When my father died, I felt relieved. But an unearthed childhood photo makes me wonder more.

I am the fifth and last child born to a struggling rural Midwestern family. My mother reports that I was so active in utero that she knew she was going to have “a boy or a girl, heaven help us”. I identify as non-binary now, but “girl from heaven help us” is probably a more accurate description of my gender.

As a sitcom character sent from the central cast to portray The Kid Who Would Wreak Havoc, I emerged as a fully formed, sensitive, and opinionated coastal genderqueer.

From the age of 7, I asked to be a vegetarian (in the 70s farmland of Wisconsin), to which my mother replied, “What 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 harp seals from being bludgeoned. She just wanted to clean her house.

When it rained, I regularly missed the school bus. I would be set back by my quest to keep the worms from getting crushed by knocking each of them off the sidewalk onto the grass.

My third-grade teacher gave us an art project that completely undid me. She looped her 45th record of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on loop and told us to draw the story. As I tried to color the capsized boat with the sailors pouring into the water, the lyrics made me burst into prolonged sobs so intense that the professor frantically scheduled a lecture with my mother.

While my mother was called in for these (and many more) crying emergencies, my father collapsed in frustration in response to my inexplicable, insistent, and very embarrassing antics.

If Archie Bunker, the Great Santini, and motivational speaker Matt Foley somehow overcame biology and their status as fictional characters to produce a child, that offspring would be my father.

He was an almost ridiculously stoic man who was raised on a struggling farm near the struggling town of Caro, Michigan by an even more stoic and equally struggling father. He often boasted that he had never seen his father smile.

’70s self-help classics like “How to make friends and influence peoplee” and “Winning through intimidation” fascinated him. He signaled the start of breakfast (always at 6 am) by banging his fist on the table and announcing: “Be enthusiastic and you will be enthusiastic!”

He then added: “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” a quote he attributed in turn to Dale Carnegie and Winston Churchill, which seemed to be aimed directly at me.

I was just worried about the worms.

And the widows of Edmund Fitzgerald’s crew.

I really, really, really didn’t want to wear a dress to school, even on picture day.

Concerned – and inevitably annoyed by – behavior he found inexplicable, my father tried to avoid a sobbing attack by asking, “Oh, are you going to cry now?”

Since the answer to this question was almost always yes, it is curious that he never reconsidered the effectiveness of his behavior modification technique.

My mother always told us, “Your father never struck you with anger,” and while that particular account doesn’t match my historical memories, I prefer my version. If you’re going to get hit, “I’m crazy” seems like a better reason than, say, “It’s Tuesday.”

My dad was a lifelong smoker. When I was 12, he developed lung cancer. I knew I was supposed to worry – and I felt sad to see him suffer so many ultimately futile treatments – but the weaker he got, the less scared I was.

When he was sick, I felt ambivalent. I was heartbroken for her physical anguish. But every chemotherapy treatment he underwent reduced the risk of him exploding at the table for an offense only he understood – drinking between bites of food was an inexplicable and random pet peeve – ultimately leaving me with a bloody nose or much worse.

When he died, ambivalence gave way to relief. There was relief for him, that he was no longer in pain. But there was also an ease in just feeling safer. The man who once beat our 125-pound Newfoundland with a two-by-four no longer lived in our house. The constant creeping fear of “Can I be next?” was gone.

And then I felt guilty for feeling relief.

I wouldn’t say that the Germanic culture of rural Wisconsin in the 70s particularly helped me develop the ability to read other people’s emotional cues. Yet, as close as I could gather, it seemed like my less emotionally sodden cisgender siblings were much less likely to become the focus of my father’s anger and miss him. Maybe even a lot.

I pretended to be slightly sad; it seemed rude to care less about the death of my flesh and blood than a harp seal I had never met.

“You are very brave,” my seventh-grade PE teacher told me when I returned to school, and he didn’t mention my father’s death, even to my friends.

“Sure,” I thought, “let’s call it brave.”

I kept my grief secret closely until I hit my early 40s. A new friend overheard me referring to one of my less-than-savory memories of my dad, and she lit up.

“Oh, are you in the Glad Dead Dad club too?” Being asked that question loosened decades of guilt that had wrapped around my chest like a band. The Glad Dead Dad’s Club may not be a big club, but I was extremely relieved to find out that I wasn’t the only member.

I took to social media the following Father’s Day and shared, “I had a great day thanks to my dad passing away 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 nuanced message 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 simple?

Then last year, my older sister patiently scanned over 2,000 photos my dad had taken over 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 next comedy album.”

I clicked on the site. There were countless images of trees damaged by ice storms, our Ford LTD station wagon looking small next to giant snowdrifts, children looking small next to giant vegetables and a big drooling outdoor dog we should have take much more care. When footage 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 referring to.

Although I wore my brother’s baseball cap and carried a bat, I did not play baseball. I was hanging out in the woods, building a fort and living my best life.

Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham

I don’t have a specific memory of my dad taking this picture, but he wasn’t used to carrying his camera, so he should have stopped the chore he was doing and got his camera, his film and his flashes of the house to capture this moment. It doesn’t sound like an annoyance-driven behavior sequence. It was like a photo taken by someone who actually saw this kid.

Whenever I refer to my parents as the “doing their best” cliché, my slightly sarcastic New York therapist will say in her slightly sarcastic New York way, “Hmmm. Really. So it was their best.

They might not be shortlisted as candidates for Parent of the Year now (or in the 70s), but in their context, given their skills and resources, they certainly could have done much worse.

This photo made me wonder how much of me my dad actually saw but didn’t have the emotional language or the experience to communicate. What could have happened between my father and me if he had lived and had access to any tool to improve his relations: therapy, the 12 steps or, in a pinch, even IATA on Reddit?

Not that my dad would have become the kind of parent who has a wry handlebar mustache, brews his own kombucha, and gives his kids multiple choices on which brand of organic yogurt they prefer. But in a world where my dentist asks about my pronouns and Target wears trans-male packaging underwear, maybe he could have at least been proud of the sensitive, not a man, not a woman that I am became.

My grief for my father is always complicated. Because I am so grateful for the years of security his death gave me, it would be dishonest to return 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 missed opportunity to know and be known.

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