My father died suddenly on August 5, 2013, at the young age of 61. Aside from what appears below, I have not written anything since this day. What follows was the hardest thing I have ever or may ever write in my lifetime. I hope that by putting it out there, I might be freed to write once again.
On Love and Wandering
A Eulogy for My Father
August 10, 2013
My father was a man who lived life on his terms. I am the one he called Bones. Why Bones? He says it was because I was a tiny little child with the skinniest frame – so much so that you could see my bones. Maybe so, but as I stand before you here today, 40-ish and fitting oh-so-snuggly into this dress, my nickname seems a whole lot more like sarcasm than endearment.
But let’s go with it…
I have been around pretty much from the start – give or take a few months. In the beginning, I was the first born to a long-haired child bride and a curly-headed hooligan. We didn’t have much back then – no, not much at all. My parents married in March 1972 and my father was drafted into the Army soon after. He reported for basic training in Georgia in July 1972 and I was born in late August. As the story goes, when the service wouldn’t allow him leave to be with Mom, he went AWOL to meet me for the first time. The way he told it, when he got back to Georgia, they ran him and ran him and ran him. They ran him almost to death. He survived though. He always did. Shortly after, he was stationed in Germany where my mother and I joined him. We were a family of three children living in very adult circumstances.
After my father was discharged from the service, we lived in a small tattered house owned by my grandmother along a not-so-kind street. It was a place one might call “the other side of the tracks”. I don’t want to imply that it was a mean or dangerous like the Bronx or South Central, just a bit unkind. You know, more like lacking manicured lawns, gas lamps and programmed sprinkler systems. This was the time of motocross, late-night jam sessions, friends and wild parties – really wild parties. I think Mom would describe it as a time when there weren’t two pennies to rub together and Dad would recall it as the time when a full set of drums occupied our living room. I would take naps in the base drum with one, two or twelve stray kittens that I found along the way. The three of us were young, poor and figuring it all out together. They were young times, they were tough times, but I was convinced that I was the queen of our shabby kingdom. Thanks to my parents who never let me know I was poor and partly because I may have been a bit delusional.
Circumstances as they were in those times, we lived mostly on love.
As you know, my father passed away suddenly on Monday. Since that moment, I have been walking around in a fog, mostly disassociated from my body. Do you remember how old vinyl albums would skip when the needle hit a nasty scratch? Well, it seems a lot like that since Monday. Like I am living in that skip. Over and over, like I am stuck in something like a melancholy fold in time. But I suppose that is just part of it and eventually I will move on to the rest of the songs on this album.
As I stand before you today in my skip, it is important that I share my memories. So that we might celebrate something about my father that perhaps you already knew or maybe share something about him that you might not have known. His death was abrupt and we lacked the awareness to settle our poignant truths – something so often part of the journey when a loved one has a long illness. There was simply never the time. When I sat down to put pen to paper, there were so many things, so many memories all with seemingly the same importance. Then, I went through text messages between my father and I over the last six months and the answer jumped out at me, like he was screaming it from beyond.
I just called to tell you I loved you.
(January 29, 2013)
Have I told you lately that I love you?
(March 15, 2013)
Faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.
(March 17, 2013)
Have I told you lately that I love you?
(June 24, 2013)
I love you.
(July 31, 2013)
Six months worth of words that reminded me that my father never shied from this word. I heard it from his mouth almost every time I spoke to or saw him. He wasn’t afraid to tell us how he felt. Some might say that when you say a word too often it loses its impact, perhaps becoming only a hollow expression to those who hear it. Actually, I believe that my father’s emotions ran deeper than most and that these expressions were only the slightest, most visible tip of the great depths of his emotion. It was deep, but it wasn’t always easy.
I suppose it never is.
I thought about the love he had for his mother and father. As the youngest of four, they spoiled him rotten. As they grew older, he was always there to care for the garden when they were too weak to do so and finally as he sat by their side during their final last days.
I thought about the love he had for his brothers and sisters. He always told them how much he loved them – they never questioned it. But he also showed them by building a pump house or mowing the grass. They knew and they know now.
I thought about the love he had for my mother. She will say that even though their marriage ended after 30 years, they never stopped loving one another. Circumstances being as they were, this she knows and will forever know.
I thought about the love he had for my siblings. We are all as different as the day is long and each one of us has our own story of my father. As it should be I suppose. But one thing we share is that we live who we are – out loud – due in part to his love.
I thought about the love he had for my children. After my father passed, my son told me that even though he may not have been there for school plays and birthday parties, he knew Grandpa loved him.
And, finally I thought about the love he had for me. I attempted to reconcile our profound, often troubled relationship in preparation for standing before you today. I soon faced the fact that this is impossible and it will take years for me to fully understand this aspect of my life. But, what I was able to understand is that my father’s love had three forms.
My father’s love had grit. As a child of 8 or 9, he could be seen dragging the family Christmas tree home from the mill miles away and constructing a homemade tree stand by his own hand. Or, as a young father, he could be seen in the shed at the back of our property sanding my childhood bed with those damn scrolled bedposts until his fingers bled.
My father’s love was spontaneous. Like on days when I was 4 or 5 and he picked me up unannounced at my preschool for a motorcycle ride (of course with no helmet) through the East Texas piney woods on a not-so-average-afternoon kind of afternoon. Or, on my wedding day when he attempted to bust me out the door right before I walked down the aisle. Sorry babe, but it’s true.
Finally, my father’s love was misunderstood. Whereas everyone loved him, I dare say no one fully understood him. I believe he had an infinite capacity for love and felt deeper than most, but he also had a thirst for solitude and often lived deep in the well of depression. It often felt like he would push us away so he could be alone inside his own head. He also seemed to sometimes speak in rhymes and riddles. It was like a language I couldn’t understand no matter how hard I tried. I have thought long and hard about this aspect of his love and have some to one conclusion. That is that my father was a poet and his muse was the natural world. Looking back now, it doesn’t really matter for I know who he was and how this aspect of him is also, in many ways, an aspect of myself.
Anyway, it’s all very complicated…
Through it all, I have learned much from my father. Grit, survival, spontaneity, how to live life on my own terms. I have also learned that sometimes love can be overwhelming. Sometimes love can hurt. Sometimes the language of love is felt, not spoken. Sometimes you have to walk away. Sometimes love can even be dangerous. Ultimately, he taught me about the complexity of love. To me, there is something poetic about knowing what I know because of him.
My father and I had a meaningful connection, but we also had our differences. Oh man, did we have our differences. He raised me to be headstrong, which he both scorned and celebrated. As our family of children grew, my siblings were born and life changed, things got infinitely more complex – as it always does. Many of you may know the tremendous battles my father fought with addiction. This addiction drove a wedge between us and over the years, the distance grew and grew. In the six months leading up to his sudden death, our relationship became the most difficult it had ever been, but also the most real. We spoke about truths and we tried our best to heal. Although this process was cut short, I never for a moment doubted his love for me. And I never will.
Toward the end, my father looked to the Bible in his search for truth and understanding. One of our recent discussions reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
I am Bones and as I stand before you today in the skip, I can tell you, without a doubt, that LOVE was my father’s supreme value. Deeper than most, often complex, sometimes misunderstood and always spontaneous, this is what I will remember most. This is also what I hope you remember most too.
In response to a post published by my brother, Tyler Curry, entitled “Reluctant Social Commentary of a Newly HIV-Positive 20-Something”
I have long since traded my urban Sunday brunches filled with mimosas and salacious bedtime stories for Saturday morning soccer games, chilled juice boxes and fairy tales. Although a self-described idiot when it comes to the intricacies of T-cell counts, I do seem to remember a fragment or two. There are, however, a few things I know for sure. Life changes. Things evolve. We evolve. At least I hope so.
We are two siblings living as well-cast bookends in a set of three. You are the baby brother of two headstrong sisters and despite our many similarities and overlapping social circles, there are almost 12 years between us. Separated by a generation, I play one of your three mothers in the theater of the Bible Belt. Which we both know has made for both hilarious tragedy and hurtful comedy.
“I am gay.”
I was a twenty-something, married woman when you shed that first mask and began living your truth. You had courage in the face of a privileged few who cast harsh judgment under the protection of a vengeful God. You had courage as they turned their backs with silent whispers of disapproval. I bore witness to this noxious comedy with its twang-y players, flatbed pickups and cicada song soundtrack. One that left a lasting scar upon your heart.
You have always been bold, never one to wear a mask, at least not for too long and not very well. Often infuriating to those who of us who know you best, your boldness is also a thing of great beauty.
As we sat across the table at that all-organic, locally grown place eating excruciatingly few carbohydrates and drinking iced tea, I had that harried, mother of two, can’t-get-it-all-done look on my face and you were wearing an uncharacteristically small amount of self-tanner. “How is your day?” I asked. “Good,” you said, “but there is something I need to tell you.” You continued, “But I don’t want you to be worried.” Gulp. I nodded sheepishly in affirmation. Then you said them. Those three capital letters and mathematical symbol strung together in such horrific order.
“I am HIV+.”
For a moment, my mind went blank. Then memories came rushing back, like someone had turned on the hydrant of my past. You said, “But I am going to be ok and I am not ready to tell anyone else. Not yet.” I nodded again, accepting this burden of silence. I asked all of the obligatory questions. You were using medical terms I didn’t really understand and trying to reassure me that things were different now. You said, “Just know, this isn’t a death sentence anymore.” You kept talking with that perfect set of white teeth. Something about detectable levels and viral loads and that I should not walk away with fear in my heart. I tried to listen, I saw your lips moving, but the waters were raging inside my head and that hydrant of the past was on full blast.
As you spoke your sugary-sweet words of optimism, you seemed to forget that I am of a different generation. I have seen what happens at the end of the line when those three despicable capital letters and mathematical symbol get involved. I was scared. Scared at the most remote possibility of losing my often artificially tanned, always perfectly-coiffed and pectorally superior opposite bookend. I heard the words intended to soothe my mind and heart. But in that moment, I fell from that bench seat in that well-lit restaurant into a deep, dark well of shock and dated memories. I didn’t show it, but as I got up and walked out the door, I was still down there tangled in despair. All I could think was that this wasn’t how your twenties were supposed to end. And, this wasn’t how your thirties were supposed to begin. Your peregrine words of reassurance kept playing in my head, but “undetectable” and “high T-cell count” simply had no current meaning to me. So, I sat down and got comfortable in the silence of my pitch-dark place. Alone, scared and really pissed off.
Time has a way of changing the way you see things. Life happens and all its bumps and bruises leave their mark on your insides. So, just as I no longer live in your world of Sunday brunches, you were much too young to see parts of mine. You wrote about the scary, outdated images that makeup the horror stories of older gay men. You state that these are images that the gay community is lucky to forget. Well, my dear brother, I’ve lived those images and I haven’t forgotten.
Tyler was the one we lost slowly. Wasting away over years, his youthful face was sunken for much of the time I knew him. I once held his frail body in my arms when the pain was too much and after he had tried to take it away once and for all. That wasn’t his final day, but it came soon after. His family will always bear the scars of his pain and the irony that you share his same name does not go unnoticed.
John was the one we lost suddenly. As I laid there in labor with my first born, he laid hooked to life support at a nearby hospital. He went in for a mild cough and died of pneumonia only days later and within hours of the birth of my son. I sat in a pew holding my newborn and listened to the eulogies about a life taken too soon.
These are the memories that ran through my mind. Memories almost a decade old. Hardly the scale that others have seen and lived, but I can only share what I know. Mimosas notwithstanding, these are the things I remember. These weren’t horror stories. These were real – real fucking hard.
I share these stories so that you may understand my own personal process of rediscovery. We will deal with what you have been dealt. Pick up and get ‘er done, cause that’s one thing we learned from this twang-y place we call home. But I admit, I must be taught what it all means now. I realize that the conversation has changed and the stories are different now, but don’t be angry because I fear. I simply need to put the past behind me and learn how this all plays out today. I promise to dig myself out of this well so that I might fight alongside you – bookend to bookend.
You have taken off the mask once again. This time in a public forum so that your pain might help others too afraid to speak for themselves. Others who need a voice like yours. To say I am proud of your courage would be vast understatement. When I look back on those tragedies and comedies, they seem so insignificant now in the face of your “needle prick.” Those silent whispers are quickly becoming a faded memory as I watch you bring everything into razor-sharp focus and uncover your courage without limits. You are a bold example of someone who is learning to dance in the rain with a fresh wound and a trace of naiveté.
Things have changed. Things have evolved. We are evolving. Although my memories remain firmly intact, have faith that I will overcome this insufferable anger, crawl out of this dark place and dance alongside you in the pouring rain.
But for now let’s talk about that prick. Today, well today I think he is just such a dick.
This is one of my favorite photos of all time.
The year is 2009.
The place is Carmel, California.
The subject is my first born.
This child is all heart.
Rather than walk, he runs. Rather than talk, he screams. And as you see here, rather than jump, he leaps.
This picture, set in a place so rich in beauty, magnifies his joie de vivre. For that reason, it is one of my most treasured.
Leap high, my love. Leap high.