Like many dads, mine loves family photos. He employs the classic dad move of lining us up and refusing to let anyone else grab the camera. “I don’t need to be in the picture,” he’ll say. “I’ll know I was the one who took it.”
My dad really started loving family photos, and become extraordinarily vigilant about taking them, after my mother was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer when I was a toddler. Through two decades, her cancer waxed and waned like a reproachful moon: omnipresent either through attacking her directly, or, no less vicious, through the pervasive side effects of treatments she underwent in an effort to obliterate the disease. My dad knew all along that every photo he took could have been the last of her.
Eventually, one was.
Two days after her death last December, on the eve of her funeral, I sat with my brothers, my wife, and my dad combing through the archives of our impressive collection of shoeboxes and albums and frames — almost all my dad’s handiwork — the contents spread out across the dining room table, the memories stacked so high they threatened to tip over.
My dad had instructed us to pull images for a slideshow at the funeral reception, as well as photos of my brothers and me with our mom to go on the back of the Mass programs. My dad, a 30-year Navy veteran and retired captain, is a master delegator, especially in moments of crisis. When we would visit my mom in the hospital as kids, we would each be charged with bringing one of her favorite treats and smuggling it in — our high-stakes assignment. To get us out of the house when she needed to rest, he didn’t just take us to the park to play; instead, he’d lead us in PT: Physical Training.
Despite his instructions, I had trouble finding photos I wanted to use for my mom's funeral. More or less, all of the ones taken of me between ages 4 and 17 — the year I started my gender transition — weren’t ones I cared to print or put on a screen. Even ones from the years that followed — before testosterone, before the gender-affirming surgery I had a year ago — made me squirm. The bad fauxhawk didn’t help, either.
It never felt important until right then how little time I got with my mom as me. As her illness progressed and she became more alienated from her body, she became less willing to be photographed. As I came into focus, she faded out of view. Seeing that objectively for the first time was too much to take.
As my family morphed into grief-stricken gallerists (“This one is too wistful.” “We have too many sad ones from this era, we need a happier one.” “How about one with the pugs?”), I left the room and cried, really cried, for the first time since she died. Until then, I hadn’t realized that there would be no more pictures or memories together. Weeping unceremoniously in the living room where I’d been married three weeks prior, I rocked back and forth on the couch, shuddering between heaving sobs and whispering, “This was supposed to be our time.” Me — finally, truly, me — and my mom.
I heard my dad pad softly into the room, and decided immediately to ignore him. Like he had any right to comfort me. Without saying a word, he sat down and put his arms around me.
He was already doing a worse job than my mom would have, because she knew I only cried harder when hugged. I pulled away and spat venomously, “You don’t understand! I had no time with her, the pictures prove it. I don’t have any pictures from when I was little that I like, and we didn’t get enough time together to take new pictures, and now she’s gone.” The last three words were a gut-sick howl, and I watched tears fill his eyes.
I’d never talked to my dad like that before. Since I came out, talking to him was like checking in with a commanding officer. We spoke respectfully about our mutual goals and our progress toward them, but filtered out the emotional content. Topics like my transition, my mom’s illness, my dad’s retirement from the Navy: We discussed them, but we didn’t discuss how we felt about them. These phone calls were pleasant but unsatisfying, like eating a whole sleeve of Pringles, and afterward I would think hollowly that I wished things were different between us. But I never told him that.
“I’m so sorry I made you go through the pictures tonight,” he said, his voice hoarse from his own tears. “I didn’t think about how that might make you feel.” He opened his arms again, and this time I went willingly. The seismic shock of grief made me ready to tumble into anyone. I leaned against him while he rubbed my shoulders. Maybe he is better at this than I thought.
“It’s OK,” I said into his rumpled shirt. “I’m not really mad at you.”
He shook his head. “Your brothers have photos from baseball and graduations that you don’t,” he said, “but I’m not sorry you don’t because your milestones were different but no less special. And that’s what mattered to mom — not one day with pictures, but getting to see you grow into yourself and be happy. That’s all anybody could ask for their kid, I think. Your mom kept us together, and that is the thing we will always have, not some picture.”
I realized, then, that not only was my dad crying in front of me, talking about our emotional relationship, and acknowledging that my experience was different from my brothers’ — but that he had been hugging me for several minutes. There was a palpable feeling of walls being reduced to rubble, and I looked at his freckled hands — the ones that used to hold my legs as I rode on his shoulders — and smiled.
“We’ve never done that before,” I said.
He laughed mirthlessly. “Your mom’s never died before.”
With a sad smile, he gave me a final squeeze on the shoulder, then stood and walked away, slumped, into the kitchen. Out of nowhere, I remembered how when I was little and my mom would be in the hospital, my dad would bring a bag of gummy worms in the car and on the way to and from, we would have a contest where we each got one worm and whoever kept it in their mouth the longest won. That way, when we left the hospital for the night we wouldn’t be too sad to leave mom, just happy we got a gummy worm. But I would always swallow my worm quickly, because then my dad would, too, and we could talk the rest of the way home.
How much had I forgotten, or missed entirely? I flushed, thinking of how I wrote him off from the moment I came out to him, early in my transition, and he didn’t get it. His support was qualified: “Why don’t you take some time to think about this first, for a few years.” I decided, then and there, that it was him or me. I chose me. I never gave him a chance to make it up to me, preferring instead to keep him at arm’s length. Our phone calls became shorter, more stilted, and instead I talked to my mom about everything.
All that time, he had been here, pondering me in the quietness of his heart.
In those years, I was so worried about getting time with my mom, I didn’t realize the parent I’d really missed was my dad.
I stood and followed him out to the kitchen, where he stood by the sink, ashen-faced, wavering between crying and being too tired to cry. Then, it was my turn to hug him ferociously, and tell him I loved him.
“You know I love you, too.”
Five months later, my dad and I were sitting in lawn chairs on the cement patio overlooking the grass that gives way to a wooded area behind the house. We had done yard work and were both caked in mud, his silver hair luminous in the dying purple light.
The first mosquitos of the season were beginning to buzz, so my dad went to the garage and found some citronella candles. Once lit, the patio had a hazy glow, like something magical might happen. It did: Walking into the house over the threshold of the sliding door, my dad asked, “Want a beer?”
“Sounds good.” I fought a smile as he stood and passed through the sliding glass door into the kitchen. This was another thing we had never done before. He returned with two open bottles and flopped down into his chair. He took a long sip, followed by a quizzical look.
“You don’t like it?” I was suddenly terrified that the moment would be ruined because I had chosen a beer too hastily at the package store.
“No,” he shrugged, “It’s just different than I’m used to.”
Losing my mom was volcanic, and an explosion of molten grief that rendered everything I knew to ash. Including the impasse I stood at with my dad. Like two tectonic plates locked in a slow, scraping grind — then, all too suddenly, free, speeding away from where we used to stand in relation to one another. Maybe I could have expected that our relationship would change dramatically when my mom died, sitting close together, ravaged by grief. But I never could have expected this tender shoot of green, beginning to grow in the space between us.
Here we sat, engaged in the ultimate father-son ritual: drinking a beer in contemplative silence. There were still so many things for me to learn about him, and so much to talk about. For a moment, my heart ached thinking of those lost years, the ones where I had not been as loving as I could have been. But that was the way it had to be, then, I reminded myself, I wasn’t ready.
Besides, I already had new memories of him: a beer bottle dwarfed in his giant hands as he squinted to read the label.
“You know,” my dad said, startling me from my thoughts, “when you would call your mom and talk to her, almost every day, and she would tell me everything you talked about — verbatim, the moment I walked in the door. She loved those phone calls, just to hear what you were up to, how you were doing, how she could help you. Just to talk with you.”
He looked out on the horizon, where the sky was already turning a royal blue and preparing to be strewn with stars. Then he turned and looked at me, his sea-glass colored eyes a reflection of mine, one of so many things he has given me. “Now, we just talk to each other, though.” He frowned resolutely. “We’ve got to.”