Rebuilding a relationship with my father

I’ve experienced the rewards of rebuilding a relationship with my father. It was an ongoing process over the course of 30 years, and it certainly had its difficult moments, but I can’t imagine what I would feel like now (two years after my father’s death) had we not reconciled.

After his near-fatal accident in 1987, when I called home I would always spend a little time on the phone with my father, usually talking about totally incidental things like the weather. (Or his health, a recurrent theme with first his recovery from his accident, later a heart attack and bypass surgery, and then congestive heart failure and general old age.) Slowly we simply normalized having conversations (although I still got almost all family news through my mother).

One setback was when my sister got married. She invited my partner Paul and I, but my parents pressured her to disinvite Paul. I didn’t go to her wedding. (My family plays hardball.) Not too long later, there was a Sutton family reunion—all the descendants of my father’s parents. At this gathering, out of a couple of dozen people who went, there would be exactly three people named Sutton: my father, my mother (through marriage), and me. (My sister took her husband’s surname.) Here, if anywhere, was a place that bringing my partner would not take the attention off of someone whose day it was.

Meeting an actual person, instead of who knows what abstract things my parents imagined at the fact that I was gay, seemingly made a big difference. My parents came to Philadelphia to visit. While there was no question of their staying in our home, they had dinner in our home and Paul was included in outings without any fuss.

After Paul and I broke up, two other boyfriends visited California with me. The first time my mother preemptively made motel reservations for us, and said she never allowed my sister and her fiance to share a bed, even though she knew they were sleeping together. So it was, at least, equal treatment. On each visit we also visited my sister, and she would put us in the same room. When Bob and I went out to meet my newborn nephew, we not only shared a room at my sister’s house, we were under the same roof as my parents—albeit in an in-law apartment at the other end of the house!

One of the moments that stands out with personal meaning is when I flew to San Diego right after my father’s heart attack and bypass surgery. He wanted to get out of bed (they get you up *right away*), and was insistent that I be the one to help him up. In the largely nonverbal, unexpressive context of our relationship, that meant a lot to me.

On some visit home, I remember driving him somewhere in his truck, and he said he just hoped that I would have a happy life. That’s the moment at which I felt that we were reconciled. Because of his ill health, for a good 15 years, I treated every time I said goodbye to him as though it might be the last time. It was important to feel that we were good when I drove off.

The last time I saw my father, it was between hospital visits for him, and it was an extravagant whirlwind for me. I flew on a very early morning flight to San Diego, rented a car, and drove to a cousin’s house for a pool party. My sister brought my father to the party, as hopefully planned in spite of hospital visits, but he didn’t know I would be there. It was a delight to surprise him. That evening I drove back to San Diego, stayed overnight, and flew home the next day. It was a good visit. As my father declined over the next few months, I was ready to fly home if my sister needed support, but my father and I were clear that we’d said our sufficient goodbyes.