The first time I saw it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, was in the summer of 2015. I was sprawled across a deck chair beside a pool in Fort Morgan, Alabama, half-asleep in the heat. And over the din of children splashing and waves crashing, I listened to my father retell the same story four times within the space of 15 minutes.
Now, daddy had a fairly small repertoire of stories (tall tales, mildly funny encounters, and other short-form, dinner table stuff), so it wasn’t unusual for him to repeat one over the course of a day. But this was something new. I rolled my head to look at him. Same thin gray hair, same ice blue eyes, same mischievous smile, but something was definitely not the same.
I don’t remember the story itself—it was probably about a dumb thing that one of my brothers or I did as kids or about an equally dumb thing that one of daddy’s helpers did up at the farm. All I really remember is thinking, “Well, I see how this is going to end.”
I said goodbye to my father that day. I didn’t know how much he would change over the next six years or the indignities he would suffer at the hands of disease—if I did, I would’ve probably hugged him and my stepmother 25% tighter before I left.
It took daddy and me a while to warm up to each other—25 years, give or take. I was an argumentative, precocious kid. I liked asking questions, pushing boundaries, trying new things. Daddy—a profoundly religious farmer-turned-pharmacist from the backwoods of central Mississippi—took great offense at my disrespect for authority. In his view, children should speak when spoken to and obey orders from their elders in the meantime. To him, I was not inquisitive, I was not curious, I was a smartass.
To be fair to daddy, his worldview wasn’t unusual, at least not where we were from. Nearly every adult man I knew was cut from the same cloth. (Mom is another story for another time.) Their core values centered on god, Ole Miss, saying “yes ma’am and “no ma’am”, and worrying about what the neighbors would think. If you sassed off about any of those items—or quite a few more that fell further down the list—you’d better just stop what you were doing and go pick a switch. Otherwise, they’d do it for you.
The darkest moment in our personal Cold War came as I was graduating from college. We’d never had The Talk about me being gay, but it was clear as a big, pink bell that I was. I told him that I was moving to New Orleans after I got my diploma, and that didn’t sit well with daddy one tiny little bit. The phone call ended around the time that he shouted, “You gonna go down there and catch something you can’t get rid of!” I hung up and didn’t speak to him again for half a year, maybe more.
When we reconnected, things were different. I don’t know for sure, we never discussed it afterward, and now we never will, but I think our brief estrangement made him see that he wasn’t going to change me and that if he wanted a relationship, he’d better start accepting me for the adult I was becoming.
And ironically, that changed me. Around the time that the Soviets’ Iron Curtain was falling, I slowly let down my defenses. Daddy and I stopped shouting at one another and started listening. And before either of us really knew what was happening, we’d become friends. He drove down to New Orleans and helped me pack when I moved to New York for grad school. He helped me buy a car when I returned.
Our friendship accelerated after he had emergency heart surgery a few years later. It was the closest he’d ever been to death, and the recovery process was long and brutal. He never said it outright, but it’s pretty clear to me that the experience gave him a better sense of what was important in life and what was not. A relationship with me fell in the former category.
Daddy and I got into the habit of meeting in Hattiesburg for lunch every few months. And we started spending long weekends at the beach, him and me and the rest of my family, at the house of a family friend. I don’t know if I ever became the son he’d wanted, but I can say for sure that he became a much better version of my dad.
In short, the second 25 years of our relationship made up for the first 25. I’m glad we both lived long enough to see that.
One of the last conversations we had—the last real conversation, anyway—was on February 4, 2017. My uncle had offered me some of my grandparents’ furniture, so I’d gone up to get it, and daddy had helped me load it into his massive F-150. (I should point out that I was driving; a year and a half after the story-retelling incident, dad was already too far gone to be trusted behind the wheel.)
Anyway, I don’t recall how we got there in the conversation, but as we were heading home, I remember explaining to daddy that growing up as a gay kid in the Southern Baptist church in small-town Mississippi was no fun at all. And as I turned onto the long, straight stretch of Wansley Road, he looked over at me and asked—fully sincere and truly curious—“Is there anything I could’ve done better?”
Part of me broke inside. Not just because this one one of the few open, honest conversations we’d ever had; not just because dad was admitting that he was fallible, something that rarely if ever crossed his mind when we were younger (despite all of Pastor Kennedy’s talk about sinning and human frailty in his Sunday sermons); but because in those seven words, daddy made clear that he saw his own end on the horizon. I think he knew that he wouldn’t have many more chances to speak with me so frankly.
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.
I took a deep breath and told him that he’d done as well as he could, given when and where I grew up. And I told him that I’m fine now, so everything came out okay in the end.
I didn’t mention that he’d been right, that I’d moved to New Orleans and had indeed caught something I couldn’t get rid of. I suppose I have my own issues with fallibility.
Last Monday, May 17, we all got a text from my stepmother. Daddy had gone on hospice care the week before, and she said that he’d taken a turn for the worst. If we wanted to say our goodbyes, we’d best come on.
The next morning, I left the house at 7am and drove up to Laurel to see him. He was unconscious, but I sat beside him and said my piece. The last words I said to him were “thank you”. I said it four times.
That night he passed away, and two days later, we buried him. I didn’t care for the pastor much (then again, I’m wary of religion, so part of that’s on me), but otherwise, the ceremony was simple and lovely. And for the first time in maybe ever, our family felt like a family.
If you have the means and the inclination, you can make a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association here.