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.

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Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

Seattle Part 9: Far Away Daddy

November, 2014

The day I drove into Seattle, after unpacking my car into my new room, the very first thing I did was call my sons. Given their ages, it wasn’t easy to connect with them via phone, so it had to be over FaceTime. J was 5 and just starting kindergarten. (“Don’t go, Daddy,” still rang in my brain, sparking fresh tears easily). A was 3 and thriving in pre-school. Conversations over the phone tended to be about cartoons, and silly stories. As long as they could see my face and know my voice, I could make them laugh and we would stay connected.

Still, I made a vow to make it much more special than a daily phone call. I would be back to visit every month, I told them. I already had my first trip out planned in just three weeks. My best friend Kurt had already offered to let me stay there with them if I couldn’t afford a hotel. I promised my boys fun adventures. While my first trip back, in October, was fairly routine, the one in November had us booked in a local hotel and seeing sites we had never seen before, and in December I rented a car and took them to Dinosaur, Colorado for an epic weekend.

In addition to our daily calls and my monthly visits, I mailed my sons gifts as well as weekly comic strips. “The Adventures of J!” had my older son going on all kinds of crazy capers with silly endings. He teamed up with princesses and his favorite super heroes, fought ridiculous bad guys, developed super powers, and saw the world. We had a ritual of reading the latest comic strip I had mailed him together over the phone every Sunday night, and after only a few weeks, he began asking about the adventures over the phone, wondering what would happen to his comic strip avatar next. It delighted me to create this continuity in our far-away connections.

A, at 3, had to be entertained differently, and he had always loved animals, so his weekly hand-drawn comic strip became “A’s Amazing Animals!” I started with the letter A, and I drew him in the center of the page surrounded by all of the A animals I could fit. Alligator, Armadillo, Albatross, Aardvark, Army Ant. Each Sunday night, when I called, we would identify the animals together over the phone, and he began compiling a book of each letter that I sent. (Unknowingly, this weekly series for my toddler son would measure my time in Seattle almost perfectly. One letter per week until I landed at Z, ironically the same week I would return from Seattle to Utah).

I talked about my sons non-stop to anyone who would listen. Their pictures lined my bedroom walls. I ached for them. I cried for them. I knew I needed this time for healing, and I felt I deserved that time, but my heart felt torn in two being so far away from them. It was difficult not to dissolve into a ball of shame for my selfishness. I constantly thought about fatherhood and what it meant to me.

I’d had so little example of fathers in my own life. My own dad and squandered my childhood with depression and distance. My stepfather had used fists and angry words when not using fear and manipulation. My older brother had always been a bully. Outside of a few family friends and more distant relatives, the only examples of fatherhood I had were in my local Mormon congregations, and it would take me years to realize how much they emphasized obedience, conformity, and hiding who I was. Thus the ultimate example of fatherhood was a God I grew up believing in, one whose love became conditional upon my ability to be obedient and straight.

Over a period of weeks in Seattle, I explored my role as a father. I was meant to be a dad. I was a good one. My heart melted every time my children called me ‘daddy’. One day, they would be grown men, and I hoped beyond measure that they would view their childhoods with happiness and peace, with supportive and loving parents, and not the way I viewed my own, as one of conditional love, silence in my own skin, and painful growth. I wanted nothing more than for my sons to learn how to be the very best versions of themselves, and to grow up with self-love and confidence.

But I had come about my children dishonestly, in a mixed-orientation marriage where I wasn’t happy. For a time, I berated myself over this. But over time, I grew to view myself with more compassion, and less judgment. I’d done the best I could with what I had at the time. I hadn’t come out yet because I hand’t known how. And so I married, followed the path ahead of me, and that led to two children. I was grateful I had come out while they were young, and I loved them with all of my heart.

My judgment of myself grew less when I began looking at the world around me with a more critical eye. Children born into happy households with authentic parents seemed to be the exception, not the rule. How many kids were born to parents who didn’t yet know what they were doing? The results of teenage pregnancies, or one-night stands, or accidental and unplanned inceptions. More than that, how many kids were born to parents who changed after the births of their children, who grew to struggle with the circumstances of life, or debt, or stress? How many kids saw their parents divorce, how many suffered abuse or violence, how many grew up with different parents entirely? Ultimately, these realizations helped me forgive myself more quickly, forgive myself again. I couldn’t change the origin stories of my sons, the circumstances in which they were brought into the world. But I could make sure I led an honorable life from here forward, and that I continued making them my priority by also making myself a priority.

I might be far away, at least for a time. But I would speak to them every day. I would draw them comic strips, and visit for monthly adventures, and pay my child support in full. The would know, daily, that I loved them exactly as they were.

I might be far away, but I was their daddy still, and they were loved.

Drag Queen Bingo

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“Guys, tonight, we are gonna play drag queen bingo.”

“What’s a drag queen?” one son asked.

“What’s bingo?” the other asked.

I sat down on the floor to explain that bingo was a game where someone called out numbers, and that you had to watch your card to get patterns of numbers, and that the first one to get it won prizes. With a visual demonstration, they quickly understood.

Explaining drag queens was a little trickier.

“You know how some of Dad’s friends are transgender?” The boys nodded, remembering what that meant. “And you know how last Christmas, your uncle dressed like a girl for Halloween, but he isn’t transgender and he’s not really a girl, right?”

“Right, of course.”

“Well, drag queens are kind of like that. They aren’t transgender. They are men who like to dress up like women, sometimes in pretty silly costumes, so they can perform. They are more like, well, like clowns. They usually wear big, big wigs, and lots of makeup, and silly dresses. Some of them have giant bras on with, like, decorations on them. And they are really silly and funny.”

The boys asked a few questions, but they swiftly understood the concept. My 9 year old, J, remembered a recent rerun of Pokemon he’d seen where the character Jigglypuff sings and puts everyone to sleep, then draws marker all over their faces. “What if Jigglypuff put everyone in this house to sleep and then turned them into silly drag queens before they woke up?” We all shared a laugh.

A few hours later, we walked up to the church cultural hall where the bingo event was being held. Several dozen people packed in around round tables. There were hugs and greetings exchanged around the room, people purchasing snacks and cards, and coats hung on the backs of chairs. As the event began, the announcer, over a microphone, welcomed four separate drag queens out on the floor. One had a floral dress, a bright wig, and a thick mustache. The most extravagant was Petunia Papsmear, who happened to be a friend of mine, wearing a large brassiere with fluorescent tassels spilling out of each breast, a giant cartoon-like wig that looked like flames, and huge plastic spectacles. My sons watched the queens with amusement, fascination, and confusion, as they paraded around explaining charitable donations, party fouls, and complex rules.

Over the following hour, the kids learned how to monitor their own bingo cards, to find the right numbers under each letter and how to check the board for marked off numbers, and how to listen for the rules for each round, regarding bingo, blackout, center square, etc. Petunia came over behind me at one point and asked quietly if the kids might enjoy getting a party foul, and I shook my head no, at least not yet. So as the night went on, other tables were fouled, for inane reasons such as sending a text messages or having their elbows on the table. Tables with party fouls moved to the center of the room, where they put on a large and frilly hat, then grabbed a butterfly net, dancing around the music plays to collect money from the other tables. All of the money collected goes toward a local charity of some kind. The entire set-up was elaborate and adorable.

About 20 minutes into the event, A, my younger son, age 6, grew a bit bored and wanted to be entertained. I pulled out a notebook full of scrap paper and a pen, items I had brought just for this eventuality. I gave him a few different drawing assignments, and he passed his bingo card to someone else as he drew pictures titled “the War of the Gorillas”, “the Healthy Vegetable Patch”, and “Spaceships Invade Earth!” A is a prolific artist, one who focuses on delightful details, taking the assignment he is given and embellishing it with elements all his own. In “the Healthy Vegetable Patch” for example, he drew a plot of dirt with growing vegetables, then drew an entire family of spiders who lived above the patch. As he showed me the drawing, he told me each of the spiders names. The spider family included two children, one who “always gets into trouble” and one who is “very boring”. I’m constantly delighted by his art.

Growing bored again, A wanted more assignments. I looked around, then smiled, giving him the assignment to draw “Drag Queen Bingo.” Sticking his tongue out slightly, he looked around the room, examine the different drag queens, and then he began sketching them in adorable detail. He drew four figures in two rows, each with arms and legs spread out, as if performing, singing and dancing perhaps or just posing. With four separate hairstyles and appearances, and each with long eyelashes, he detailed the four queens. One had shaggy hair and a thick mustache, her toes turned inward. One had on a skirt over pants, with enormous lashes and a stacked wig on her head. One had long flowing hair, a round stomach, and a large bra with tassels hanging from the tips. The last was impossibly skinny with a tiny head and long braids. While they weren’t direct reflections of the queens present, they were close enough, and as we passed the drawing around the table, we all began laughing in delight.

During the next bingo break, I walked the drawing up to Petunia, who held the microphone, and told her about it. She began laughing, and soon she held the picture up for the assembled crowd, laughing about it and telling others that it was perhaps just a bit too accurate.

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“Can the young man who drew this picture please stand up?”

A stood up on his chair and took a small bow as instructed.

“Such realism!” Petunia said. “How accurate! Whatever inspired you to draw such a thing?”

In his husky voice, A shouted back across the crowd, heard by all. “My dad made me do it!”

As the crowd erupted in laughter, I felt my cheeks turn pink with happy embarrassment. During the final break, my sons and I stood up and got a picture with the assembled queens, and during the drive home they laughed about how much fun they’d had.

For a brief moment, I thought back to my own youth. Even a decade earlier, if I had heard of something like ‘drag queen bingo’ I would have tsked, seeing it as something frivolous, sinful, and certainly not a family activity. Yet tonight, I’d sat with my sons in a room full of people in love with life and having an incredible time. We’d been happy, laughing, and entertained. And I celebrated these new moments that I get to share with my sons, even as men in jeweled bras and wigs ran around.

Father’s Day

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.