I was relieved when my father died. But the excavated childhood photos make me even more wondering.


“1975 wasn’t the best year for kids fashion, but I was doing my best to become Stylin’s baby butch.” (Photo courtesy of Kelly Dunham)

I am the fifth and last child born to a struggling Midwestern country family. She reports that my mom knew she had a “boy or girl with the help of heaven” because I was so active in her womb. I’m now identifying it as non-binary, but “girl with the help of heaven” is probably a more accurate description of my gender.

To portray a kid breaking Havoc, like the Sitcom character sent by Central Casting, I emerged as a fully formed, sensitive, disagreeable coastal gender wire.

I asked to be a vegetarian (a farmland in Wisconsin in the 70’s) from the age of 7, and my mother replied, “What on earth do you eat?” One Sunday afternoon I spent three hours chasing her mother from room to room, begging her for what she could do to keep the harp seals out of the club. She just wanted to clean her house.

When it rained, I regularly missed the school bus. The quest to prevent the worm from being run over by the worm being returned from the pavement to the lawn will delay me.

My 3rd grade teacher gave us an art project to completely restore me. She repeated 45 records of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Edmund Fitzgerald’s Shipwreck” and told us to tell a story. When the sailors spilled into the water and tried to wash the cap-sized boat with crayons, the lyrics struck a protracted sobbing and the teacher desperately scheduled a meeting with her mother.

My mother was summoned for these (and many other) crying-related emergencies, but my dad was my unexplained, persistent, and very inconvenient, kind hearted. In response to his actions, he was released with frustration.

If Great Santini’s Archie Bunker and motivational speaker Matt Foley managed to overcome their biology and fictional status and give birth to a child, their descendants would be my father.

He was an almost ridiculous stoic man raised on a struggling farm near the distressed town of Caro, Michigan, and by his father struggling with stoicism. He often boasted that he had never seen his father’s smile.

70’s self-help classics likeHow to make friends and influence peoplee “and” “Win with intimidation “ Fascinated him. He signaled the beginning of breakfast by beating his fist on the table (always at 6am) and announcing, “If you act enthusiastically, you will be enthusiastic!”

He then added, “Most people are as happy as they decide to be.” He alternated between Dale Carnegie and Winston Churchill.

But I wasn’t unhappy,

I was worried about the worm.

And the harp seal.

And a whale.

And the widow of the Edmund Fitzgerald crew.

I also really, really, really really, didn’t want to dress up at school, even on the day of the photo.

Worried about the behavior he thought he couldn’t explain, and inevitably annoyed, my dad tried to stop the sobbing attack by asking, “Oh, are you going to cry now?”

The answer to that question was almost always yes, so it’s strange that he never reconsidered the effectiveness of his behavior modification techniques.

My mom always told us, “Your dad never offended you.” That particular story doesn’t match my historical memory, but I like my version. If you’re going to be hit, “I’m angry” seems to be a better reason than, for example, “Tuesday”.

My dad was a smoker all his life. When I was 12, he developed lung cancer. I knew I was going to be worried — and sad to see him eventually suffering from wasted treatment — but the weaker he was, the less afraid I was. I did.

I felt vague when he was ill. I was deeply moved by his physical pain. However, with each chemotherapy he received, it was less likely that he would explode across the supper seat for the crimes he understood. Drinking while chewing food was an unexplained random pet nosebleed. ..

Ambivalence was replaced by relief when he died. There was a sense of security that he was no longer suffering. But he was also at ease just feeling safe. The man who once beat our 125-pound Newfoundland dog in 2×4 no longer lived in our house. The constant creeping fear of “Can I be next?” I have gone.

And I felt guilty about the relief.

The rural Germanic culture of Wisconsin in the 1970s has not been particularly helpful in developing the ability of others to read emotional clues. Still, as far as I can understand, it’s far less likely to be the focus of my dad’s anger, and my mother all missed him, like my cisgender, emotionally sticky brothers. was. Maybe a lot.

I pretended to be a little sad. It seemed more rude to worry about my flesh and blood death than the harp seals I had never met.

“You are very brave,” said my 7th grade PE teacher when I returned to school, and didn’t even mention my father’s death to my friends.

“Of course,” I thought. “Let’s call this brave.”

Until I was in my early 40s, I kept the secret of sadness. Her new friend brightened her when she heard me refer to one of my father’s more unpleasant memories.

“Oh, are you also a member of the Glad Dead Daddy Club?” When asked, the band-like guilt around the chest was alleviated for decades. Glad Dead Dad’s Club may not be a big club, but I was very relieved to find out that I was not the only member.

I went to social media the next Father’s Day and said: “I had a great day thanks to my father’s death from lung cancer at the age of 12. I should write to Philip Morris. Big Tobacco must not receive much thank-you note.”

It wasn’t the most nuanced post in the world (and frankly the least popular), but it never opened after years of feeling that I was a villain in a Disney animated film. I was relieved. We didn’t have a simple relationship. Why do you expect my feelings for his death to be simple?

Then last year, my sister patiently scanned over 2,000 photos my dad took in the last 30 years of his life. She emailed me a link to a large online photo album site with the note “I think I found the cover image for my next comedy album.”

I clicked on the site. Trees damaged by an ice storm, a Ford LTD station wagon that looks small next to a huge snowdrift, kids that look small next to a huge vegetable, and a big sloppy that we should have taken better care of. There were countless images of outdoor dogs. When I took a picture of a group of adults, each one had a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.

Then I found the photo she was referring to.

I wore my brother’s baseball cap and had a bat, but I wasn’t playing baseball. I was hanging out in the woods, building a fort and living the best of my life.

(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelly Dunham)

(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelly Dunham)

(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelly Dunham)

I don’t have a specific memory of my dad taking this picture, but he didn’t always have a camera, so stop the chores he’s doing and take a camera, film, and flash valve from home. I had to go to capture this moment. It doesn’t look like a sequence of actions motivated by annoyance. It was like a picture taken by someone who really saw this child.

Whenever I call my parents a cliché of “doing my best,” my slightly ironic New York therapist said on her slightly ironic New York Way, “Hmm. Really. That was their best.”

They probably won’t be elected as candidates for parents now (or in the 70’s), but given their skills and resources in their context, they could certainly have done much worse. There is sex.

I wondered how much my dad actually saw in this picture, and maybe he had no experience of emotional language or communication.What would have happened between my dad and me if he was alive and given access to tools to improve his relationships: treatment, 12 steps, or even a pinch. Reddit AITA??

My dad isn’t always the kind of parent who grows ironic handlebar mustaches, brews his own kelp tea, and gives kids multiple choices about which brand of organic yogurt they prefer. But in a world where my dentist asked about my pronoun and the target had packing underwear for men, he was probably at least proud that I was sensitive, not male, not female. maybe.

The sadness of my father is still complicated. It is dishonest to submit a Glad Dead Dad’s Club membership card, as I am so grateful for the years of security that his death has given me. My tears, of course, make him a banana, but reflect my sadness towards us two, and our group missed the opportunity to know and be known.

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This article was originally HuffPost It has been updated.