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

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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.

Motherhood

Unborn-baby

“I can’t wait to meet him.” I repeated that over and over for months. “I just can’t wait to see who he is, what he becomes. No matter who he is, no matter what, he’s going to be beautiful.”

I remember those first moments when I realized I would be a father for the first time. There was a strong sense of responsibility mixed with wonder and a glimpse into the far future.

It was both simple and impossibly complex. Sperm had mixed with egg and now a life form was growing, the size of an insect, then an acorn, then a lemon, then an apple, steadily developing over time. A mix of everything I am and everything she is, perfectly blended in an impossibly perfect creation. Would he have my crooked jaw, her freckly arms, my creative mind, her empathy and devotion?

Every moment after that was different from every one that had come before. Before, I lived my life in days. Before, I collected things, I worked overtime, I planned vacations and adventures. After, I lived my life in years, seeing my child even before I knew him, growing day by week by year into an old and accomplished man. After, I thought of solid foundation, platforms and jumping off points, legacies and integrity.

And then that moment where the ultrasound jelly spread and that little image came up on the screen, foggy and alien. And that underwater swishing heartbeat. And the words, “It’s a boy”, distinguishable only by a tiny speck between his zygote legs.

And suddenly, “I’m a father” became “I’m having a son,” and my world turned again. Legacy again, and foundation, but also a pride, a security, a kernel of new definition in my very center.

“I’m having a son.”

And all of that, all of those feelings and transformations, how much more they must have been for Megan, with new life in her center. A growing, changing life form, half her and half me, at her core. What she ate, he ate. What she felt, he felt. What she heard, he heard.

I remember placing my hand on her stomach as she slept in those early days, and picturing my son, smaller than my very hand, growing there. Billions of births to billions of parents the world over, yet this was mine. This was now my entire world.

And everything fatherhood meant to me, motherhood must mean to her. The sacredness, the fragility, the expansion of soul and spirit and being. A literal cord connecting one life to another, the child protected only by a thin layer of liquid and form, miracle of miracles yet so vulnerable, so easily broken while so full of potential. Fragile and miraculous, the perfect recipe for life.

That moment, with my hand on her stomach as she breathed, I thought of mothers. I thought of Megan’s mother, working so hard for years to get pregnant, involving medical interventions and heartbreak after heartbreak before Megan came in to the world. And I thought of my own mother, pregnant five times before bearing me, her life changing as her marriage strained. I pictured arms wrapped around infants, the passage of milk and heartbeat, sleeplessness and worry, affection and nurturing.

My mother bore seven children. 63 months pregnant, over five years of her life as a vessel for new life. Now, in her 70s, she looks at her children grown, decades old, with children of their own, and she views them with the same love and worry, the same fragility and wonder.

Megan would bear two. Two sons, my sons and hers, with their blue eyes and tousled hair, their creative imaginations, their laughter and dancing and scrawled ‘Happy Moms Day’ messages on white paper over stick figure families.

What worlds we have created, what gods we have become in making these little men. From our mothers and fathers to us, from us to them. What purpose they give us. And as they change and grow and expand and become, we watch them, changing and growing and expanding and becoming ourselves as our mothers and fathers watch us, in turn changing and growing and expanding and becoming.

My heart is full as I think of the mothers in my life, the one who gave me life and the one that created new life with me.

And then my thoughts turn to my most sacred space, standing in sunlight, two small hands firmly in each of mine, looking forward to the horizon.

Green means Go

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“Well, it isn’t that confusing. I was married to Mom and we had you two little monkeys. And then mom and me got a divorce, so we live in two houses and we both love you both.”

I look at the rear view mirror, which reflects the face of my six year old son, J. His brow is furrowed in frustration. “But you like to marry boys, so why did you marry a girl, then?”

I smile and sigh. He has so many questions, that one. To him, the idea of ‘marrying’ someone is the expression of love. He’s really asking, ‘if you like boys, why did you marry mom?’ “Well, we’ve talked about this before, son. Do you remember why I married mom?”

He nods, looking down at his fingernails. The light turns green and I move the car forward. “You married mom because you loved her and you didn’t think it was okay to marry a boy, so you  married a girl.”

“Yes, that’s right. You have a very good memory.”

“Yeah, but why?”

I shift my eyes to my three year old, A, strapped in to his car seat. He has my furrow, the same way of scrunching his eyebrows down to give off an excellent look of consternation. Though two years and nine months younger, he weighs almost more than his petite older brother.

“Why what, A?”

“Why didn’t you marry a boy?”

I had thought it would be a few more years before they started asking questions like this. J had been only 3 when I came out of the closet, finally and officially, and A hadn’t even been born yet. They’ve basically always known I was gay. They have other gay family members, they know many of my gay friends, and having a gay dad will be a completely normal part of their upbringing. They would never recognize the man that I used to be.

A few memories flood back into my mind; the Priesthood blessing I had asked for as a missionary that I believed would finally cure me; the hours spent in therapy, asking for help with being attracted to men and being treated for “porn and masturbation addiction” even though I wasn’t addicted to porn or masturbation; the night that I told Megan that I was gay, after years of dating her, and her nodding that she understood–that was the night of our first kiss, my first kiss, at age 26; (I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 32).

Then I think of the first few weeks after I had come out, and how I had very briefly considered taking my own life, believing at the time that my sons would be better off with no father than a gay one. I look back at them now and think of all the confusion they would have have had without me in their world. All these questions they have now, they have me to ask; what kind of questions would they have if I wasn’t here.

I think of rocking them when they were infants, cuddling them when they were toddlers. I think of the stories, crayons, and toys; the trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the aviary; the wrestling matches, puppet shows, dance parties, and dragon fights. I think of the early morning feedings, the diaper explosions, the projectile vomit, the emptied cupboards and crushed crackers and spilled juice cups. I think of Christmas mornings and Halloween nights and Easter eggs and Valentines and Independence Day fireworks.

“Dad, I said why didn’t you marry a boy!” A shouts, playfully yet sternly, impatient for an answer.

“Whoa, be patient!” I pull up to another red light. How do I answer such a complicated question to kids that are 3 and 6? “Well, I grew up in the Mormon church, and they said that marrying a boy was bad, and that boys should only marry girls.”

A wrinkles his nose. “Well, that’s dumb.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

But J still looks very serious. “Wait, but Mommy wanted to marry a boy and you are a boy.”

“Well, yeah, but mommy is straight. That means she wants to marry a boy who wants to marry a girl. I’m gay, and that means I want to marry a boy who also wants to marry a boy.” I am tempted to change the word marry to love, but decide that isn’t necessary right now.

The light bulb of understanding comes on over J’s head as it all clicks together. “Oh, that makes sense.”

A nods. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Well, good.”

The car is quiet for a moment as we get closer to our destination. The radio plays softly. I look up to the mountains in the distance, covered in snow, the sky filled with clouds above them. It is an absolutely beautiful day.

“Well,” J starts, thinking for a minute. “When I grow up, I think I’ll marry a girl. Maybe Hannah in my class.”

“That’s a great plan, J.”

He continues. “We can get married when I’m 25. We can have a boy and a girl and name them Tad cause it rhymes with Chad and Dad. And the girl will be Aloy.” I feel tears come to my eyes unbidden. Aloy was the name of my grandmother, the name I had selected if J had been a girl. “And we will have a rabbit named Sunface, and we will live in north Idaho because it’s so pretty, but not in Provo cause it is too hot and gross. And I will be a Wendy’s chef.”

I laugh out loud at his little plan for the future. “That sounds like a great life, J.”

Never one to be one-upped by a story, A pipes in. “And I’m not gonna get married to a boy or a girl. I will just live in a hotel with nine million dollars and I will have a dog named Loki and I will be a mighty hunter. Or maybe I will marry one boy and four girls and have nine million kids instead.”

The last stop light turns green, and I pull into the parking lot at McDonalds and both boy gave out a whoop of joy at the thought of Chicken Nuggets and milkshakes, and I think, no matter the wayward path it took me to get here, this is a pretty good life to have.

I think of all the years wasted at red lights, and resolve, again, to seek out the greens. It’s time for forward motion.