On the evening of Oct. 5, my dad died in Syracuse, N. Y. He was 92 years old. After a fall this summer he went to the hospital and from there was admitted to a nursing home. His health had been failing for a long time and the five of us kids were committed to keeping him in his home, the home we grew up in, as long as we could and to caring for him as well as he cared for my mother during the 10 years she suffered from Parkinson’s.
My two brothers and their wives, who live in Syracuse, gracefully managed an intricate schedule of doctor visits, house upkeep and day and night caregivers, mostly women they found through his beloved Catholic parish, where he had been a daily communicant, a lector and offering collector.
We out-of-town children made regular visits home to relieve the hometown kin and of course to spend time with Dad. He was elegant, gentlemanly. Even at his frailest and with increasing senile dementia, he would try to rise when we came home and would always ask, “What can I get for you?”
I’m shocked that I can’t call him and just talk about the weather, but I am enormously relieved that we had no unfinished business when he died. Even though we did not discuss my lesbianism, much less his heterosexuality in great detail, there was the possibility of honesty because I had come out to him.
It is a regret I still have about my mom. By the time I was confident enough in my lesbianism to come out to my mother, it did not seem fair. I knew we would fight, and advanced Parkinson’s had left her unable to talk. She loved Richard Nixon, hated Betty Friedan, and was a fiercely conservative, devout Catholic, who once got out of her wheelchair to turn off the TV because, “that Phil Donohue was talking about orgasms like they were three for a nickel.”
She and my father were high school sweethearts who delayed their wedding for a decade because of the Depression and then World War II. They were married for 42 years. She ruled her family of five children with the velvet hammer of “Wait until your father gets home.” At home he was stern, fair, and I never doubted that he loved me.
For a long time after I came out to my brothers and sisters, we abided by a tacit conspiracy, “Don’t tell Dad, it could kill him.” Finally thanks to the patient prodding of my girlfriend, the sheer force of the gay movement and, quite frankly, the possibility that he might see me on television with “openly lesbian comic” in quotes under my head, I decided to test my notion of unconditional paternal love. Some time after my Mom died, I came out to my father in a letter.
He called me two days later and immediately said that he loved me, that he knew I was a feminist, but hadn’t known that I was a lesbian. All he wanted was for me to be happy and safe and to get health insurance. Turns out he had a very wide libertarian streak that he did not or could not show when my Mother was alive.
It was a pleasure to introduce him to more of my life, my friends, my work without vague pronouns. Once when he was visiting us in Provincetown, after we had walked Commercial Street in high season, we had some friends over for dinner to meet him. The only conversational rule I laid down ahead of time was no discussion of sex toys. That was for my benefit.
My father looked like an older Paul Newman most of his later years. In his youth he was an acclaimed athlete with thick jet black hair, and a great body. During dinner I got out some old pictures of him in his football uniform, and passed them around. One of my gay men friends looked at the picture and spontaneously kvelled, “Oh, Mr. Clinton, you’re so humpy.” My friend was mortified. My father smiled. I think he was flattered.
The dinner conversation ranged heatedly through gay politics, gay theory, gay gossip. Toward the end, my dear girlfriend asked, “Well, Mr. Clinton, (he was very formal; I might have called him Mr. Clinton a couple of times) what do you think we as gay people can do to make more bridges to straight people?”
My father did one of his patented, exquisitely timed pauses and replied, “Keep talking.”
In his memory, I think I will.