Open the Heart and the Mind Follows

While it may seem otherwise, especially with the way we report our news, people can and do change. These changes come when our minds are open, and our minds are open when our hearts are open. And we know how to open our hearts. We do that, of course, with love.

I’ve often wondered if maybe we don’t have it in us to change fundamentally – to change our minds, that is. We get so stuck and stubborn about being right, so resistant to consider that we might not be seeing things clearly or accurately, that we’re unwilling to consider another perspective. We like to be right and avoid being wrong, often regardless of the cost. But sometimes, the discovery that we’ve been wrong can be really great news. It can mean that our fear and anger are not needed, and that Love is prevailing.

Too often our minds run the show. When our minds are closed—by fear, or anger, or ignorance, we get stuck in our ways. But when our heart is open, we’re more willing to open our minds, because we’re unafraid.

Several years ago, Kevin and I spent a week at a youth leadership camp in rural Texas. Kevin did a keynote, I facilitated a workshop, and we both served as family group advisers. As we prepared to travel down there, Kevin told me about this area we were going, where he’d spent a few summers in his early 20s. This is the town where the KKK was extraordinarily active in decades past. This is the the same area as the camp where Kevin worked summers in college, where he eventually realized that whenever an African American staff camp counselor arrived, he would immediately find himself assigned to work in the kitchen, if not dismissed. At meal times, among the many varied and often silly songs and rhymes the campers would recite, Kevin heard them shout nightly, “1-2-3, Robert E Lee! 3-2-1, The South should’ve won!”  The same region where on at least one summer night each year, Kevin saw them set a cross on fire, and he was told that no, it didn’t mean what he thought it meant… it was just tradition. And they did not take kindly to Kevin asking questions.

With this background, I was not excited to get there. And although the memories Kevin shared were over 20 years old, I was nervous about being there openly as a couple with Kevin. We weren’t married yet at the time, but everyone knew we were together, and it didn’t occur to me to try to hide it. What would we see? So I arrived on guard, assuming, these people are ignorant, racist, homophobic, and I’m going to have to find a way to stand my ground, and speak up if confronted by hatred.

On the road into the hill country, we pulled up in front of a small general store. “I remember this place!” Kevin said. We got out to buy some bottles of water and some snacks. And as we walked toward the door, we paused to look at a grouping of bills and notices. There in the center of this bulletin board in red rural Texas was flyer for a local chapter of PFLAG. It wasn’t brand new. It had been there a while, which means no one had taken it down.“I can’t believe that’s there,” Kevin said. “That’s so great. That’s incredible.”

We had a great time at the camp. The kids were terrific, the staff was dedicated, kind, and respectful. None of my fears materialized there. Where I had expected judgement, or a sense that we were being at best respectfully “tolerated”, we found instead that everyone seemed delighted that we were there.

At the end of the week, they had a dance night. There was a hall for the kids, and an adjacent room where most of the adults and staff congregated for snacks and music and dancing. During a slow song, Kevin and I danced together. I felt a little self-conscious about that. Who’s watching? What are they thinking? Are they whispering about us?

A little while later, one of the other staff people approached Kevin. He said, “My parents were very active and high up in the Arian Nation. I was taught to hate people like you. Tonight, I stood here and watched you two dance together, and I thought it was beautiful.”

Before I realized that I was gay, I tried really hard to be what I thought I was supposed to be. For a time that included going along with what I thought I was supposed to say and think. I remember one day, I was riding in car with my best friend, Dorothy. We were just out of high school. And I don’t know how or why it came up, but we were talking about gays and lesbians and I said (I remember this so clearly) I “The thought of two men being together it just makes me sick.” I did not really feel that way at all., but I thought I “should.” I had heard other people say that, and I was still deep in denial about my orientation. But Dot would have none of it. She called me out immediately. “Well, I think it’s beautiful!” she said. 

I knew she was right. It broke through something that had kind of hardened over me. I said to her right then and there, “You know, you’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. You’re right.” It did not break through my denial (and in fact… I went on to marry Dorothy, which is a story for another day). But God, I admired her so much for speaking up. She always spoke from the heart, and it was always with kindness and love first – more so than anyone else I’d ever met up that point. She was fiercely loving. She got into my head by going through the heart.

My husband, Kevin, is a professional speaker. He talks about love and kindness. He tells jokes and funny stories. He entertains people, and in the process he aims to open hearts and minds, and encourage people to choose to love. It’s a good gig. He loves it, and I love working with him.

A few years ago, I was with Kevin in a town outside Atlanta. On the way there, Kevin told me that he’d spoken in this town at a specific conference for many consecutive years, and that had stopped when someone told a meeting planner that Kevin was gay. Now here we were again, same town, different conference. Kevin delivered a keynote for a few hundred adults who work with kids. It went really well, and after that he presented a diversity workshop for 60 or so people.

That was interesting to watch. In a conference room at the hotel, this apparent “old white guy” stood in front of an audience of about 70% African Americans to talk about diversity, and to facilitate an experience called Aspects of Identity. It was moving. People were shaken and stirred, as they usually are from the experience. The audience laughed and applauded Kevin’s stories, and an hour later they were filing out.

I like to hang out in the back, like a roadie, observing. And it’s typical for me to see a handful of people linger after a program to say hello to Kevin, to shake his hand or take a selfie. That day, the last such person was a woman about my age. From the back of the room, I saw Kevin hug her.

“Wait, wait,” she said. Kevin’s a hugger. It’s a good trait, and people often want to hug him, but maybe he jumped the gun a little this time. But she wasn’t upset.

“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “I really enjoyed your keynote, and this workshop, and I thought it was all wonderful. And then you referred to this young man as your husband and I… I didn’t like your program anymore. I thought, I don’t like any of this, in fact, I changed my mind: I didn’t really like your keynote either, and I just shut down. I couldn’t listen to you anymore. But I was in the middle of a row, and I couldn’t leave, so I felt stuck there, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. So I prayed. And God said to me, ‘Here is where you change.’ And I realized I have been wrong to judge you. I never thought I could accept gay people, and when you talked about acceptance and love, I… heard it in a way that I have never heard before.”

It was a beautiful moment. We talked about it as we went back to our room, where we packed up our suitcases. It was early afternoon now, and we were going to head back toward Atlanta for our flight. While we were putting our suitcases in the rental, a car pulled up and stopped in the street beside us, and the man driving said, “Are you the keynote speaker?”

Kevin said he was, and approached the car.

“Well, I’ve got to tell you, you did something to my wife. She’s not a talker, and she was at your keynote yesterday, and she came home talking, she went to bed talking, and she woke up talking. We have a young grandson that we have not seen in a while. My wife has not been on speaking terms with our daughter because our grandson is transgender, and our daughter supports him in his gender identity. I’ve been kind of ok with it, but my wife has really had a hard time. She said you talked about your daughter? How she came to live with you as a boy, but identified as a girl and… my wife called our daughter and now we have dinner plans with them. She wants to reconcile. Thank you.”

On a regular basis, Kevin and I get to see that when we touch the heart, we reach also the mind, and we do so way more effectively than when we try to get through purely on the level of mind.

People do have dramatic changes of heart. Minds do open. Love does perform miracles. And what we do, the kindness we show each other, and our dedication to authenticity, to speaking our truth with love, matters. It matters. It makes real, positive, important changes in the world, even when we don’t get to see the changes… because every change of heart changes the world.

Adventures in Heresy

For most of my life, I didn’t have a close relationship with my father. But in my younger years I enjoyed spending time with him. I remember the smell of his workshop, our garage: the scents of motor oil, dirt, dampness, and the distinct odor of metal. And the images of it: those banged-up trash cans to my right as I walked in, next to the big overhead door, open in warm weather, closed in cold; half of the two-car bay empty but for tools and stuff lying on the cement floor, the other half occupied by an old truck I’m sure he tinkered on for years, a truck I don’t think I ever saw run. The room was lit by fluorescents and natural light filtered through dusty windows onto cracked pegboard walls holding tools over a workbench with its jars and coffee cans of unsorted screws, nails, and bolts, and my father’s breakfast beer, fizzing by the radio speaker. It was like Sanford and Son, but without the catchy theme music.

One day in the garage, he told me about his work in a tone that made clear he had no love for it. “I crawl into a hole and stare a light all day. Then I come home.” He was a welder, and on weekends he found ways to put his main vocational skill to use at home. He had a welder at home, and would use it on our old cars and wherever else it was useful. The first time I saw him welding, he warned me, “Don’t look at the light—you’ll go blind.”

Dad wasn’t exaggerating about the danger of staring into the light. Over the years, I did glimpse at it a few times, deliberately or accidentally, and even from yards away it caused a dull ache in the center of my skull. The brightness, apparently, could cause permanent damage and even blindness, so he wore a shield over his head and face with a small, nearly opaque rectangle to see through.

He reached into a tool box. “You have to look through this,” he said, and gave me a piece of glass like the one in his face shield, so black I could see nothing through it at all. But when he started working again, I saw the glow, still intense but not painful, and a shower of sparks. This was the light he looked at for hours on end, mending and building ships and submarines at a job he disliked to support his family.

I like Sunday mornings. I get to sleep in. When our travel schedule allows, I get to attend a church service where everyone is so nice and welcoming, and the music is great, and the message is interesting and not too long.

I didn’t always enjoy Sunday mornings, though. When I was young, I would wake up in the room I shared with my older brother to the sound of a hateful voice (it sounded hateful to me). On any given Sunday, I’d wake to the sound of an angry sermon. Dad favored Jerry Fallwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Vernon McGee, and their voices echoed down the hall from the kitchen into my room. My father turned the volume of the radio or TV up high so he could hear it wherever he went in the house. Many Sunday mornings he wasn’t even in the house when I woke up, but he had the sermon on so he could hear it if he stepped inside from the garage where a second radio or TV blared the same broadcast. I grew to really dislike that sound, but somehow it comforted him. I think Sundays were his favorite downtime.

I grew up Catholic, but my dad rarely went to mass with us, and when he did he brought his Bible and didn’t pay attention. Mass bored me. I believed in God, and I just figured… God likes boring stuff. And I believed what happened in mass was a miracle — or magic, at least, with the whole bread into body of Christ thing. And then eating it… I wondered does this make us cannibals? The devout, I learned, do not appreciate that question.

I went to Catholic school taught by nuns, who offered well-meaning but terrible council on a range of subjects. My favorite, from a visiting nun lecturer: “You may be asking yourself why I, a celibate, should be teaching you about sex. But think of it this way: If you had cancer, you wouldn’t tell your doctor he couldn’t treat you because he doesn’t have cancer.”

And can anyone explain all the felt? Remember the felt boards? I’ve heard from non-Catholic friends that their churches were also big on felt. Walls or cardboard covered in felt to which you could stick other pieces of cookie-cutter felt. Felt Mary,, felt Joseph, felt crosses, and entire felt landscapes, a cornucopia of iconography rendered lovingly in felt. Eventually I got it: obviously Jesus loves felt.

At church, I fidgeted in the pew, my butt itching from sitting on the hard bench, watching the clock, waiting for it to be over. And while the priest droned on, blah blah blah — I couldn’t pay attention even when I tried — I talked to God. I prayed constantly, even outside of church. And I mean that literally: constantly. Every thought passing through my mind I addressed to God, like an ongoing conversation. The subject of a thought made no difference. When I felt thirsty, I would think, Dear God, I’m going to get a glass of water. In my mind, I spoke all of my observations, feelings, desires, impressions, fears, questions – everything – to God, who I believed listened to my every thought. And I felt comfort. I felt safe, and held, and protected, and valued. I felt loved.

But this God, I was taught to believe, was the same one that my father’s favorite evangelical preachers claimed to be experts on. And in their sermons, they were so angry, so self-righteous in their convictions. They seemed always to be talking about hell, about damnation, fire, and sin. They believed the Bible to be the literal word of God, and they by God were here to tell us what to believe, what to think, and how to live. I felt no love in their preaching, only fear and judgment. They spoke of “the fear of God” as a virtue to be clung to. And in spite of my resistance, their message sunk in.

Eventually, I understood that if it was true that they had this understanding, that this religion was the One True Faith, that God was judging me and keeping a tally, and that sinners would be cast into Hell… then there was no hope for me. I do not conform, because I cannot believe what I have been told I must.

This means that I am a heretic. A heretic is a baptized Roman Catholic who willfully and consistently rejects any article of faith. “Willfully and consistently.” Yeah, that’s right in the money. More generally, a heretic is a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.

I know in church circles heresy is something to be shunned, it’s not a word one embraces.  I like the word. I also like the words discombobulated, gargoyle, and nougat. But “heretic” I really like, less for its sound than its meaning. It’s a much more powerful word than “nonconformist.”

“Heretic” comes from a Greek word meaning “able to choose,” and choosing one’s own beliefs was —and still is — a practice that many powerful religious and political leaders find objectionable. They would much prefer that we all believe what we are instructed to believe, so much so that some have been known, both in the past and in the present, to threaten scary eternal punishment, or mete out earthly penalties—to this day, in some places in the world, people are fired, ostracized, shamed, beaten, tortured, and even killed for the audacity of choosing one’s own beliefs.

It is strange to me that in the church in which I was raised – and I realize this is an extreme example – I could do anything, commit literally any sin, and still be welcome in the church, still be given the church’s stamp of approval and entry into heaven if I believed and did the proper rituals. On the other hand, I could lead a life as sinless and flawless and Christ Himself, but if I were to publicly declare my disbelief in accepted dogma, I would be excommunicated.

It took me a long, long time to shake the belief that because I can’t change who I am that I am worthless. I don’t believe that anymore. What I do believe in is the power of Love. I value kindness, and charity, and sharing. I value freedom of thought, and unfettered scholarship, and science, and peace, and compromise, and negotiation, and respect, and compassion, and responsibility, and fairness, and equality.

I believe that it’s better to give, knowing that some without genuine need will “take advantage” than to not give and allow people to go hungry or uncared for.

I believe in erring on the side of kindness and compassion.

I believe in taking care of the planet; in the Golden Rule; and that we are all in this together.

These values and beliefs do not make me a heretic. Here is what does: I don’t believe in Hell or eternal judgment. I think the idea that God would be offended by disbelief is ludicrous. And I don’t believe in the devil as an entity seeking to drag us all into damnation. And because I know that the Bible was written and assembled by men with agendas, I cannot believe for a second that it is the literal word of God.

It seems to me that the stories of the Bible are not meant to communicate history; they are meant to transmit faith. The story is not the message; it is the vehicle for the delivery of the message.

In my understanding, the Jesus depicted in the gospels invites us to open our hearts and minds to the Love of God. Because he is human, he embodies an archetype that we can identify with and emulate. An archetype is a symbol; a symbol represents something, points to an idea. But as the great world religions demonstrate, we can become so enamored, so identified with and focused upon a symbol that we can lose site of thing to which it points.

I left the church when I came to recognize that its love was inherently conditional. I returned when I found a community that reaffirms not just in word but in action and in practice that God is Love; where the message of Love is more important than the system that delivers it; and no religion has a monopoly on the love of God.

I’m sure my father wouldn’t have liked the services here because they’re not based in “Scripture,” which he seemed to value more than anything else in his faith. He accepted without question the notion of God as a being we must all fear. But then again, he spent a significant chunk of his life looking out at the world through a very dark lens.

He had good reason to wear that shield when he was working, so he wouldn’t be blinded or burned. It offered real protection. And those sermons he studied also shielded him. They limited his view of the world and that was all he wanted to see. He even told me once, when I challenged the idea that we should unquestioningly accept these preachers interpretation of the Bible, that we were not meant to interpret it ourselves, that we weren’t qualified, that we could get it wrong, so we must be obedient, and anything else would be heresy.

I’m proud to be a heretic, to think for myself. I am happy to be a part of my new church community, because there the message I receive says, “We welcome Christians, and Buddhists, and atheists, and Muslims, and Jews, and all others, exactly as you are. Let us cultivate a community together, based on our shared values of compassion, respect, kindness, and goodwill. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s be responsible. And let’s share ideas about how the power of Love can transform our lives.”

Dad’s Passing

Dad died, and I’m waiting to feel.

That’s not entirely fair. I have feelings about it, but they’re not what I expected. Where are the tears and surprisingly-intense-even-though-it-was-expected pain of loss? What I feel is much more complicated, more subtly layered, and I have a peculiar sense of distance about it, almost as if I am anesthetized.

For the last year, Dad’s doctors had been telling Mom that he would die within weeks or days. His skin turned yellow, he stopped eating and his flesh shrank against his bones. He stopped drinking for weeks at a time. I guess when you feel like you can’t breathe, the desire to drink wanes. They said it was toxins in his system, another symptom of alcoholic cirrhosis.

Three years ago, my sister called me at work to tell me Dad was in rehab. “He had a seizure at work,” she said, which I later learned was a symptom of alcoholic withdrawal. He hadn’t quit drinking. He just hadn’t had a drink in several hours.

On hearing this, I couldn’t stop weeping. I felt relieved, and hopeful, and angry, and apprehensive, and hurt. Conversations with my father played vividly in my head, exchanges that never happened in which I told him in clear and certain terms how much damage his drinking did to our family. “Doesn’t Mom deserve to live with a sober spouse for a few years,” I wanted to ask him, “after all the bullshit she’s endured?”

I never had that talk with him exactly. Once, during the longest of his sober periods (lasting several weeks), I asked him how he was feeling. I imagined there must be something positive about it for him. Was he enjoying more quality time with Mom? Did he enjoy greater clarity? Did he feel hopeful, or empowered?

“I’m bored,” he said dully, and had nothing else to add.

He quit for a while, a month or two, long enough for me to feel hopeful, then angry with him for drinking again and mad at myself, too, for being stupid enough to think he would or could stop. It took another two years before I gave up, and I mean that in a positive sense. I let go, finally, of the wish that he would change. And it became easier to love him.

Almost a year before he died, I flew home to see him because he was, we were told, on his death bed. We wondered if I’d get there in time. He’d stopped eating, had lost a tremendous amount of weight, he was jaundiced (for the first time), in pain, he struggled to breathe, and said he was ready to die. When I saw him at the hospital, he looked frail and weak. He winced, moaned and gritted his teeth in pain at irregular intervals as urine drained through a catheter. Yet he was much improved, they said, and expected to go home in a couple of days.

Mom said the doctor told him he had about six months if he stopped drinking. But if he stopped, he would experience more seizures, which could be damaging and dangerous. He stopped and started, and finally, a few months before he died, he told my mother, “I love you, but I can’t stop.” And he continued drinking for as long as his strength to do so allowed.

His last week or so was really hard for Mom especially. He wanted to be at home, and she wanted that for him, too. But he was hallucinating, uncooperative and verbally abusive. At one of his first stays in the hospital, he’d called home and told my mother to bring him his gun. He said he was a secret agent and the hospital was keeping him there against his will. This delusion was frightening and painful for Mom, and she cried when she told me. And they said it would get worse as his liver quit functioning, and ammonia polluted his system. Finally, Mom guiltily consented to have him brought to a hospice. He fought her on it. “I know I’ll get better if you’ll just let me stay home,” he said, which made it even harder. But she couldn’t do it, she said, couldn’t take care of him anymore knowing that the worst was yet to come. He protested and cursed, “but that’s not really him,” I said. “He’s not in his right mind anymore. If he were, he wouldn’t want you to have to go through this anymore.” We all knew and we all told her she was doing the right thing. She was. She did.

He settled into the hospice on Friday night. He was given morphine at regular intervals. He did not regain consciousness. He died Sunday morning. He was 68.

The last time I spoke with him was a couple of months ago on the phone.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Tired,” he said.

We made small talk. I told him I loved him, and he said “Thank you.”

He said “I love you.”

And those were our last words to each other.

For that, I am grateful.

I Love Dogs

I can hear Maggie licking her butt.

“Quit it,” I say, and she pauses. She looks at me, her body still folded in half. She resumes.

“Don’t make me put the Elizabethan collar on you.”

I’ve been avoiding the big cone collar, the “E-collar” as the vet calls it (that word makes me think of e coli. Ew. But appropriate when you consider what this dog’s applying her tongue to). Maggie’s backside has been bothering her for months, despite all the dog doctor’s prescriptions, which include medicines, expensive new food, and frequent manual expressions of her anal glands (look that up on YouTube–I dare you).

Mattie’s butt, meanwhile, presses against my leg. I’ve pulled a chair up beside me for him because he’s fretting over what sounds like fireworks outside. And as I completed that last sentence, he climbed gingerly into my lap, sheltering himself and snuggling at the same time.

I love my dogs. They are worth every effort, every mess, every dog-hair-sprinkled floor surface, every mischievously stolen morsel. These beasts are pure love.

I grew up with a lot of animals around the house, although I learned early not to get too attached. In nearly every case, animals did not fare well for long at our house before we had to bid them farewell.

I remember a black lab we adopted when I was in first grade. We had him for a week or two before my uncle hit and killed him with his car. I have this odd memory of standing over his body after the accident. It’s odd because I remember feeling disappointment more than grief, like we’d lost a new toy. I feel more grief now as I write this than I did then.

We had another dog, Flash, whom I loved and played with a lot. When he began to behave aggressively and started to growl at me periodically, my affection for him turned to fear. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t want to play with him anymore. He lived on a tether in our back yard year round for several years before my parents had him euthanized. If I think about that too much I feel angry at my parents and disappointed in myself. Maybe part of why I lavish so much love on my dogs now because of guilt about Flash.

My dad brought home a goat one day. It was incredibly cute, and smart, and affectionate. We named it Sheba. One day Dad and my brother took it on a walk and our neighbor’s dog ran out of his yard and killed her.

We also had a sheep. He was black, and sullen looking, as if he knew what was coming. And maybe he did, because he strangled himself. My dad tied him to a pole under the back porch, where I found him one morning still standing and stiff, having wrapped himself round and round the pole until there was no more slack in the rope.

Dad gave us rabbits, a pair of them, and their cage didn’t keep them safe. That same neighbor’s dog came down to our yard, tore the cage open, and mauled them.

We raised chickens, lots of them, and ate them. For years, each spring, we’d buy twenty or so chicks. They were adorable, and we’d play with them like pets until the novelty wore off. I liked to place them in my sister’s doll house because proportionately it looked like Barbie had a pet ostrich. But the fun didn’t last long. They weren’t, after all, very interactive. Most of them lived long enough to make it to our table. Dad would chop off their heads, then dunk their spasmodic bodies into hot water to loosen the feathers. I frequently helped.

We had some ducks. Dad slaughtered one on exactly two occasions, and never again. The first time he was flummoxed by the feathers, swearing as he vainly dunked the web-footed highly water-resistant carcass in a bucket. The feathers refused to be rinsed away, and they were hard to remove manually. So next time Dad added some Lestoil to the water. That actually worked, but it made rather a bitter marinade. And Mom didn’t know how to cook it. Try cooking a duck the same way you prepare a chicken and you get a greasy, flavorless, mess.

We had a horse once. I don’t remember where we got it. We sold it because it kicked my father in the teeth.

We had a cow for a while. My dad bought it at a county fair and brought it home in the back of the station wagon. We kept it in the chicken coop, where it got really bad diarrhea and died.

I should clarify that we did not live on a farm–not even close. My childhood home is a 1970’s Cape-style construction sitting on a single square acre. The chicken coop (aka cow-barn) was in the back yard. My parents still live there. Now and then my father says he wants to get another dog, and the family collectively cries, NOOOOOOooooo.

Sam loves our dogs, and I feel all warm and fuzzy seeing her dote on them. It’s therapeutic for her, I think. They have a lot to teach us about patience, compassion, affection and responsibility. And they’re love sponges. Mattie is crazy-smart, a chronic worrier, food-obsessed, and a compulsive licker. Maggie is more laid-back, but still a terrier. She’s dainty, mostly quiet, squirrel-obsessed, and likes to be with her person (me). She has lived here only as long as I have–she came with me when I moved here, and Sam adores her. She’s smaller than Mattie, and, well, girlier. Dainty. She’s a little Princess. Who licks her butt.

Dad

I wrote the following in a my journal in December 2010:

I’m at my parents’ house for the week of Christmas. I haven’t spent more than 48 hours here in fifteen years. I feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of place. I want very much to leave. But I also want to be here. I can do this. My being here means a great deal to my parents. They’re so happy I’m here.

I spent the day with my mom. I drove us to the beach–I hadn’t seen the ocean in a couple of years. We shopped in the afternoon, and in the evening went to a Christmas concert at my nephews’ school. We got back a couple of hours ago, and my father was still up. This was unusual for the hour.

“Would you care to sit down for a bit?” he asked. He looked vulnerable.

He was watching a thriller of some kind on TV. A bloody face filled the screen. I didn’t want to sit with him, nor did I want to watch this show.

“I’m not interested in watching that show,” I said.

He hit the power button the remote, and the screen went dark.

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to watch the program. I asked you if you’d sit down.”

I did not want to, but I did. I can do this, I thought. For him. So I sat on the couch, leaving enough space for another body to fit between us. He smiled at me through an anesthesia of alcohol, something between a grin and a wince. Then he reached out to me tentatively. He wanted to touch me, to hold me. I let him. He sighed and held me close. I can do this, I told myself. It was ok, easier than I thought it’d be. Love to him, I thought. I can do this. I visualized light in my chest, allowing the glow to reach out to him.

“Thank you,” he said, still holding tight. “I feel it,” he said. “I feel… penetration.” I almost laughed at this choice of words. He let go for a moment, then pulled me in again. “I’m not done,” he said. He caught his breath as if laughing or sobbing. Then he sat back and looked at me blearily.

“You know,” he began, and hesitated. “In two years, it’ll be 50 years your mother and I will be married.”

“I know.”

He was silent for a few seconds while he stared toward the wall. Then he looked back at me and grinned. “You know, if you want to… if you really want to set her off… you…” and he leaned in toward me, pressed his lips against my shoulder, and exhaled. I felt the warmth of his breath seeping through the fabric of my sweatshirt. Then he sat back, smiling mischievously. “If I really want to upset her, all I have to do…”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said.

“What?”

He couldn’t hear me. I had to speak loudly.

“Let me ask you, why would you ever want to ‘set her off?’ Why would you want to upset her?”

He was flummoxed. I repeated the question. His expression shifted as he considered, looked confused, then unsure before a bland look came over him as he said (as if it should be obvious), “It can’t be all love.”

“Why not?”

He seemed to think this a naive question.

“Because it’s not out there.”

“You choose your behavior,” I said. “You choose to be loving or not. Why would you choose to upset her, on purpose, ever?”

He thought this over for a few seconds.

“For fun,” he offered.

“It’s not fun for her,” I pointed out.

“No,” he agreed. “It’s not fun for her, but…” and he went silent, then looked confused again.

“I don’t understand why you’d do that,” I said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’re not making any sense,” he said, shifting his body to face me. He was searching for words, clearly wanting to have a talk, to educate me.

“I don’t care to have this conversation with you when you’re this drunk,” I told him.

“What?”

“I’m not going to have this conversation with you while you’re drunk.”

Hearing this, he released me. “Oh. Ok. Good night to you.”

I went down to the guest room.

Twenty minutes later, I opened the door and stepped to the bottom of the stairs, listening.

“He’s downstairs,” he was saying. “What the fuck is up with that? That’s not right,” he told my mother. “There’s something wrong with that.”

“Don’t use that language,” she scolded.

It is very hard to be here.

I love my father. That hasn’t always been easy to say. When I was a kid I frequently told him I hated him. I was always so angry at him. I didn’t trust him. I experienced him as moody, erratic, unfair, creepy, invasive. He enjoyed teasing me. He admitted this years later. I got into the habit of just avoiding him, making myself invisible. I was good at it.

I’ve seen my father a few times in the last several years, on my brief visits back to the northeast. He’s ailing badly now, and his doctors have told him he won’t live long. Mom says he hasn’t had a drink in over a month. This time it’s not because he’s on medicine to curb the desire, or because he’s reached a resolution, but because he always feels like he can’t breathe. I guess that cuts the appetite for alcohol.

About ten years ago while I was in grad school, he and my mom visited me in Iowa City. While they were there, I set up a video camera and interviewed them as they sat in my living room. Not too long before this visit, I had recorded a conversation with my grandfather days before he died, and now I thought, why wait until they’re on their deathbeds? So they agreed to do it.

I’ve lost the recording. I had it backed up on a couple of drives, and last year when I tried to look at the files, they were irretrievably corrupt. But I remember.

“You used to hide all the time,” Dad told me.

I knew exactly what he meant. I didn’t say anything.

“Tell me about when you started drinking,” I said.

“I remember when I was a kid,” he began, “I used to see aunt Rita and Uncle Charlie pour themselves a whiskey, and they’d fill a glass like that…” He held his fingers out to suggest the size of a tumbler a little larger than a juice glass, which he then mimed holding and filling to the top. “And I saw them do that, and…” he searched for words. “I admired it. I wanted to be able to drink like that.”

Wow, I thought.

“So when I was old enough, I started drinking.”

I’d never heard this story before.

I’d asked the question because his drinking affected me, it affected all of us. I believe it’s one of the main causes of our strained relationship right from my childhood. I always knew he drank, but somehow I didn’t understand until I was a teenager just how much. When I was in high school, I got up one morning, and in the kitchen found what I thought was a flat, stale glass of beer on the kitchen counter left from the night before. I poured it down the drain. Not long after, I heard him moving angrily through the house asking “Who dumped my beer?!” I told him I did. I remember feeling very self-righteous and angry about it. I didn’t apologize, I just said, “I never imagined you’d be drinking this early in the morning.”

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I talk to mom just about weekly, and sometimes she hands him the phone. Our conversations are short. He sounds more pleasant, less gruff than I’m used to. Softer.

And it’s easier now for me to feel my love for him. I don’t feel angry with him anymore.