BILL, WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK?
My dad died in 2006. The final diagnosis of prostate cancer came after years of him having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. He had even survived two triple by-pass operations. We had all been expecting it, as my father had enjoyed many indulgences during his lifetime; he loved to smoke cigarettes, eat rich food, drink good liquor, and fuck lots of women. I had not spoken to him since 2000, and when my sister and mother told me that he was dying, they urged me to make amends and reach out to him before it was too late. I saw no need to do that. I had reached out to him most of my life, with little result. I had already achieved closure with him when I was in my thirties, so in my mind our chapter had ended a long time ago.
I shared my brother’s sentiments about my father’s impending death -- it would mean no more or less to me than if I had heard about a stranger dying. I no longer loved or hated him. I was not angry or sad. He was who he was, and he had lived his life on his own terms. I could no more make him accept and love me the way I wanted him to than he could turn me heterosexual.
My father did not like males. He really liked females, and he said it often. That fact really hit home for me the night our family drove him to the airport and he kissed my sister goodbye but refused to kiss his sons. Even while my parents were married, he never really stayed with our family for any length of time, even after we bought the house in Virginia. He had many female lovers and several children, some I have met over the years, others I have not.
In 1975, I was seventeen and really struggling with my sexuality. I was fascinated with my father around that time, and was constantly trying to get close to and understand him. Bill Madison was still in his sexy prime that year. He had retired from the Navy and had moved to Baltimore with his second wife, Peggy, and had gotten a job as the manager of a local fast food chain called Leon’s Pig Pen. My father took me to the various “Pig Pen” locations in the urban ghetto of Baltimore, and there were lots of women who worked at the greasy soul food dives. At each location, the women seemed to perk up upon his arrival. I had a feeling that my father was sexually intimate with many of them. He drove a big car, sported an Afro, and had a way of talking to women such that each would feel that he desired her only.
The Leon’s Pig Pen closest to our home was the one on the corner of Park Heights and Garrison Boulevard. I hated the smell of the place. My father made fun of Ricky, Gee, and I, since we all turned our noses up at the deep southern country cooking that he had been raised on. He felt our mother had spoiled us by not exposing us to all kinds of delicacies. It was nauseating to watch big women in big wigs and hairnets clean out pig intestines and fry up various versions of pork smothered in barbeque sauce and grease. And they would all look me up and down like I was another tasty piece of meat. “Bill, he looks just like you,” one would coo. “He got that pretty hair like you do,” another would say. “I’ll be dammed, he got that deep voice like his daddy,” another would flirt. Still another would ask me, “Do ya read a lot of books like Bill here do?” (His ladies knew him well, because Bill loved to read books just as much as he liked to eat, drink and sex women.)
In the early days of my time in Baltimore, my father and I would play tennis near Mondawmin Mall or jog around Druid Hill Park. Those were the times I enjoyed him the most. Although he was fiercely competitive, I felt like I had all his attention during those moments. Whenever I visited him, he would introduce me to relatives from his side of the family. They seemed like nice people, so I wondered why I had not met them while growing up. Most of them told me stories about my dad, saying, " You know it's hard to git along wit’ yo’ daddy ‘cause he's so dayem bossy and controlling!" Many of his own brothers and sisters would not speak to him for years at a time. After our visits to family members, we would go shopping for clothes and visit his various girlfriends at their apartments. My suspicions were confirmed when I recognized several of the women from the kitchens of the Pig Pen.
I just couldn’t understand why a married man had so many girlfriends. He had left my mother for a new wife, so why was he cheating on her? Peggy was nice but not very attractive, while my mother was beautiful. That baffled me. In fact, most of the women my dad slept with were not attractive at all. Peggy wore her hair natural, not pressed and dyed like my mother, and I never saw her in high heels, make-up, or stylish dresses. She and my father seldom, (if ever), went to church like my mother did. But although Peggy was very simple and plain, she was far more educated than my mother. Unlike “Miss Love,” Peggy had an outside job. On Sundays, she and my father would read the newspaper together and discuss all kinds of things, from politics to finances.
I wanted to understand why my father had divorced my mother, so on one occasion, I asked him. He told me that he had been drawn to my mother for her beauty, and that he had known from an early age that he was going to marry her. But as they both grew older, her lack of worldliness and her dependence on her mother and children made her less of a suitable partner for him, in his eyes.
He warned me not to make his mistakes. He stressed how important it was in a young couple’s life to make their home their own. He saw my mother as a mirror image of her own mother, and I could see that he had a point. I knew how protective my mother was of her kids. I knew she did not have much education, and wondered what kind of life she would have after the three of her children grew up. Would she travel from kid to kid and interfere in our lives, simply because she would not have one of her own?
I came out the closet in 1976, right after my eighteenth birthday. I had been living with my father for less than a year, and after he learned I was gay, he put me out. My life became a mess. After ending up at Sheppard Pratt Hospital under psychiatric evaluation in 1977, my father was asked to attend one of my therapy sessions. The social worker and the doctor asked him to hug me, and although he did, it was odd and uncomfortable for him. I think the doctor felt sorry for me after that. My dad would never hug me again.
My mother was also asked to attend some of my therapy sessions during my time at Sheppard Pratt, and it was then that I told her my fear of having to take care of her for the rest of her life. I was afraid of all the things my father had told me about parents living with their adult children. My mother assured me that she would never be a burden to me, and said I was way too young to worry about such things. She promised that it would all work out in time. And it did.
What I had failed to remember was what my mother had told me when I was seventeen; my father had been abandoned by his own mother, left on the doorstep of his father’s new home after his father had left his mother for another woman. My dad was then raised by his father and stepmother. For most of his life, my father had a horrible relationship with his mother. In fact, it took my maternal grandmother intervening to finally get him speaking to his mother again, after years of not communicating.
As an adult, I had a hot and cold relationship with my father. He treated me with the most respect during the time that I was married to Judy. But although he treated me more cordially, he often questioned my wife in private, asking her why she would marry an openly gay man. Then there were the times when I knew my father loved me and was proud of me. I try to remember those moments. Once when I was producing a public service announcement commercial on HIV prevention, I needed a man his age to appear in the commercial to represent a certain age group. He did that for me without question, despite the fact that he knew the commercial was aimed towards gay men. When I was seventeen, he asked me to design a sign for a bar he had purchased, and we shared a drink together in the building before it opened. (We had to do this in private because he told me that we would never share a drink in a public place -- he did not believe that fathers and sons should ever be seen drinking together.) So, although there were a few “tender” moments, I was always reminded at some point that he could be an asshole.
I was angry when I learned how my father had acquired his bar -- he had convinced my mother to sign her family property over to him so that he could buy it. He eventually lost all her money, and the house in Virginia was put into foreclosure. He made up for it years later by signing part of his retirement over to her, so that she could have a source of income later in life. (She never really earned a long-term source of income on her own, and she never remarried.) I was also sickened at how he abandoned my brother with regards to his schooling. He led Ricky to believe that he would help him pay for college, but when the bar went belly up, my father reneged. When I ended up in Sheppard Pratt Hospital, I rationalized that the financial burden my father incurred was payback for my brother. I made sure my father was stuck with most of that bill. He had assumed legal responsible for me during that period, so to me he was financially responsible as well.
My father and I could never hold a conversation for any length of time without there being some form of irritation. We were both Aries and had fiery tempers. We were both loud and opinionated. And it seemed as if the sound of each of our voices got on the other’s nerves. After a while, I knew it was better to say nothing than to constantly ignite a firestorm of arguments. When I was thirty-seven, I went to see him one day and we took a walk. During that walk, I told him how important it had been for me to have had a relationship with him, and how much I thought I needed his influence growing up. But I had finally accepted the fact that the loving, Bill Cosby-like scenario was not going to happen. I had wanted it as a child, I had wanted it as a teen, I had even wanted it as a young adult. But at close to forty, it did not mean anything to me anymore. He was who he was. He was never going to be warm and fuzzy. He was never going put his arms around me. We were never going laugh and have a drink together.
He was a product of his generation and he could not change who he was.
He accepted what I said, agreed with what I said, and saw it as truth from my perspective. It would be our last heart to heart and we were both fine with it. But he would rear his head a few more times before we stopped speaking totally.
During the Baltimore run of FREEda Slave, my father brought his mother to see me in my one-man show. Although fictional, the play made loose references to my actual life and showed slides of my real family members. I shall never forget how my grandmother hobbled over on her cane to get to me after the performance.
“I was so proud of you on that stage,” she beamed. “I hope you know you never have to be afraid of just being who you are. You think your old grandmother has not been around the block? Years ago, I lived in New York and had a neighbor who was a lesbian. She was my best friend.”
I could see that my grandmother was trying to teach my father tolerance in that moment. True to form, he seemed to miss the point. ”Was I supposed to get a message tucked in there?" he asked sarcastically.
It was like dealing with two people. He could do something warmhearted and good one moment, (like show up to my show to support me), yet turn around the next moment and be cold, cruel and indifferent to the people who cared about him.
Around 1995, he loaned me a video camera to tape FREEda Slave at Baltimore’s Artscape festival. He had bought it to record drug transactions he had been witnessing in the Pimlico neighborhood. He was featured on the news for speaking out and naming drug dealers, and I was quite proud of him. He assured me that he was not in a rush to get the camera back and said that I could use it for as long as I needed. In fact, he told me to stop by his house and pick up the warranty, just in case I needed to get an additional battery. Not thinking it would be an issue, I let my sister borrow the camera, and she one day mentioned to him that she had it. He immediately called me up and went into a tirade about lending his camera out without his permission.
I started thinking to myself, “I loaned his camera to his DAUGHTER, the one HE KISSED, the one of his kids he can actually have a pleasant conversation with.” In that moment, our issue wasn't about the camera. Our struggle was about two men fighting for control. Most of my life I had feared him, not because I thought he would strike me, (he never did that), but because I feared I would strike him. I feared he might tap into a hatred that I never wanted to see in myself.
As I packed my bags to move to Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day in 1999, he called me and said, "I hope you are not intending to leave the city with my camera." I hung up the phone. By that time I was forty years old. What was he going to do to me? He called me again after I got to L.A. and started with the same idiotic conversation. I took a deep breath and said, "If you can't say hello or ask me how I am doing, then don't call at all."
It was my last act of defiance. “Hey, you want this camera? Come get it. Come to me, be the father I wanted. But you won’t, or you can’t, so I get to keep it.” The camera had developed a loose cable anyway, so by that time it didn’t even work, just like our relationship had never worked.
Years later, I came to a realization. People say that daughters always look for their father in the man that they marry. I realized that gay guys look for the love they never received from their fathers in the men that they love. I know I did. The men I had been most attracted to in my life were the ones who were as emotionally distant as my father. I got over them when they disappointed me, and I got over my father. I had to learn to let go and accept the fact that I cannot change anyone. I can only change me. So, years before he lay on his deathbed, I had already forgiven my father. For being himself.
“We never realize how far a father’s love can reach. You can run from it, but you can’t hide from your own feelings about it.”