My father died before I had forged any memories of him. He was only 41 and it was just past my second birthday when he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. I grew up with a fear of losing my mother and being orphaned and separated from my family. I grew up looking at pictures of a handsome man who was never more to me than an image on paper, and I had no idea what it would be like to have a father. My friends’ fathers always treated me nicely. One, Mr. Hodgson, was particularly kind to me. He was the father of my friend, Robbie. One year their family took me with them on a vacation up north. I also remember a time when Robbie was sick and Mr. Hodgson asked me to go with him to the annual father/son banquet at the Methodist church in my hometown. I felt very special that night. He very often included me in things that he did with his son. I have never forgotten that man’s kindness.
My life partner, Brian, was adopted. He never knew the man who fathered him and to this day does not even know the name of the man whose blood courses through his own veins. He was adopted as a baby by a couple in Wausau and grew up with them as his parents. Brian’s adopted father died at a very young age in an industrial accident when Brian was still a boy.
Neither of us had fathers in our lives during our teen years. I know that Brian missed his adopted father terribly and I know that I missed my dad as well. The only recurring dream I’ve had in my life was of my father marching up the street with a regiment of soldiers (he was a World War II vet). I would watch them for several blocks until they reached the corner where our house stood and where they would stop. I knew at that moment of the dream that my dad was coming home. It made me happy whenever I had that dream and I would always want to fall back asleep and dream it again.
I often wondered if I would have been a different person with my dad in my life, if I would have had the artistic bent that I developed or if he would have made me go out for sports and shift me into an entirely different direction. He was a jock–state pole vault competitor, football player, baseball, basketball–but I also learned later in life that he wrote poetry and acted in school plays as well. I have often been told that I look like him and that I am like him in many other ways as well.
I have been thinking about my father a lot lately, and thinking about the idea that Brian and I were fatherless as teenagers, because a little less than two weeks ago we brought a sixteen year old, Johnny, into our home under a temporary guardianship. We are expecting to have him with us until he graduates from high school in two years. Like me Johnny has no memories of his father. Like Brian’s natural father Johnny’s father was never in his life. Like both of us he was a teenager without a strong father figure in his life.
But how could we two fatherless men begin to know how to fill that gap in Johnny’s life? When I was first coming out I remember making journal notes that I was fine with my sexuality but that I was very sad that I would never be a father, not understanding at the time that I could be a father even as a gay man. I felt I had strong paternal instincts and that I would be a good father if ever given the chance. I have always felt that Brian would be, too. But how would we know without trying, and what if we tried and failed?
I feel that not having a father may in some ways make me an even stronger father because I know what was missing from my childhood. I know the moments when I needed advice or just an ear from a man who wasn’t there. I know what my needs were as a youth. I know the love I missed and I know how much I don’t want to see others miss it.
Obviously I don’t expect to go through two years without making any mistakes. I expect that Johnny will make mistakes. I expect that Brian will make mistakes. I expect that I will make mistakes. We are human and humans make mistakes. As long as we can learn from them they can be growing experiences. But it won’t just be mistakes. I also know what I can bring to it. I am a natural empath. I can listen when someone needs to talk and I can do so without judgment or feeling that I need to give advice. I can accept someone in both their successes and their failures. I can offer love unconditionally. I can give respect, regardless of age or maturity. I can set boundaries, but do it cooperatively, without imposing rules for the sake of rules. I also have high expectations, especially with someone like Johnny, because I know that if he puts his mind to it he can live up to any expectations.
I also remember that when my mother finally remarried sixteen years after my father’s death that I never accepted her husband as my father. Whenever a friend would call him my father I would correct them and let them know he was my stepfather. It was important to honor my own father’s memory by not assigning that terminology to anyone else. On the other hand Brian thought of his adopted father as his dad and that made perfect sense given that he was the man who raised Brian. As a result I didn’t want to impose terminology or certain ways of looking at things upon Johnny or Brian or myself when Johnny came into our house. As a guardian I would simply see myself as a father figure and do my best to act in Johnny’s best interests.
Last Saturday I took Johnny downtown to celebrate Wisconsin Pride with me. I was proudly introducing him to various friends who had read about him or seen pictures but had not yet met him. At one point I introduced him to a friend who said, “Oh, Johnny! I’ve read about you. You’re . . . you’re Callen’s . . .” and they weren’t quite sure how to finish the sentence. Johnny spoke up and said, “He’s my dad.” My heart fluttered. I flushed with pride. I have never been more honored or more humbled to have a title put upon me. I am committed to that name remaining a name of honor. Johnny later told me that he has been thinking of both Brian and me as his dads and he said, “I love you.” I already love him, too, and I let him know that. He is honest, intelligent, articulate, self-reflective, philosophical, talented, fun, real, and much, much more. I am confident he will ultimately give me more than I can possibly give him during our time together.
Now I think back on my recurring childhood dream and I feel like I am my father in that dream, stopping in front of an adolescent and coming home to him–a man he never knew when he was a boy but who will be there for him as a young man. I just want the reality of that dream to be as good for Johnny as the hope of that dream always was for me.