What I Learned About Fatherhood From My Dad
A birthday tribute to my dad, who taught me the most important life lessons about what it means to be a father.
My father grew up in a working class community outside of Boston, the son of a butcher and a homemaker. Like his dad before him, my father was tough, very tough, from an early age. He didn't take school all that seriously, but what he lacked in book smarts he more than made up for with street smarts. While still just a kid, he learned to depend on the potent combination of his wits and fists.
After high school he enlisted in the Navy, where he really grew up. Upon his return to civilian life he tried college, but didn't stay long enough to graduate. However, he found resounding success in the real world by relying on his great instincts, incredible work ethic and relentless drive to succeed. By the time I was in grade school, my dad was well on his way to building a very successful business, a conglomerate of automobile dealerships that would become one of the largest in New England. Along the way he proved to be a true humanitarian: Over the years his companies have supported countless worthy causes, and he personally has helped many hundreds (or maybe even thousands?) of people in need, with unfailing generosity.
While I'm immensely proud of all that he has accomplished, unfortunately I don't always get along so well with my dad. He has a very old-school way of looking at things, and we really do lead different lives. Until I became a parent almost eight years ago, I'm not sure he understood my life or was able to relate to it. Politically, we couldn’t be further apart. He views current events through the lens of Fox News; I put my trust in The New York Times. I supported Obama and Hillary; he voted for Trump. Our political discussions follow a predictable path: We just repeat our opinions, already set in stone. In the heat of these discussions, we sometimes inadvertently say hurtful things to each other. There are so many important areas of our lives in which we don't agree that, outside our family ties, I sometimes worry he and I don’t have much in common.
Yet my dad is one of the most important role models of my life. Time and again he's shown me through example what it really means to be a father. No matter how many disagreements we may have, I have always known that his love for me is unconditional and his pride in me is boundless. How? Because since I was a small child he has never been afraid to tell me and to show me through hugs, kisses and words of love and praise (often to my great embarrassment!).
Well, today is my dad's 80th birthday, and I want to celebrate the occasion by holding him up as an exemplar dad. I hope the anecdotes you're about to read below will provide some small level of comfort to those who have been shunned from their own families, and give us all a reminder about how to parent.
The day I came out as HIV-positive, I was 25 and had already been living with HIV for a couple of years. I kept it hidden because I was fearful that the disclosure would force me to face the truth about who I really was and make me contend with the stigma associated with an HIV diagnosis in the 1990s. I also worried about the considerable heartache and pain I would cause my family, especially my parents. How could they possibly bear to watch me succumb to one of the many AIDS-defining illnesses that ripped through previously healthy men in such horrific and terrifying ways.
The first people I did finally tell were my older brother and his wife, as I knew I could trust them. Together we agreed not to tell my parents or grandparents, at least not until the disease progressed to the point where I was no longer able to hide it. But once I spoke about HIV out loud to one member of my family, I found it became more real to me. And the more real it became, the more I longed to tell others, especially my parents. So eventually my brother accompanied me to my parents' house where I sat them down to tell them I had HIV. Tears streamed down my face, and my mother followed suit. I didn't know what to make of my dad's reaction, who stood up and asked me to join him privately in another room. But I barely had time to process any possible meaning for his behavior as he quickly grabbed me with both arms, pulled me tightly towards his body, and held me liked that for several minutes.
While locked in his unyielding grip, my father told me that he loved me, that he had always loved me, and that he would always love me.
Although I had come out about living with HIV, I kept my true sexuality in the closet. The few times I was questioned about how I contracted HIV even though I was straight, I simply referred to Magic Johnson. Part of my reluctance had to do with my own internalized homophobia, but I was also struggling because I was in love with my girlfriend, whom I considered my soulmate, and I didn't want to hurt her. She knew about my HIV status, and was willing to stay with me anyway. And while I didn't want to break up with her, I also felt tremendous guilt about what she would have to give up to stay with me. My parents took notice of my stress and encouraged me to see a therapist.
Eventually, I found myself sitting on the couch of a gay therapist, and during my very first session I told him I was gay. It was the first time I had uttered these words out loud, and the first time I had acknowledged my truth. It took many months of counseling, but I eventually worked up the nerve to come out to my girlfriend. Soon after, I called my parents to tell them I had something important to discuss with them, and that I wanted to do so privately. With my girlfriend by my side, for the second time in my life I summoned the courage to share news with my parents that I knew would be difficult for them to hear, to process.
I had practiced coming out to my parents many times in therapy, and I was determined not to cry. I thought a stoic face would better demonstrate the normalcy of being gay. But as soon as I started talking, the tears started to flow. And so I came out to my parents, again with tears. I had barely muttered the words "I'm gay" before my dad reached out to me, looking me directly in the eye. He told me again that he loved me and then gave me another strong hug. When he finally let go, he insisted that I let him know if I had anything else to disclose. He asked me to let him share this latest news with the rest of the family, so I wouldn't have to go through the emotional stress again. And then he made me promise that I would never keep any other secrets between us because families are meant to help each other through the most difficult times.
Like many gay couples who got together before the time of commitment ceremonies and marriage equality, Ferd and I had to pick a day we used to commemorate as our anniversary. We chose June 20, 1993, the night of our first date, as we were inseparable from that night on.
Ferd is Dutch and, thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act (which ruled that marriage was only between one man and one woman), I was unable to sponsor him for permanent residency. When he first arrived in the U.S. about two years before we met, he did so as a doctoral student. Over the next couple of of years, he was granted a succession of temporary visas based on various temporary jobs he had. But during our time together, he was unable to find a job that would lead to the all-important green card. Soon after our son was born in May 2009, Ferd's visas had run out. He had to leave the country that had been his home for 18 years. We made the decision to move to Toronto, Canada, after getting working papers through my employer at the time. A couple of years later, my whole family was granted permanent residency in Canada!
On the evening of March 20, 2013, Ferd took me out for my birthday. When my birthday cake arrived at the end of the meal, I surprised Ferd with a marriage proposal. My one stipulation was that we continue to honor June 20 as our anniversary date. In other words, we had exactly three months to plan our wedding! Besides, that year was our 20th anniversary and I could think of no better way to celebrate than by getting married.
Until it made us leave the United States, many of my friends had not fully understood the negative consequences of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. For me, the trauma of having to leave my homeland because it didn't allow me to marry the person I loved, made my desire to get legally married in Canada even stronger. I wanted my family and friends to appreciate all they took for granted and what it was like for us to have our lives uprooted because of that horrible legislation.
Yet when I mentioned the date of our wedding to family and friends, some were skeptical about organizing a wedding in just three months, and others cautioned that a Thursday wedding could be difficult for those who had to travel far. At one point I found myself engaged in a heated discussion about why I would not yield on our wedding date. It coincided with a spectacular vacation that my parents had been planning for months. But my dad (whose personal views on marriage equality I did not know) settled the discussion about the scheduling conflicts once and for all when he said he didn't care about that vacation. He was not going to miss our wedding for anything.
As the dad to three young children, I know it's easy to show them my unconditional love. After all, what can they really do now to test that? But I imagine each father feels tested when his children as adults make different choices than he had hoped for.
My dad, with his wisdom, generosity, and infinite love during life's most challenging moments, is my hero. I hope my kids feel the same way about me some day.
Happy 80th Birthday, Dad.