When my father died, I felt relieved. But an unearthed childhood photo makes me wonder more.


 When my father died, I felt relieved.  But an unearthed childhood photo makes me wonder more.

“1975 wasn’t the best year for kids’ fashion, but I did my best to be a stylish baby butch.” (Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham)

I am the fifth and last child of a struggling rural Midwest family. My mother reports that I was so active in the womb that she knew she was going to have “a boy or heaven help us girl.” I identify as non-binary now, but “heaven help us girls” is probably a more accurate description of my gender.

Like a sitcom character sent from central casting to portray The Kid Who Would Wreak Havoc, I turned out to be a full-fledged, sensitive, opinionated coastal genderqueer.

When I was 7, I asked to become a vegetarian (in ’70s farm country Wisconsin), to which my mom replied, “What on earth would you eat?” On a Sunday afternoon, I spent three hours making mine Follow mother from room to room bothering her with what we could do to save harp seals from being hit. She just wanted to clean her house.

When it rained, I regularly missed the school bus. I would be slowed down by my quest to prevent worms from being run over by returning each of them off the sidewalk to the grass.

My third grade teacher gave us an art project that completely devastated me. She put her 45th record of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on repeat and challenged us to draw the story. When I tried to paint the capsized boat with the sailors sloshing into the water, the lyrics to the song caused me to burst into protracted sobs so intense that the teacher frantically called a conference with my mother.

While my mother was called to these (and many other) crying-related emergencies, my father responded with frustration to my inexplicable, persistent, and highly uncomfortable soft-hearted antics.

If Archie Bunker, the Great Santini, and Matt Foley, motivational speaker, had somehow transcended biology and their status as fictional characters to conceive a child, that offspring would be my father.

He was an almost ridiculously stoic man who was raised on a ailing farm near the ailing town of Caro, Michigan by an even more stoic and also ailing father. He often boasted that he had never seen his father smile.

The self-help classics of the 70s like “How to win friends and influence peoplee” and “Win by intimidation” delighted him. He signaled the start of breakfast (always at 6 a.m.) by banging his fist on the table and declaring, “Act enthusiastically and you will be enthusiastic!”

Then he added, “Most people are about as happy as they set out to be,” a quote he alternately attributed to Dale Carnegie and Winston Churchill that seemed to be aimed directly at me.

But I wasn’t unhappy

I was just afraid of the worms.

And the harp seals.

And the whales.

And the widows of the Edmund Fitzgerald crew.

I also really, really, really, really didn’t want to wear a dress to school, even on photo day.

Concerned – and inevitably upset – by behavior he found inexplicable, my father tried to stave off an attack of sobs by asking, “Oh, are you going to cry now?”

Since the answer to that question was almost always yes, it’s odd that he never considered the effectiveness of his behavior modification technique.

My mother used to tell us, “Your father never hit you in anger,” and while that particular narrative doesn’t agree with my historical recollection, I prefer my version. When you get hit, “I’m mad” seems like a better reason than, say, “It’s Tuesday.”

My father was a lifelong smoker. When I was 12, he got lung cancer. I knew I should be worried – and I was saddened to see him suffer so much from treatments that ultimately failed – but the weaker he got the less scared I was.

When he was ill, I felt ambivalent. I was heartbroken by his physical agony. But every chemo he underwent made it less likely that he would explode across the dinner table for an offense only he understood — drinking between bites was an inexplicable and indiscriminate pet nuisance — and eventually left a bloody nose or much, much worse.

When he died, ambivalence was replaced by relief. He was relieved that he was no longer suffering. But it was also easy to feel safer. The man who once hit our 125-pound Newfoundland dog with a two-by-four no longer lived in our home. The ever creeping fear of “Could I be next?” was gone.

And then I felt guilty because I felt relief.

I wouldn’t say that the Germanic culture of rural Wisconsin in the 1970’s particularly helped me develop the ability to read other people’s emotional signals. Still, as far as I could tell, it seemed my cisgender, less emotionally soaked siblings who were much less likely to become the focus of my father’s anger, and my mother missed him all. Maybe even a lot.

I pretended to be slightly sad; it seemed impolite to worry less about the death of my flesh and blood than about a harp seal I had never met.

“You are very brave,” my seventh grade PE teacher said when I returned to school, not even mentioning my father’s death to my friends.

“Sure,” I thought, “let’s call that brave.”

I closely guarded my grief secret until I was in my early 40s. A new friend overheard me referencing one of my more unsavory memories of my father, and she brightened.

“Oh, you’re part of the Glad Dead Dad club too?” Asking that question released decades of guilt that had been wrapped around my chest like a ribbon. The Glad Dead Dad’s Club may not be a big club, but I was relieved to discover I wasn’t the only member.

The following Father’s Day, I took to social media and shared, “I had a great day thanks to my father dying of lung cancer when I was 12. I should write Philip Morris a letter. I bet Big Tobacco doesn’t get many thank you letters.”

It wasn’t the most nuanced entry in the world (nor, frankly, the best-received one), but it was a relief to be candid after years of feeling like a villain in a Disney animated film. We didn’t have an easy relationship. Why should I expect my feelings to be straightforward in response to his death?

Then, last year, my older sister patiently scanned over 2,000 pictures my father had taken over the last 30 years of his life. She emailed me a link to the massive online photo album website with a note: “I think I’ve found the cover art for your next comedy album.”

I clicked through the site. There were countless images of trees damaged by ice storms, our Ford LTD station wagon looking small next to giant snowdrifts, children looking small next to giant vegetables, and a big, drooling outdoor dog that we should have taken much better care of . When images captured groups of adults, each person held a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.

Then I found the photo she was referring to.

Despite wearing my brother’s battered baseball cap and a bat, I didn’t play baseball. I hung out in the woods, built a fort and lived my best life.

(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham)

(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham)

(Photo: Photo courtesy of Kelli Dunham)

I don’t have a clear recollection of my dad taking this photo, but he didn’t usually carry his camera with him, so he would have had to stop whatever work he was doing and get his camera, film and flashes out of the house capture this moment. It does not appear to be an anger-motivated behavioral sequence. It felt like a photo of someone who actually saw this kid.

Whenever I cliché my parents as “doing their best,” my slightly sarcastic New York therapist says in her slightly sarcastic New York way, “Hmmm. For real. So that was her best.”

They might not be shortlisted for Parents of the Year now (or in the ’70s), but in their context, given their skills and resources, they certainly could have done a lot worse.

This photo made me wonder how much more of me my father actually saw but didn’t have the emotional language or experience to communicate. What could have happened between my father and I if he had lived and had access to any tool to improve his relationships: therapy, the 12 steps, or even in a pinch AITA on Reddit?

Not that my dad would have become the kind of parent who would sport a wry handlebar mustache, brew his own kombucha, and give his kids multiple choices as to which brand of organic yogurt they would prefer. But in a world where my dentist asks for my pronouns and Target wears transmasculine packaging underwear, maybe he could have at least been proud of the sensitive, no man, no woman I’ve become.

My grief for my father is still complicated. Because I am so grateful for the years of reassurance his death has given me, it would be disingenuous to surrender my Glad Dead Dad’s Club membership card. My tears — which would, of course, turn him into bananas — reflect my sadness for both of us and our collectively missed potential opportunity to know and be known.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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