My earliest memory in life is the utter fear of being lifted over a wall and dangled over a railway line. The sound of your laughter as you raised me up and down and then, with a sudden jolt, dropped and caught me all in a split second. Despite being unable to even speak, I vividly recall looking down, comprehending the danger but feeling completely powerless, totally at the mercy of someone who would usually be my chief protector — you.
I was a good boy growing up. On the odd occasions I stepped out of line, you were there, fists clenched, chomping at the bit to dispense the kind of harsh physical punishment you wrongly believed would make us respect your authority. I was also exactly the opposite of the son you wanted; you made that very clear at any available opportunity. I was sensitive, gentle, loving and had intense interests. I loved to learn and I loved to dance. You didn’t come to watch me compete because you were ashamed of having a son who preferred the salsa to soccer.
I remember my little sister winning the Rose Bowl for excellent creative writing in Year 6. I’d desperately wanted to win the award two years earlier but had been pipped at the post. I can still hear you telling me my sister had ‘succeeded where I’d failed’ and my Nan intervening to call out the callousness of your words. I also remember the wrath that fell on me for apparently causing YOU this humiliation.
Around the same time, my sister and I were performing in a play at the community centre and went backstage to find you with a woman who was not our Mum on your knee, the two of you kissing. This was the first time I became aware of your inability to be faithful. I remember the elaborate mind games it took to get us to keep this to ourselves.
I remember hearing your vitriol about gay men, seeing the government AIDS ads and crying in my room, absolutely convinced that I was destined to meet the same fate as the emaciated ghosts I was seeing on the TV. I knew I was gay; deep down, YOU knew I was gay. But it didn’t matter. In your mind, this was the ultimate disappointment.
I remember the euphoria of going on a school trip to Germany. I had taken to languages and developed a passion for learning about the world beyond my immediate horizons. When I returned, all I wanted to do was tell you all about what I had seen, tasted, learned and experienced. But you found a trivial reason to take the wind out of my sails entirely, berating me for something completely inconsequential. I cried myself to sleep that night and wished I was back in Germany, where I’d had so much fun and been so happy.
Throughout my teenage years, you reminded me of how ‘abnormal’ I was for not being the kind of ‘rebel’ you had been at that age. My bookishness and sensitivity irked you beyond belief and you wasted no opportunity to tell me you wished I would be a ‘normal boy’. I never answered back. Neither did I make any effort to change to make you happy.
I know now that you were a serial cheat and had my first ‘taste’ of this during that backstage incident. In 1995, I had a German penfriend staying, something I’d been looking forward to for some time. I came home from school one day to find Mum shrieking and crying. You’d left. You’d cleared out the bank account, taken the car and left the family with nothing. You’d been having an affair with a colleague and left us for her. Mum was naturally beside herself. The rest of my penfriend’s stay was hell on earth; I never heard from her again after her visit. Why would I?
When someone implored you to think about the three of us and the effects of your actions on us, you apparently replied that we ‘didn’t need you anymore’. I was 16, my sister was 14 and my brother was 13. Strangely, though, it was largely true for me. I didn’t need you. In fact, I’d spent almost a decade living with the knowledge that my own father disliked me and kept my head down, working hard at school and plotting my eventual escape.
Halfway through university, it happened again. You disappeared. The only difference this time was that my sister (who had just given birth to your first grandchild) and I knew you were having an affair. We urged you to tell Mum. Eventually, you did and you left – this time, for good. But not before two further examples of your disdain for me and my feelings had come to the fore.
That summer, I was home after a year in Germany, where I’d had one of the best years of my life, studying in Cologne. I was 20 years old and even though coming out was always likely to be a technicality rather than a huge revelation, you coerced me into coming out to you when Mum wasn’t around. As it turned out, this wasn’t a well-intentioned act of altruism but essentially a means by which to ‘get one up’ on Mum, who had spent the best part of a decade training you to ‘accept’ – even if only superficially – the fact that your eldest son was gay. Mum had always been an intermediary, a protective shield between the two of us and you had taken something that was rightfully hers and weaponised one of the most significant events in my life.
A few weeks later, when things were really starting to fall apart, you goaded me for an hour. You didn’t shout. You didn’t scream. You quietly, calmly and deliberately detailed all the ways in which I disappointed you. With a smirk on your face, you cruelly decimated my achievements, my talents and my character. I sat, listened and silently sobbed, tears streaming down my face, as you confirmed all the ways in which you hated me. It was visceral. There was so much venom in your voice and your words.
Then, you left and moved on. That September, I left for my third year of studies, this time in France. You refused to support me financially and I was forced to sell my personal belongings to survive. You had a new family and we all became past tense to you. You didn’t go to any of our weddings/civil partnerships nor any of your grandchildren’s christenings. When you were diagnosed with cancer in 2009, we reconciled for a short while, initiated by me, but it was short-lived and superficial. You thankfully recovered but our relationship never has.
I know I wasn’t part of your plan. I know I cut your youth short by coming along when you were 21, forcing you to take responsibility and grow up when what you really wanted was to continue the life you’d led before meeting Mum the summer before. But what kind of Dad blames his own son for being born?
Despite all of this, I want you to know that it’s you who has missed out. Mum often says that my intelligence and stubborn refusal to change to make you happy just added to your frustration that I had the audacity to exist and to be be different to you. I’m proud of that. I’m so, so proud that I had the innate sense of self-worth to recognise that I was fine just as I was. I’m proud that I never reacted when you would get up in my face saying ‘Come on then’, encouraging me to fight you in response to me having irritated you in some way. I’m proud that I refused to follow your ‘example’ and continue your legacy, instead opting to strive to achieve the best I could, personally and academically. I’m proud that I’ve inherited nothing from you; I don’t look like you and I certainly don’t share your narrow outlook on the world. The vehement racism and sexism you espouse is anathema to me and that’s thanks largely to Mum, who, despite the odds, brought us up to be the opposite of the man she had wound up with.
I’m not perfect by any stretch but I do possess the self-awareness you so desperately lack. Because that lack of self-awareness means you’ve missed out on so much. You didn’t get to see me graduate with a First Class degree. You didn’t get to see me receive my teaching qualification in Durham Cathedral. All that I’ve achieved, all that I am, is despite you, rather than because of you.
I don’t hate you, despite the physical and emotional pain you inflicted on me. On some level, I pity you. But this letter is my way of letting it out so that I can move on. I’ve had moments in the past where the feelings of abandonment and profound sadness have threatened to overwhelm me but I’ve overcome it each and every time. I accept that I’ll never have a relationship with you. I also accept that this is entirely your fault. But this letter is the point of no return. I’m looking forward, not backward from this moment on.
Yours in defiance,
Your quirky, sensitive, bookish, gay son,