Above: Jacek Malczewski, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1923).
The Prodigal Son returned to the home of his father; but then his father’s house burned down.
As the helicopter lifted off the ground, dirt and red-hot embers blew into my eyes. A few seconds before, the pilot said that he had room for three passengers. My mom and two others were now above the rising flames, and I volunteered to stay behind with my dad. At that moment, I believed we would burn alive. I thought it ironic. Here I was with the man I spent most of my life trying to escape. As a boy, I thought he was mighty and indestructible. While he was Superman, I wasn’t even Jimmy Olson. I childishly assumed that he considered me almost worthless. When I was a boy, I loathed and feared him; and as an adult I assessed my father to be nothing more than a backward and ignorant oaf; now, there was nothing else I would rather do than die with him.
My destiny has always been linked with that of my father’s. As a child, I knew that my continued existence relied upon him. He was the provider of food, warmth, and shelter. Without him, I was defenseless. When I went away to college, I thought I began to establish my independence; although I was happy to accept the undeserved and ill-appreciated financial help from him whenever I needed it. In addition, my highly impractical choice of major, Art History, was my first decisive attempt to separate myself from everything my father valued – whereas he most highly respected the accomplishments gained through physical labor and pure grit, I was hanging out in coffee shops discussing the lewd photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. When I came-out as gay, I believed I indelibly separated myself from my dad for good.
Having grown-up in rural Sicily and then relocating to the once largely undiscovered Napa Valley, I thought my father’s morality and tastes to be annoying provincial. As a boy, I had to hide my Village People and Bee-Gees records in my room and only dared to play them when my dad was at work. The rest of the time, I remembered old Mario Lanza albums booming loudly from the enormous console stereo in the living room. When I moved to San Francisco, I became a fan of the over-the-top drag-queen theatricality and high-drama displayed at the opera. Years later, my mom told me that before he married and started endlessly working to provide for his family, my father would routinely set aside some of the pittance he was earning as an almost indentured servant in order to save-up for opera tickets. Sometimes, before heading to the theater, he stopped by Sts. Peter and Paul Church, in my favorite bohemian neighborhood of North Beach, where he lit a votive candle, and marveled at the hand-chiseled marble altars, the mosaics, and massive stained-glass windows. All the time I thought I knew my dad, I didn’t.
I never formally announced my homosexuality to my father, yet I knew he knew; he was not as unsophisticated or simple-minded as I imagined. There was a distinct lack of reaction from my father when I incrementally tried to shock everyone around me by dropping all the pretense and acting out in an overtly affected and outrageous manner. Before that, I intermittingly attempted to self-regulate and constrict almost every movement of the wrist and inflection of speech so as to not reveal what the boys at school surmised as my actual identity and worth. I was a fag! I didn’t really understand what that was, but I didn’t want my dad to find out because perhaps it would confirm what I considered his lack of respect for me. As far as I was concerned, my dad thought little of me therefore it wasn’t surprising that the other males, even in the form of other boys ay school, disregarded me as well.
As a result, I think I always subconsciously wanted my father’s attention; and the attention and approval of all men. In a weird way, being gay was possibly the quickest and surest way of accomplishing that. Simultaneously, I could hurt my father, for I knew that nothing would make him suffer as much as knowing that his son was sitting in a Castro Street bar being propositioned by men twice his age, and at the same time – I desperately wanted him to acknowledge me, on my own terms. To force my father through this humiliation into acknowledging what he did to me.
At first, for the most part, nothing worked. Instead, my dad seemed even more distant and dismissive and often viewed me as the sole responsibility of my mother. As is recurrently the case with a “gay” son, the mother just wants to love her poor misunderstood boy and the frustrated dad permanently checks-out of the entire situation. My dad was doing that and although he seemed resentfully compliant although not supportive, I wanted to illicit a more conclusive reaction from him. As a result, I then consecutively dyed my hair every color of the rainbow. He didn’t say anything, and by the time I went through the full spectrum, my scalp was so severely burned and damaged that I just shaved it all off. Next, I abandoned my outrageous fashion style, which completely contrasted with the masculine working-man’s attire of my father, and I adopted a more severe appearance and demeanor. I was angry. I had once been an awkward and shy boy who couldn’t utter a syllable all day at school. Almost overnight, I became loud, aggressive, and wholly unapologetic. I turned into a sick simulacrum of the image I stubbornly maintained was an accurate representation of my father.
But my dad remained quiet until perhaps I pushed a little too hard.
One weekend, I arrived home with a boyfriend and another friend. They looked like punk-rock refugees from late-1970s New York City. Both of them knew that my parents were uncomfortable with us being there, and to their credit, they tried to remain composed and respectful. I didn’t.
When I was preparing to leave, my friends already waiting by my car, my father stopped me as I was about to walk out the door. My dad wasn’t annoyed or mean, he spoke rather dispassionately and in a very matter-of-fact manner. He said: I was always welcome at home, but not with my friends. This wasn’t really the reaction I wanted. Evidently, my dad still cared about me. But I didn’t take it that way. I saw his unacceptance of my behavior as a complete repudiation of me. Like the Biblical “prodigal son,” I walked away. Because when I was faced with the choice between my father and the world – I chose the world. And it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. I walked away and I never looked back.
It was easy to say goodbye for I was the unhappy and restless son who hated home. I couldn’t wait to leave for the big city after I graduated from high school. The last of four children, I was inexplicably blonde in a family of brunettes. I always felt odd, as if I were one of the alien born children from “The Village of the Damned.” I was also notoriously thin-skinned. The slightest unkind remark could cause a severe wound that dug deep past the epidermis and into the repository of my memory. I never forgot a single slight or criticism. I tried so hard to be good and perfect therefore any comment which did not signal approval was viewed as a devastating reproach. It didn’t help that my own father seldom offered praise. And I was a child that needed encouragement and recognition. Maybe I needed it too much. But I was an awkward unsure boy. I couldn’t have been more unlike my dad; while he was self-assured and fearless, I was anxious and afraid of everything. Within the environs of manhood, where my dad conversed with ease, I felt permanently barred from entering. As a part of his avocation and for the subsistence of our family, my dad was almost always around machinery, tractors, and trucks. It was dangerous work, but my father seemed to thrive in that environment. My dad worked on these massive greasy pieces of equipment with an almost careless dexterity. I remembered that he frequently got injured, but it didn’t stop him. I longed to help, but I was too scared or felt in the way. When I did, I was pestering and constantly underfoot and my tired father needed to get the job done. So, I tended to stay out of the way. I was lonely. I only found solace in fantasy. I pictured myself as one of the pretty boyish sidekicks under the guidance of heroic male movie characters such as Will Scarlet in Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood” or Johnny Sheffield in the Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan” films. I wanted to go along with Cheyenne, Bronco, or the guys from “Rawhide” on one of their wagon-trains. My longing for companionship were all pre-sexual, and my daydreams consisted of me sitting around the campfire with a bunch of cowboys. I imagined that someday, a heroic and kind man would rescue me. When he never arrived, I decided to go in search of him.
As a boy growing up in the 1970s, through the popular-media I encountered a dual oppositional image of the “gay” man: one was highly camp and effeminate as epitomized by the alter ego of Jake Tripper from “Three’s Company,” and the other was a caricature of masculinity as portrayed by the “construction worker” from The Village People. The image of the masculine, accessible, and nonjudgmental male proved incredibly alluring especially when it contained the possibility of reconciliation with the original conception of manhood as presented by our distant manly fathers. For this reason, the astonishing power contained in a presumably frivolous song such as “YMCA” can never be underestimated; today, a new generation has been inspired to experiment with bisexuality or accept their homosexual birthright through Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. Speaking directly to the alienated and the isolated, I wholly believed that in San Francisco, within the gay bars, sex-clubs, and gym showers were men willing to accept me. The only blight upon my imagination was a major one: the reality of AIDS in the 1980s.
I probably “came-out” at the worst possible time – when the gay male population was being decimated by a deadly epidemic. I grew up hearing endless evening news reports about a mysterious disease that was only killing homosexual men and Haitian refugees. On local television, there were special programs and stories about AIDS and its effect upon the gay community, specifically in the Castro District of San Francisco. Suddenly, my long sought-after dream of a place to go where I could “hang out with all the boys,” turned into a nightmare of oozing sores, sunken faces, and dead young men. I didn’t want to die, but the fear of continued loneliness and isolation was far more frightening than the possibility of contracting a deadly disease. So, at age eighteen, I left home in search of happiness.
I walked into my first gay bar with the foolish expectation that I could easily stay safe and contaminant-free because I only wanted to make some friends – I wasn’t going to have sex (right away) with anyone. Those clear-headed thoughts and plans turned quickly irrelevant when I neared the threshold of the door and my nostrils were immediately filled with the combined onrushing scent of testosterone, sweat, and “Obsession” for Men by Calvin Klein. For what seemed like hours, I sat motionless on a stool. When the Marlboro-Man put his hand on my shoulder, I felt an immediate surge of kinetic energy in the same manner that the outstretched arm of God – transferred the shock of life to the beautiful, but unconscious corpse-like body of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I thought I had been reborn in the overwhelming warmth of another man’s touch. We danced for a while. The music and lights lifted me upward and I thought for a few seconds that I was somehow suspended upon his shoulders. Abruptly, a strange thought entered my head: What if my father saw me?
Later, we moved to a narrow dark hallway that led to the restrooms. There were a few copulating couples who semi-materialized and then disappeared in and out of the darkness. Some of the men had their pants down and the obscene sounds of slurping could be overheard above the still loud music emanating from the dancefloor. We kissed and I orgasmed with all of my clothes on. It was humiliating. He asked me to leave with him, and I hesitated. He didn’t care; actually, he was flattered. When we got to his place, he undressed me as if I were a kid that soiled his own pants. When I was an overly nervous little boy in kindergarten, I got sent home one day for accidentally messing myself. This man who wanted me to call him “daddy,” tenderly cleaned my body with a soft damp cloth and carried me to bed.
Yet, this blissful sensation of my face pressed against a man’s chest, hearing his heart beat into my eardrum, was oddly strange and familiar. A memory from childhood returned. I wanted to linger there and quickly recoil at the same time. But the rise and fall of androgyne in two men creates a situation in which no one wants to hang around after sex. The controversial gay journalist Randy Shilts, in his attempt to come to terms with the devastation of the AIDS crisis, almost inadvertently discovered the fundamental problem with the entire gay experiment:
The trouble was that, by definition, you had a gay male subculture in which there was nothing to moderate the utterly male values that were being adulated more than any macho heterosexual could imagine…Promiscuity was rampant because in an all-male subculture there was nobody to say “no” – no moderating role like that a woman plays in the heterosexual milieu.
Without the temperance of the female, the testosterone-fueled male quickly spirals out of control once they are left alone – sometimes resulting in the extreme barbarity of gang-rape; a horrendous crime which has no equivalent among women. The Castro became a homoerotic “Lord of the Flies” featuring adult actors playing the predatory boys. Unfortunately, it took me many years to realize that there were only two paths that I could take – surrender to the sexual impulse, driven by my inner need for human affection and a sense of validation, or sublimate my desires towards a relationship that outwardly conformed to the biological and emotional harmony found in heterosexual relationships. Only, there is no possible way to transform the physiological dimensions of a gay man in order to create a receptive partner in an all-male couple. When I finally abandoned the gay dating scene, I tried monogamy for a while. I imagined that somehow the trust and love between two men who sincerely cared for each other could transcend the problems I encountered earlier with gay sex. Perhaps my former lovers were too impatient, in too much of a hurry, or the room was too dark; I thought everything would be different. It wasn’t. Actually, being in love, made the possibility of sexual intercourse even more difficult because as our respect and heartfelt attachment for each other developed and grew, the realization that some forms of physical intimacy could cause harm to the other – was almost impossible to bear. It proved easier to have sex with someone you didn’t care about – or know their name. In addition, an incessant boredom entered our consciousness. The non-invasive choices for sexual expression, which did not require much forethought, preparation, or anal douching, only included reciprocal oral stimulation and mutual masturbation. Within a few months, we started seeing other people; not in order to form another emotionally-exclusive relationship, but to find a f**k-buddy.
One day, I moved out. We parted friends, but I thought that the whole enterprise to be an abysmal failure. From that moment onward, I dedicated every effort to the fulfillment of all my innermost desires. Where beforehand, I still maintained some apprehension about partaking in particular sexual acts with certain people, consciously I abandoned those safeguards believing I had gone about setting up artificial barriers which were preventing my full encounter with the object I so admired. But it always slipped just out of my grasp. I envisioned that the summation of this endless journey was right beyond the horizon.
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
What I couldn’t even begin to comprehend was that for years I traveled hopelessly in a circle. I was back in the same place where I once angrily turned away from home. The rainbow I followed did not end in a magical city, nor in San Francisco. Like the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” that continues to resonate with every new generation of homosexual men, at the center of the gay experiment is the bumbling wayward old trickster, not the all-power conjuror who could dispel every fear. It’s an elaborate lie. And like the annoyingly giddy dancing inhabitants of the Emerald City, an entire faux culture developed around it. And herein arises the tragedy of it all, that no malice or injury, or even forethought, was ever originally intended, but the fact remains that many died on their way down the yellow-brick-road – chasing after an illusion of freedom and happiness usually finding out far too late that: “There’s no place like home.”
I remembered a friend who died of AIDS in the early-1990s. When I knew him, he was mostly estranged from his parents; especially his father. At the funeral, they mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. I will never forget the look on his father’s face – complete and utter devastation. Afterwards, his grieving mother held onto an urn containing the ashes of my dead friend. His parents took it with them on the plane when they flew back to wherever they came from. Finally, he was home again.
I never realized that I lost my way; or that home was closer than ever. Even as death neared, I stubbornly held onto the hope that I hadn’t wasted so many years of my life; that young men who died horrible and painful deaths while still in their 20s hadn’t suffered in vain. I went in search of a final resolution one last time. This desperate journey took me to the edge of hell. Although I spent my life trying to escape the image of the authoritarian, dismissive, and judgmental male – as a definitive act of self-destruction, I kneeled down before a man who looked like Humongous from “The Road Warrior.” In the end, everything that I feared returned to plague me. During the savage beating I willingly accepted, I heard every criticism, disparaging remark, and homosexual slur from my beleaguered childhood and teenage years. It was a foretaste of death while I was still alive.
I collapsed on the side of the road, resolved to die alone and forgotten in the dust. Any intentional consideration of God was altogether nonexistent. I regarded my demise as merely the cessation of needless suffering. Only, the anxiety and terror that should have ended – got worse. Voices emanated from everywhere and nowhere in order to mock me; the devil is probably homophobic. I don’t know why, but I called out to Jesus Christ. A few days later, I awoke at the home of my parents. I was in my old room – surrounded by a few mementos and long discarded relics from the past. Almost immediately, I noticed that I soiled the sheets. There were dark red blotches of dried blood on the backside of my underwear which soaked all the way through to the white mattress-cover. I was humiliated, and to mitigate further embarrassment I improvised a sort of adult diaper by wrapping myself with a large terrycloth towel. I stayed within those four walls only occasionally venturing out to use the toilet. However, to reach the bathroom, I had to step onto a second-floor landing which was in full view of my parent’s kitchen. In particular, I didn’t want my dad to see me. Therefore, I primarily moved about the house when I knew he was away for the day or already asleep at the night. But during a few instances, I couldn’t wait and I crept out and noticed that my father was alone downstairs and sitting face down before a small framed lithograph of the Blessed Mother. I knew this picture. Since I was a kid, it haunted me. I learned afterwards that Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the proper title of the icon. Yet, as a little boy, I found her penetrating gaze both contemptuous and disapproving. The image, which reappeared on the wall of every Italian home, looked sort of like the olive-skinned grimacing face of my dad.
One evening, I quietly tiptoed down the steps in order to take a look at the picture. Illuminated by only a barely flickering votive candle, the face of Mary didn’t appear as I remembered. Her entire continence was one of concern and sadness not indignation and disparagement. She was the sorrowful Mother looking upon the lost sinner as she holds her beloved Child who will one day suffer for our arrogance, stubbornness, and pride. When I dared to look upon my father, I saw the same expression – where I once perceived only disappointment, I unexpectedly recognized compassion. I knew then that my father spent many years suffering on my behalf – praying for my safe return.
For the next few months I lived a life of near solitude, only leaving home for work or to visit a local church or the nearby monastery. Unbeknownst to my parents, I was also attending the biweekly Courage meetings. I can’t recall exactly why I chose not to tell them. Maybe I didn’t want them to worry about me because the meetings took place at the Cathedral in San Francisco – not far from my old neighborhood in the Castro. But I became increasingly lonely and I was so joyful with my newfound friends – that I wanted to share my happiness with my parents. Yet, as soon as I brought a few of them home, my father immediately misunderstood, and he began to wonder if I wasn’t returning to my former ways. I tried to explain, but my father remained fearful. I was hurt; disappointed that he didn’t trust me. As soon as possible, I moved away from home.
While I was gone, I unexpectedly became seriously ill. In my distress, my friends from Courage took care of me. Without their generosity and selfless charity, I might not have fully recovered. I contacted my father and mother when I was sick, and they invited me to return home; and they said: “Bring your friends.” Slowly, my father began to appreciate these good men and the camaraderie we shared. When I got back, my father once again revealed a great change in himself. His apprehension transformed into confidence. For the first time in my life, I believed that my father respected me.
Over the following years, I finally got to better know my dad. And, I think he got to know and understand me a little. Mostly through the stories as related by my aunt, my father’s eldest sister, and my father himself, I learned what it was like for the two of them growing up in a largely forgotten backwater Sicilian village during World War II. Whereas my father told a few rather idyllic tales of a scrappy farm boy who occasionally slept in the barn, endlessly rode horses, and with some of his friends – discovered and explored several nearby caves, my aunt recalled her childhood somewhat differently. But according to my dad’s colorful retelling, it sounded like an Italian version of “Tom Sawyer.”
I never asked my aunt about her life when she was a girl, let alone my father’s, nevertheless, intermittently she would say something about her own father and mother; less frequently, she gave a disconcerting account of her own childhood abuse – for example, being hit because she fell asleep at the sewing machine; apparently my grandmother made some extra money taking-in seamstress work. However, during the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, and particularly in a war-torn country, survival necessitated that even young children should have to work. From these early experiences, my father first gained his appreciation for accomplishment through manual labor. But I also found out that my father often suffered greatly as a child. When an adult, after he emigrated to the United States, my father was found to have a curious disease of the bone that is only found in those who were once seriously malnourished. As my father became increasingly comfortable talking with me, and I showed interest, he also turned out to be somewhat nostalgic like his sister; and a bit more honest than he was before. He said, sometimes he was left alone with the animals at a family-owned stable on a farm outside of town. At night, he was hungry and cold and had to snuggle up to the livestock for warmth. The treatment he received from his father sounded blatantly cruel. It also sounded as if he were singled-out by his father. I wasn’t really surprised to hear about this sort of maltreatment and neglect. I suspected as much. In a way, it strangely helped to make sense out of my own childhood – in terms of my father’s inability to have a meaningful connection with his youngest son. My father was also the last born in a family of four children; and like me, he had a stronger lifelong attachment with his two sisters, especially the eldest, than he did with his brother. There were other similarities between my father and I: growing-up, we both felt alienated from our dads; we were both innately exuberant and talkative as boys, but became introspective due to isolation. Lastly, our personalities bent significantly towards obstinacy and obsessive preoccupations. But whereas I completely abandoned the faith and became truly lost, my father always remained to a certain extent grounded in his deep-seated beliefs. Even when I presumed that my parents no longer practiced their religion very diligently, I frequently witnessed my dad’s steadfast commitment to Catholic devotions – above all, his adherence to the Rosary and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I thought all of this third-world peasant sentimentality extremely absurd; a sign that my father could never fully abandon the antiquated and dogmatic customs of his youth. In contrast, I was proud that I overcame the narrow-scope of my upbringing. In the acceptance and celebration of my sexual identity, the lingering fears and insecurities of the past supposedly vanished forever. They didn’t. Instead, all those same fears and insecurities defined my every action. Yet, I never realized it. I was determined, but I wasn’t strong and I utterly lacked guidance. It was inevitable that in due course I would fall flat on my face. When I did, the entirely fabricated world around me, that I foolishly placed all hope, collapsed into oblivion.
At this undeniably dark instant, I lifted my head and barely spotted a single point of light far off in the distance. I instinctively crawled towards that shining keyhole of possible salvation. Along the way, I gave up. Out of nowhere, an unbelievably comforting presence quickly surrounded me. I had no strength left. As a result, I surrendered. I didn’t resist when I was swiftly lifted up and carried home. For indeed that small bright dot, I unknowingly fixated upon, marked the end of my long torturous journey.
I never wanted to return to this place, but I had nowhere else to go. Like the father of the “prodigal son,” my parents took me back – and they didn’t ask questions. An apology nor an admittance of past wrong doing wasn’t necessary. Just as the dirt, grime, and slop which adhered to the skin of the “prodigal” made clear to anyone who looked upon him that his reckless pursuits ended in embarrassment and humiliation, so too did my own stinking bloody filth expose the folly of my confusion and pride. The penitent woman who anointed the feet of Jesus Christ with precious oils, asked and gained forgiveness from Our Lord through her tears; she didn’t say anything. So much that remained unspoken between my father and I, reached a resolution when I showed-up at their doorstep.
I spent almost the next two decades living in close proximity to my parents; during the last few years, I resided literally next-door. Because of his age, diminishing eyesight, and trouble hearing, my father started to depend upon me for things he would have done by himself just a few years before. At first, I enjoyed it when my father asked me to help him with small choirs and repairs around the house or the yard. After all, when I was child, I marveled at my father who was the master of every tool and could instantaneously pick out the correct socket from a box containing a myriad of sizes. But, more often than not, I thought I was a nervous unsure little boy all over again. Like when I was younger, my father decidedly had a tendency to look intently upon anyone else’s work; after all, he could do it better – and he rightly could. Only, to a boy that needed repeated assurances, this attitude proved unbearably demoralizing. It oddly hurt as an adult and the old uncertainties I should have outgrown remained ever-present. One day, that changed.
It was an odd weekend. For no reason, a large water-main ruptured right outside my parent’s house; on their extensive property, a myriad of irrigation pipelines crisscrossed the largely uneven terrain with my father as the sole repository of their exact location and depth beneath the ground. When the pipe burst, my father had to shut off the water-supply at the well. Being it was late in the evening, on a Saturday night, none of the various handymen or vineyard workers that he knew could get there to fix it. I volunteered. My father looked at me half-bemused and half-incredulous.
In his toolshed, various white plastic buckets contained numerous small leftover pieces of pipe from other repair jobs and tin-cans containing noxious smelling glues. He meticulously went through each in order to find the correct valve and fitting needed to replace the older one that failed. When he found them, my father proceeded to hurriedly give extremely vague directions. I didn’t know where to start. Again, I felt like that same boy who couldn’t tell the difference between a Phillips and a flat-head screwdriver. Sensing my utter confusion and inaction, my unsteady octogenarian father boldly tried to push me out of the way and take charge of the situation. With the wet ground covered in slippery mud, he was about to totally lose his balance until I grabbed ahold of his arm. I wanted to scold him for being impatient and pushy, but I felt sorry for him. The once insurmountable force from my childhood was now an old man. I got a chair, so he could sit down, and from that vantage point, he was able to more easily assess the entire project.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. (1 Cor. 13:11)
I got quickly vexed when I was a thoughtful and hurt boy. Well into my forties, no one except my occasionally gruff and grumpy father could make me feel so small. I hadn’t grown up. But in my father’s significantly shrunken physical state, it was easier to visualize him as the scared and hungry boy hiding under a pile of straw in a drafty barn. We’ve all been hurt. Even this man who I thought could move the world. Right now, he couldn’t move a broken pipe.
As my father watched and barked out orders, I slowly tried to remove the damaged valve. I was struggling, but trying to stay calm in order to get the task done. I’m sure he noticed and he quieted down. After over forty years, I learned that self-confidence, competency, and remaining composed impressed my father. But when you are a withdrawn kid, lacking in all manly attributes, you end up chasing after anyone you perceive as being the dispenser of such lost arts. I will never forget the endlessly depressing selection of patron requested songs at the local sing-a-long gay piano bar that I sometimes frequented on a lonely night: Wayne Newton’s “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast;” the melancholy disco dirge “Don’t Leave Me This Way;” and a lugubrious version of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” In reality, the only man I ever wanted approval from – was my father.
Rather proud of myself, I successfully attached, glued, and joined together the new valve and various pipes. But with the plumber’s tape, I was hopelessly clumsy. After I finished, my dad looked nonchalant and mildly astonished at the same time. I was eager to see if the repairs held, or if the whole thing would come apart once the water got turned back on. Only, we had to wait a few hours for everything to dry.
When the moment of truth arrived, I almost believed that my status as a legitimate man, in the eyes of my father, and the world, rested on the success or failure of my amateur plumbing skills. When I finally turned on the water-main, though my father warned me about straightaway reopening to full pressure, the repair held together very well and the water flowed through and out a nearby garden-hose, but there was a sure and steady drip emanating from somewhere at the point where the valve and the threaded pipe-sleeve were attached. I felt like a total disappointment; it wasn’t perfect.
I agonized and fretted and then scrutinized the situation. I passed my finger underneath the pipe and it was leaking. I thought back to when I threaded the pipe and the valve together – trying my best to use the tape that my father handed me, but I was perhaps a little overly anxious and rushed. The seal wasn’t evidently as strong as it could have been. Immediately, I thought: I failed. I wanted it to be flawless. I wanted to conclusively show my dad that I could do something; that I could do something right. Only, my father was unconcerned. He said that once the water pressure returned to normal – the leak would seal itself and stop. I was determined to turn the water off again, take the whole thing apart, and start all over. My dad protested that idea. And I decided not to. I had done the best I could.
It sounds ridiculous, but the leaky pipe I fixed while a middle-aged man served as a rather apt metaphor for the majority of my life until that point. As much as I tried, I could never be the exact person I wanted to be; I spent years trying to repair what was wrong with me. At first, I thought the acceptance of my homosexuality, having romantic relationships with men, and being “gay” permanently relegated everything that occurred before to an oppressive era of intolerance and persecution. The long sought-after initiation into happiness became an attainable possibility through a process of self-discovery and self-recognition that reaches a crescendo in “coming-out.” The isolated occasion of overlap between my former existence and what I perceived as my true-self occurred whenever a troublesome individual from the past reemerged to contradict those assumptions. That was usually my father. Foremost, he never accepted what I became. In addition, when I was home, he invariably called me by my Italian name – Giuseppe. My father intended this as a term of endearment, but I didn’t take it that way; I thought he was belittling me. He wasn’t. By reminding me of my boyhood name, he wouldn’t let me forget what I wanted to believe never happened. I wanted to bury that silly and insecure boy who got teased at school; I was embarrassed by him, but my dad loved that hopeless kid.
On the night of the fire, my father called out my old name – and reached out his hand to hold mine. I thought, in our mutual deaths, I have found peace at last.
Before the fires even began to burn, that day was a difficult one. The week prior, my father fell and broke his arm. What should have been a rather minor accident became incredibly concerning when he suddenly couldn’t walk. In addition, he was unusually confused and disconcerted. Something was wrong.
In order to aid in his recovery, my mother rented a hospital bed and a special lift-chair; she also hired around-the-clock home healthcare assistants. For the most part, my father was unintentionally cantankerous and uncooperative. Taking care of him proved an almost impossible task. Therefore, on the fateful night of the fire, my dad couldn’t relax in order to fall asleep, so I was at my parent’s house trying to help move him into a wheelchair. Besides my dad’s agitation and his unwillingness to stay in bed, there was something incredibly restless about the hours leading up to the fire. The winds were incessant. At over a thousand feet in elevation, we were familiar with heavy gusts often accompanied by rainstorms during the winter, but these sometimes-violent blasts of hot dry air in the summer and fall made everyone uneasy. Consequently, when the lights in my parent’s house began to continuously flicker on and off, I thought: “Please God…We need the electricity in order to move my father in and out of bed.” Suddenly, I noticed a dull red glow emanating from the large sliding doors at the other end of the house. I walked over to them and looked outside. At the edge of our property, just over the fence on a neighboring piece of land, flames engulfed numerous eucalyptus trees. As I stood there motionless for a few brief seconds, the glowing embers jumped from one tree to another. Propelled by howling wind, the fire moved from the north to the south – away from us. At first, I wasn’t terribly worried, but when I informed my mother – she panicked. I went to every window and scanned the entire horizon; I only saw darkness. I thought this was an isolated incident. I remembered, a few months before, a similar blaze. Not far away, the conflagration ignited, began to spread, and was efficiently and swiftly extinguished by firefighters and large airplanes dropping fire retardant. But that occurred during the day – and with lighter winds. What none of us knew, there were flames moving up the mountain on every side.
I dialed 911 and asked for an ambulance to transport my father; the operator said that I needed to call the ambulance company directly. As the fire raged outside the window, with my cell phone still working, I talked to the dispatcher and she said the ambulance would be there in about twenty minutes; it never arrived. In the meantime, my mother told the home healthcare nurse to leave while she could. About 10 minutes later, two sheriff officers barged through the door and said all of us had to leave – “Now!” I said my father was in a wheelchair and we were waiting for the ambulance. One of them said – “We will carry him out.” My mother grabbed a few things, and I pushed my dad in the wheelchair out into the raging wind. The two officers picked him up and unceremoniously placed his stout but near lifeless body into the cargo area of my parent’s SUV. In the commotion, he got shoved onto the side with his broken arm. My mother ran out from the house and put a blanket over my dad. We jumped into the car, and drove away. I saw that the garage door was open; I said: “Shouldn’t we shut it?”
As we drove down the road, there was no sign of any other fires. I thought, after a few hours, the fire would be put out, and we could all go back home. In about two miles, I stopped; a line of cars blocked the way. What happened?
At first, I noticed a few people standing outside their vehicles and talking with each other. Not far ahead, I could also see a lone fire-truck near the head of the backup. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and approached a concerned-looking man. He said another fire blocked our only route out – a burning tree fell onto the road and a separate group of firefighters were trying to clear the way. I ran down the hill and spoke with one of the firefighters; according to him: communication was down between them and the other crew. I looked around. We were trapped in a section of the road that descended through a narrow ravine thick with foliage and trees. I instantaneously remembered when I lived in Berkeley during the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm and hearing stories about victims getting caught in traffic jams on narrow windy streets while trying to escape death; eventually many of them abandoned their cars and ran towards safety. My dad couldn’t walk, let alone run. I remarked to the same firefighter: “This isn’t a good place for all of us to be parked…is it?” He said: “No.” I continued: “There is a large clearing just up the road, shouldn’t we go there?” He replied: “If you don’t feel safe, you should go there.”
Running back to the car, a few of my fellow evacuees asked me what was going one, I told them I was driving back up to the clearing. One longtime resident thought we should drive further up the road towards a large former cattle ranch with a massive treeless field. A few of us turned our cars around and headed towards the nearby glen.
Next to a stucco house that survived completely intact the last devastating fire in 1981, there was a sprawling meadow which the successive owners of the property diligently mowed in order to keep the grass and weeds cut close to the ground. A few other cars were already there – a lone man sprayed the surrounding dust and dirt with water.
Although cell-phone service was now nonexistent, even on a good day you couldn’t get any reception in this area, all of a sudden, I got a call from one of my sisters. At a checkpoint where firefighters blocked the road at the bottom of the mountain, she waited with her husband. They watched as the fire, unseen to us, burned up the side of the hill – directly towards our location. She said: “A line of cars just got through. What happened to us?” I didn’t know the firefighters cleared the road. I jumped back in the car and drove away. Several others who also sought safety at the clearing – did the same thing. The same gulley in which the cars were earlier stopped because of the downed-tree, now fire raged on each side of the road. Then, a firetruck raced towards us, going in the opposite direction. A firefighter yelled out the window: “Stop! Turn around!”
Surrounded by flames, I tried to turn the car around. Along with my fellow trapped stragglers, we returned to the open meadow. When we got there, I pulled into the driveway and there was a semi-circle of cars with headlights turned-on and aimed at a central focal point. On the road leading back up the mountain, towards my house, were about two or three firetrucks. Their flashing and strobing lights, which ordinarily signal danger and urgency, conveyed a feeling of calm and security. Suddenly, out of the pitch-black sky, a CHP (California Highway Patrol) helicopter dropped from the vastness overhead and landed in the middle of the dimly illuminated field. I drove onto the clearing and parked next to the other cars and trucks; I thought: They can airlift my father and my mother out of here.
I got out of the car and talked with one of the firefighters. They wanted to see my dad. As the helicopter lifted off the ground right behind me, something stinging and hot tore into my eye. I opened the tailgate and a young firefighter crawled into the cargo area next to my dad. He asked me a lot of questions about his health. The helicopter returned and could take three more people – I said: “Take my parents.” The firefighter said: “No.” First, they would need to secure my father to some sort of board for transportation. The firefighter said: “You and your mother are next.” There was another man nearby; he had a dog with him. Although he pleaded, they said: “They could not take the dog.” Later, I turned towards the man’s truck and saw the frightened animal sitting inside the cab as it sat mesmerized with the glow of the encroaching flames reflected in the windshield. I said: “I’m not going. I’ll stay with my dad.” Instead, they took another passenger.
Afterwards, the firefighters successfully managed to strap my dad to the transfer board. We waited. Only the young firefighter stayed behind and monitored his condition. His tender compassion and care for my dad belied his appearance: robust and heroic wearing a massive helmet, voluminous jacket, and boots that looked like they belonged to an astronaut from one of the Apollo moon landings. The wind blew stronger, and I watched as the fire from the north got ever closer. We were trapped. I asked one of the firefighters: “Are wo going to die here?” He reassured me: “No!” He continued: “If we have to make a final stand right here – we will do it.” Their remarkable ability to remain calm and confident in the midst of uncertainty gave me hope, in spite of that I still suspected that death lurked ever closer. I had been here before. But this time, I knew something changed.
Nearly twenty years earlier, I was the one lying motionless and near death; not in the back of an SUV during a raging inferno, but in a chilly and lonely corner of a hospital emergency-room. Up until that point, I frequently subsisted merely as an actor in a gay melodrama chronicling a series of near escapes from burning and collapsing buildings. In the first scene, it’s as if I continually sit in front of a movie screen mesmerized by the pictures flashing in front of me. When I initially hear the fire alarm, I immediately get up and run out through the swinging front lobby doors, through the smoke, and into the fresh night air. Later, it’s incredibly difficult to turn away. I smell something burning, I am afraid, and I rush towards the nearest EXIT sign. After several such incidents, nothing captures my attention, I am only compelled by the fantasy I can’t stop watching. It becomes real. The theater is engulfed in flames and the roof collapses on top of me. That’s the only way I could explain why I refused to leave after witnessing the needless deaths of so many men. We thought: “It gets better.” The plotline will eventually turnaround and we can go home content after the happy ending.
The dream that came through a million years
That lived through all the tears
It came Xanadu
A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star
An everlasting world and you’re here with me, eternally…
During most of the years I wasted as a gay man, the fabled Castro Theater, situated at the center of the Castro District, served as my high-holy place where I escaped to pray and beg the glittering gods of Hollywood for help: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Faye Dunaway. After a friend died of AIDS, a few months later, I made the yearly pilgrimage to yet another screening of the Olivia Newton-John film “Xanadu.” Like Oz, the fabled land of Xanadu, “a place where nobody dared to go,” existed only as artifice. At the beginning of the movie – the haunting soundtrack from ELO reaches an early premature climax with the song “I’m Alive.” One of several mythological sibyls depicted in a Los Angeles street-side mural, the angelic looking Newton-John magically comes to life and dances joyfully while surrounded by a strange neon glow. My friend adored this part. Sitting there and staring at the screen after his death, I bent violently forward, with my head between my legs, and vomited onto the floor. I wasn’t happy to be alive. I left the Theater and decided to self-destruct.
Over the next several years, I tried to kill myself without ever putting a gun to my head, swallowing a bottle of pills, or pressing a razor to my wrists; I died a little bit every time I disappeared into a toilet stall with a stranger, picked up a nameless man in a bar, or accepted an invitation for drinks at the apartment of a semi-respectable swinging gay couple. When I did meet someone I cared about, we coupled up more out of fear than anything else. We were both adrift and we knew it. He had lost a lover to AIDS and I needed someone who could take care of me. Older than me by over a decade, I thought I found a substitute father. And, for a while, he treated me like a son in need of a little discipline. Yet, I grew to love him. And with this love developed an awareness of mutual responsibility. How could sex with someone I cared about still cause me to become (even slightly) physically injured? I tried everything and nothing worked. So, I walked away and returned to painful sex with those I didn’t know or care about. Yet, in those moments of bodily distress, I experienced a strange sensation I can only compare to the male initiation rituals present in some tribal cultures; through a type of false manly endurance, I was now a man. Afterwards, my body served as a constant reminder of the torment I carried; misery was my only faithful companion. I knew that death was the remaining way out.
I was angry. Angry at God for making me this way; angry at my father; angry at the world. Soon there was no one left to blame – except myself. I tried to run away from my dad, but I couldn’t run away from my past and I couldn’t run away from me. So, I went home. And, like the father of the “prodigal son,” my dad, in his old age, ceased much of his worldly endeavors and spent the majority of his time in prayer – and waiting for me. The home I earlier felt trapped in, suddenly offered a chance at freedom from the imprisonment of sin. The man who I long regarded as the source of all my frustration and sadness, became the key to salvation.
After my mother evacuated on what unbeknownst to us, would be the last helicopter flight out, I was alone for quite a while with my father and the lone firefighter who stayed with him. As I stood motionless at the back of the vehicle, I looked northward and watched the fires burn ever closer to our location. Over the sound of the onrushing wind, I heard my father call out again: “Giuseppe…Giuseppe.” I asked him – “What’s the matter?” He didn’t respond, but reached out to hold my hand. I believe he was trying to comfort me. I always knew my destiny was forever linked with my father. I resolved to die here with him.
As the fire got worse, being trapped with the surrounding hillsides ablaze, I wondered if this is what the newly damned see during their first few minutes in hell. But unlike my earlier encounter with death, I wasn’t afraid. Yet, suddenly, the fire chief who I guessed to be in charge instructed all of us to drive down the mountain. Even though I already became comfortable with the possibility of dying with my father, I was relieved and wanted us to live. After we shared this encounter with death, I knew we would be closer. I wanted to know what that was like. I turned to the firefighter in the cargo area with my dad: “Are you going with us?” He said: They couldn’t spare him. He jumped out. A couple of minutes later, he returned and said: “I’m going with you.” I hurried to the driver’s seat and he went back to watching over my dad. A truck headed out first and I followed.
When I rounded a curve in the road, and descended into the same ravine where the initial group of evacuees had to stop and wait for the road to be cleared, the fire raged on both sides of the vehicle. I could feel an intense heat on my face that somehow radiated through the windshield. I said to the firefighter: “Should would be driving through this?” He said: “Keep going.” Further down the road, the fire got worse as structures everywhere burned out of control. I again questioned what I surmised as a dangerous and foolhardy attempt to escape. He repeated: “Don’t stop…keep going.” His calm reassurance was the only thing that prevented me from trying to turn the car around. If I had, I wouldn’t be alive. During the entire time, my dad was silent though he must have been in great pain. For a moment, I thought I heard him praying…for us. Once before, many years ago, my dad prayed his frightened son out from the clutches of hell; he was doing it again. And, no one knew. I barely realized it.
We reached the bottom of the mountain and an ambulance waited. Before I could utter a word, the paramedics got him out of the car and into the ambulance. He was gone. My dad lived for two more months, but he never recovered. I never had the chance I hoped for. I never really thanked him – for saving my life twice.
Thank you, dad.