Updated: Sep 13, 2023
A year after my dad’s death, this is what I’ve learned
I had just arrived in South Carolina from my new home of northern New Mexico a few days ahead of my godson’s First Holy Communion. Spring was in the air, rife with the signs of Easter I came to appreciate as a devout Catholic kid growing up in the borderland between Baltimore City and County: buds in bloom on the cherry and dogwood trees, dandelion sprouts peaking up through cracks in the pavement and pine tree pollen swirling in the wind. I was looking forward to this trip.
It had been the first time in four years since I’d seen my nephew, the oldest of two sons by my childhood best friend and his wife. He was of an age by which my presence would have a more lasting imprint on his developing memory so I was eager to establish some posterity in our bond. To connect with paternal instincts my role as uncle taps into and, further, to engage in some homosocial intimacy important to understanding the rite of church initiation he was soon to undergo — even if, especially because, the ceremony was simply a matter of motions to his young mind and body.
Had I the time, I would have explored his understanding of the symbolic depths of a ritual whereby Catholic boys and girls learn to consume the “flesh” of a resurrected first-century Jewish prophet. Not in any way to proselytize — especially not on behalf of a church I do not believe in and which I left over a decade ago. Rather, to enter into its mystery as a Christian figuration on an archetypal myth — one with bearing on how we articulate abstract concepts like death and dying. That conversation would have to wait.
I was just lying down to bed in the guest room prepared for me the night of my arrival. The house was quiet, the boys tucked into bed after a round of Checkers I lost to my sharp-eyed godson. I opened my phone to check on any missed messages and glimpsed the word “hospital” in a thread shared between me, one of my older brothers and my oldest sister — both in Southern California.
My stomach dropped. It was a worn feeling but one that always struck fresh when it happened. My father was back in the ICU.
I had been preparing for a moment like this for over a decade. Or so I thought. My dad’s health had been precarious at best since his first diagnosis of cancer in 2010 at the age of 71. In a routine follow-up on a procedure he had done to remove a benign polyp on his colon that previous fall, his MRI showed a rapidly growing tumor on his liver. By March of that year he underwent major surgery through UCLA’s Pfleger Liver Institute. It demanded he only undergo chemotherapy orally, through a pill, for the following eight months. He went into remission. Then, several years later, the cancer returned as minute spots on his liver. He was considered too high-risk for surgery so the doctors opted for a non-invasive technique using lasers called an “ablation.”
Thereafter, his health was in constant triage. He required seasonal check-ups every three months for the next three years until the cancer was removed in 2018. In those days I or other available family members provided transportation for the commute between mid-coastal Orange County — where he settled in his twilight with my mother — to downtown Westwood. I also provided some in-home care because much of my dad’s later liver issues took place as I was finishing doctoral work remotely for a religious studies program I started in Berkeley five years earlier.
In the time between his first liver procedure and his ablations (there were multiple), he suffered a heart attack on the basis of a 75 percent blockage in one of his carotid arteries — the blood vessels pumping life between the chest and head. He received comprehensive care through doctors at Hoag Medical Center overlooking Newport Beach. True to his fighting form, he recovered well without invasion. Three years later, after passing clearance on his liver, doctors found an unsightly development on his right lung. This time it would take actual radiation to heal him. He recovered. Again.
So when I read my dad had been admitted to the ICU at Hoag — which, alongside the campus in L.A., we jokingly considered a “second home”— I was hesitant to believe he was really going down for the count this time. Not even for a cerebral hemorrhage.
As per his daily morning ritual, he was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother having coffee before breakfast. He liked to perch in plain sight of the front door and living room windows from which he would scan the green courtyard of the condominium complex into which my parents had moved in the mid-aughts to be nearer to my sister, her husband and their three sons. He was an observant bystander with a retired city cop’s eye for curiosities.
Over time, especially after his 80th birthday, my dad’s short-term memory began to fade and, with it, his ability to stay in conversation without returning to well-rehearsed memories of his days as a child or as a parent raising his own children or as a traffic officer and beat cop on the streets of Baltimore.
On this particular morning, a Wednesday in mid-May, the usual a.m. chit-chat between him and my mom morphed into a series of warbled incoherencies. Something was obviously amiss. Shortly after, the EMTs were on their way.
My dad was a lover who learned to fight early on in his family system. He was the youngest son in a line of three older brothers and an older sister under the “care” of an emotionally and physically abusive father and a mother who was helpless to defend her boys. His sister, who was his one source of maternal affection and attention, died early of heart disease. She was barely 40. In my estimation it was his spirit of defiance in the face of bullying which carried him through his bouts with cancer and heart disease.
I called my sister’s phone immediately regardless. Holding the device to his ear I muttered all I could muster in that moment — a simple, “I love you.”
He had more to say from the sedated bed on which he would find his final rest, words I’ve carried with me like a mantra since my first inkling of self-awareness: “Do your best and the angels can do no more.”
Such was the case with my dad in his current condition. His body had worn its bruises well. But it was ready to cast its casing to the wind, to decompose into the metaphysics of the ether it was now becoming.
“Are you going to see him?” my best friend asked over a greasy spoon at the Cracker Barrel in suburban Greenville the next day. This was a tradition between us on all of my infrequent trips back to the East Coast.
I was on the fence, weighing the situation in my head: How many times have we been here before?
“I’m not sure,” I told my friend after a protracted pause between bites.
He offered to pay for the ticket to Orange County on no condition. At his wife’s behest, I took him up on the offer. By that Thursday I was on my way for what would become a goodbye in the flesh.
In Atlanta, on a couple-hour layover between Greenville and Santa Ana, I decide to write for the first time in months. My last proper entry was around the time of my father’s 83rd and last live birthday. It includes a series of quotations from a book I was revisiting at the time, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and outlines his concept of the “monomyth” — that underlying plot structure of the archetypal journey toward individuation characterizing the general motif of world mythologies: separation, initiation and return.
At the heart of the hero’s path lies an orientation toward the world defined by some kind of death and rebirth — typically psychological but no less physical:
“Everywhere, no matter what the sphere of interest (whether religious, political or personal), the really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world” — as signified by a period of “nonentity” the hero suffers in order to separate from his tribes of origin (i.e. family, church, school, social class, geographic region) and thereby claim a value system that would otherwise go unrealized (35).
In a word, the hero, to be a hero, must learn to decide the course of their own destiny. It is a laying hold on one’s unique gifts —an acceptance of the divine “boon” bestowed upon every person who heeds its beckoning — and offering it back to the world one had left behind.
“The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth,” Campbell writes. “The familiar life has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand” (51). In finding words to process the gravity of what was happening ahead of me I begin to break down. I worry other people in the terminal are watching me in this eruption of emotional vulnerability. But most of them are heads-down-deep into their devices. I wonder, Is anyone else’s dad dying?
On my first of a three-day visit during which I spend watchful hours by my father’s bedside in the company of my oldest brother in town from his hermitage in Minnesota, I am struck by my dad’s disposition. He is joyful, triumphant even. Perhaps the clearest he’d been mentally in the years since his heart attack — seasons punctuated by unacknowledged mini-strokes and a diminished short-term memory leading to this fatal blow to his brain. From the parched discomfort of his hospital death bed, as I swab his dry mouth between unsettling cries for more water, he tells me he will always be with me.
Ten days after he was admitted to the hospital for life support — of which he wanted nothing — he crossed his mortal threshold with the bravery of the Christian soldier he was. If afraid, he was willing to take that leap. He wanted to pass. He said one of his older brothers was calling to him. There was assurance of something hereafter, a deserved boon awaiting him at the other end of an arc in a myth that ends the same way for us all.
With the premortem prescience of total surrender, following a final farewell bid between him and my sister — the last, not only of his children but of his entire clan, to see him — my dad exhaled his exit. In the dark of a midnight hour he let his life go.
I’ve heard it said that we don’t really grow up until our parents die. For some of us — literal orphans or children who lose their parents in their youth — that obviously means becoming adults sooner than we anticipate. For me, it happened slowly, even as my dad was alive and well. As a gay man born into a culture that has no language for my existence except sin, that shuns and silences it on the basis of its inherent inadmissibility to the community of the faithful, I grew up an orphan in my own right — exiled from my own experience in a way that many gay men are who’ve been raised in morally hidebound households.
And not unlike many gay men, the figure of the father — as both a constellation of psychic energies related to the active “masculine” principle (think yang) and as an actual cis-gendered male with children — hangs heavy over the psyche as we seek out a definition of manhood unique to the contradictions our counter-cultural bodies embody.
Though sensitive and kind, despite his own issues with repressed rage learned from his abusive and alcoholic father, my dad could never quite access the particularity of my adolescent experience. Rather than feeling safe enough to talk to him about closeted inklings of homosexual attraction I experienced as a teenager, I resigned myself early on to a relationship with him that only ever scratched the surface relative to the depths of my need for him as son. He was a provider whose warm presence — when not frozen by the complexities of his own feeling states — was enough.
I thus turned to other men for guidance and mentorship growing up. Many of them, though hidden behind a religious collar, elicited an unspoken nod of mutual recognition between us. I was seen in a way that my father never could recognize me. His religion would not license his approval nor his full acknowledgement of my gay manhood.
Granted, when I came out to him at 26, he was compassionate and understanding while towing the Church’s party line. On some level, true to many folks programmed by fundamentalist Christian dogma, it was as if he considered my orientation a lifestyle choice with predatory implications, even as it was something with which I was born. Pope Francis, despite his double-mouthed sentiments concerning the Catholic Church and homosexuality, had made some progress in opening eyes like those of my father. Regardless, there was something in his conditioning I could never quite breach.
For example, one morning in the remaining months of my doctoral program we were spending time with each other over a cup of coffee. Perhaps there was a headline on the front page of the local paper about gay marriage rights or gay parenting which instigated a variation on a question I wanted to ask for years. At this point it had been several since I came out to him and we were alone in the house — mom must have been at church for daily mass or out running errands. I seized the moment.
“Do you think gay men are suitable to raise children?”
It was a bold move leveraged on a simple man. In that split-second moment of impetuous inquiry, I had to face down decades of internalized rejection related specifically to my need for the father’s — my father’s — radical acceptance. I wanted his approval of me not as the good (read celibate) man he envisioned but as the gay man I am. As a man who loves other men in all forms that kind of affection entails.
“No,” he said without hesitation.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they would abuse their children,” he said.
“You know I’m gay, dad.”
“But you’re so masculine,” he said, conditioned by cultural stereotypes of gay men as effeminate, conniving villains who prey on the weak and powerless.
“You don’t think a man can be gay and masculine at the same time?” I asked, speaking his language.
He hesitated. I pushed.
“Do you think I would be unsafe to raise children?”
“No,” he said, “I think you’d make an excellent father.”
And so it goes.
I’ve scoured my recent journals to find the entry in which I chronicled this exchange. I may be misremembering it in fact — recalling it the way I wished it would have transpired. What I take away is the nod of recognition I’d been seeking all along. Beyond all the baggage associated with sexuality in the Catholic Church, did my dad see me after all?
In Gay Body: A Journey through Shadow to Self, journalist Mark Thompson unpacks Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of “complexes” through the variegated filter of gay manhood. Elements of one’s personal psychology that contain repressed memories, wishes, fears, needs or insights with which we have not reckoned, complexes develop out of parental deficiency (52–53).
My father’s changing work schedules as I was growing up — now gone during the day, now on night shift — often left my father present in temperament alone, which was quick to anger. This wasn’t to say I do not have fond memories of physical and emotional comfort in his late-night arrivals home from a swing shift on the streets, sometimes sitting down with him at the kitchen table in the dim light of early morning over a snack.
But his frequent unavailability is part of a “father wound” in the words of American poet and controversial men’s movement leader, Robert Bly, that needs to be acknowledged. Fusing the insights of Thompson and Bly, my gay hunger for the father, a father, my father, is of universal value. It touches on a collective experience of gay men who grew up orphans with parents. I am one of those. And not for lack of having a supportive father who aspired toward the common good — especially in his role as public servant with the Baltimore City Police Department which he served with the kind of dignity and respect justice seeks in its peace keepers.
I know my dad loved me with all of the awareness he could muster around my embodiment of manhood. He was not without deep feeling, emotional sensitivity, understanding, kindness, compassion, empathy — all traits which bespeak a non-normative masculinity he modeled for me without necessarily knowing it to be counter-cultural in its own right.
I am a reflection of this man.
As my primary mirror for manhood, he reflected back to me aspects of my own nature I have learned to accept and internalize as good, worthy of love and valued. Honored not simply for what they bring to my performance of masculinity but in how they are refracted through the rainbow lens of my “second sight” to borrow a phrase from Black American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, another male mentor of mine. That is, the double-vision of my gay masculinity which sees the concept of manhood not as a societal ruse of which we gay men are the punchline (if not punching bag), but as a repressed state of being that is assertive, merciful and nurturing.
While my father may never have reconciled, or even thought to reconcile, his understanding of homosexuality with the shadow image of “the masculine” he had himself internalized as physically strong, if not naturally violent, he lived in a certain contradiction himself, straddling the unconscious tensions of his upbringing with the world into which I was entering as an adult man.
Indeed, glimpsed in his willingness to hold that contradiction with care, as evidenced in the anecdote above, my dad’s sensitivity to the “softer” contours of my life came to surface in moments of unexpected aside — like when he would ask me in a private moment here and there about the well-being of now-former lovers I was seeing in his later years, each of whom I introduced to my family as “friend” so as not to offend their moral sensibilities.
Somewhere in his unconscious there was a man-to-man reckoning with the way in which I embody my maleness — which has as much to do with the direction of my desire as it does the values which guide them. Values he taught me.
Having re-membered my dad’s body this way, I do not mourn or grieve his transition in the way I thought I might in those last minutes before his coffin was covered in dirt: as a lost opportunity for friendship or as a gap never bridged in our understanding of each other.
Rather, I celebrate his absence, actualized by physical death, as a return. As a kind of presence in which I can partake (read eat), like the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, through grateful remembrance of the body Christ as it lived, as it lives, in Donald Joseph Peach. As the resurrection of an archetype to which I can relate on a much more human level now that he is actually gone — without the burden of expectation to love me in a way I never thought he could, or did.
The hero dies. The hero leaves behind.
My father met me at his crossroads with a poise I hope to embody when my final hour strikes, assuming I have the wherewithal to greet death in such a way. In his absence I have undergone my own kind of border crossing, a rising above, a transcendence of my own limitations on loving. From the other side, I hear my father bidding my return from the exile for which he has too long been blamed.
In a sense, his physical death — his rite of pasage through one plane of existence to the next — is my psychic death. In coming to insight around the ways in which my dad did love me, did in fact open himself to understand my being, I move into greater arenas of psychological independence. In his absence I come back to my own flesh. I am no longer dependent on what I assumed was lacking in my relationship with the figure of the father in general and my father in particular. In part because there is no one there. Only I am — now one with the father.
In this way, my father’s dying is a trumpet call at twilight— a clarion cry of what has always been available within, if not always without. His departure from kin and clan is my own. In his leavetaking, I relinquish a quest on which I’ve been since the dawn of my homosexual desire — a kind of orientation in which the father, as an organizing principle and as a man, is inextricably bound. Slowly, I detach myself from that imago of he who is but never was, examine it under the light by which the wound in its wake gives entry. I walk through that open portal. In my own stead I leave behind all the secrecy, repression, resentment and rage of a family system which raised but no longer sustains me.
I enter life, my life, my father’s life, renewed. A new man, new men, for a new season. Such is the bounty of the Paschal Feast.
I am in my life partner’s grey Toyota truck with my brother, the monk. It is going on a year now since my dad left us and it is the first time we are together since then. His beard is long like that of a Russian Orthodox priest, and he looks healthy, vibrant. I am glad for him. I am grateful.
We ramble down a winding country road that cuts through the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountain range northeast of downtown Santa Fe. I relocated to this oasis in the high desert of New Mexico with my partner Eric after we decided to break out of the “Redwood Curtain” (Humboldt County, Ca.) a year previous to pursue other pastures. I’m eager to share some favorite “thin places,” to borrow a phrase from Jungian Robert Johnson, with my oldest brother. He is in town from the grounds of his Midwest monastery giving a series of conferences to some sister nuns on monastic life and the experience of joy as articulated by a family favorite: Thérèse of Lisieux, a.k.a. “The Little Flower.”
We have just spent the last hour on a wooded hike along the banks of the Santa Fe river just above town that runs parallel with upper Canyon Road — a street which morphs from a gallery-laden avenue into a hidden drive of adobe palaces as it approaches the hills. We speak of dad. We speak of me. We talk of all matter of things outside the life I am living with the man I call Beloved.
As we make our return to the monastery for a lunch prepared by the Carmelites hosting him he turns to me and says, “Rob, I just want you to know how much I treasure you.” I am touched.
But it strikes a tender spot.
I can feel a slight tear open in my chest, a twist in the gut. I swallow.
“Thank you,” I say, “That means the world to me.”
I tell him our friendship is a gauge by which I measure the quality of my other intimacies, redacting a clause in my head which punctuates its failures.
“I am not embarrassed by you, Rob. I want you to know that.”
“I never thought you were,” I say, wondering why he would be in the first place.
“Good,” he says, “Because disagreeing with your lifestyle doesn’t mean I reject you. I don’t reject you, Rob.”
I thank him again for these unnecessary reassurances and again edit the impulse to vocalize a void as gaping as the wound that’s just beginning to mend. An entire shade of my being is again exiled to the darkened silence of the closet from which I sprang in my 20s with the joy he links to his god.
Does he have eyes to see that? Ears to hear?
I let it go.
I let it go in the same way I let my father go.
In the same way we all must let go to tell our own tale.