The earliest memories I have are pivotal moments that pushed me into a certain trajectory. Most of these early childhood experiences involved my father. As much as I wished to forget him, sometimes random memories float up like air bubbles in a soda can and sit there in my head just waiting to be revisited.
Distinctive sounds and noises can trigger memories and quickly warp me back in time. For exanple, when I hear the sound of a vintage telephone fall to the ground I’m suddenly a 3-year-old boy holding a wooden pirate sword in my living room watching my mom and dad argue in the hall. The fighting escalates and things get violent. It quickly turns into more than an argument when he grabs her by her neck and slams her head into the wall. On that wall hung a vintage telephone. Ill never, EVER forget the sound the telephone made when my moms head slammed beside it. The years of physical abuse toward my mom lasted another 4 years until their divorce, but the psychological damages will last us a lifetime.
Coming from a tiny country town in south Mississippi, one quickly sees that some things don’t usually change. Progressive movements in our country’s society don’t really adapt in tiny southern towns. When they finally seem like they have, it has taken decades and it’s doesn’t completely change. There are a couple of stigmata that have not seemed to disappear and will hopefully one day evolve. One of them being homophobia. Many families disown their children because of their extreme views against sexual minorities, and it breaks my heart.
I had always heard about my father’s older brother, Thomas, but unfortunately I don’t remember him. Today, I look up to him for multiple reasons. The way he left this small minded town behind to become who he truly was will always be inspirational to me. My mom told me that she took me to visit him a few times before he moved to Los Angeles. All I remember is my dad calling him a “faggot” and a “queer.” He refused to let my uncle Thomas see me. When I was 8, my father said he needed to go see his brother in California because he was dying of “cancer.” In fact, my uncle was dying of AIDS during the pandemic in 1989. My father was always so hateful to him throughout his life, but he was there when my uncle Thomas took his last breath. Sadly, his purpose for being there wasn’t because of his death. It was because he didn’t want my uncle’s lover to have any of his belongings. After he died, my father loaded up Uncle Thomas’ life and stole it away from his lover.
Even though my precious uncle left this life like he did, I hope and pray that he looks down on me and knows how much I love him. I hope he sees my happiness and the family I have been able to create. I wish with all of my heart he was here to play with my little girls. He is, and always will be, my role model.
The other stigma that still plagues small rural communities is racism. It exists in large urban areas too, of course, but I was raised in the country so that’s all I can speak on. In fact, Biloxi, MS, officially recognized Martin Luther King Day for the first time this year. I left rural Mississippi many years ago, and I pray that strides have been made to improve race relations there. That being said, I will never be able to forget the words my father told me and my brother when we were 8 and 3 years old. It was a hot summer day and we were about to go swimming in a creek when we drove up to a small house at the end of the dirt road. The little house was owned by a very sweet African American family that were supposedly friends of his. Before my father got out of the truck, he talked about what good people they were. He then went on to explain that they were good because they shared our last name. “We owned them during the slave times,” he said. “Whenever you meet a black man with the same last name as you, always remember, we owned them.” He was so matter of fact about it. Words like that never leave you.
As we grew older my father and I became more distant. My brother on the other hand admired him and wanted to be just like him. It got to the point where I didn’t want to visit him anymore. My father would call me “sissy” and “mama’s boy” for not coming, and I have to admit- it hurt. A LOT. I may have been a “mama’s boy” but I remember thinking, “I’m not a sissy.”
My brother, however, kept going. I believe that my father’s influence messed up my brother. Shane would lash out, get into trouble, and be disrespectful towards family. When my mom would discipline him, Shane would just go to my father to get what he wanted. It got to the point that all the work my mom was doing raising him was getting undone by my father on the weekends. As Shane got into his teenage years he began drinking and smoking cigarettes and pot. At 15, he started getting into trouble with the police. At 16 he started taking pills. I have a vivid memory of driving down the road with him, with him in the backseat. I was looking at him in the rearview mirror and talking to him about his alcohol and drug use. He was a small kid, 95 pounds soaking wet. I told him to leave the pills alone because he was too small to handle them, especially when he drank.
He told me he would, and we left it at that.
Shane died of an overdose of liquid methadone on July 29, 2004. He was 17 years old. The story I was told by my father’s family and the police was that Shane had found my father’s “medicine” in the back of my father’s truck and stole it. The last memory I have of my father is of him in a psychiatric hospital days after Shane passed. I could see him through the window as I walked down the hallway to visit him. He was crying and his hands were covering his face. He was wearing a white jumpsuit and sitting in a chair quickly rocking back and forth. I had never seen him like that. I sat down in a chair beside him but he barely seemed to notice me.. He kept rocking back and forth and repeatedly saying, “I put it in his hands. I put it in his hands. I put it in his hands.” I didn’t know what to say or do. I was frozen in shock. How could he have given his own teenage son a lethal dose of narcotics? My heart was beating out of my chest as I silently got up and left. That was the last time I ever saw my father.
I know this piece has been heavy. My hope for anyone reading this is to have faith in what tomorrow may bring. Take any hardships you may have been dealt and learn from them, as difficult as they may be. Remember them. And apply them. Let them motivate you to grow, both mentally and spiritually. It may be too hard to do today, and it may still be tomorrow, but when enough time has passed, hold your head up and dust yourself off. Rise up and become the person you were meant to be. You are worth it. And when you find that you are okay again, pay it forward.
Many things happen throughout one’s life that changes its course. My father would be the first person to say that gays shouldn’t be able to raise kids. The same man that said and did the most unspeakable things can so easily condemn and ridicule my way of life. It is so important for me to be able to look beyond that. Watching and listening to my father’s ignorance and anger helped me learn about so many aspects of life. I learned how to appreciate and respect different races and ethnicities. It helped me accept and even realize my own homosexuality. To this day, each and every HIV+ person I meet reminds me of my late uncle Thomas and his own fight. My love flows from him and pours onto anyone I meet that has to fight that battle.
I can’t think of a positive thing my father did for me except blindly grow me into the man I am today. My collective experiences with my father have made me a smarter, more compassionate and empathetic person. Unbeknownst to him, my father helped create the opposite of who he is: the loving husband and grateful father I am today.
This piece is dedicated to my little brother, Shane, whose 32nd birthday will be on April 2nd.
Shane (left) and Erik back in the late 80’s
I would love for you to follow our family’s journey!
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