Ty Powers’ story from June 2018’s theme “Parents”.
Had my father, Charles, been a superhero, his tagline might have been: Mild-mannered Nazarene preacher by day! Mild-mannered Nazarene preacher by night! Dad was kind and gentle and funny, beloved by his church members, but not always the most adept at dealing with his own family.
It makes sense. As many PKs (preachers’ kids) will tell you, that “service to others” thing can be a real problem for the pastor’s immediate family. Early on, my two brothers and I realized our emotional needs often took a back seat to the needs of others. Oh, did I say “back seat”? Sometimes we weren’t even in the car: Mildred broke her hip stepping off a curb; Darryl’s toenail is infected—he’s diabetic!; Tina’s daughter has taken up smoking pot and even worse, dancing; Brother Smith is seeing a Satanic face in the tiles of his bathroom floor. You know, typical stuff.
Sixteen years ago, my marriage was in shambles. The shit had hit the fan, or as I say when children are present: “The ship has hit the sand.” Even though my dad and I didn’t really have a “spill your guts to me” type of relationship, I needed someone to talk to. Even though I resented his parishioners for stealing him away from me for all those years, surely all his counseling experience was not for nothing,” so I called him.
“Ty!!!!!” He always sounded like he was either super surprised, or trying to prevent me from falling into a hole.
“I need to talk to you about something. Can it be just you and me, so maybe not at the house?” I wasn’t ready to loop in my stepmother just yet.
“Sure!” he said in that professional “Welcome to our church; please fill out a visitor’s card!” sort of way. “Come on over and we’ll drive somewhere!” My dad loved Buicks. Big ones (“I like big Buicks, and I cannot lie!), so when I got to his house, we got in his big Buick and hit the road.
I was terrified.
“Why don’t we go to Trevecca and talk there!” my dad suggested. If you’re a Nazarene in Nashville, you can’t help but be linked to Trevecca Nazarene University in some way or another. He had an office on campus.
“Yeah, Dad, that’ll work.”
We made small talk in the car, which wasn’t talking, per se, but rather, my dad reading road signs, as was his habit. “Piccadilly Cafeteria!” he would announce as we drove past. “Fessler’s Lane!” said the street sign. “Hair club for men!” declared the billboard, or my favorite: “Vasectomies!”
It was a warm, clear, beautiful afternoon, and I was sweating profusely. At Trevecca, we circled the tiny roundabout. This was before they installed the Jesus statue there. It’s a tiny Jesus on a giant pedestal. It sort of looks like a second-place trophy hiding in the hydrangeas. Just past the dorms, we found an empty pavilion. We sat down at a picnic table. I remember the sun casting shadows behind my dad’s head.
“So, what’s up!” As you may have noticed, all of my dad’s sentences ended in exclamation marks, even the questions.
I looked at him, his elbows propped up on the table, his hands clasped under his chin. I wanted to hem and haw, but I had been hemming and hawing all my life, and I was exhausted.
“Dad, I’ve been having an affair. I’ve been cheating on Gabby.”
It wasn’t surprise on his face, but sadness. Tears welled up. He had always been awkward around my wife. This was the man who suddenly blurted out over dinner one night, “Gabby! We just want you to know that we don’t think any less of you just because you’re from a third-world country like El Salvador!” Geez, Dad. Now we know what you haven’t been thinking about. For days on end. Now THAT was an awkward ride home.
So, here he was, devastated. The thing I remember most was his eyes, the way they were reshaped by his heart that was breaking, for both his son and the beautiful daughter-in-law he loved. I’m not sure what I was seeking from him then, but it wasn’t justification. I didn’t want him to condone anything. Maybe what I wanted from him was something like shelter, protection from what was crashing down around me.
So, that was Bombshell #1.
Bombshell #2: “Dad, it was with a man. I cheated with a man.” Now, THAT revelation brought a surprise to his face, and again, what I remember most was his eyes, full of heartbreak. And confusion.
I had been baffling my dad for a long time. I thought of one summer when I was 11. We were spending a week at the Nazarene Campground in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Trust me: a Nazarene campground in August in Oklahoma is its own special kind of hell. Ratcheting up the misery was the fact that I was being bullied by two older kids. Every time we crossed paths, they would beckon me with an overly lilting “Hey, Ty, come kiss my hand,” an exaggerated flick of their wrists, and a swish of their hips. It was so relentless, I eventually refused to leave our cabin.
Dad knew what was going on, so he sat me down and gave me an awkward tutorial on how to hold my hands under my chin (like this, not like this), so I wouldn’t appear so feminine. That event and other encounters from my formative years caused something to lodge itself somewhere behind my heart—the notion that derision from others was likely my own fault, that this thing I didn’t quite understand about myself must’ve been evident to others, scrawled all over my face—it definitely was something that warranted dismissal and rejection. Even hatred. I know now, in his own fumbling way, that Dad was just doing the best he could, but I wore that shame for a long, long time.
Anyway, back at Trevecca, all of that was roiling around in my head as I cried, “Dad, I don’t know what to do. I’ve been leading this double life, and it’s tearing me apart.”
“Well, why don’t we do this,” he said, no exclamation marks this time. “Let’s pray,” which I realize now can sometimes be a preacher’s sneaky way of avoiding the topic at hand. But that’s what we did. I don’t recall exactly what he prayed, but I do remember what he did not pray: there was no “getting right with God,” no “lead him out of this phase into the arms of his wife again,” no “God, just help him like sports.” Actually I did love football. All the spandex.
He just prayed for healing, and who doesn’t need that?
After the prayer, he said one more thing as he hugged me: “Hey, Ty. I want you to know something. I love you. Ann and I love you. We always will. We always have. We love Gabby, too. We’ll get through this together.”
So, there you go. My awkward dad surprised me at one of my life’s most crucial moments.
The “together” part didn’t quite last. The marriage sputtered out after another six years, including a stint in a misguided counseling approach akin to reparative therapy—what I call, in retrospect, “Homo No Mo’”. I don’t recommend it.
Gabby and I went our separate ways. She finally found a real man.
And so did I!
Dad and I never talked about my gayness again, which says as much about me as it does him. I never told him who his youngest son really was, deep inside. He was gone before I could say, “Dad, I am a gay man.” I never got to show him the shame-free version of myself. I never had the chance to introduce him to the guy I’ve been known to eat ice cream with. On that guy’s couch. In that guy’s house! Scandal!
But I did get that one very special afternoon with him, praying under that pavilion, his hand on my shoulder, the heat of the day swirling around us, the shadows lengthening, the fireflies hovering.
There was distance between us, yes, but the uncrossable chasm that I thought would open up between us when I told the truth simply didn’t happen. Every now and then, I can feel him just across the table, simply loving me.
Ty Powers grew up in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi and has been a Nashvillian since 1994. An editor for the Lord at a local Christian publishing house, he whiles away the hours coming up with innovative ways to undermine family values.