Jon Derek Croteau, Ed.D., is a leadership solutions consultant, author of books on higher education leadership, and an adjunct professor. He has focused much of his life advocating for access to higher education and LGBT youth and young adults. This piece is excerpted from his memoir, The Thinning Years, to be published by Hazelden Publishing in 2014.
My father and I weren’t speaking when my mother dropped dead from a pulmonary embolism on my 34th birthday, in the fall of 2009. I hoped to pretty much keep it that way, except for what minimal interactions were called for, for the sake of civility, at her funeral. Otherwise, I was content to never speak to him again.
Then he had a massive coronary right outside the hospital room where my mother’s bruised, still-warm body lay on a gurney, and I no longer had the luxury of pretending he didn’t exist. I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue stonewalling.
I’d been the one to cut off contact last, three summers before, after Dad chased me and my soon-to-be husband, Justin out of his house in Andover, Massachusetts. We were at a family gathering there. As my 10-year-old niece cuddled between us, I barely touched Justin’s shoulder, setting my father off on a homophobic tirade.
“I can’t have this disgusting crap in my house!” he screamed as he came after us, pointing his finger, his face red, his eyes wild with fury. “You are damaging my grandchildren! Get out!”
For me this was nothing new. I’d been getting banished by my father for more than a decade. I was surprised he’d invited us in, in the first place. But Justin was mortified. He’d heard the stories, but had never seen my dad in action. He’s a scary man, especially when faced with anything he perceives as threatening to his manhood. When he puffs up, he seems even taller than his five-foot-eleven frame. He has a heavy paunch and thick, fast-moving hands, which he once used to rip our front door off its hinges, on a rare occasion when my timid, long suffering mother found the nerve to lock him out.
Later, I sent an email telling him I’d had enough of the rejection and abuse he’d subjected me to my whole life, and that I wasn’t going to subject Justin to it. “You will never have the opportunity to push me down again,” I wrote. I was done. Or so I thought.
It was during my birthday breakfast with Justin that I got the call about Mom. Justin had asked my birthday wishes weeks before. “I just want to have breakfast out with you on a ‘school day,’” I said. That had always been my favorite thing – what Mom and I often did together from the time I attended the afternoon session of nursery school.
One minute I was enjoying quiet talk with Justin over omelets, and then next, I was wondering why my sister wouldn’t stop trying to interrupt. Her number kept making my cell phone buzz, and I kept ignoring it. Finally, she texted, “9-1-1, Julie.”
When I arrived at the hospital, Julie lunged at me. She wrapped her arms around me and cried, “She’s gone, Jon!” My knees buckled and Justin had to hold me up from behind. I couldn’t believe Mom was really gone, that I hadn’t been there to catch and hold her, that I’d never get to say goodbye. It was too late for all that. I sobbed. I screamed.
Then I noticed a loud banging. I looked up to see my father kicking the wall.
“All she wanted was for me to love you and accept you and now it’s too late,” he wailed. “And it’s your birthday, too!” He went on and on, yelling in my direction, crying what I assumed were false tears.
I tried my best to tune him out. But then he began complaining of chest pains, and then next thing I knew, this man I thought I hated was being transferred by ambulance from the Lawrence General ER to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. In the jumble of tragedy and emergency, I suddenly found myself feeling sorry for him. It was confusing because he’d been such a monster to me for so much of my life – so mean, so violent. But what kind of monster would I have to be to keep my back turned to him under such extenuating circumstances? The man had become a widower and had a heart attack in the same day. Was it the result of Catholic guilt for the way he’d treated his wife and kids? Was this Mom trying to teach him a lesson from above? Or was she trying to orchestrate a situation in which my father and I would discover each other’s humanity, and bond?
I chose to see it as the latter. All my life, despite his unrelenting cruelty toward me – his calling me “fairy” and “pussy”; his humiliating me in front of the other kids when I performed poorly at the sports he insisted I play against my will; his banishing me from our home when I came out to him in a letter during my sophomore year of college, and then banishing me again every time I got into a relationship – I desperately wanted my father to love me. I tried so hard to get him to, to become what he wanted me to be. I labored to hide my effeminateness, went out with girls, prayed to God, begging him to let me be straight. Maybe this life-or-death medical emergency was my chance to finally win his love, without having to change who I was.
I went with Justin to his hospital bedside. There, Dad was almost unrecognizable to me. He looked feeble with the oxygen tubes in his nose and IV needles in his arm. There were fear and humility in his eyes that I’d never seen. He knew he’d been spared so far, but still risked seeing the face of God. More surprising was his apparent remorse, which seemed genuine.
“I wasn’t good to her,” he cried, “and now she’s gone.” Deep in my own grief, angry for the way he’d treated Mom, I didn’t know how to respond. He’d been just awful to her, humiliating her in public, criticizing her for being too thin, for smoking too much, or for being too wrinkled, even though everyone else thought she was stunning – a taller, thinner Geraldine Ferraro. He cut her down for anything he could think of.
“She hated how hard I was on all you kids, but especially you,” he went on. “I was so hard on you!” he said, his voice now cracking, and tears flowing out of his red, swollen eyes.
He was right. You could see the looks of both terror and despair on my mother’s beautiful but weathered face when my father tormented me – even more than when he did that to my older siblings, Jared and Julie. He was hard on them, too, but he was brutal to me because of my sexuality, even before it was anything we spoke of. When we were alone, Mom would tell me how upset she was about the way Dad treated me. But she rarely had the courage to stand up to him. As much as she adored me, in the name of self-preservation, she could only be so much of an ally. The best she could do was to support me throughout my life, even when my father cut me off. Occasionally she mustered the courage to disobey him where I was concerned – like the time she attended Justin’s and my wedding against his wishes. On my desk I have the most beautiful photo of her from that day. Her hands in the air, she’s cheering for us after the officiant has declared us married, and told us to kiss.
Standing at my father’s bedside as he mourned my mother, my heart went out to him. I couldn’t help it. What unfortunate behavior to have to look back on, to have to live with.
“We’ll be here for you,” I promised him. “We’ll get you through this, Dad.”
On the day of my mother’s funeral, my father had quadruple bypass surgery. It was an odd blessing for my siblings and me. While we were concerned about him, we were also glad to have him out of the way. He couldn’t ruin our tribute to our mother. We could make it about her and not him. And I wouldn’t have to worry about him flying off the handle when I held Justin’s hand for support.
As hundreds of people flooded West Parish Church for her wake, I introduced every single person to Justin, including all Dad’s colleagues from his career as a traveling housewares executive, and the guys who’d had my father as a baseball, basketball or football coach, the volunteer job he was most passionate about. Half of them seemed shocked, not because I said that Justin was my husband, but because many of them hadn’t even known my father had a third child. He never spoke of me.
My father made it out of surgery successfully. Justin and I made many trips to the hospital to visit him. A couple of days after his surgery, he asked for some time alone with me.
When I got to the hospital, I found him still in a remorseful state. “I’m so sorry for what I’ve put you through,” he said. “I feel like a horrible person.” I was speechless. Maybe he finally had changed. Maybe this had been my mother’s doing – her greatest sacrifice, to bring us together.
But a few days later when he was released from the hospital and back in his own bed, my real father emerged once again.
“I just don’t understand,” he began, “why you and Justin couldn’t have just had a commitment ceremony instead of a wedding,” his anger visibly rising. “And why did you have to take his last name?” He sounded paranoid. “You did this to spite me, I know it! Why did you do that to me?” I worried he was going to have another coronary, so I held my tongue. “We’ll talk more another time,” I said, and then got the visiting nurse to come and attend to him.
As Dad got stronger, Justin and I went out to dinner with him a few times, but the conversations were never nice. Dad talked badly about my brother and sister, trying to pit me against them. He criticized my hair or my outfit. I could see he had no compunction, no real remorse.
I started to have a sick feeling when we got together, and then even when I wasn’t with him. My dad was still the same person. Prior to this most recent reconciliation, I’d come to accept that I’d never have a father who liked me. Those years with him out of my life gave me a sense of freedom that I noticed my mother, sister, and brother did not enjoy. I wondered, why had I allowed this unchanged, disingenuous man back into my life?
Then one day, when I was sitting alone in my house I felt Mom’s presence. In that instant, I suddenly knew the false relationship I now had with my dad wasn’t what she’d wanted at all. She’d wanted him to love me without condition, without qualification. This wasn’t it.
I recalled how many times she told me she wanted to leave him, and that she almost did once. She wished she’d had the confidence, but he made her feel like she couldn’t survive on her own. I think my mom was proud of the strength I’d exhibited in quitting him forever a few years back. Now I was shackled once again. I knew what I had to do.
It would be a few months before I sent the letter. “I forgive you,” I wrote, “but I can’t have you in my life.”
At first I’d thought my mom died on my birthday to bring my father and me together. Since then I’ve realized her gift was an opportunity to finally find the fortitude and the wisdom to do what she never could. So I left him behind. And that’s where he remains: behind me.