This, too, is the Dharma.
My dad grew up in an isolated, rural community on the high plains, the eldest of six. His own father was absent for the first two years of his life, off in Belgium and Germany fighting Nazis and facing horrors as a POW that he rarely spoke of while he was alive. My dad didn’t know his father at all when he came home from the war in 1945.
My grandfather severely abused my dad physically and emotionally throughout his childhood. My dad used to tell my younger sister and me stories of that abuse that seemed surreal to my young mind. Even though my grandfather loved me very much, I never grew that close to him; I always held him at arm’s length. I had heard too many of my dad’s stories of a painful childhood and adolescence. I loved my dad very much and I was always angry with my grandfather for hurting him.
Perhaps because of the abuse, my dad learned to be extremely self-sufficient growing up. He would escape the pain of home regularly by disappearing into the smoky hills and windy bluffs of southwestern Kansas. He also had many stories of adventures along the many creek beds around his hometown. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time, especially once he was old enough to drive. He fished and hunted for food. His knives and guns were his lifelines. He knew which plants were edible and which were poisonous. He tanned hides and built fires without a match.
My dad was a scrapper and a survivor.
He sought solace with his paternal grandparents who lived in the same small town. They knew their own son’s penchant for narcissism and anger and they took pity on my dad, putting him up and feeding him for weeks at a time during my grandfather’s many extended rampages. My dad loved his grandparents more than his own parents. They were kind and supportive, nurturing in a way his own parents were not.
My dad never respected his mother. He told me so on many, many occasions. In his stories of growing up he often expressed disdain for her because of what he saw as her impotence in the face of his father’s rage. It was clear to me from a very young age that he bore much anger toward her for not stepping in, for not being the mother he desperately needed as a child. He rarely had good things to say about her.
As a child this confused me. I loved my grandmother with all my heart. I thought she was the greatest grandmother anyone could have. We always lived far away from them and only saw them once or twice a year. As a child I longed to go to grandma’s house and literally grieved when we would leave. My grandmother loved me unconditionally and doted on me whenever we were there.
Over the years, my grandparents changed a great deal. My grandfather frequently expressed regret to me over the way he had treated my dad all those years ago. My grandmother expressed sorrow and shame for not defending my dad more from my grandfather’s abuse when he was young. But for my dad, it was too little, too late.
My dad married my mom when he was nineteen, she eighteen. I came along a few years later, my sister three years after me. Both my parents were high school graduates, my dad coming close to being valedictorian of his class, just missing it, though, because of a rebellious streak that frequently landed him in the principal’s office. He played hookie an awful lot to be outdoors, raise hell and chase girls. He always seemed very proud of that.
My dad was always infinitely capable, forever indomitable. His self-sufficiency was at once a necessity for his survival and his “fuck you” to a world that was hostile and to people who were never there for him. He didn’t need anyone and he had no qualms about saying so. My dad was a man’s man of the first degree, and most of the rest of the world was weak and stupid. Growing up, it was clear to me that you didn’t have to do much to end up in the ignominious club of the soft and reviled. My dad didn’t suffer fools lightly. Common sense was always more important to him than book smarts. You might not be able to quote Chomsky, but if you had a sense of adventure, an eye for the ladies and could survive alone in the wilderness with nothing but a Buck knife, a few fish hooks and some twine for a week, you were worth your salt in his eyes.
Growing up, my dad inspired awe in me. I looked up to him and respected him above all other men. He could take the worst of situations and turn it around for his family. Despite not having much money, we never lacked anything. I had a magical childhood in my dad’s shadow. He was affectionate and never afraid to say I love you. He was supportive and protective and gave me my freedom at the same time. He was masterful at comforting us after a loss.
My dad instilled his values in me and taught me many of the skills he had learned as a boy out of necessity. To this day I can hunt and fish. I can build a lean-to in the woods. I can rappel down the face of a cliff and I know which rope knots to tie to ensure my safety. I know how to coax a channel cat out of shallow waters with just the right bait. I know how to walk silently in the woods and how to prepare cattails and dandelion greens with wild onions for a delicious, nutritious meal. I can skin a jack rabbit and a rattlesnake. Drop me into any wilderness, and I’ll find my way out. I am the best navigator I know.
Some of my fondest memories are of the days he would take me bow hunting in remote areas of Routt and Moffat counties on Colorado’s western slope. We would start the day before sun up at Daylight Donuts on the west end of Steamboat. I would always have a bear claw and a chocolate milk. He would take his coffee to go. We would drive for what seemed like an eternity, park the GMC Jimmy and hike into the wilderness. We’d spend hours on hilltops looking into ravines with binoculars for mule deer and elk. Those days with my dad were like a real-life Wild Kingdom, full of every mountain creature imaginable.
During all the hunting trips I took with him, I never once saw him take a shot at anything. Once, toward the end of one season, just before dusk when the sun shone low through fall aspens, casting a golden aura across the entire world, we came across a doe, completely unaware of our presence. We had gone the entire season without bagging a deer, and my dad asked me if I thought he should take a shot at it. I said yes.
My dad drew his bow and took aim at the doe. He was ready to release his arrow when a fawn slipped out of the underbrush behind her. I cried out for him not to shoot, and he lowered his bow to the ground. We both breathed a sigh of relief and set out for the truck to go home. That was the last hunting trip I ever took with him.
My dad wrote poetry and played the guitar. My dad taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to think. He taught me how to question what others accept at face value. My dad taught me that a forest clearing is just as good a church as any cathedral, probably better. He taught me to take risks, but not to do so haphazardly. He taught me to be conscious of the results of my actions and how to think strategically. He taught me that I’m going to get hurt sometimes, and that all wounds heal. He told me once he thought I would make a good Buddhist. My dad’s favorite saying: it’s a good life if you don’t weaken.
When I was thirteen my dad began traveling abroad for work. His job was to bring power to places in the world that had never had electricity. It was his dream job. My dad spent the rest of his life traveling to exotic lands far from civilization on every continent, learning new languages, traversing terrain a mountain goat couldn’t climb to build steel towers and string high voltage electrical cable. He earned an amazing living for his family by being an adventurer. He also took us many places with him.
Thanks to his air miles, I traveled alone around the globe when I was nineteen. At one point on that trip I met up with him in Indonesia and followed him to remote regions of Java to train crews of men to maintain electrical high lines without shutting down the power. Dangerous work, for sure. But what else would Superman choose as his career?
I met him in El Salvador on two occasions in the 80s, traveling to once war-torn areas, to ancient Mayan sites, to pristine, undeveloped Pacific coast beaches. He visited me once while I lived in Costa Rica for a year, too. We traveled to an active volcano and explored the jungle together along the Pacific coast.
During my college years my mom and dad lived in east Africa for two years. I got to live with them for a couple of months the summer before I went to grad school. My dad was working on a long-term project to electrify remote areas of Tanzania, taking advantage of hydro-electric projects financed by the IMF and the World Bank. The three of us went on safaris. I filmed a lioness killing a zebra from the rooftop of a Land Rover, not 30 feet away. I stood atop that same vehicle in the bottom of a gigantic volcanic crater surrounded by a herd of wildebeest that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. We traveled to Zanzibar where I explored the ruins of a sultan’s palace now claimed by towering mango trees.
During my brief stay with them I fell ill and wound up in a Nairobi hospital, subjected to tests involving blood draws, injections of dyes and x-rays. My dad was by my side the entire time, looking out for me, worrying about me, telling me how proud he was of me and that he loved me. I recovered and was able to set out again on new adventures.
I hiked to a waterfall at the base of Kilimanjaro. I witnessed a flock of flamingos take flight from a salt marsh at Lake Manyara. I followed herds of elephants and families of giraffes as they meandered in an endless search for the greenest acacia leaves at Ngorongoro.
My dad nursed my mom back from the brink through two bouts of malaria while they lived there. He built a water tower and filtration system for their expat house and three others on the same compound. They enjoyed the cleanest, safest drinking water in the entire town. He worked doggedly day in and day out to come home to his wife and a beautiful, rustic house at the foot of a mountain that supported an ANC military training camp. The two of them survived cobras, green mambas, dysentery and potholes the size of craters. They were the happiest I had ever seen them.
My dad was beyond compare. He occupied an unreachable place in my mind. He was the ultimate, my hero. He was the die I would cast myself from. His was the standard to which I would hold all other men. He was the man of steel, beyond reproach, indefatigable and larger than life. He was self-made and followed no one. I loved him with every fiber of my being. I love him more now than I will ever be able to express.
My dad hasn’t spoken to me since 1997.
That was the year I came out to my family. I had gone to Naropa to get a second master’s degree and was living in Boulder. By this time my parents were living in rural central Missouri. My dad continued to travel abroad, only now he had formed his own company and was working for himself. I came out to my mom first over the phone. My dad was in Spain at the time. I couldn’t tell him myself because I was too afraid, too ashamed. I made my mom tell him for me. She resents it to this day.
You see, my dad is his father’s son. He can be prone to anger. He doesn’t go on rampages like my grandfather. Instead, he goes inward and seethes in his rage, fleeing the scene when it becomes too much to contain. His career of foreign travel has always served as a convenient excuse for him to be alone. Sometimes he’s gone for up to a year at a time.
My dad will be 67 this September. His body has begun to betray him. Decades of hard physical labor and even harder self-imposed exercise regimes have taken their toll. He has skin cancer, kidney problems, a chronically painful and debilitating condition in his lower spine and now, according to my mother, he’s developing macular degenerative disease.
I haven’t been face-to-face with the man since 2000 when my grandmother was dying. Watching her die in their home was surreal enough. To top it off, my dad refused to interact with me the entire time I was there. I had just started a new job in Boulder and had to come back home and get back to work. She died the day after I got back. My dad was alone with her when she passed.
Since ‘97, my life has been about reconciling the ideas of the loving dad I knew as a child and the dad who has abandoned me as an adult. That contradiction informs everything about me to this day. When he dies, I’ll go to his funeral. But it will be a unique experience for me, to say the least. I’ve been grieving the loss of him for thirteen years now. The rest of my family hasn’t had as much time to get used to the idea of him being gone. I don’t know what that day will look like, but I’m sure it will change me profoundly. I feel that sea change welling up inside of me already.
Every Father’s Day brings me another opportunity to go deeper into reconciliation with the idea of my dad. He was an amazing father growing up. He has been a heartless, cruel bastard since I’ve been an adult. It’s impossible to convey completely the complexity of family dynamics in such a short piece, but you get the gist of my experience. I love my dad more than I’ll ever be able to express. I also want to pound his face into a bloody pulp for abandoning me. Those two extremes exist side by side in me. I never would have imagined they could.
This seems to me the ultimate in human contradictions; it has certainly informed everything about me for the last thirteen years. Contradiction has shaped the man I’ve become. Growing up, my love for my dad was always punctuated by not a small amount of fear. He beat me as a child (albeit infrequently), sometimes with implements. When I became a teenager he was very clear that there would be no more spankings. From that day forward, he would hit me with a closed fist when I deserved it. I tested him on that claim once. Just once.
My dad is a man of his word.
I don’t have children of my own, probably never will. I’ll be the branch that fell off my family tree. I’m okay with that. My sister has provided my parents with four beautiful granddaughters. They live very close to each other. My sister spends her weekdays working in my dad’s home office. They share a large tract of land in the country where they have horses and can hike and fish. I’ll admit I experience a pang of jealousy when my sister tells me about the latest arrowhead they’ve found along the creek. Arrowhead and fossil hunting was always one of my favorite things to do with my dad.
Things aren’t easy for my mom, my sister or my nieces in this mess. They endeavor to maintain a relationship with me while trying not to piss dad off too much by bringing up the whole gay thing in conversation. He won’t speak about it and shuts down when forced to. For the next year he’s in the Middle East. He won’t have to confront it or any of us for quite some time. That seems to make him happy.
He loves my mom, sister and nieces, and he can’t be around them for too long. He loved me more than life itself when I was younger. Now I don’t exist. That contradiction is the air we all breathe.
I’ve had my theories about his vehement reaction to my coming out over the years. I’ve invented all sorts of stories in an attempt to make some sense of the senseless. In the end, none of the stories matter, though. Just like my dad, the events of my life have forged my personality. I am where I am because of them. As a Buddhist, I have obsessed on the karma that led me to this place of contradiction. That kind of obsessing has never gotten me anywhere good. It just leads to more suffering. Over time I’ve learned to choose how I will react to my world, to act in a way that hopefully sows karmically positive seeds for the future. Meditation has taught me how to sit in the midst of contradiction and allow it to be what it is.
My dad is an awesome man, and I love him more than words can say. He’s also a cruel, abusive asshole I’d like to see groveling at my feet for mercy some day. I love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day. And fuck you, motherfucker.
It feels good to say both those things. It also hurts. I won’t pretend it doesn’t.
This, too, is the Dharma.