What is Father’s Day when your father is dead?

I wrote this piece for Father’s Day 2018, just a couple of short months after my dad’s passing. I’m republishing it here because… well, it’s relevant.

A young Oscar and a *VERY* young Laurel visiting a beach in California, sometime in mid-1990

A young Oscar and a *VERY* young Laurel visiting a beach in California, sometime in mid-1990

A little over three months ago, I sat at my father’s bedside, holding his hand as my brother and I made the unspeakably painful decision to place him on “comfort care” — a far-too-casual euphemism for making him comfortable as he passed away.

The room was packed full of medical equipment and family. Myself, my brother, our uncle, and my father’s long-time companion. Two of us on one side, crammed next to heart rate monitors and IV bags, two on the other bumping against a reclining chair the nurses had brought in so at least one of us could sleep. Seventeen hours had passed since that decision, and there was nothing to do but wait. Over three days, none of us had showered more than once, we had dined on nothing but hospital cafeteria food and drank next to nothing except waiting-room coffee. I had caught five- or ten-minute naps in that recliner, interrupted by the beeping of a monitor giving an abnormal reading or, in one particularly aggravating instance, an intern attempting to wake my father to give him a neurological exam.

When the time came for him to pass, we were there. At his side. I kissed his forehead and had a moment with him to say goodbye. I cried harder than I had ever cried, though the shock-insulated feelings I had paled in comparison to the grief I would feel in the days and weeks after. The tube came out, his breathing slowed, then stopped. I held his hand as his heart stopped beating and the man who for twenty-nine years had been a fixed point in my life — a constant star in the sky — disappeared with a breath.

Dad really liked this caricature, which was drawn at Riverfest in the late-1990s.

Dad really liked this caricature, which was drawn at Riverfest in the late-1990s.

Someone said that grief comes in waves. The first ones crash relentlessly, taller than a skyscraper, defying attempts to ignore them or pack them away. Then, they’re just as tall, but a little less frequent, and then they slowly become smaller and smaller until only small ripples are left. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems as good an explanation for how some days I can be joking with family about how Dad used to always ask for his eggs overeasy because, he’d say, “that’s how I like my women” (he was #problematic sometimes) and be fine, but other times — like the night that I am writing this essay — the thought of his absence is like a maw opening in my chest.

While my father was in the ICU, before we knew how bad it was, when there was still hope and he was still awake and responding and laughing at our nervous attempts to crack jokes, I stepped out into the hospital’s courtyard to take a phone call related to a job I was pursuing. The reasoning was simple. Dad had taken an interest in my work from the moment he saw the joy I derived from it, so he’d never want to be the excuse for me passing up an opportunity to do more good work on a wider scale. When I went up to his room, I told him — “I think I got it!”

He gave me a thumbs up, and smiled as much as he could given the tube helping him breathe.

I wouldn’t have imagined a decade ago how important it would be to me that some of my last words to my father spoke to my successes. When I was ten years old, coming to grips with my identity and my place in the world, I came out to my mother — who promptly pushed me back in the closet. A dozen years later, when I told my father, he reacted first with sadness — not because he hated me or no longer loved me or was disappointed, but because he wanted to know what he did to make me keep this from him for so long. “Unconditional love means just that — love, unconditionally” he said. I often wonder what might have happened had I told him instead. Would he have moved me out of Arkansas and to a place where I could have gotten appropriate medical care? Maybe. Probably. It might have saved me a dozen years of repression, a stint in Bible College, and a marriage filled with profound regret.

In just a couple of weeks, it’s Father’s Day. I have a more complete picture of who my father was in his death than I did in his life. He was an inherently good man, though with some incredibly problematic moments. He was a man I had practically no relationship with to speak of for over a decade, but who became an incredibly important part of my life over the past few years. He was a person whose help was instrumental in making a life-changing cross-country move happen. I would not be who I am today without my father’s influence in my life.

When he was alive, I knew what Father’s Day was. When I was a child it was a goofy tie picked out by my mother and a hug. As an adolescent it was giving a card with just a signature inside to the man in front of me while I searched desperately for a father figure elsewhere. As an adult it was a meaningful handwritten note and a bottle of decent whisky and a phone call. What is it now?

I don’t know.

Understanding Pride

Happy Pride! The following was originally written for The Lady Project in 2017, and is republished here. Enjoy!

Flags

Pride can mean a great many different things, depending upon who you ask. For some, Pride is an event — a parade, a weekend of festivities, a block of time celebrating the most colorful, the most effervescent, the loudest, the most vivacious, and the most fabulous among us. For others, it’s a feeling that comes from within, a deep and abiding desire to live out their truth in whatever form it might take — through relationships, through their work, their writing, their hobbies, or any number of different outlets. Still others may find that Pride is defined as an abundance of joy gained from being a part of a community. Being wholly and totally accepted by peers, by friends, by mentors and mentees, and learning what it feels like to simply… be. I fall into this last group, and I’d like to talk a little about what Pride represents to me before I go stand by a parade route this summer to celebrate it.

Two and a half years ago, I faced an overwhelmingly difficult choice. I was fresh off a painful divorce, facing the prospect of having my career advancement halted because of who I am, and my desire to be open about my journey as a trans woman. I was living in a place that I had never particularly wanted to call home. Every day, I was dealing with the consequences of a life spent in denial, a life where I was told what to do and who to be and how to act, rather than being myself. I had few friends and no true community engagement — my name, my story, went before me — ensuring that most of the interactions I had with other people like me were influenced by who I used to be. I desperately wished to be recognized for my contributions rather than my personal history.

Many of you reading this are likely able to sympathise in some form or another — these experiences are one of many common threads that bind us as people. I was tremendously lucky, in that there was a light at the end of the tunnel — I had the means and the willpower to dismantle my life in Florida, and reassemble it anywhere I wanted. I decided to try and take root in Providence, RI, the place I now call home. I sold everything that I could, and donated the rest, and in June of 2015, I drove twenty-two hours to Providence, and within a few months, I found something I had been missing for my whole life without even realizing it was gone — a supportive and open community. I fell in with new colleagues for whom my past did not matter. I found new friends for whom I was simply me — no strings attached, no shadow of who I used to be hanging over me. Not everyone can, nor should they, take such drastic steps, but as I look back now, I realize that finding community was worth the massive risk, and that the influence of these people has helped guide me into being a strong and vibrant person.

Being a career-minded woman brings more than its fair share of stress. Being openly queer adds to it. A strong, supportive community builds our capacity to resist that stress, cope well, and overcome. A strong, positive community gives an outlet where we can express — and sometimes moderate — our impulses, and creates a sounding board for our ideas. Through a tight-knit community, we find people to share in our victories, and counsel us through our defeats. It creates, for many of us, a second family — people who have walked in our path before stand up to help those of us who are just beginning the journey, sometimes leading to bonds stronger than blood. Without the community I found here in Providence, I would not be the woman I am now. I would not have the confidence to be a strong leader, have the strength to speak truth to power, or have a voice loud enough to lend to those who are voiceless.

Community breeds authenticity, it inspires confidence, and it inculcates independence. It leads to Pride. In part, that’s what the queer community celebrates each year — what I am thrilled to join my fellow queer women in celebrating — that we can do more with each others’ help and support than without. Pride is far more than the parade, and it even goes farther than us as individuals. Pride is our community. This summer, as many of us get ready to take part in a celebration of queer identities, we must remember that much of our true strength comes from one another.