Compassion did not come easily for me during my father’s dying years. Instead, I felt an ending to the years of tyranny, and a lessening of the tension between us. The former six foot plus commando had lost his strength and ability to intimidate. I felt sympathy for him, and an incliniation that maybe this was karma at work: a man who had caused so much pain in his life, was now suffering with his own.
Then I had a dream.
It is the thickness of the air that first accosts me: the damp acrid smell of stale tobacco, wet camel wool, and the pungent smell of rubber. I am huddled in the dark corner of the stairwell closet, trying desperately to camouflage myself behind my father’s wellingtons and the coats that hang there. A tiny thread of light, seeping through the bottom of the door, accents the dinginess of my surroundings. “Why God? Why me?” I cry into my sleeve, muffling any sound I might make. I hear the front door open, and my father’s heavy steps in the hall. “Where is he!” It is more of a command than a question. I can feel his tension through the wall that separates us. I know it well. He has been drinking.
“The child has gone to bed, Father. Come in and have your tea.” The pitch of my mother’s voice tells me she is nervous too. Never a good sign.
“I’ll be having a piece of the boy first!”
The closet door opens and my heart stops, but it is only my mother’s arms reaching in to hang up his coat. She doesn’t even glance at me – we both know that is too big a risk. The muffling of their voices tell me that they have moved away and I let my body relax a little, heart still pounding.
I wake up, instantly knowing who the tiny boy is in my dream. When I share it with my father, he says it started when he was four. One of seven children, he became the whipping boy for the family, taking the brunt of all his father’s wrath.”It was the custom,” he explained with an accepting sigh. “And why I ran away from home at fifteen.”
There were so many things I didn’t know about my father, but I was beginning to see him in a new light. I realized that all his life he had been running, not just from the violence of his childhood home, but from his own inner turmoil. He harboured a deep secret, which burdened us all over the years, and his accompanying addictions and impulsive, and sometimes violent behaviour didn’t add to our empathy for him.
Was it possible we were all victims? I wondered.
When he finally succumbed to death, all I could think was: Good for you, Dad. You made it. I hoped peace had now embraced him.
That was several years ago. My mother has since remarried, and when we speak of my father, it is ofter with a sense of relief that that chapter of our lives is closed.
The compassion my father deserved still had not fully surfaced.
It came a few months back, while attending a workshop hosted by Egale, an organization committed to human rights, specifically as related to the LGBTQ* community. I was attending as an educator, hoping to gain some insight into helping students experiencing gender issues.
The morning session was dedicated to understanding the language specific to gender identity and orientation. We learned that biology dictates how an individual presents, and that the concepts of male and female are actually polarities which describe rarities, rather than norms. Most individuals fall within a sliding scale.
Armed with this information, we were asked to think of someone we knew within the LGBTQ community, and step into their shoes for a moment. We were given a coloured star and as the person we were representing, asked to fill out the points of the star with each of the following: closest relative, closest friend, community associations, work, and aspirations. I thought of my aunt, who all her life was a closet lesbian. I could only imagine how hard it must have been for her.
Instead, I chose to step in my father’s shoes.
Silently, we all carried our stars into a circle and sworn to silence to honour each person’s process, we began the exercise.
The facilitator read from a script. She began by suggesting that as our individual we had just decided to come out to our closest family member. If we held a blue star (which I did) our family member was already aware of our preferences and willing to support us. Orange and pink star holders, while meeting with some initial resistance, would eventually gain support. They were instructed to fold the point of their star in. Red star holders would be denied acceptance from the person whose opinion they valued most. Their point was to be torn off and discarded.
The pain of grief tore through my heart. I felt the room reel, but struggled for composure. I was my father’s firt-born child and the light of his life. I was that person dearest to his heart who had rejected him when he came out to me.
The rest of the exercise passed in a blur as I felt each corner of my father’s star drop to the floor, understanding for the first time in my life that he had no hope for acceptance, and no support in his life, and that turning to alcohol and work was his only viable way of coping. No wonder he never fulfilled his aspirations: nothing in his life held him up to do so.
When the heart opens, compassion will appear. Too late for my father and I on this mortal soil, but I hope that from the other side he is looking down on me and catching a bittersweet moment of solace.
I never understood you, Dad, and in my own self-centered, self-righteous manner, I missed a golden opportunity. I have to think we were both destined for so much more.
Today, I am committing to the undoing of the pain that broke us all and pushing through to new understanding. It was biology, and not addiction (as was explained to us in the 1960’s) that caused you to identify as a woman and cross dress. That you were also attracted to females sexually, I now understand to have been part of your norm.
Imagine how much better we would have all been, had compassion, instead of self-defense, guided us. But we were ignorant.
It is my birthday today, Dad, and I wish you were here that I might share this gift with you, but you are not. We might have dressed up and gone for dinner, like we used to do when I was little. Just you and I. And you could wear your favourite dress. And I would be proud of my father who fought so hard to be in a world that could not conceive of him.
I hope this gift of compassion that has come to me late in life, will pay its way forward. In honour of us both.
*Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Two Spirited, and Questioning.