“We’re getting a divorce,” my mother said with practiced steadiness. “Dad is going to tell you why.”
It was a sticky afternoon in June the week after school let out for the summer. I’d just finished my sophomore year of high school, and my soon-to-be-freshman brother and I sat across from our parents in the green and gold living room they’d designed together. My mother stood up to switch places with my father so that he would be able to lean forward on the embroidered ottoman, his elbows on his knees.
“I’m a gay man.”
I can only guess how many times he rehearsed saying those words. Each one came out like the breaths I saw him take when he loosened his tie after a day of important meetings at his office. But neither of my parents could have prepared for the hollowness that set in amongst the tears we all shared ― the hole left by losing, in an instant, the hope that life could stay contained within our expectations of what it was supposed to be.
At first, my parents worked to stay united despite our reconfiguration into a blended, unconventional family. I had always filled the role of the put-together oldest daughter, but I decided I needed to seem even stronger as my parents separated. I would be unfazed and fair, in case the rest of my family couldn’t be. In the beginning, we celebrated holidays together and made jokes about the eyebrow wax appointments my father used to book for all of us.
“I guess I should have known!” my mother said during hibachi birthday dinners. My father coming out was painful and complicated ― especially for him. But my parents had shown me that messy emotions could be smoothed into the appearance that everything was ok. I didn’t let anger get in the way of the love I had for my dad and how he listened with patient admiration to even my clumsiest piano practice sessions, the same way he had since I was 4 years old and screeching across the strings of a tiny violin.
“It’s taken me a long time to realize this,” my father said when he told me he was gay. I thought of his sexuality as an abstraction that had been hidden away and finally taken shape in the light of his mid-40s. It was a matter of circumstance, not a betrayal.
But over the months and years following my parents’ separation, I learned my father’s gay identity was more of a secret than a revelation. During a beach vacation with me and my brother, my dad admitted that he’d had an affair with a man while he was still married to my mother. He’d fallen in love with a man who was also married to a woman, with children the same age as me and my brother.
A couple of years later, my father shared another secret. He had been molested as a child by an older man in our family.
Even though these divulgements made my understanding of my dad more complicated, they also made him more human. Anger and resentment began to break through my parents’ relationship as the painful reality of divorce settled into emotions I did my best to push aside. But despite the edges of our changing family growing sharper, my father and I became closer as he taught me how to cook and helped me apply for college.
“I wish I’d never started smoking,” he said, shaking his head in the passenger seat next to me. For years he’d hidden his cigarette addiction by only smoking during his commute to work and late-night walks. But after he came out, he talked about smoking the same way he’d begun to talk with me about many things: as a reality of his life that may have been a mistake, but that he was still learning from.
He shared more about the depression that had haunted him for years, too, so that when I began to feel an unyielding weight on my chest, I knew I could talk to him about going to therapy. I started to let go of some of the perfectionism I’d put on myself as I got to know this imperfect, freer and joyful version of my father. He may not have been proud of every choice he made along the way, but he was proud to be himself.
When I started college, I began to equate closeness with sharing, or, thanks to my father’s example, oversharing. I wasn’t interested in small talk at fraternity parties ― I wanted to know the truth about my new friends’ recent breakups and their confessions about how hard the transition to college really was. And I didn’t count someone as a friend until I shared the secret of my gay father or of the mood stabilizing pills I took every morning.
I made many deep and lasting friendships this way, but I also stayed in some toxic relationships for far too long. I thought that sharing dark confessions created more of a bond than sharing lighthearted experiences ever could. Learning — and telling — secrets was the only way I could ever really know someone like I knew my dad. He continued to be my closest confidant, fielding calls from across the country about everything from what I should do if my car ran out of gas, to the cute guy I’d met at a theater party, to my doubts of whether I belonged in school at all.
When I graduated, our relationship solidified into the beginnings of a real adult parent-child friendship, with the advice seeking growing ever-so-slightly less one-sided and my father’s honest descriptions of his hard days becoming franker. The more we shared, the more I felt I knew him ― and more and more not just as a father, but also as a true friend. That’s why when I answered a video call from my mother and heard her practiced, steady voice tell me through tears, “Your father isn’t with us anymore,” the shock sent my brain into an immediate loop of disbelief. He had been in so much pain that he’d taken his own life. How could I not have known what he was struggling with?
I was 23 when my father died by suicide. I thought I’d known all his secrets, but in the black, woolen months after his death, I learned there was so much he hadn’t shared with me. The depression he did talk about was accompanied by a long, silent shadow of suicidal ideation. I learned my father had attempted suicide when I was 11. I’d always thought his hospitalization at that time was for anxiety ― a mysterious word I only heard before in one of the prayers at our church. I never imagined he was there due to a suicide attempt that my mother saved him from and that led him to the mental health help he extolled for the rest of his life.
The grief that scooped out my ribcage made me desperate for all the secrets I’d never be able to hear from my father himself. I tried to put the pieces together and insisted members of my family give me more — more evidence of how he’d actually kept his sexuality hidden for my parents’ entire marriage, more insight into the years of abuse he’d suffered that I’d always understood to be a single incident, more stories of the men he fell in love with and the high school friends he supported through their own journeys of sexuality and identity.
I could not conceive of a life without my dad and the closeness we shared, so I looked for more of the things I thought had made us close. But as I fervently tried to uncover everything I might not know about him, I felt myself forgetting the beaming toast he gave during my college graduation. I couldn’t remember the sound of his voice as he sang along to James Blunt and Dave Matthews, and then insisted, “Actually, I sound a lot like them!” I cried in front of my stove as I grasped, unsuccessfully, for his tried and true method of roasting a whole chicken without letting it dry out.
I thought that to know a person, I had to know everything about them. If I couldn’t explain why my father died by suicide, could I feel like I ever really knew him?
But a ledger of disclosures had not been what made my father the warm, supportive person he was. Secrets were not what connected us ― and they would not make sense of his death, either.
After my dad came out as gay, we developed a close relationship because of the example he set to live with curiosity about himself and others. Sometimes that came in the form of a probing question or personal revelation, but it also looked like the images of my father that slowly started returning to my memory. Moments that surfaced in my mind, like him running out the door on a Sunday morning while calling out to my cousin to ask if her childhood donut order had changed. A montage of him standing, year after year, in the audience of my brother’s middle school heavy metal band shows, singing along as they screamed their lyrics about anarchy.
I stopped searching for my father’s secrets. I didn’t need to know any more about what he did or what had happened to him ― I already knew who he was. He showed me how to learn from mistakes with humility instead of pride, to ask questions in the face of assumptions, and to make room for joy amidst darkness. That is how he found himself and the courage to live as a proud, out gay man. It’s how he and I found the beautiful father-daughter relationship we built with each other.
And even after his death, and all its questions that will never be answered, it’s how I continue to find him — in every moment I let myself be open to who I am and how life can be, instead of how it should be.
Sophia Laurenzi is writing a book about her relationship with her gay father and her attempts to uncover the mysteries within her traditional Catholic upbringing, her work on death row in Louisiana and Tennessee, and her father’s sudden death. Her writing has been published in The Washington Post, Slate, NBC News, and more. Learn more at sophialaurenzi.com.
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If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.