I can see a mix of emotions on my face. Confusion, probably. Stunned? Definitely. And an effort to smile. This would be my face to the world for decades, my expression from inside my dad’s closet.
Nightmares of being trapped inside a small windowless room began soon afterwards. The walls moved in on me until I woke up screaming, my heart pounding.
During visits to the family home on the San Francisco Peninsula, where my secret conversations in the garden with Dad took place, I didn’t question why sharp pains in my abdomen had me buckling over in pain after eating the special meal my mother prepared for Father’s Day or Easter, or for no special reason at all.
Migraine headaches plagued me as well. My doctor prescribed a strong narcotic which temporarily knocked them out, but like clockwork they reappeared with maddening regularity.
I never once thought to question why I was all-at-once afflicted with night terrors and stomach cramps and piercing headaches. If I thought of it at all, I shouldered the blame. There was something terribly wrong with me, I was certain of that. But I didn’t know what it was.
I hid my pain from others, but I did so unconsciously. I hid my father’s pain from others, too, for decades. I didn’t know who knew what, or when they knew it, or if I’d accidentally betray my father with a look or a careless word to others.
My view from inside my father’s closet, the one I didn’t even acknowledge I was trapped in, did NOT carry the clarity of this message:
I’m hiding in my father’s closet with him. We’re both shouldering his shame. His pain has become mine. My body is suffering from the stress of our now-shared secret.
I wish I’d had that clarity, but I didn’t. I didn’t see myself victimized in a closet but rather as a loving, dutiful daughter, one who listened to her father tell stories of a life lived in private anguish as a result of an unjust society. After all, he’d been a loving, kind, and devoted father throughout my childhood. I owed him that same total devotion now that I was an adult, or so I believed.
Decades passed. Over time, I discovered that Mom had known since 1957, the year the four of us kids were all under the age of six. She’d begged Dad to stay even after she found his revealing photos, and he promised her he’d stay forever, which he did.
Over time my siblings found out, but we never discussed the family secret as a family. Each conservation was in twos, in private, in whispers in back rooms or outside, away from open windows.
My parents stayed married until the day my mother died in 2006, five months shy of their 64th wedding anniversary. My father would lead a double life all that time. My mother would turn her head the other way as long as Dad came home to her at the end of the day.
It wasn’t until I decided to live the life I truly wanted, with the man I truly wanted to be with instead of with the ones I’d lost myself in, that my physical symptoms of stress would come to an end. I found my way out of my dad’s closet by finding my way out of my own closet, by choosing the life that was true for me.
In his final months of life, Dad found peace, too. God, he said, told him he was meant to live the life he’d lived.
“And he told me I was a good person, Laurie.” I’d never seen him so peaceful nor with such a glow about him. He died at age 90, calm and accepting of the person he was born to be.
I’m living the life I’m meant to live, too. I’m a sensitive person, a fearless fighter for social justice and civil rights for all. I’m someone who long ago sensed something amiss in my parents’ marriage that made me force the question with my father. In turn, he bequeathed his stories of love and loss and discrimination to me. I share them widely now because he wasn’t able to then.
After decades of turmoil and pain and self-doubt, I emerged from my dad’s closet. So did Dad. When we were each able to accept ourselves as the ones we were born to be, our walls came tumbling down. The view is so much clearer now.
First published at The Gay Dad Project on March 23, 2017.