“1975 wasn’t the best year for kids’ fashion, but I was trying my best to be a stylish baby butch.” (Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham)
I am the fifth and final child born to a struggling rural Midwestern family. My mother reports that I was so active in the womb that she knew she was having “a boy or a girl God help us both”. I identify as non-binary now, but “heaven help us girl” is probably a more accurate description of my gender.
As a sitcom character sent from the core cast to portray The Kid Who Would Wreak Havoc, I emerged as a fully formed, sensitive, and opinionated coastal genderqueer.
Starting at age 7, I asked to be a vegetarian (in Wisconsin farmland in the 70s), to which my mother replied, “What the hell would you eat?” One Sunday afternoon, I spent three hours following my mother from room to room, pestering her about what we could do to keep the harp seals from being beaten. She just wanted to clean her house.
When it rained, I regularly missed the school bus. I would be delayed by my quest to keep the worms from being run over, returning each one from the sidewalk to the grass.
My third grade teacher gave us an art project that completely undid me. She replayed her disc 45 of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and told us to draw the story. As I tried to paint the capsized boat with the sailors falling into the water, the lyrics caused me to fall into prolonged sobs so intense that the professor frantically arranged a meeting with my mother.
While my mother was summoned for these (and many other) crying-related emergencies, my father became frustrated in response to my inexplicable, insistent, and highly inconvenient heart-wrenching antics.
If Archie Bunker the Great Santini and Matt Foley, motivational speaker, somehow got past biology and their status as fictional characters to produce a child, that child would be my father.
He was an almost ridiculously stoic man who was raised on a struggling farm near the town of Caro, Michigan, by an even more stoic and struggling father. He often boasted that he never saw his father smile.
’70s self-help classics like “How to make friends and influence peopleand is “Winning by Intimidation” charmed him. He signaled the start of breakfast (always at 6am) by slamming his fist on the table and announcing, “Act with enthusiasm and you will be excited!”
He would then add, “Most people are as happy as they decide they’re going to be,” a quote he alternately attributed to Dale Carnegie and Winston Churchill, which seemed to be addressed directly to me.
But I was not unhappy,
I was just worried about the worms.
And the harp seals.
And the whales.
And the widows of Edmund Fitzgerald’s crew.
I also really, really, really didn’t want to wear a dress to school, even on photo day.
Concerned – and inevitably irritated – by the behavior he found inexplicable, my father tried to stave off a fit of sobs by asking, “Oh, are you going to cry now?”
Since the answer to that question was almost always yes, it is curious that he never reconsidered the effectiveness of his behavior modification technique.
My mother always informed us, “Your father never beat you in anger,” and while this particular narrative does not correspond to my historical recollection, I prefer my version. If you’re going to get hit, “I’m mad” seems like a better reason than, say, “It’s Tuesday.”
My father was a long-time smoker. When I was 12 years old, he developed lung cancer. I knew I should be worried – and I was sad to see him suffer so much from useless treatments – but the weaker he got, the less fear I felt.
When he was sick, I felt ambivalent. I was heartbroken from his physical anguish. But every chemo treatment he went through made it less likely that he’d blow up at the dinner table for an offense only he understood—drinking between bites of food was an inexplicable, random pet peeve—eventually leaving me with a bloody nose or much worse.
When he died, ambivalence was replaced by relief. There was relief for him that he was no longer suffering. But there was also an ease in simply feeling safer. The man who had once beaten up our 125lb Newfoundland dog with a 2×4 no longer lived in our house. The constant, creeping fear of “Could I be next?” left.
And then I felt guilty for feeling relief.
I wouldn’t say that the Germanic culture of rural Wisconsin during the 1970s particularly helped me develop the ability to read other people’s emotional cues. Still, from what I could imagine, it seemed like my less emotionally soaked cisgender siblings were far less likely to become the focus of my dad’s anger, and my mom missed him. Maybe even a lot.
I pretended to be mildly sad; it seemed impolite to be less concerned about the death of my flesh and blood than a harp seal I had never seen.
“You’re very brave,” my seventh-grade gym teacher said when I got back to school, and I didn’t mention my father’s death, even to my friends.
“Of course”, I thought, “let’s call it brave”.
I kept my grieving secret closely until my mid-40s. A new friend heard me reference one of my most unpleasant memories of my father, and she perked up.
“Oh, are you also part of the Glad Dead Dad club?” Asking that question loosened decades of guilt that had been tight like a band around my chest. Glad Dead Dad’s Club isn’t a big club, perhaps, but I was extremely relieved to find that I wasn’t the only member.
I took to social media the following Father’s Day and shared, “Had a great day, courtesy of my father’s death from lung cancer when I was 12. I should write a letter to Philip Morris. I bet Big Tobacco doesn’t get many thank you notes.”
It wasn’t the most subtle post in the world (and frankly not the most well-received), but it was a relief to be open after spending years feeling like a villain in a Disney animated movie. We didn’t have a simple relationship. Why would I expect my feelings in response to his death to be uncomplicated?
So last year, my older sister patiently scanned over 2,000 photos my father had taken during the last 30 years of his life. She emailed me a link to the massive online photo album site with a note: “I think I found the cover image for your upcoming comedy album.”
I clicked on the website. There were countless images of trees damaged by ice storms, our Ford LTD truck looking small next to giant snowdrifts, kids looking small next to giant vegetables, and a large, drooling outdoor dog that we should have taken care of much better. When the photos captured groups of adults, each person had a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.
Then I found the photo she was referencing.
Even though I was wearing my brother’s secondhand baseball cap and carrying a bat, I wasn’t playing baseball. I was walking in the woods, building a fort and living my best life.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham)
I don’t have a specific memory of my father taking this picture, but he didn’t often carry his camera, so he would have had to stop whatever task he was doing and bring his camera, film, and flashes from home to capture this moment. It doesn’t look like a sequence of behavior motivated by annoyance. It looked like a photo taken by someone who actually saw this boy.
Whenever I refer to my parents as the cliché “doing the best they can,” my Slightly Sarcastic Therapist from New York will say in her Slightly Sarcastic New York way: “Hmmm. Serious. So that was the best of them.”
They might not have been selected as Parent of the Year candidates now (or in the 70s), but within their context, given their skills and resources, they certainly could have done a lot worse.
This photo made me wonder how much more of me my dad actually saw, but he didn’t have the emotional language or experience to communicate. What could have happened between my dad and me if he had lived and had access to any tool to improve his relationships: therapy, the 12 steps, or, in a pinch, even AITA is Reddit?
Not that my dad had become the kind of dad who has an ironic mustache, makes his own kombucha, and gives his kids plenty of choices about which brand of organic yogurt they prefer. But in a world where my dentist asks about my pronouns and Target carries transmale underwear, maybe he could at least be proud of the sensitive, non-male, non-female I’ve become.
My grief for my father is still complicated. As I am so grateful for the years of security his death has provided me, it would be false to hand over my Glad Dead Dad’s Club membership card. My tears – which, of course, would drive him crazy – reflect my sadness for both of us, and our collective lost opportunity to know and be known.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.