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An Open Letter to my Dad

Dear Dad,

Today would have been your 69th birthday.

I've thought about how to acknowledge your birthday anniversary. Taking a page from Chaz Ebert, who wrote a letter to her deceased husband Roger about the most recent Academy Awards, I thought I'd write a letter to you. Granted, it's a bit odd, but then that's not always a bad thing.

So, it's coming up on seventeen years since you died from cancer. I've often wondered what the intervening period of time would have been like had you lived. Unfortunately, we didn't have the closest father-son relationship in the world, so if that had continued, perhaps life wouldn't have been all that different. I tend to hope, of course -- in that fantasy world that only the dead can inhabit in the minds of the living -- that we would have grown closer, healed any rifts between us, and enjoyed a stronger relationship.

Your children -- including Dillon, who hadn't yet turned 3 when you died -- are all grown now. You have grandchildren. You are no doubt missed, in some capacity or other, by all of them. Whenever there's a Gladney family get-together, I feel your absence. There's a similar look among the Gladney men. When I look at my uncles, it's like you're kind of there, but not really.

Lives have changed and people have matured in the nearly two decades since you've been gone. I wonder what you'd think of things? Would you approve of our current president? How about the economy? Gay rights? I remember one time, staying at your apartment after the divorce, and watching a show with an obviously gay character. You asked me, "Is he a faggot?" and, when I replied in the affirmative, you got up and left the room.

I'd like to think that you'd be proud of me, but perhaps that's a wishful thought? I remember you giving me a talk when you were dying. It was an awkward conversation. You meant well, but things didn't always come out right. One of the points I remember is when you said, "Be a leader, not a follower." That's stuck with me, in part because I've been trying, for over seventeen years, to figure out exactly how to implement it into my life.

Since you've been gone, I've been an elected official. I put myself out there, talked with people, and enough of them supported me to put me in office. More than once. I've tried to do my best serving them. I've volunteered, and have worked on various community boards. Is this what you meant by being a leader? I hope so. I hope you'd be proud. I've also been in a relationship for nearly fourteen years. Granted, it's with another man, but I hope you'd somehow be okay with that now.

Seventeen years ago today was your last living birthday. You turned 52. There was a party at your house in Springfield, but it wasn't until a couple of days later. Several people showed up, but I honestly don't remember everyone who was there. The two things that stay in my mind from that day are you sitting on the couch and saying how the cancer had certainly changed your life plans, and when I looked out a window and watched you and Uncle Jim walking slowly together around the backyard.

I couldn't hear your conversation, but then I didn't need to. Just the image was enough. Two brothers, having shared over half-a-century of life, faces solemn, at a slow pace along the green grass, just talking. Those words are as unknown to me as the life you might-have-had since late August of 1997. And that's okay. We all have to go sometime. But, today, on your birthday anniversary, there's a part of me that still wishes you could have made it to 69.


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