the back of his grave.

In the early 1970s, as I understand it, my father had the mad urge to leave his home, his parents, and all that was familiar, and buy a cattle ranch in the rural Missouri Ozarks. Idaho sheep farmer to military man to school teacher to Missouri cattle rancher. A strange symmetry, I supposed. My mother reluctantly consented. They sold their home, packed everything they owned, loaded up the five children, and left the potato fields of Idaho for the green, lush, Mormon-hating country of small-town Missouri. He never bought that ranch, but they did start life over. He took a job in a cheese factory, and stayed for years. I was born in Missouri in 1978. My little sister followed in 1982. We were the sixth and seventh children in the family line. (Years later, both of us would come out as gay. Maybe we can blame Missouri.)

As I understand it from my older siblings, my father was a pretty happy man. He smiled and laughed, played hard, spent time with his kids. But by the time I came into the picture, something had changed. He grew sad and serious. Sometimes angry, but never happy. He seemed haunted. He was hot water, forever waiting to boil, and stuck at that temperature. He worked, he cried, he grew angry with my mother. Mostly he sat silently. No board games. No tickle fights. No camping trips or tossing the ball in the backyard. A serious, sad, haunted man who was doubled over in half due to the stress of raising and providing for seven children. A man who bit off far more than he could chew, who followed all of the rules of Mormonism yet somehow couldn’t experience any of the happy things. A stranger in my home.

I adapted. I wrote stories and played games, collected toys and made treasure hunts for my mom and siblings. I excelled in school. Dad was around but never seemed to notice or care much, and so I just got on with the process of growing up.

And then, in 1990, when I was 11, my mom made the boldest decision of her life, and she left. She went back to Idaho, after nearly two decades away. My dad stayed behind. And I remember being relieved. The world made more sense without him around.

Life got complicated for all of us after the divorce. My mom remarried, but he was mean. My dad ended up in Las Vegas. Months would go by without a phone call, and there were no visits. There was always a birthday card, and another at Christmas. Kitschy greeting cards from the grocery store with a check for one hundred dollars inside, and a short sentence. Surprise, Dad  or Happy Birthday, Dad. That was it. Those small gestures of love meant very little, though, without the relationship to accompany it. He remained closer to my five older siblings, yet put no effort into me or my little sister. When my stepfather grew violent, my dad had nothing to say. When I starred in community and school plays, he wasn’t there (except perhaps once, when he was in town). He didn’t know my friends, my interests, my struggles. And then there was the time I heard my mother tell him over the phone that his children wanted to see him. And my dad responded that he had no children.

When I grew up, I made a few passing attempts to get to know my father, and I sensed some gestures in return. He wrote a few letters when I was a missionary, and I wrote back. He took Sheri and I on a bizarre trip to Europe; he and I shared a room for two weeks, and never really spoke. He showed up at my wedding. My older sisters always encouraged me to put more effort in, to try harder, to seek understanding. He’s different than you think, they said. He tries and shows love just not how you can see it, they said. Maybe he can’t express anything to you, they said.

Maybe, I would think back. But the man whose name I bear can’t tell me the names of my own children, and that tells me everything I need to know. Four decades in and not much has changed.

My father just turned 80. I’m 40. I drove down with my partner to celebrate dad’s life, meeting the rest of my siblings there in Las Vegas. Conversations were superficial. He seemed genuinely happy, in his way, to see his children there to honor him. He told a few terrible jokes. He thanked everyone for being there. I left silently, overwhelmed by the experience.

A week later, I got a card in the mail. It was more than a sentence this time. “Thank you for coming to surprise me,” he said. “I’m glad we can seek common ground, despite our differences. Love, Dad.”

Our differences, I thought. What common ground, I thought. I set the card down. And again, I cried.

But at his grave, I didn’t cry. My name is on the back of his headstone. Etched there, permanently. I’m sixth in a list of his children. And one day, a death date will be carved into the front, and my father laid beneath. But my name will already be there, unchanged, like it has been all along, even before I knew about it.

Once, a therapist asked me how my father had impacted me the most. And I surprised her by answering that he made me an incredible father to my sons. I show interest in them, I said. I listen. I tickle and sing, dance and play, travel and teach, set boundaries and enforce routines. I’m there. Every day. There are no question marks in their center spaces. When I tell them I love them, they roll their eyes and say,  “Dad, we know! We love you too!” I’m there, and he wasn’t. He taught me to be an incredible father, I said, by never teaching me anything at all.

grave

Advertisements

Sex Education Part 5: High School Dances

CTR

There was an expected ritual to asking out girls in high school. Just asking, with a note or, worse, a direct question, was frowned on. There needed to be scavenger hunts, puzzles, elaborate ruses, or public embarrassment of some kind, just to ask. Why ask the girl directly when you could hang a banner down the hallway saying “Will You Go To Prom With Me, Emily? From Travis”, or when you could have the girl pop one hundred balloons and then rearrange letter squares from in the balloons to find out who was asking her? The more elaborate the ruse, the more interested in the girl you were.

Of course, I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. And then, I was only encouraged to date Mormon girls. And I would be chaste, moral, and pure until marriage, which was still years in the future. Dating at 16 was an early way of preparing myself for marriage to a woman.

I was fully coming to terms with being gay at age 15, and I finally needed to tell someone about it. I went to the bishop, a family friend, and told him, ashamed, with my head hanging low, that I was attracted to boys. He responded with kindness and compassion, and informed me that I was special and God was giving me an extra challenge to prove my worthiness. He gave me a book written by prophets, one that talked about how evil homosexuality was, and then he sent me on my way.

I did my best to avoid sin at all costs. I played Mormon music in my room, put pictures of Jesus and the temples and apostles on my bedroom wall, and kept my thoughts pure. I did all I could to avoid masturbation and evil thinking, but there were times I failed. Every dark thought led to nausea and stomach aches, sometimes gastro-intestinal issues, and I was having regular stomach troubles and anxiety on a daily basis from the 8th grade on.

Before I turned 16, I thought receiving my patriarchal blessing would give me all the strength I would need to move forward. It would give me the answers on curing homosexuality, striking it from my system once and for all, I just knew it. But the patriarch was a stranger, and his words rang with authority, telling me I was a choice son of God who should not disappoint God in any way. He promised me a wife and kids in my future if I just lived worthy.

And then I turned 16, and dating was both encouraged and expected. I pretended a healthy interest in girls. I had to. It was the only way to get through it all. I was occasionally teased for being sensitive or feminine, and I was at times called dork, or fag, or sissy. The worst bullying happened in my own home, where my stepfather used name-calling, threats, intimidation, and volume to keep a tight hold on all of us, resorting to violence when necessary. He doled out love and fear in proportionate measures, and we never knew what was next. He called me “little fairy-boy”, and told me directly that he’d never wanted a son like me. In his crueler moments, he would say he understood why my dad left. But he counter-balanced it all on other days by telling me what a great kid I was, what a strong man I was growing into. His love came with healthy heapings of shame and fear, and it felt a lot like the love I had come to expect from God.

And so, I found ways to have crushes on girls. I chose those who had strong testimonies in the church, who were modest, who were pretty but not too pretty. I chose those who would respect that I was a good Mormon boy, and who wouldn’t expect anything physical from me. I sometimes chose girls who didn’t get asked out by other guys. And some of them got crushes on me, and I didn’t have crushes back. Some of them got hurt. I dated often. I double-dated with friends, guys I had actual crushes on, and I envied them as they danced with their dates and I danced with mine. The dates were always elaborate, pure spontaneous fun. There was movies and dinner, picnics in the park, silly board games, trips to the zoo or plays, hikes, and concerts. And there was always the school dances. several of them every year, and then the stake, or church, dances on top of those. Lichee, and Rochelle, and Tammy, and Malina, and Josie, and Karen, and Katie, and Meranda, and Malinda, and Larena, and Gelin, and Cathy. So many dates, some friendly, all respectful. Mormon dating. A young gay kid going on chaste and friendly adventures.

Sometimes we were lectured on morality and chastity at church. There was an emphasis on no pornography, no masturbation, no heavy-petting, no making out. Dancing was allowed, so long as hands were placed appropriately. Boys were told to keep thoughts pure and to stay worthy for our future wives. Girls were told that virtue was important above all else, because no one would want damaged goods when there were undamaged ones around. Sexual sin was bad, bad, bad, and just being gay was sexual sin already. I would have to work that much harder to prove God loved me. I had to be worthy of a cure.

I started my mornings with scripture studies. I prayed throughout the day. I sang hymns in my head. I did my homework, got good grades, was kind to my fellow students, reached out to the outcast and the misunderstood, and performed service for those I loved. I went to church on Sundays, paid my tithing, went to Seminary daily. I was a great kid. But I was constantly attracted to other boys, and it made me ill, and I started wondering how much effort it would take to prove to God that I was worthy of the cure he’d promised.

Over the course of a few years, I went on several dates with a high school friend named Karen. She was vibrant, beautiful, spontaneous, and fun. She wasn’t shy about her interest, but I remained carefully distant from her. I pushed and pulled. I wanted to date her to see if I could, but I didn’t want to because I lacked interest and attraction. I must have baffled her as she had no idea about the war happening under my skin.

One day, we sat in my car and talked, and she confronted me, asking me if I was interested or not. I was, I explained, but had a lot going on. She said if I was interested, I should show it, I said I didn’t know how to do that. She said it was easy, I should just kiss her. And I said I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’d never done that before, I explained. She rolled her eyes.

“It isn’t that hard to do, Chad,” she said, and she got out of my car. I didn’t call her back, and two weeks later, she had a new boyfriend. More evidence that something was wrong with me. I felt weak. I begged God for help. But I kept getting nauseous, kept dating girls, kept shutting my own heart and thoughts down. If I focused hard enough on church and school, God would cure me. He’d finally hear me.

He had to. He just had to. What other option did I have?

Seattle Part 8: Hymns on a Houseboat

November, 2014

Ironically, it was the Mormons who provided safety.

With my hour commute to work and my hour commute home, and with the long and very exhausting days of doing therapy, I had very little energy in the evenings. Often I would exercise, or walk along the lake and read, or go jogging. But after a period of time, I didn’t put much effort into dating any longer. I grew weary of getting stood up, endless chats, or misaligned intentions, and I got tired of the gay club scene very quickly. I was traveling back to Utah one weekend per month to see my children. That left three weekends to explore.

Seattle never lost its magic. I could see plays, live music, public readings by authors, art galleries, shopping districts, and restaurants any time I wanted. Then again, after a few months of that, I realized that Salt Lake City had all of the same things to offer. It only felt differently here because I had more free time.

I needed friends.

My roommates were busy and aloof, rarely keeping any commitments to hang out or do anything together. I worked on building casual friendships with a few guys I met in the city and their friend groups, but some were only looking for sex, some enjoyed drinking and partying far too much, and others just already had active groups of friends, and didn’t seem to have a lot of room for one more. On top of that, overwhelmingly, they had far more disposable money than I did. Child support, rent, travel to and from Utah, insurance, gas, and occasional leisure left me very strapped, and things like eating out were a huge luxury. Ironically, despite my years away from my own origins, I felt like I was too Mormon for the men I was meeting in Seattle.

Then again, I was far too ex-Mormon for the Mormons I was meeting. Still, they were the most welcoming. Although Seattle wasn’t drowning with gay and ex-gay Mormons like Utah was, there was still a healthy and active friend group of gay Mormon guys and girls here, some of them transplants from Utah itself. Most of them still went to church every week, in a ward where the bishop lovingly embraced them for being gay, and they had social activities outside of that often: game nights, pot lucks, birthday celebrations. I was invited to a few of the parties, and I started making friends.

There was the architect, the engineer, the chef, the model, the design specialist, the government agent. There were couples and single individuals. I was one of the few fathers in the bunch. I was part of them, and yet separate, but around them I felt safe in a strange way. I could laugh, relax. It felt like my youth, with my Mormon friends playing board games and watching movies yet without alcohol or cursing.

The group even convinced me to attend church with them on a few Sundays. After coming out of the closet, going to church felt dangerous, threatening, like I was entering a space where I couldn’t breathe. The long suffocating three-hour blocks of church, with six prayers, the hymns, the testimonies, the lessons about obedience and sacrifice. I was back in church, yet I was sitting among other gay Mormons, ones who wanted to be my friends. Among them, I was the only one who had officially left the church, my name off the records, yet among them I found just a touch of safety.

Over a period of weeks, I felt my old demons start to quiet, the ones that resented Mormonism, that raged at my upbringing. I began to find a space of healing within me, a place where the parts of my upbringing that I loved could dwell. The pain, the rage, the hurt, they were all still there, but I could separate all of those out from the parts that I loved. I hated the lies, the impossible expectations, the homophobia and misogyny and racism of Mormonism. But I began to realize that I loved the community it provided, the consistency, the music, the safety, the heritage.

I started to wonder if maybe I could own the word Mormon again. I would never be part of the Mormon church again. But could I use the word Mormon, as an adjective, as a bookend for myself, honoring my roots and my upbringing. I am gay, I am Mormon, I am a dad. I’m a writer, a helper, a teacher. It’s one word among many that can fit in my being and simply dwell there. I could redefine the word that had hurt me so much and make it part of me. I was Mormon, but on my terms. Everything to do with heritage, and nothing to do with religion.

My greatest healing took place on the houseboat, the one where my dear friend Mary lived. When people asked how we knew each other, I gave the simplest answer I could. “Mary is my ex-step-sister-in-law.” Or, the slightly more detailed answer. “My mother used to be married to her ex-husband’s father.” I grew up looking up to Mary, who had a sense of style and social justice about her. She styled herself after Clara Bow and silent film stars, and she exuded love and confidence as she sang sweet melodies as her fingers moved up and down the piano keys. My sister Sheri grew up playing her music on repeat, songs over and over again, till they became familiar parts of my adolescence.

Mary was remarried now, and her sons were teenagers. She lived on a houseboat with her British husband. And she was, of course, allied to the LGBT Mormons that she knew and loved. She began to host monthly singing nights on her houseboat. As the structure rocked back and forth, the gay Mormons sat in circles, on chairs and couches or on the floor, and we sang the hymns. The songs that had touched me so much as a youth took on new meanings for me now in this circle.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee, lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled. 

Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. 

Though hard to you this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day. 

Sweet hour of prayer, they wings shell my petition bear. 

Peace and plenty here abide, smiling sweet on every side, time doth softly sweetly glide. 

Forward, pressing forward, as a triumph song we sing. 

I was singing again. I was getting in touch with those parts of me that I’d left behind after coming out. I was beginning to realize that the me then, the one that had hurt so bad for so long, he wasn’t something that I had to escape from. I didn’t need to completely redefine myself. I didn’t need to be someone new. I just needed to be someone who loved himself. I could leave the painful parts there, and reclaim the parts of me that I loved.