By Molly Krause
When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.
My dad was a man who was careful with his words. He was bothered by the incorrect use of ‘excuse me’ when someone should have said ‘pardon me.’ And don’t even get him started on overusing the words ‘you know’ as I did in the 1980s as a teenager. He had the habit of introducing my mother as his ‘former wife’ never his ‘ex-wife.’ Given his precise use of language, his word choice seemed deliberate. It was as if he was saying, “In my former life, back when I was trying to be straight, this was the wife I chose.” When he moved back to Kansas to die, his former life and his current situation intersected.
When I asked my dad in the early 1990s what he thought about research to discover the ‘gay gene’ I’ll admit I was trying to probe into his inner dialogue about his own homosexuality. As usual, he didn’t give me much.
“We all make our choices, we just have to live with them,” he answered.
This was his answer after he came out during a therapy session so many years before, after he chose to leave his own marriage to my mother, after he left his three young daughters behind, after he lived his own life in the big city, after he contracted the HIV virus.
This was his answer before he lost his vision in one eye, before the lesions appeared first on his hands, before most of his friends died, before he started walking with a cane, before he returned to the landscape and family he had once left behind.
Love is a choice, a decision on some level, he was telling me. He didn’t choose to be gay, but he did choose to leave. And while the cultural tide of 1972 may have given my mom a nod to stay in a marriage with her gay husband, as he was willing to do, she wanted him to leave. She wanted to choose love, too.
He stayed away most of my childhood, leaving my mom to struggle with raising three daughters. She never remarried and my sisters and I managed to run off any of her serious boyfriends. My dad was spotty with child support, forgot birthdays and spent time in rehab. She had every reason to feel bitter and to pass that along to her children. She never did. And while my father was prone to being critical, the only judgment he had about her was that she failed to teach us how to make a bed properly. Taking my mom’s lead, I didn’t act angry about my dad’s lack of time and attention. I smiled and tried to be lovable, all the while nursing a hidden wound of abandonment.
As my dad’s health was failing in 1995, his relationship was too. He and his partner lived in Key West when, at age twenty-three, I flew down for an extended visit. I was hoping for a suntan, sleeping in and shooting pool at the neighborhood-drinking hole. What I walked into was not a respite; it was a war zone.
My dad and his partner hardly spoke to each other, and when they did, they screamed. His partner drank a half a bottle of Bombay gin nightly; my dad self medicated with his pain pills. “I can’t stay here,” my dad whimpered to me. “No,” I agreed. “I don’t want to die down here in Key West,” he confessed.
Whose idea was it for him to move back to Kansas with me? Did I suggest it, the grown woman still searching for her father’s affection yet half hoping he would never do it? Did he bring it up as an option, trying to feel me out for how it would be received by my mom and sisters? Or did he just ask me directly, desperate to escape his unhappy situation?
When we decided he would come back with me, I felt full of purpose and determination. This would be the situation where we would finally get close, the barriers removed, a satisfying closure to the buried pain of years of distance.
My focus didn’t last long. Quickly overwhelmed sharing the same house with him for the first time since I was a toddler, I disappointed him by staying away. Away from the Vantage cigarette-tinged fog of the house, away from his moaning that could not be alleviated, away from his biting sarcasm and sharp tongue. My hidden resentments began to bubble to the surface—he feels bitter, does he? I stepped away; my mom showed up.
She drove him in her Volvo to his many medical appointments, singing the lyrics from their favorite musicals together. They huddled over the Sunday crossword puzzle. He defended the use of a pencil in all forms of writing, preferring the textured feel of its scrawl; she tried to convert him to the fountain pen, with its smooth delivery. Bickering over what was correct grammar, she inevitably ended the conversation with an eye roll and “Honestly, John, you can be insufferable.” She emptied his overflowing ashtrays, picked up his prescriptions and bottles of Insure, found someone to come over to cut his hair. They were competitive over Wheel of Fortune, my dad holding his magnifying glass up to see the TV. Yelling out the answer, their voices on top each other, they looked to me to make the call. “Marie Antoinette! Marie Antoinette! Molly, you know I said it first!” my mom shrieked. I raised my hands in surrender and walked out of the room.
I found a photograph as a small child, loose in a box among other forgotten objects. A black and white image showed my parents gazing at each other on a boat, a strand of my mom’s hair loose on her cheek, my dad holding a smoke between his thumb and forefinger. They were laughing as if a joke had just been told. Although I imagined an exotic far-away island, it was likely a mud-bottomed, coffee-colored lake. They looked like a couple in love. I clutched at it, unable to stop looking at them. Evidence, the only I had really, of my parents’ one time love for each other. The sadness I felt for my mom after spending time with the photo caused me to bury it back in that box.
I had never seen my parents fight, but I had never witnessed this new, almost domestic scene, after he returned, either. I always knew they liked each other, but as he lay dying, this affection was amplified. When my dad came back after two decades of divorce, I wondered if my mom had somehow been waiting for him.
The last person my dad reached out to was his former wife. He called her; his voice filled with panic in the middle of the night, and told her he didn’t know what happening. His last moments of lucidity were spent with her, but there was no singing together on that car ride. That was the last time he entered the hospital. It was my mother who called me and my sisters to come quickly. We all arrived in time as he continued to make his gasping breaths, clawing at his oxygen mask. His three daughters and his former wife surrounded him in his hospital bed after the mask was removed and he was allowed his peace.
As my mom reassured him, stroking his hair, remarking how little grey he had, I realized for the first time that us girls were not the only ones losing someone that day. We were losing our dad, but my mom, such as he was, was losing the only husband she ever had. The family that they had created together was all he had left at his end. And when that time came and his suffering was over, none of us cared, my mom included, that he preferred men over women.
When I thought about that picture later, it no longer made me feel sad for my mom. Seeing her stringless love made me aware of my own tethers I held to my dad—unmet expectations, unsaid words, unrealized intimacy. Unclenching my fingers and releasing them expanded my view of love. It is bigger than I had thought, too big to be contained to a greeting card, Hollywood movie or perhaps even a marriage. It is big enough to see someone for who they are, who they want to be and forgive them the difference.
We all make our choices; we just have to live with them.
Molly Krause is a writer and restaurateur living in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband and two daughters.
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