Seattle Conclusion: Homecoming

April, 2015

Outside of a few goodbye dinners with friends, and one last night spent with Zhu, leaving Seattle was relatively anticlimactic. I carried my clothes, pictures, and few supplies down the stairs and loaded them into my car. I went to bed early the night before, woke and had one last cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking Lake Washington (my how I would miss the view over the lake), showered, dressed, and left. I was on the road by 5:30 am, ready for a long day’s worth of driving ahead. I almost immediately realized I wouldn’t miss it. I had taken what I needed, and now I was ready to leave.

I tried to leave the city with the same sense of adventure and hope that I’d arrived in it with. As I got on the busy interstate toward Utah, I contemplated the new reality that awaited me back home. I had taken the biggest risk of my life in moving here, and ultimately I had only lasted six months. I didn’t feel like a failure. I wasn’t coming home to Utah with my head between my legs. Instead, I was returning changed. And I had a long day of driving to figure out what those changes meant for me, and what they were.

The storm within me was quieter now. I was safer in myself. I had left Utah with so much anger and sadness, emotions that came from an unsafe place. But now the feelings were quiet within me. Their expression was more normal. I could get mad, or sad, or scared; I could feel anxious or guilty; I could grieve, or hope, or strive, and the world felt possible and safe. I knew how to feel now, and how to process the feelings. They were gifts now. They didn’t overwhelm or incapacitate me as they once had.

Leaving Utah had allowed me to find myself. It taught me that happiness wasn’t right around the corner, it was already within me. Utah no longer felt like me being shackled in place, instead it was a place where I had friends, where I felt it home. It now represented ground that I could build from, instead of the shattered ruins it had felt like when I left.

My children were six months older now. I’d seen them every month, and spoken with them over video chat daily, but they were older. And so was I. My friends had changed too; some had moved away, some had ended relationships, others had new jobs or homes or boyfriends. And yet Utah would feel exactly the same, just without the sense of threat that it had before.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, my ex-wife, my children’s mother, had evolved as well. She was no longer attending the LDS Church, for her own reasons, and I think that I had proven to her that I was a consistent and involved father, even from farther away. She was kinder now, in a way, and perhaps she blamed me less for the end of our marriage. And maybe that was the most healing thing of all. Maybe I finally could let go of my shame there, and stop living with regrets; maybe I could march forward with my life in peace and with hope now.

Ultimately, my time in Seattle had been… simple. The lessons I learned there were things most people learned in their teenage years and in their twenties. I learned that finding love wasn’t so easy, that family was the most important thing, that loving yourself was crucial before loving others. I learned how to prioritize health and self-compassion. I learned that I didn’t want to live with a bunch of guys in a fraternity setting, and that I didn’t want to make more money if it meant selling my soul and my own mental health. I learned that debt, and struggle, and pain follow you, even if you move to a new horizon. I learned that no one gets to the destination without putting the hard work in first.

Back in Utah, I had secured an apartment downtown. A brand new beginning in a new part of town. I was taking over the lease from some old college students. When I arrived, I found they left just a few things behind: a container of protein powder, a pull-up bar, a box of Stevia packets, two folding chairs, and seven unused condoms. Within days, I would have the place stocked with furniture and bunkbeds for my children. I would need to find work quickly in order to survive. There was a gym in the basement to work out in, and my social work license was still active, so I could launch right back into life. My friends were there. In fact, Kurt, my best friend, was planning a welcome back party for me, even though he had just thrown a going away party for me six months before.

I drove toward my sons, toward my future, having no idea what’s next for me. I had projects in mind, research and writing projects, things that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel, and to get in the best shape of my life, and to achieve financial freedom for the first time. But I was beginning to believe those things were possible. I was free from the shackles of the things that had held me back before, and I was learning that only I could put restrictions on myself. I had just the right ground to build from.

I pulled into my new place and, over a few hours, unloaded my car into the new apartment. Tonight, I would sleep on the floor, with pillows and blankets. In the morning, I would go grocery shopping, and then pick up my sons, and they would come over and play with me while I unpacked. It was a new beginning. Another one.

The next morning, I knocked on the door of my old apartment, the one my ex-wife had moved into when I’d moved to Seattle. My sons were inside waiting for me. The door opened, and my five year old yelled out, “Daddy, you’re home!”

And as I gathered him in my arms, his brother toddling over right behind him, I said “I am home, my boys. I am home.”

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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.

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.

Storytime

father-son-holding-hands.jpg

“You guys wanna play storytime?”

I take a seat on the couch as my sons sit on the ground in front of me, eager. It’s nearly nap time and they have full tummies. J, age 6, starts first grade

in a few weeks and is growing more mature and creative every day. A, just barely four, looks up with bright blue eyes, his imagination already spinning tales.

I look down at them, my eyes growing wide to convey excitement, and begin.

“Once upon a time, there were, well, three grasshoppers that lived in a beautiful patch of grass, where they ate leaves. They–”

“What were their names?” J interrupted.

“Well, Ernst, Ferdinand, and Gilgal. And one day a really nice old lady who lived in a house nearby was working in her garden and she saw the three grasshoppers, who were brothers. The woman, whose name was Clementine, thought they were the most beautiful grasshoppers she had ever seen so she asked if she could take them home and they agreed. She put them in a little jar and carried them home, and she made them a nice big home in an aquarium where they could hop up and down all around the aquarium as they grew older. She decorated it with plants, grass, leaves, and sticks, and they were so happy. She fed them every day two times.”

“And then what happened?” A asked, intent.

“Well, one day Clementine got sick and she had to go to the hospital and she couldn’t be there to feed them.”

“Use their names!” J reminded.

“She couldn’t be there to feed Ernst, Ferdinand, and Gilgal. They were so hungry, they were too tired to hop. But the next day, she came home and said ‘I’m home and I’m okay!’ and she fed them some delicious eucalyptus leaves as a special treat and they were so happy, they lived happily ever after.”

Both boys seemed to want more, looking at me expectantly.

“Well, what did you guys think? What were your favorite parts?”

J thought for a moment. “Well, I liked when they ate the leaf.”

A made no effort to hide his disgust. “I didn’t have a favorite part. There wasn’t any bad guys this time.” He’s particularly fond of toothy creatures.

“Okay, J, your turn.”

J and I traded places, he taking his seat on the couch and me moving to the floor next to A.

“Okay, this is a good one,” J started, and he looked up, pressing his lips together tightly like he does when he’s thinking hard.

“Once upon a time there were two sisters named Elsa and Aana, but not the ones from Frozen, some different sisters. They lived with their mom and dad who were gone. And when the sisters were playing one time, a giant giant attacked and the sisters runned into their rooms and were hiding until their mom and dad came home and they had turned bigger than the giant and the house and everything and they stopped the giant who ran away and the sisters were okay. The end.”

I clapped my hands. “Great story! My favorite part was when the sisters were smart and hid in their room.”

A stood up, knowing it’s his turn next. “I liked when the giant mom and dad came in and punched the giant right in the nose and killed him dead!” He punched a little fist into the air.

J, looking proud of himself, climbed down. “Okay, A, your turn!”

A took more effort to climb up onto the couch, pulling himself by his arms and bringing his knees up, pulling his body up, then twisting himself around. I smiled at him as J took a seat by me. A is so big for being so little.

“Okay, here we go. Once upon a time, there was two boys named J and A and a mom and a dad. They lived in a big house. One day, a big big big big big mean mean mean shark came over. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the mom was a mermaid and the dad was at work and the brothers was twins who lived in their mom’s belly. Then the big shark came in and he had a lot of teeth and he was mean and he tried to bite them a whole bunch but the kids popped out of the mom’s tummy and the dad came home and punched the shark til he was dead a lot and then they winned. The end.”

I clapped my hands for him again and J looked up at him proudly.

“Great job! My favorite part was when the dad saved the day!”

“Good job, A! My favorite part was when the brothers came out of her tummy.”

The boys, knowing the routine, climbed up onto my lap for some snuggles, one on each arm, winding down for naps. J, my compassionate and intuitive son, patted my shoulder.

“Aw, you’re a good daddy. You make us breakfast, snuggle us, tuck us in, and play with us. Thanks for everything.”

And soon they are sleeping, and I’m watching their little prone faces breathe peacefully, soft music in the background, and I’m thinking once again how this part of my life is the best thing in the world.