Please see comments for trigger warning
I had a friend in college who said he was never going to have children. At the time I thought he didn’t want the responsibility. Looking back now, I wonder if he was actually hoping to avoid the heartbreak.
I can’t speak for all fathers, but the day my son was born I saw his life flash before my eyes. He was going to dominate the rest of the infants in the nursery, be valedictorian of his preschool, hit puberty at nine, and start at quarterback on the varsity football team his freshman year.
After that the visions became more serious and less scripted. My son was going be his own man. He would choose his profession and his wife. Then, when the time was right, he would present me with my first grandson. It didn’t seem too much to ask. I wasn’t insisting on him becoming President—just a good boy who would become a good man. I saw it all so clearly, but as they say, “The best laid plans…”
When did I first know? Friends and family never asked me directly but I’m sure they wondered. I can't say for sure, I think it’s a little like believing in Santa Claus. In the beginning you’re so sure and it’s wonderful. Then certainty gives way to doubts, ones you dare not verbalize or share. Because if you do you’ll be forced to confront reality. Next comes the stark realization. It’s heartbreaking, but you still pretend because the alternative is unthinkable. Last and most depressing comes the inevitability of the truth, the moment you are told and all reasonable—and unreasonable—doubt is removed. At this point your world becomes forever less good.
I was blissfully unaware of the truth when my son was young. Looking back, there were signs, although I promise you I didn’t see them. I tried to connect with him the same way my father connected with me—through sports. I was obviously disappointed when he resisted playing Little League. But that didn't mean anything. With a few words of encouragement he gave baseball a try and seemed to get better from week to week. At least that’s what I told myself.
On Sundays, when I parked myself in front of the living room TV to watch football, he would give me a hug and head to the bedroom to watch sitcoms with my wife. I never said it out loud, but it broke my heart each time he would walk away. I remember praying on more than one occasion that he would gain an interest in my favorite game and decide he wanted to spend Sunday afternoons with me.
My son also wore his emotions on his sleeve. When we would watch sad movies, I did everything I could to suppress the tears welling up in my eyes. Not him though, he cried unashamedly. Then he'd come hug me because he could sense I was sad as well.
It was during his high school years that I started to suspect. He was so smart, much smarter than I was, but he was also sensitive and gentle. He was popular, especially with the girls, but he never asked any of them out. For the homecoming dance, he got all dressed up in a three-piece with a tie. He looked so damn good in that suit, but he didn’t go with a girl. He just went with a group of friends. It was then that I knew something was off. What happened next confirmed my unspoken fears.
I was still up when he came home after the dance. It was pitch black outside, but the dome light in the car worked perfectly well. I wasn’t completely sure, but it looked to me as if he leaned over and kissed the boy who dropped him off. I can’t say for certain exactly how long I sat by myself, in silence, in the dark that night before I went to bed. I only know it was precisely long enough to convince myself I hadn’t seen what I knew I had.
Denial is a powerful tool, and I wielded it often. I was intentionally blind to the obvious until one day I came home early from work. When I walked in the door, I saw him standing there, right in the middle of the living room. He had on lipstick and eyeshadow and bronzer all over his cheeks. It’s the only time in his life that I hit my son. I slapped him so hard that I left the outline of my palm on his face. In a moment of rage I had lost all control. There was residual makeup smudged on my hand. I ran, like Lady Macbeth, to the kitchen. I had to wash off our shame. I insisted he never tell anyone what he had done and hoped he'd never tell anyone what I had done as well. Ironically, he didn’t cry, not a single tear. In his life I was never more proud of him. To this day I still don’t completely understand the dichotomy.
The day he actually came out was equal parts expected, dreaded, and suffocating. My wife asked all sorts of questions. Was he bi? Was he trans? Was he sure? I just sat stoically and listened. I loved my son, but that day, I didn’t like him—not at all—and I told him as clearly as I could with my silence.
It has been said, time heals all wounds, and that is true, even the self-inflicted ones. By the time my son left for college we had entered into a sort of détente. I loved my son and, for reasons known only to him, he loved me too. I know he discussed deeper subjects with his mom, but we had an unspoken agreement. We stuck to safe conversations: my job, his schoolwork, his mother, finances. He even started to watch football and not only with me on school breaks. More than anything, I started to dream again. The dreams were different but they were no less sincere. I wanted my son to find success and happiness.
After college, he settled into his own life. He had become his own man, just as I knew he would. As always, his mother was the one who would talk about with him about his personal life. I would talk about his job and football. He had actually grown to love the game. That was an answered prayer.
His last visit seemed like all the rest until the final night. I had retired to the den to smoke a cigar. Neither he nor my wife liked the smell of smoke so I was caught off guard when my son walked in, sat in the chair next to me and told me he had to ask me a question. Nothing can really prepare you for the joy you feel when your son chooses you to be the best man at his wedding. The moment it happened, I unexpectedly teared up. I remembered all the hopes and dreams I had for him on the day he was born. Then, in an instant, reality crashed over me like a wave. If I answered yes, I would have to stand up next to him while he pledged his life to another man. I would need to remain silent when the pastor said: “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” I would be forced to watch as he kissed his husband in front of our family and friends.
I’m not sure who was more surprised by my answer, him or me.
Planning an event on short notice can be unimaginably stressful but it also can serve as a necessary distraction. We had to find a pastor, invite all our family and friends, and make sure there were plenty of flowers. My wife and I also arranged for local hotels to accommodate people flying in from other states.
I purposely kept myself so busy that I never allowed any time to consider what was happening. Even the night before the event seemed surreal. There were people in attendance with whom, given the chance, we could spend hours talking, and yet we only had enough time to carry on short conversations and share hugs. My wife and I were the last ones to leave. Unlike most Friday nights, everyone wanted to get home and get a good night's sleep. The next day we would celebrate my son. Every conversation that night had obviously been about him. Everyone marveled at how great he looked. I, on the other hand, wasn’t the least bit surprised. Say what you will about my son, he might never have learned to throw a football but that boy could sure wear a suit.
When everyone had gone and without having to ask, my wife left me alone with our son. She instinctively knew there were things I needed to say. He thought I didn’t love him—I had to tell him I did. He thought I wasn't proud of him—I had to tell him I was. He never heard me say I’m sorry. This was my greatest regret. I was so very sorry, unfortunately, more than he would ever know. I hoped—somehow, someway—he would still hear me and forgive.
My son had asked me if I would be his best man and I said, “No.” At least that's what I wanted to say. What I actually said was, “Hell fucking no, and I won’t be at your God dammed wedding either.” Just as I had years earlier, I allowed rage to overcome common sense. The look on his face spoke volumes, as did his silence.
I think my answer is why he killed himself. I’ll never know for sure though. He didn’t leave a note.
I answered his question with a definitive no, but even if I had said yes, I'd have been in the exact same place. There are only two reasons to be in church on Saturday: weddings and funerals.
I guess the real question is, if I had it to do all over again, knowing what I know now, would I have changed my answer? Would I have said yes?
I'm ashamed to say, I honestly don't know.