My dad, 53 years ago

Relationships between gay men and their mothers are legendary, but the dad relationship can sometimes be more complex. But on this Father’s Day, I think we all know how important a dad can be.

Everyone thinks their dad was the best, except for those who think he was the worst, and both are probably right. “Dad” is the worst job in the world, that’s for sure: It comes with no instruction manual and less of a “paternal instinct” that moms get. As fathering goes, there’s no right way, or at least no way to know it’s the right way. My dad is of a generation that wasn’t much for changing diapers (he famously changed mine only once, when I peed in his face). He himself was the youngest of seven kids; his parents were well into their 40s when he and his twin brother were born, and he was orphaned by the time he was 15. My dad turned a lot to his H.S. coach as a father figure (he almost adopted my dad and Uncle Ron) so he understood the value of a father figure.

Dad was only 24 when I was born — not much more than a kid, really. He was a jock in school and a soldier when I came along. He certainly didn’t have any reason to know what to do with two kids; it’s not like he could Google “good parenting — fathers” and watch YouTube videos. Dad then became a high school coach and phys ed teacher himself, and at my house, we always referred to the young men he coached as “his boys.” It made me feel a bit on the outside, because they were all older and more athletic and I had a back brace for much of my childhood that limited my mobility and made me not the star running back my dad probably would have wanted, or at least known what to do with.

But that didn’t stop him from supporting me. He taught me archery, which didn’t require speed. Every night, for as many years as I can remember, my dad came into my bedroom while I was in bed, stood across the room and threw a football to me — back and forth we went, with the rule that we had to have X consecutive catches without a drop before I had to go to bed. Eventually, it got to be 100 in a row. I remember a few times he fumbled around 98, and to this day I don’t know if he did it on purpose just so we could spend more time together. His name for me was always “Buddha.” I’m not sure when he stopped calling me that; I sorely miss it.

Sometimes, he would just hand me a toy gun and take one himself and we would have shoot-outs in the living room (when I was older, we had light saber battles); but I still recall the time my sister told him (correctly) that I had shot my pellet gun (small, rubber pellets in a plastic gun — nothing major) at her and my dad took my gun to the back porch and stomped it into shards while I watched on in tears. Playing with toy guns was OK, but he was teaching another lesson — about responsibility.

He also taught me about the birds and the bees, and walloped me a few times I remember, but also played the guitar a lot and taught us to sing and drove all night 450 miles in a station wagon so we could go on family vacations. My strongest memory is probably the summer I learned how to dive head-first off the high board. I did it, finally, on the last day our club’s pool was open, but dad was away at a track meet. No cell phones, mind you — so I waited by the door in my Speedo with a towel around me so I could show him when he got home. The pool closed at 10; dad pulled into the drive about 9:44, and we drove like crazy to the pool so he could see me dive. I did it — three times — while he looked on. I don’t think I dove off the high board ever again in my life.

When he took me to movies, which I loved doing with him (together, just the two of us, we saw Star Wars, Alien and Star Trek The Motion Picture), he liked to buy as many snacks as we could carry. In intermediate and high school, I did theater, including once a drag role, and he would beam — he was happy for me and very encouraging.

But he made a lot of mistakes, no doubt. He wasn’t a perfect dad any more than I was the perfect son. When I was a kid I’d overhear him say some homophobic things which frightened me about coming out to him, but actually he’s been totally supportive of me and always been nice to my boyfriends (or at least treated them with dignity). I got my name and my sense of humor from him. I like to think I got his looks, too, though he was far handsomer than I’ve ever been. And he always treated my mother right. I think that’s the best thing a father can teach his children: To respect their mother and to love the person who means the most to you.

He rarely raised his voice. He is a hugger and a kisser and has never hesitated to say, “I love you.” He is the only dad I’ve every known, and therefore the best dad.I wouldn’t be who I am without him. But then, he wouldn’t be who he is without me. It’s a two-way street, the dad job. I doesn’t come with a gold watch. In fact, it comes with bills and worry and heartache. But also memories and the legacy of showing the world a piece of yourself. He’s always been proud of me, so how could I ever not be proud of him?

I love you, Dad. Your son, Buddha.