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.

My father wouldn’t speak to me

I spent a year or so when my father wouldn’t speak to me.

I realized I was gay in the late fall of 1978. I told my mother I was gay in the winter of 1979, and she told me not to tell my father (who was paying my way through college).

In 1985 I moved to Philadelphia. I didn’t much like it at first, which I told my mother, but I met someone I decided to move in with (my first live-in partner). When I told my mother I was staying in Philadelphia in order to live with Joseph, that was what finally broke her years-long silence. (She had told no one in all those years.) She told my father, and he was unwilling to speak to me. (Unlike my mother, however, he immediately talked to his cousin Milo about it.) If I called and he answered the phone, he would pass it to my mother. My mother stopped calling because she didn’t want him to see my number on the bill.

In 1987, my father was working on a cotton-picker, which was up on blocks, and it fell on him. It fractured his skull, broke his pelvis and at least one of his legs, and caused some internal damage. He was very lucky not to die. There was a massive blood drive in my hometown for him.

Very early in his recovery, he said that as the cotton-picker fell on him he realized (had a revelation?) that being a family was more important than my sexuality. It was the phone call when my mother told me that he had said this which prompted me to sit down suddenly at work and start crying, and my coworker Ruth to seemingly jump over her desk to come stand by me.

Sowing and reaping

As I begin a week of 50th-birthday related vacation, I’ve been pondering what I will reap in my second half-century. And the thing that popped out at me is that I can enjoy a loving and healthy relationship with both my parents. This wasn’t always a given over the last fifty years (especially during the middle portion). It was a lot of work and patience, and just waiting for time to change things, on both sides. And it is worth it.