When my father’s spreading cancer set a very short timer on how long he had to live, I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. Though I had left my childhood stomping ground of Prince Edward Island in my 20s, as so many LGBT people from rural and small-town backgrounds do, my relationship with my father had grown stronger and mutually more supportive as I grew older. The guy’s guy who had grown frustrated trying to win his only son over to his passion in cars, boats and outdoor endeavours had gradually developed an interest in talking about my relationships and gay life in general. So last year I shuffled my workload to spend a couple of months at his side, including his five last, painful weeks in the palliative care unit of a small healthcare centre in the heart of potato-growing country.
In doing this, I certainly wasn’t exceptional. In fact, studies have found that LGBT people are more likely than their straight counterparts to step in as caregivers when a family member is ailing. In a 2004 survey of older LGBT New Yorkers, one-third reported that family expected more of them because they were LGBT, and perceived them to have fewer explicit family responsibilities, “even though this assumption was often false.” At a gut level, at least, our behaviour seems to vindicated the scientific theory, which I’ve always thought was half-baked, that the evolutionary purpose of homosexuality was providing childless caregivers-at-large to advance the family genes, if not their own.
In practice, though, LGBT people face particular strains when dealing with the decline and death of a parent at a time when there’s no shortage of trauma. Conflict caused by the declaration or concealment of sexual orientation haunts many relationships to the parent’s last dying breath and, if no sort of closure or healing is achieved, long beyond that. Even where the familial bond is strong, LGBT people often have to step outside their comfort zone to return to places they had long ago disconnected with.
Isolated from my chosen family, I faced a pageant of relatives and family friends, all very likeable and supportive Atlantic Canadian people, who reveal in their faces that they do not recognize the kid they watched growing up in the somewhat more urbane adult standing by the hospital bed. I often felt like a mystery man, my relationships, professional achievements and personal interests all hidden offstage. On one hand, to not be asked about an absent wife is a friendly shorthand for, “Your dad told us you were gay and we are fine with that.” But to be not asked about anything else made me wonder if people thought that talk of life in the big city would assuredly be too gaily ripe a topic for polite conversation. “It’s hard to fill someone in on decades of your life, particularly at a time like that,” says John Ballew, a counsellor based in Atlanta, Georgia. “Sometimes families have come up with stories about gay or lesbian members who live solitary lives. My nieces and nephews were surprised to find that Uncle John had a pretty good circle of friends. Bringing those two worlds together is not always easy and especially not when someone is dying.”
After Katherine Arnup gave the eulogy at her father’s funeral in Toronto’s Lawrence Park, where she had grown up, people came up to her to ask if she used to be Katherine Arnup. “I was like, ‘I still am.’ I did feel a little trapped in time,” says Arnup. The author of I don’t have time for this! and Death, Dying and Canadian Families, Arnup’s extended family had averted their eyes when she became pregnant as a single women back in the 1980s. But having kids helped close the gap between her and her family, “because kids are sweet and then they grow up and they’re great.” Though she never came out to her parents in a direct way, she understood that the way her father shared his opinions with her was an acknowledgement and acceptance.
Leslie, a Toronto friend of mine whose father died suddenly from a heart attack last year, actually appreciated his extended family not asking him about his relationship status during the funeral proceedings in rural Nova Scotia. Explaining that he had just started to date someone would have piled awkwardness on top of the pain and shock of the loss. His father hadn’t asked much about the details of his personal life, but had always been concerned with Leslie’s happiness—that good will was more important than anything. After Leslie’s father passed, an uncle who had always been standoffish to him stepped up as Leslie’s lifeline, filling him on what’s happening with his grieving mother. Hard times can bring out the best in people, if you let them show it. “Even if you have evidence that suggests you’re going to have a rough time with relatives, to the degree that it’s possible, go in with an open heart,” says Arnup.
For those who struggle with outstanding issues with their dying parent, Ballew says they may have to come to terms with the fact that the time has passed to resolve them. Often the gravity of the situation makes past grievances seem petty. Except in cases of abuse, altruism can wash away much of the darkness of the past.
“When anyone is dying, particularly a parent, it’s like we enter a sacred time that’s outside of our ordinary flow of experience,” says Ballew. “Sometimes we have the opportunity to step into our best selves, maybe to grow or to discover some resources about ourselves that perhaps we weren’t in touch with.”
Though I discovered how kind my extended family could be, the feeling of isolation from my friends and acquaintances did wear me down. Connecting with the local LGBT community was one strategy Ballew suggested as a way to avoid feeling like such an outsider. To me, being the sad, anxious guy from away didn’t seem like the best foundation for making new friends. But when Ballew’s father passed away, he just had to visit a local gay establishment.
“I was talking with this guy I didn’t know who asked why I was there. I told him that my father had just died earlier that day. Not exactly a great pickup line,” says Ballew. “But he had lost his father two months earlier. We ended up having a long talk that evening that was really quite lovely. It was about being real, not just about the kind of happy talk we sometimes engage in with strangers.”
The loss of my dad will make a serious mark on me. But the time we spent together near the end was invaluable, whatever stresses it brought. Perhaps the stresses were invaluable too.