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I Haven’t Seen My Father in Some Time

It is Saturday morning. I have given myself a treat, setting my alarm to sleep until the clock hands stand straight; this is sleeping in. I awake mid-symphony, birdsong ringing out. I had fallen back asleep to the opening notes, having cuddled the baby back to sleep after her bottle. She lays in her bassinet, one of her last sleeps by the edge of my bed. She has outgrown it; if I keep procrastinating on adding the last three screws to her crib, by next week she won’t be able to stretch out. She sleeps with her arms folded behind her head and legs out straight, the picture of relaxation. I lay my hand over her hummingbird heart for a moment before stretching myself beneath the blankets, sheets cool where my legs hadn’t lain.

Footsteps echo distinctly, coming from downstairs where the floors don’t creak so much. I pause a moment, hearing Hawthorne’s soft snoring, and the dog’s much louder. The footsteps stop as abruptly as they started, no fade out, no door opening or closing. I relax my shoulders, remembering our ceiling fans have been running for days, and the “footsteps” are the occasional off-balance whirr of the blades. But I don’t discount a visit from the other side as the solstice approaches. 

Midsummer is a time that carries weight. Her own footsteps are heavy with grief and stalwart with tradition. The days in this most spiritual of times tick by, laden with memories and marked by anniversaries. The sunlight off the vibrant new leaves belies my heart’s gray disposition, the bright colors across gardens and lawns a painted masquerade to celebrate the longest days of the year. Such juxtaposition seems fitting; after all, people send flowers for sympathy, and June is the showstopping season of blooms. 

My father-out-law’s birthday was June 9th, my father’s June 19th; Father’s Day falls on the 21st. This stretch of time, we fish for our fathers, spinners and spoons pulled by a seemingly invisible force through the clear water, hoping to catch the eye of a bounty of trout. Some years, it’s the first time we catch a fish. It was during this confluence of celebrations that I caught a near state-record walleye out of the Niagara River six years back. We always practiced catch and release – men aged 18-64 were supposed to consume no more than one fish per year out of these waters, and women, never, due to the mercury and other pollutants. This time, however, the roughly 13-pound fish went to a local family after they expressed their horror at our plan of letting it go. I think of that moment often, and how humbling it was, having my privilege pointed out with such genuine shock and lack of intention. Clark was still alive, and thrilled with our story. 

Hawthorne and I married in the space between their birthdays, on the 14th. Our wedding was perfectly tailored for us; classy (not that we are, really, but for our biggest party, absolutely!) with plenty of whimsy, and even more food and drink. Clark and Hawthorne entered together and walked down the aisle; my cousin gave me away. There was no father-daughter dance, but the DJ played Prince and we danced all night long. The one cloud on the day was Clark’s seizure; he had multiple strokes before I met him, and occasionally would experience seizures as a result. He was well-cared for though, and considering the crowd, it was calm as far as scene go. More than half the guests hailed from emergency medical services and other professions in the medical field, so when the ambulance came and picked him up, the responding crews had to field reports from half a dozen medics in various states of inebriation. He stayed overnight in the hospital and, all things considered, was no worse for wear when he returned home the next day. 

As they grow up, people learn that their parents were not perfect; it’s a harsh realization to come to about someone. You learn their fallibility, their faults and failures. When they die, however, it can be easy for some to gloss over their less-than-perfect traits and actions. We have been so conditioned to not speak ill of the dead that a sheen of sainthood often shrouds the mistakes they made, or excuses them as a product of their time. It takes work to see them as whole, flawed people, but it’s important to do so. Relationships are complex, and those between father and child no less so for its focus on creating and raising a life. 

Father’s Day added new knots to this tangle of emotions the past couple years. Hawthorne had not grown up with the same bone-deep knowledge of one-day parenthood that I had, and was so excited to talk to my belly and make plans for us all to go fishing to celebrate. Of course, it did not turn out that way, and our little boy left us to grow up starside, holding the hands of our fathers instead of ours. I cannot say what last year was like; with Oscar gone and Lucy waiting in promise, I was so enveloped by my sorrow and rage that I do not remember what we did. The reminders are out there when I’m ready, but looking backwards is not something I do lightly, so those memories will wait. 

This year, we navigate the grief we carry of our own fathers along with the loss of our son and the joy of our daughter, all against a backdrop of transition and testosterone, and the sudden theft of hope for Hawthorne’s long-awaited surgery. Zoom out further and the volatile terrain snaps into focus: the assault on black bodies by those who are sworn to protect and serve, the disregard for scientific process and recommendations in an ongoing pandemic, and an administration that is intent on keeping queer folk (among others) second-class citizens. There are moments when I feel as if we are stuck inside a thunderstorm inside a hurricane and oh yeah, the planet is warming and the oceans are rising. The way forward is bleak and dark. 

And then, as the world feels like it is on fire and all I can see and breathe is the smoke, the beacon of hope that is Midsummer shines through. The universe holds us with gentle constancy and faces us toward the wonder of the sun for as long as she can. I am still a baby witch but I feel a deep connection to the solstice and the turning of the seasons. The veil thins and allows me to feel the push from the other side, a flow of strength and hope and tenacity from my ancestors, including my father. He would want me to be more physically active, eat better, drink less coffee. But he would also want me to fight on through the dark days and raise my little girl to be a fighter, too. 

I know our fathers would be so in love with their granddaughter Lucy Danger, our brightest light. I look out at the sunshine and the Oscar blue sky, and know they grieved for us even as they accepted Oscar from the stars. I see Hawthorne holding Lucy, and know she is so lucky to have a papa who is not like other dads, but is strong and will teach her to be utter authentic in herself. 

The day is long enough that there is space for grief in this sacred time, for missing those who are gone; especially as their birthdays come all stacked together. But there is also space for joy, as we share memories and tell each other stories of our fathers. There is light to play by, to learn by, to grow by. And even as the days grow shorter, we will remember the men who became our fathers, who taught us to fish and play guitar, the value of a strongly-worded letter or a well-placed phone call. We will remember their faults and their triumphs, what kind of parents they taught us to be, and not to be. I’m learning now that parenting is not just a lifelong journey on the part of the parent; the learning goes on long after they’re gone. 

This one is for my father Paul, for Hawthorne’s father Clark, and for Oscar, who first made Hawthorne a papa. We miss you all. Stay wild out there. 

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Guest post from Hawthorne Barber-Dubois

Clark Franklyn Barber died his final death at 4pm September 20th, 2016. I saw his final death because he was a man who died 100 times. There wasn’t much for him to leave on the 20th. Gone are the blind eyes that saw only light and shadow. My father was an intensely private person, so much so that there are probably people in this room that never saw his eyes. I was surprised that Aunt Lynn and Mom were able to find this many pictures of him not wearing his sunglasses.

Gone are the atrophied muscles and arthritic knees, shoulders, hands, and wrists. His was a body well abused. His physical feats not sound legendary. He ran up Mount Marcy carrying a backpack loaded heavy with rocks, ascending and descending in the same day. He did a 40-mile day hike in Sweden and slept in the mossy turret of an abandoned castle. He won a fist fight against a group of Russian sailors who were displeased with his banjo rendition of Norwegian wood.

Gone are the hands that held our hands, held micrometers, held guitars, held banjos, held maps, held motorcycle handlebars. 

His broken back is gone.

A few months ago, Dad told me that the CIA attempted to recruit him out of high school. He spoke fluent German and they wanted him to infiltrate Baader-Meinhoff in East Germany. My dad refused. I asked him why and he said it was because he didn’t want to serve his country. He lost too many friends and classmates to Vietnam. He told me once that Grandpa was the last hero in this family, but I disagree. He waged a different war. One fought in factories, standing over machinery and enduring the physical demand and the mental tediousness that the work required. I remember waking up one morning after his first stroke to the sound of him crying. He was sitting in the living room struggling to lace his boot, he had forgotten and then remembered that he no longer worked. 

He was freed from his shattered mind. Once exact, and sharp – his trade was so obscure that we all had to Google how to spell it for the obituary. After putting in over 20 years at Cutter he was laid off. Unable to find trainings for other work, he taught himself physics using college textbooks that he bought at yard sales. He measured his world with micrometers, he underlined books with rulers. He raised us to look at the world with wonder and curiosity. We listened to far-away lands on the shortwave radio, peered out at the night sky through telescopes, and hiked through the forest preservation looking for fossils.

Gone is his beat-skipping heart, the heart that loved us. I was able to go back home for several days last month and we were able to spend some time alone together. He was still lucid. We talked about music, and movies and shared memories but mostly he talked about his love for us. He showed his love in the same way that his mother did, by asking us, telling us, and reminding us at every conversation to be safe, be careful, drive carefully. He told MJ to remind me to wear my seatbelt in the car. He also showed his love by making sure we had enough to eat. When we would go out as a family, he would often order nothing so that we could get shrimp dinners and beef hash. He would eat the shrimp tails, we would re-enact the scene from The Blues Brothers, “How much for your women, how much for the little girl.” He would eat the solitary leftover egg and then go home and make himself a bean sandwich for dinner.

He was thoughtful. When Mom and him met it was love at first sight. Mom saw him across the dining room at Potsdam and turned to her roommate and told her, “that’s the man I am going to marry.” Later they would go sledding, Mom took a bad spill down an icy hill and got pretty banged up. Mom went home to get cleaned up and thought to herself that if really is the one, he will show up with hot chocolate – and Dad did.

Dad’s thoughtfulness took many forms. He used to proudly tell anyone that would listen that he was an ex-Baptist deacon with a lesbian daughter. He went to Pride every year he was able, and he would stand outside of Spot Coffee during the Dyke March and wave to us. One rainy year he showed up to give me his umbrella and to give me a hug.

Even in his last moments his love for us was apparent. He wanted me to tell Mom that he knew it was a hard 9 years for her and that he wanted her to go out and have fun. To find a social group, to go to church, but most importantly have some fun.

He wanted Matt to know how proud of him he was and proud he was the kind of man that Matt is, that he has a good reputation and that people respect him. That he is a good father to Geneva and that he is a big guy but doesn’t use that to intimidate anyone.

I asked him what he was going to do when he got to Heaven. He didn’t think about his response very long. He was that he was going to meet the Lord and get a bike. He wasn’t much of a church-going man but he told us that riding his motorcycle was like being in church. That sometimes he would ride down country roads and that the trees towering overhead reminded him of being in a cathedral. 

He looked forward to being reunited with his Mom and Dad, with Buster and Quigley. 

He looked forward to not being confined to his well-abused body, the broken back and shattered mind. 

He wanted everyone to know that someday we would all be reunited.

His last days were ones where he was with Mom, at home, and in no pain. He had his music and all of our love.

To quote his favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut.

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

His ending was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Clark is in Heaven now, and everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.