The Greatest Gift My Father Ever Gave
The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I turned 16. It was my golden birthday, since I was born on June 16th. I had been told this was supposed to be a very special day, a birthday to remember forever. And for most of the day, it was. My best friend John bought me a cd and brought it over to my dad’s house, wrapped and with card attached. That night we went out and saw a movie together after having dinner at a diner. After the movie, we sat in John’s car in front of my house for a while, listening to the CD he had given me – Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks - and smoking Camel lights. It was a very good birthday, one of the best I could remember.
I waved goodbye to John and stumbled inside, the smokes burning a buzz through my bones that made me shivery and weak-stomached, and eventually found my way down to the bedroom I shared with my brother in the basement of the house my dad shared with his third wife, Cathy.
I fumbled in the dark for the telephone and hit the first speed dial. After a few rings, my father answered from upstairs.
“You home?” he asked.
“Yeah, goodnight.” I replied before the line went dead.
I had forced my father to install a second phone line in the house after the night he nearly killed me. Unlike my mother, who imposed a strict 10 p.m. curfew on weeknights, my father trusted me to come home when the fun stopped. His only rule was that I wake him when I got home, otherwise he’d wake up in the middle of the night worried.
This rule meant that when I got home, I had to go into my dad’s bedroom and physically wake him up. Shaking awake a Vietnam Vet with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder at one in the morning is about as safe as juggling cobras. Vietnam didn’t afford many opportunities for a solid night’s sleep, and as such, my father would jerk awake at the slightest noise or movement. I’d creep into his room, and lightly touch his shin, muttering, “Dad, I’m ho...,” and dad would jerk awake, scream for a second and then mutter “Oh, it’s you,” before collapsing back onto the bed to resume his ear-splitting snoring.
I had come to accept this, in much the same way that cat owners come to accept the fact that if they die and nobody notices for a few days, their cats will probably eat them. I wasn’t happy about it, but I could live with it. At least until the night I woke him smack dab in the middle of a Vietnam-flashback nightmare. He was fighting his way through wave after wave of Viet Cong when I tentatively tapped him on the shoulder. His eyes flew open as his hand darted to my throat and squeezed.
I dropped to one knee and screamed through my mangled, compressed throat, “It’s just me, dad!”
After a moment of foggy confusion, his eyes cleared and focused, and he realized what he was doing. He let go in a flash and, the next morning, called the phone company. It was the scariest thing my father had ever done to me in the middle of the night. Until the night of my golden birthday.
After I called my dad to let him know I was home, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. I had just gotten back into my bedroom, cherishing the fact that for once I had the room all to myself (as my brother was spending the night at a friend’s house) and was just putting my gift from John into my walkman when I heard the floorboards creak above me, a warning that my father was headed my way. I thumbed on my bedside lamp and put away the cd player as he eased open my bedroom door and poked his head in.
“Son? You still awake?”
“Yeah, dad, what’s up?”
He sat down on my brother’s bed across from me and stared at the ground for a bit, while I grew more and more concerned.
“Dad. You alright?”
“Did you have a good birthday?” he asked.
“Yeah, it was fun.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, John and I just got some food and went to a movie.”
Then silence. He was building to something. I just couldn’t quite figure out what it...
“Son, are you gay?”
And there it was. The question he’d been waiting to ask me for years. He’d seen me fail at every sport he’d excelled at, watched me embrace the arts and put up with me crying a thousand times over a thousand minor injuries and bruised feelings. And he had decided it was time he knew the truth – even if it killed him.
“What?” I asked.
“Are you ... are you gay?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“He bought you a present, son. That’s not something friends do.”
“Then I’m sorry you have such horrible friends, you idiot.” I didn’t exactly make it a habit to speak like that to my father, but at that moment I didn’t care, I was angry. So what if I was, I thought. What’s the big deal? Would that really be so terrible for him? He’s such a bigoted, hateful ...
My thoughts skidded to a halt as I took a good look at my father. He was sitting on my brother’s bed, his hands folded in his lap. His face was calm and smooth, his eyes open and attentive, and staring straight into mine.
“It’s okay. Just tell me,” he said. And, I realized with amazement, I believed him when he said it was okay. My father had grown up without parents of his own, and had been raised by devout Jehovah’s Witness grandparents who were no doubt responsible for any number of the ultra-conservative viewpoints and opinions he had. I had seen my father fly into an uncontrolled rage with the slightest provocation, and yet here he was asking me if I was the one thing I thought terrified him more than anything, and he was being all ... well, understanding about it. And as much as I wanted to be vindictive or sarcastic, I figured he at least deserved an honest answer.
“I’m not gay, dad.”
“It’s okay if you are, you know,” he said. “I mean it.”
And he did mean it.
“No, I like girls, dad,” I said, smiling. “They just don’t like me.”
He laughed then, just enough. Standing up, he socked me one on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, they will.”
I watched him walk to the door, the Marine Corps-style high-and-tight haircut he still sported standing out in sharp black contrast to the white sleeveless undershirt he wore as a pajama top. My eyes found the U.S.M.C. crudely tattooed on his bicep – ink he gotten in some smoky Saigon back room, paid for with the money he had earned killing people for a living, and then found the scar arcing across his shoulder blade where another man had sent the bullet meant to kill him. His bad knee struggled a bit under his 300-plus pound frame.
He reached the door and half turned to me. “I love you, son,” he said. It was our routine, the thing we said to each other nearly every day. And for the first time I realized how lucky I was to have a father who told me he loved me every chance he could. I had spent most of my life trying to figure my father out, looking for a middle ground where his expectations of me could mesh with the man I was actually becoming. And after 16 years I realized I still didn’t know very much about him. But I could add one very important bit of knowledge to the list: He really did love me. Unconditionally.
I can’t think of a better birthday gift to give a 16-year-old kid.