"Hey there. Are you a man or a woman?" my father asked the stocky girl in navy-blue coveralls as we rode the elevator down to the hospital lobby. Eighty years old and wandering in the abyss of midstage Alzheimer's, Dad used to pride himself on what he didn't say. I, at 42, unmarried and the youngest of three brothers, was now his partial caretaker, making frequent trips across the Hudson to the hospital near my childhood home in New Jersey.
Until recently, Dad's illness was all about frustration: he drove his mouse-gray Buick Century into cars that had stopped short, he got lost on trips to the store, he forgot his grandkids' names. But this new phase of filter-free wonderment was relatively refreshing, if only for its lack of guile. That is, until he aimed it at me as I drove him home.
"Hey! Where do you live?" He asked everyone this—even my mother. "Manhattan," I answered.
"Do you live in a big building? Have I been there?" He had, even though he hated "that city," the one to which he used to commute daily.
"OK, so what do you do?" he demanded. "I'm a magazine editor," I responded.
In his lucid years, Dad never grasped why I'd want to toil for "so little" when I could just take over his insurance agency and write on the side, as if my craft were some sort of high-class hobby.
"Got a dog?"
"No," I said, sighing. "Two cats, Steve and Eydie." These were tedious but easy questions I always answered. Maybe he'll stop soon, I thought. But he didn't.
"Are you married?"
"You a gay?"
"Yes, I am."
I had come out to my parents when I was 31, during Easter dinner. For a few years, I had been openly gay with friends, co-workers and anyone who asked, but not with them. "In the closet to parents," though, was a flaming red flag on the "Is he a desirable date?" checklist. When I finally dropped the G-bomb, my mother responded with the same level of open-mindedness that once inspired her to take a "mind-expansion class" in the 1970s and to play a karate-chopping housewife in a local production of Sondheim's "Company." Dad, the Moose Lodge mainstay, was stammering, blushing and mumbling sotto voce sentence fragments laced with words like "disgusting" and "unnatural," all delivered while staring intensely at the butter dish.
"It's just easier for you to know. End of story," I had said. A couple of hours later, he drove me to the bus, prattling on about great moments in stock trading and commercial real estate, just like he had on so many Sundays before. He didn't mention "the gay thing" again for a dozen years.
Now, on the way back from the hospital, he summed up our staccato volley: "So you live with strangers, you're a gay, you write things and like cats. Is that everything?" There wasn't any judgment being made; he was simply, cheerfully gathering the facts.
It was. "Yes, Dad, that's all." And it felt all right.
This time around, there was no sputtering or stammering. Sure, much of it had to do with the layers of plaque on his brain's misfiring synapses, which stole the emotion from his words. But to some degree, his tragic illness may have provided him with relief from his anxiety—and me the confirmation of a longstanding hunch. Yes, maybe this was his version of "I don't get you, but that's fine." If so, it was a moment of candor I had imagined for a very long time. I just never knew how we'd get there, if ever. And I recalled that, to his credit, he had supported most of my endeavors—from collecting old radios to acting in community theater—despite not understanding any of it. Until now, he had muted his bemusement.
Surely it is a rare opportunity to come out to a parent twice. Some never get around to doing it once. At one point, it occurred to me that if this interrogation thing happened yet again, maybe I could revise my autobiography a bit—add in an adoring wife and kids, a spunky German shepherd, and a bad knee from my gridiron days at Penn State. That way, I could avoid this "Groundhog Day" of reliving one of the more difficult moments of my life.
As it turned out, though, the conversation never happened again. Dad passed away last year. But that was OK—we had finally gotten the talk just right anyway.