By MICHAEL BACA
Editor's Note: This article appeared on our old site.
I had my suspicions growing up, but they never bothered me enough to mention it. At the age of eighteen, I met my biological mother for the first time at a Denny’s restaurant in my hometown. Prior, a friend of my eventual mother-in-law stopped by to visit, and on this summer evening, we discovered through a depth of conversation that she was my aunt. I felt astounded, and rather nervous as she laid out a story of hurtful feelings, broken dreams, and painful abandonment.
My father was a truck driver when my mother came into his life. She was a young woman, still under age and living in a small truck stop town. They married not long after meeting. My father was of legal drinking at the time–eighteen meant you could purchase alcohol.
His drinking became more common, more aggressive and oftentimes he became furious with my mother. He wanted a child. The frequency of his aggression increased as his confusion expanded.
On a quaint summer afternoon, my mother arrived home from high school and found my father wearing her underwear, looking at a risqué magazine. His lips and face were covered in a half-assed makeover. Her reaction was not what he expected. Her supportive nature and innocent mind didn’t see any harm in playing out this role when they were alone in the house together. My father was the happy, displaying his true self, but only on the surface.
The aggression continued and so did the drinking. My grandparents, who lived upstairs where awoken by screams and rushed to find my father strangling my mother against a wall, her almost lifeless body was had little struggle left as my grandfather pulled my father away and held him down.
Somewhere is this theatre of gender bending, aggression filled marriage there was love, compassion and understanding. My father could express his true nature and my mother became pregnant. Shortly after I was born, he was still heavily drinking and continued with his aggressive bouts of confusion.
My mother could stand it any longer, gathered what she could and ran, taking me with her. Not long after, my father found us. He took me away from her and that was the last time I would feel my mother’s arms for eighteen years.
I grew up really never knowing my father. We spoke mostly when I was being disciplined. He favored long-drawn-out conversations over spanking. When I was not in trouble he slept, usually because he drank too much. Our most common conversation consisted of, “Dad can I have $5. I’m going to the mall”, and with silence and half closed eyes, opened his wallet.
My grandmother played the role of mother. And I believed she was for some time. She was a good woman, although secretive and bitter and very Catholic. But she did her best to raise me like a son. My grandfather was a very gentle man always taking great interest in my many stories and meant the world to me.
I saw my mother; from car windows and across streets. I knew it was her, but didn’t understand why I could not talk to her. She was always there, watching me grow from a distance.
The first strong memory of my mother is from the age of seven. A woman wearing a cowboy hat with small tattoos on her forearms approached me. “Do you know who I am?”, She asked, obviously holding back tears “My mother…” I said with a questioning murmur. “Go get your father for me.” I ran off into the house, unsure and scared.
It was a moment filled with heavy confusion as my grandmother held me in the living room. “Is that lady my mother?” I asked. My grandmother looked ghostly, pale and worried. The weight that came with that event was felt for some time. And I stared numbly into space, trying to figure out what was happening. I tried to comprehend it all.
My father took me on quite a few car rides in the coming weeks. It eased his mind to drive and talk. He asked me several times if I wanted to meet my mother; my reply was always a nervous ‘yes’. Nothing ever came of those talks.
When I was around the age of eleven I started figuring things out. I realized through a series of thoughts that my grandmother could not be, my mother. When asked, my father walked me to his old beaten down truck. We sat inside, the musty smell of vintage interior was almost magical, reassuring in a sense.
He weaved together a story of drugs, ‘X’ rated films and divorces, an obvious example of practice makes perfect. This was supplemented by stories of pain and abandonment. I pretended to settle into his story, shrugged it off and went about my day. Inside I knew there was more, something I was missing.
I continued to watch my father’s depth of interest in life wane as I got older. He remarried when I was around fifteen years old, another failed at fooling himself of his true nature. Rehab didn’t help much and I blamed myself for lacking the courage stop the continuous flow of beer. It always felt strongly, like I was playing a roll, I had to stay in character.
I watched as he sipped aftershave between trips for twelve packs. His face turned sour, his skin yellowed and his eyes became pits of flesh the color of midnight. He hated himself all the while convincing me to love everyone no matter their gender, race, or choices in life. He was never abusive towards me, and was truly a good father when he was able. He sacrificed everything for me.
Through the years, an ebb and flow of good and bad health continued for several years. His health would improve and the drinking slow, the urges waned and he could relax. But these times became fewer and farther apart.
As I grew older, I began exploring a more spiritual life favoring to leave religious burdens behind and finding my own path through life. Later, I learned that my mother made him promise to let me find my own way, a promise I’m thankful he kept.
The first time my father saw my mother and I together, I saw my father die inside. I could feel his body grow cold and our already distant relationship crossed over with him. He knew, in that moment, that I knew. Looking back, he walked away slow, lingering like a lost child unsure of were to go next.
His drinking increased, from the sips of aftershave to three or more twelve packs a day. He hardly spoke to me after that, no matter how hard I tried. When he did speak it was only to say that he met a woman named ‘Linda’ and that I would meet her soon. Weeks had passed and the silence continued, all the while he would accidentally answer the phone in a woman’s voice and hang up whenever I called.
Repeated attempts to see him where futile, until one day he left his door open. I walked in expecting to find him in full regalia. He was gone, and the only thing left behind was a pair of purple women’s underwear on the floor. I didn’t know if I should smile, or cry, and I stood there staring into the floor trying to find myself, wondering deeply if this was my fate. If I somehow may inherit his pain, his identity, that somehow I might become him.
A few weeks had passed and I had already selfishly forgotten about his troubles. I was living, or trying too. He was becoming an afterthought, and I quickly tried to move on. I tried to forget he was committing a slow suicide.
Lost in my own life and smoking a freshly packed bowl, the phone rang and its tone, almost haunting and sudden, reverberated throughout my living room.
“…Michael, your father is dying. Please come see him.”
My uncle’s voice, hardly recognizable; he and I had not spoken much since I was a preteen and his first words to me in several years were not surprising. I had known; call it intuition, since I was young, I was going to lose my father early, had plenty of years to prepare. I wandered through the house with the feeling, my life was written in a book. One in which I can take part in, but never know the plot. Everything felt like words on pages, It didn’t seem real, it felt like fiction.
I had spent years with the notion of his death in my mind. Forever prepared for the inevitable, the moment of truth was upon me.
When I arrived I found my father lying in a hospital bed in the same bedroom in which I grew up. His eyes where nearly black, his skin wrinkled with deep jagged yellow hues. He could no longer speak, or at least would not speak to me. I lacked the courage to tell him that I didn’t care about his big secret. I felt he should have known by the way he raised me to have respect for everyone no matter their choices in life. He hammered that notion, that information, like a mantra he chanted to me to love everyone. I felt he should have known the type of person I had grown into.
Moments later he passed, silently.
I walked graciously passed the crying and suffering, out into the street and never once looked back. I recalled my father saying that when my great grandmother had passed that he could not cry. That my mother had just left him and it was all too much to bear. For a moment I felt just like him, and that fear of being him rose like a fury. But this was not like that, I could not mourn for him, but not because I was sad. I was feeling an overwhelming sense of joy. My chest exploded like an orgasm and my knees to the pavement and gravel below. My father, released from a life of constant torment, gender confusion, and self-hatred and he was finally free.
He had escaped the restraints that life had placed on him. All that he had endured in the twenty seven years of drinking, the weight of shame and guilt were finally released. The pain he carried with him was lifted easily by his death, not only from him, but from me as well.
I never knew my father, not the way most people knew theirs, but I didn’t have too. My alcoholic, closet cross dressing father taught me more about life by the age of eighteen then anyone has in forty years. He taught me that life sometimes requires emotional feats of strength if you’re going to have a story worth telling.
Michael Baca is an artist.