How my father taught me compassion

When I was 19 years-old, at the urging of my high school art teacher, I attended a summer art program that was designed for Native students to expand and formalize their artistic education. When I returned, there was a freezing quiet in the house. I went to my room to settle back in and before too long, my father knocked on my door and said he wanted to go out to our old country house to talk. When I asked him what we were going to talk about, he said simply, “some good things and some bad things.”

Coming out gay was three years away for me and my own, internal time line was chugging along comfortably with the buffer of an entire decade. When I finally did, it was after I had created some emotional distance and personal independence from my family so that, should the worst happen, I would be able to support myself on my own.

This being the attitude I adopted toward coming out, it terrified me to think that my father – who never formalized nor set specific time aside to discuss anything with me – was now going to discuss “some good things and some bad things” with me. I panicked and feared they had somehow found out while I was gone that I was gay. But, being the obedient son that I was, I prepared myself for any possibility that the evening would bring.

We drove the 15 or 20 miles to our old place in relative silence. That summer, I was in my Moby phase in full swing so “Play: The B-Sides” was my constant companion.

As we pulled into the back approach to the house I’d grown up in and had nothing but happy memories, with brief interludes when my brother would chase me around in a Halloween mask he named “George,” I wondered why such ceremony. We sat in the fire pit where the oinikaga used to stand, long since withered away from time and disuse. He began by reciting his life story, or a particular version that I had heard enough to know from memory.

My father had always characterized himself as a “throwaway baby.” While he was a gregarious man who knew how to make people laugh, he was still a man of deep feelings. The circumstances of his birth were such that his mother was unable to name his biological father nor could she care for him for very long after he was born. Raised by a cadre of family members from one phase of life to the next, the closest woman he considered a mother was not the woman who gave birth to him.

He made his way in the world picking potatoes, busting broncs, fixing fence and generally supporting the infrastructure of the Western world that had sprouted up among our people. While he retained his sense of sovereignty in every sense of the word, he could read, write and speak English to an eighth grade degree. Eventually, he found my mother. And while the words “love” and “you” were never spoken between them in our house – at least not as far as I could remember and not in English – they made a life together.

As the saga continued, my attention drifted to the oncoming dusk. My favorite memories of childhood are of wandering around that back yard, sometimes in the tall grass, just as sunset approached and the sky went from a washed out baby blue (particularly in the summer) to deep and rich shades of indigo and violet with iridescent gold slats of sunlight. When I tuned back in to my father, he began telling me a new story: the circumstances of my birth. This was not a story I had heard before, especially not from him nor my mother, come to that.

While the details don’t matter much anymore, the message was that I was a bastard child but that my father loved me, regardless and had always considered himself my father. To that point, I could not remember my father crying, which is why this news seemed all the more compelling, causing me to stifle my oncoming tears.

The car ride home was swift and silent. No more words were exchanged between us. The only sound was the subtle beating rhythm of “Running” from the stereo. It crystallized my sentiments at the time, all I wanted to do was run; run far away from this moment, back to my father, not this confused man who had taken his place.

The next week, I raged at both my parents, silently at first. Then, after a night spent at a friend’s house where I sobbed uncontrollably and he made good efforts to empathize, I came home to question my mother. She talked circuitously for a brief period, giving her account of the life between she and my father. When I forced the issue, asking if he was really my father, she told me about the fight they had had while I was away, studying art. It was an incident that took both of them and my brother, back to their early days of resentment, fear and anger. The answer to my question was explained simply as, “your dad isn’t well in the head.”

Throughout the years, patterns of depression and mania – never too extreme – but enough to cause significant strife now and then, began to emerge. When he was going well and strong, we held onto our hats, did as he told us because he didn’t want to say it twice and lived by the concept of always having our boots on, ready to go. When he was low, he still worked, ate and cared for us, but it was always with a somber silence when he reflected on better times.

For years, I resented my father, planning always to have his blood drawn in his last moments for me to test his paternity; a way of showing him that I could be as cold as he wanted me to be to face the world. But with time and love, those thoughts slipped away. I saw him reinvigorated in his late great-grandfatherhood, confident in the prosperity of his family. Gone were the days of the man who was fire and ice from one moment to the next. He prepared us as best he could for the trials of life and seemed to make his peace with that.

The night before he died, my nephew and I welcomed him, fresh off his first plane trip. He hugged and kissed me, whispering, “my babe,” in my ear. The next morning, he died of a heart attack while I was at work. The days and weeks that followed were filled with moments of numbness and rage.

Ultimately, when I examined the life he’d led, the family he’d started, the wife he’d shared his life with and the legacy of two surviving sons and four strong, healthy grandchildren and two great-granddaughters with another on the way; I understood his complexity. He was not exactly as he appeared to the world, nor was he as he envisioned himself to his family; he had his faults, but his virtues of love. I saw his humanity span his 75 years, the lessons he taught and the joy he helped to create; the moments of laughter, the quiet presence and the begrudging care he’d give, just this once (over and over again).

As I get older and experience life on life’s terms, finding ways to provide for the ones I care about, I am able to apply the hard lessons with more insight to the inner workings of others and expand my capacity for understanding.

I look at my index fingers for guidance. They are slightly blunted, exactly like my father’s – so unlike the other digits on my mother’s hands – and they point the way forward. They point always to a place of love and compassion, even in the worst of times when I want to feel nothing, or nothing but hatred; then, I remember my father and move ahead into directions only he can see now.

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