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(Emily Flake for The Globe and Mail)
(Emily Flake for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

My father was almost a stranger Add to ...

When my father died, way back in 1978, I did not grieve. I was a little past 20, newly ensconced with my boyfriend in a downtown Toronto apartment that felt light years away from my suburban teen years.

His sudden death stunned me, of course. The 4 a.m. phone call from a Florida motel, my mother reciting in a flat tone, the hollowed-out voice of shock: "Your father had a heart attack tonight. They couldn't revive him. He's dead, Jim."

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I asked questions in a fog of disbelief, and my mum recited details. Later I cried as Brian sat with me in the kitchen over a pot of tea and dawn arrived grey at the windows. I was crying not for the loss of Ed, my father, but for my mother Millie - for the dead weight of despair in her voice. "I'm starting to believe it," she had said.

The man I had lived with for my first 20 years, who sat close enough to touch every night at dinner, whose very way of wielding a knife and fork has become my own way - this man who is an inescapable part of me stirred no depth of feeling at his loss.

I waited for some sort of delayed reaction, and a few weeks later I did find myself awake in the night with tears streaming, reaching to Brian for comfort, but the image in my mind was of my mother alone in bed without a partner to reach for.

I didn't weep over memories of joyful times spent with Dad, because those joys hadn't happened. Neither had horrors. Ed Bartley, rest his soul, was a decent man who was always there in silent authority and old-fashioned pipe smoke and Old Spice dadness, but who never revealed his core, or was able to reach into mine.

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My second father died in the summer of 1996. Gord was actually Brian's dad, a small-town pharmacist predeceased by Brian's mother in the late 1980s. I started thinking of Gord as my own dad when I began to understand that what I felt toward him was not familial duty or fleeting holiday affection, but love.

First I felt it coming from him. He would call me his second son. I thought he was just being nice. Then, at times of stress or parting, he would suddenly say to Brian and me, his voice quavering with emotion, "I love you boys." The words came from down deep.

Remembering my own father, I was forced to see what I'd missed, and what I might have gained if my dad had lived long enough for his defences to break down. Knowing this, putting it together over the years as the long arc of my family life, has made me both sad and happy, and immensely grateful to have a partner with such a rare father - a man unafraid of deep attachment to other men, and willing to show it.

Born when horses and Model Ts competed in the streets, Gord was a man of his generation. He was also utterly heterosexual, his TV usually tuned to the sports channel and his appreciation of physical beauty reserved strictly for "the girls." He would gaze with a look of reverie at the legions of scrubbed and hairsprayed gals warbling on reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show. He was worlds apart from me and Brian, and yet deeply connected to us.

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My own dad was not a sports fan, and favoured Mozart over Welk. Some might say he was the more sensitive man. He seemed to genuinely like Brian on the few occasions they met, in part because they shared a love of classical music. One of my regrets is that my father died still thinking Brian was just a friend to me, my "roommate."

Many years after his death, my mother floored me one day by saying she thought Ed might have turned out gay if he'd been born 30 years later. I didn't dare ask what her evidence was. Still, her comment made me think about dads and sons, about the effects that might flow from living in disharmony with your nature. Maybe Ed couldn't touch me, couldn't love me freely, without a deeply buried sense of there being something wrong attached to it, something that he could never let himself access or acknowledge.

Freud told us that the erotic is in every relationship. We all know it on some level, and instinctively deny it - very wisely in the case of many whom we love. A father who has buried his desire for other men, whose daily life is completely straight, is a father whose subconscious gives him every reason to keep a son at arm's length.

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I don't know that my father was gay, but he kept me at arm's length for more than 20 years. Then I met Brian and love became a continuing gift. And then I met Gord, and I got a taste of the dad love that Ed might have felt privately, but simply couldn't express. I have to believe the love was there, and that his death robbed us both of the chance to grow close.

But Gord hugged me. Gord let me kiss him in greeting and in parting. Gord let me see the tears in his eyes if I gave him a sentimental birthday card. Gord didn't and couldn't hide what his heart felt. My own dad died almost a stranger to me. Eighteen years later Brian's dad died, and that was when I lost the love of a father. But first, I gained it.

Jim Bartley lives in Toronto.

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