I don’t have any pictures of my father. I just realized that now, two days after he died sitting on a toilet in frigid fucking Edmonton, 2700 km from home. He was visiting my brother. He was supposed to be back by December 21st, we were going to go out for dinner before Christmas. But the stress of that journey kicked his state variable off whatever high, unstable equilibrium it had been teetering at these past months: sent it sliding down to some new low that just proved unsustainable. He fell ill the day after wheels-down, and never recovered.
He was 94. Nobody could claim he didn’t have a long life.
Nobody could claim he had a happy one, either.
He was a minister way back before I was born, but by the time I came onto the scene he’d already founded the Baptist Leadership Training School in Calgary and was serving as its first principal. He held that post for 22 years; then we moved east so he could become the General Secretary of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec. He held that position until he retired. Not your average Baptist preacher, my dad. A church leader. A scholar.
He was also gay, although he refused to use the word because “it’s brought me no joy at all”. He preferred the term “nonpracticing homosexual”. He never acted on it, you see. He spent his whole life hiding it. He only came out to Jon and I a few years ago, and even then it was only in extremis: pulled from the clutches of an abusive wife whose dementia had demolished any thin façade of Christian charity, rescued too late to escape the welts and bruises and near-starvation she’d inflicted, still he was making excuses for her behavior. Your mother’s had a hard time of it, he told us. I haven’t been a proper husband. See what I am.
It’s my fault.
He did come out to Fanshun, the day after I was born in fact. Offered her a divorce. Think about that: a man of the cloth, a star in the Baptist firmament in the fifties-era bible belt of the Canadian prairies. Divorcing his wife. It would have been pitchforks and torches for sure, but he offered, and she turned him down: I’ll stay with you for the children, she said, and the job. She knew which side her bread was buttered on: in the Baptist community of that day, Dad was a rock star.
Why did you get married in the first place? I asked decades later. Why dig yourself into such a no-win scenario? I still don’t know if I believe his answer: because, he said, he thought he was alone in the world, that no other man on the planet might like a little cock now and then. Back when he married my mother, he had no idea what a homosexual even was. He’d never even heard the word.
Really. Ronald F. Watts, biblical scholar, Doctor of Divinity, a man who not only knows the scriptures inside-out but also taught them for two decades. What did you think Leviticus was going on about, huh? How could you possibly think you were unique when your own sacred book singled your kind out as an abomination to be killed?
He told me that he’d never read anything like that in Leviticus. He thought I was making it up. I had to dig out his own King James and point him to 20:13; even then, his reaction was one of confusion and disbelief. He was in his nineties now, and not as sharp as he’d once been — but I’m still astonished at the degree of cognitive dissonance that brain must have been able to support.
He never came close to the fire-and-brimstone stereotype of the Baptist preacher. He never had any trouble with evolution. He always encouraged me to ask questions and think for myself, so convinced of his own beliefs that he probably thought it inconceivable that any honest search could end up at a different destination. Closer to death he admitted to regretting that: “I have been a poor parent,” he wrote just back in November, “who spent so much time teaching scores of young people about faith in God that I failed to teach my own kids”.
I could never pretend that I found his religious beliefs anything but absurd, but I hastened to tell him that I’d found him a far better parent than most. He never, ever judged the sinner. Back during my high school days I’d come home staggering drunk and reeking of beer; while Fanshun’s first concern was whether anyone from Central Baptist had seen me (all about appearances, that woman), Dad would gently knock on my door, lie down beside me on the bed as the ceiling spun overhead, and ask how my day had been. He made no mention of the fact that the room would probably have gone up in flames if anyone had lit a match. We’d just talk about our respective days until I brought the subject up myself; then he’d sigh, and roll his eyes, and quote some obscure Shakespearean line about what fools men were to put a demon in their mouths to steal away their brains. I can’t begin to count the number of stupid things I did as a teenager; but my father never made me feel as if I were stupid.
When I was twelve or thirteen, he found me reading From Russia With Love. He cleared his throat, and remarked that Ian Fleming knew how to tell an exciting tale, and that was good — but that this James Bond guy did not treat women at all well, and I probably shouldn’t use those books as any kind of guide to healthy relationships.
I’ll say it again: Baptist preacher. Bible Belt. Sixties.
Of course, in hindsight his Judge Not Others perspective was a bit more self-serving than it might have seemed— but then, so many things make sense in hindsight. The way his wife kept harping about the other men she could have had (I remain skeptical to this day); the endless invasions of privacy, her needy demands that we be friends and confidantes as well as sons. Her outrage at the prospect that I might want to leave some thoughts unshared. The endless nitpicking and ridicule she heaped on her husband over the years. I thought he was a fucking pussy at the time; I couldn’t understand why he never stood up to her, why he always took her side. Because he knew that so-called truth that he told himself year after year, the truth she never let him forget:
It was all his fault.
Retired from the Baptist Convention, he threw himself into volunteer work for Amnesty International (my late brother Jon, who worked for the Feds at that time, told me that Dad’s advocacy on behalf of the oppressed earned him a CSIS file.) He got his first computer back in the eighties, almost in his eighties: an old XT with an amber screen. He had some trouble with the concept of software at first — “I’m trying to write this letter for AI, but it’ll only let me write a line or two and then it just jumps to a new line and says Bad command or file name c colon…” — but how many old farts of that generation even bothered to try coming to grips with the computer revolution?
He got the hang of it eventually. Figured out the whole internet-porn thing just fine. His last computer was one Jon and I bought for him a few Christmases ago. I helped him set it up; he sat there across the room, smiling beatific and oblivious as a Windows dialog box announced each in a procession of files and bookmarks journeying from old machine to new:
I would have hugged him, but he’d have been mortified if he knew what I’d seen.
Porn was as far as he got. By the time he found out that he wasn’t alone, he was: so locked down that even fellow gays who’d known him for years had no clue. Once I offered him a male escort for his birthday, but he said he’d be too embarrassed (“And besides, do you know what they charge per hour?”). He did manage to connect a little, vicariously, near the end of his life. A childhood friend of mine came to the rescue, visited Dad whenever he was in town, kept him up to speed on news of his boyfriend in New York and life as an opera singer.
But it was too little, too late. This kind, decent, wonderful man spent his whole damn life in hiding, died without ever experiencing the simple comfort of a decent lay. I may never understand the contradiction inherent in that life: his unshakeable devotion to a community which, for all its strident insistence that God Is Love, never let him feel safe enough to be who he was.
Now he’s dead, along with his legacy (BLTS, the school he founded and nurtured and built from the ground up, was sold for scrap a few years back and is now being run as a private school). His wife is dead. Even one of his sons is dead. There’s nobody left for his dark secret to shame— nobody left to be ashamed, except for that vast intolerant community of spirit-worshippers with whom my father, for reasons I only half-understand, threw in his lot and his life. But so many of them are shameless, too.
Maybe he was right. Maybe those ancient dumb superstitions have some truth to them after all. If so, I guess he knows that for certain now. It’s the great injustice of the atheist position: if we’re wrong about the afterlife, the rest of you have all of eternity to rub our noses in it; but if we’re right, no one will ever know.
I wouldn’t mind being wrong, just this once.
Postscript (after midnight): Caitlin has also blogged about Dad, here. She says more, she says it differently (with much less bitterness), and you will know him better if you take a minute to read what she has to say.