Dear 17-year-old Laura,
I know you’re having a hard time right now. What’s worse, you don’t understand why.
After all, you’re getting good grades at school. You’ve been accepted at UC Santa Barbara for next fall. You’re kind of cute. Boys are interested in you. You’re interested in them.
You get a lot of attention from Dad. He buys you pretty dresses, hip bell-bottoms, and flower-printed windbreakers. He brings home chunky earrings for you made by the San Francisco street artists near where he works. You love them.
He tells you you’re a good, smart, and beautiful girl. In fact, he took this picture. I can see his reflection in the plate glass window behind you. He’s so proud of you.
When you ask him tough questions, like when you were five and wanted to know what was on the other side of the outermost stars, he told you the truth. He said he didn’t know. You didn’t know any dads who admitted something like that. You knew you could trust him.
But something’s wrong.
You’ve been plagued by stomachaches from the time you were six. By the age of twelve, you suffered from night terrors. I wish I could tell you that your nightmare of being trapped inside a tiny, windowless room will soon go away. But I can’t. Mom comforts you now when you scream yourself awake, but soon you’ll be on your own.
You’re certain the problem is you.
Dad is now gone for longer and longer hours on weekends. He doesn’t always say where he’s been. You don’t want to ask. One evening, he returns home with a tattoo of a red rose on his arm. He tells you it’s the same one he saw on a man at the beach last weekend. You squirm, but you leave it at that.
He returns another day with a big silver ring on his wedding finger. You get the same confused look on your face as you have in this photo. When you were a little girl, you’d asked Dad why he didn’t wear a wedding ring. All the other dads wore them. He told you he was afraid of damaging it in the garden. But he gardens now with this one. You say nothing. You know if you ask, he’ll tell you the truth.
You don’t want to know the truth. Not just yet.
But I’ll let you in on something.
One day you’ll understand that you knew the truth all along. You already knew there was something going on in the family that no one was talking about. You, Laura, you will be the one to ask the question. Dad will tell you the truth even as he remains closeted to others. But then you’ll carry his secret, too.
After another few decades of struggling romances, even more severe night terrors, and now migraine headaches, too, you’ll finally come to understand that Dad’s closeted pain was handed down to you when you were born.
You will understand why as a toddler you already felt the anguish of others being bullied, even though you yourself never were. You felt it so deeply you could hardly breathe, as if it were happening to you.
You’ll understand why you couldn’t trust your boyfriends, certain as you were that they all lived double lives, even before you knew Dad was doing that.
You’ll wonder aloud to your girlfriends why they don’t have the same suspicions about their own boyfriends. They’ll shoot you quizzical looks. You think they aren’t as wise as you.
For a long time, you’ll settle for relationships based on safety, not on love, just as Dad had also done with Mom. But he knew why he was doing it. It was the 1940s. He’d already been arrested twice for being gay. He was in danger of being jailed for life, or worse. And he wanted children.
But you didn’t know why you were doing it. None of these situations applied to you.
You will come to learn that the pain you feel inside was never really yours to begin with. It came from the bullying and persecution Dad experienced from a very young age. It came from his shame over marrying Mom under false pretenses and from leading a double life throughout their 64-year marriage.
You will also learn how hard Dad tried not to be who he was, in order to be the kind of husband Mom wanted. But he’d fail at it. He’d fail because it was not possible. You’re denying yourself right now at 17 by closeting your own pain.
But you won’t always do this.
One day you will write your story. You’ll heal the pain that was bequeathed to you at birth. Although it wasn’t originally yours, it will have served to heighten your awareness of injustice. In turn, you will become a beacon of light in service to others who are persecuted and bullied.
You can’t know this now, but it is the pain of the journey that will lead you home. That’s the thing about pain. It wants to be healed. If you can just hold on, you’ll find that the family heartache stops at you. You will not bequeath it to your own daughter and two granddaughters.
There will be no more migraine headaches. No more stabbing pains in your stomach. No more night terrors. And, yes, there will be a long, loving marriage in your future.
And eventually you’ll come to know what you’ve always wanted to know, that nothing’s wrong with you.
You’ll also help Dad know, during his final weeks of life, that there was never anything wrong with him either.
Your Future Self
First published at The Gay Dad Project on October 31, 2016.
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming soon to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.