But in many ways, I confess, I am very similar to my father: We share the same appreciation for vinyl records, the same distaste for green olives, the same receding hairline, and the same ability to drive my mother crazy.
We’re also both horrible at communicating with each another.
As a teenager, I knew that any time my father suggested we “go for a drive,” it really meant he wanted to talk about something serious. Over the years, I suffered countless agonizing father-son chats in his blue Pontiac Sunbird. The topics ranged from puberty and to my parents’ break-up to the suicide of our family dog, Brady—who killed himself by leaping down a flight of stairs.
Why my father felt the need to talk about such unpleasantries when we were trapped inside a moving vehicle, I’ll never know.
The one subject he never brought it up, however, was sex: All through middle school and high school I dreaded the day when he might suggest we go driving so he could lecture me on the specifics of procreation. I’d heard horror stories from friends about their parents giving them the sex talk. The worst came from my friend Chester, whose father used a hot dog, a bun, and a bottle of ketchup as props to demonstrate how babies were made.
If Chester’s experience was any indication, I knew I was in trouble.
To my relief, my father never brought it up. Perhaps he was too embarrassed, or he assumed I learned it in school. I’m not sure—frankly, as a teenager, all that mattered to me was that the conversation never take place.
When I graduated from high school and we still hadn’t discussed the birds and the bees, I assumed I was in the clear. So you can imagine my surprise when he finally decided to address the issue—when I was 27 years old.
I was living in California at the time, but flew back to Minnesota for my first Christmas at home in ages. I try to avoid returning to the Midwest, particularly in the cold-weather months: Why would anyone willingly travel to a state that boasts 170 inches of snowfall a year, and an average winter temperature of 7°F? But I decided to break tradition, flying in on Christmas Eve and leaving three days later.
After enduring a three-and-a-half hour flight wedged between two screaming babies, I landed in St. Paul and my father picked me up at the gate. We hadn’t actually seen each in almost three years, and he looked older than I remembered: His hair was whiter and he had started wearing a hearing aid. People always talk about how fast their children grow up; the same can be said for parents.
We were driving back to the house when he said: “Graham, there’s something I think we should talk about.”
Already I didn’t like the sound of this. He hadn’t uttered those words to me in years, but the moment they escaped his lips, I felt like I was 15 again—sitting awkwardly in the passenger seat, anxiously awaiting my impending mortification.
It being Christmas, I figured he must have some terrible news to deliver: He was broke. He had cancer. My childhood home had burned down.
“We probably should have talked about this a while ago,” he continued, “but better late than never, right?”
Snowflakes landed softly on the car’s windshield, melting as they hit the glass.
“No offense, Dad,” I replied, “but I just spent almost four hours on an airplane. I don’t know if I’m up for a father-son chat right now.”
“It’ll only take a minute,” my father assured me. “And I think it’s important.”
I turned my gaze towards the window. Rows of colorfully lit houses decorated the snowy streets; Christmas trees glistening from within. Outside, the world was bursting with holiday cheer. But inside, all I could feel was dread.
Rather than argue with him, I said, “Okay, fine,” then braced myself for the worst.
My father cleared his throat. I could tell he was nervous, which, in turn, made me nervous. “Well. I want to talk to you about…”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Sex,” he replied.
It took a moment for the words to register.
“Um. Okay. What about it?”
“Not just sex,” my father continued, “but sexual responsibility.”
My heart was palpitating and my mouth went dry. I had spent my entire adolescence dreading this very conversation and now, with me just three years shy of 30, it was finally happening. And at Christmas, of all times.
“Sexual responsibility?” I asked, as I readjusted my seatbelt.
“Yes,” my father said. “It’s important to use condoms.”
This cannot be happening right now, I thought.
“You know,” my father continued, “to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, and things.”
“No offense, Dad, but an unwanted pregnancy really isn’t on my list of concerns.”
At this point, I suppose I should mention that I never formally came out to my parents. Mainly because I never considered myself in the closet—growing up, being gay was just a part of who I was; it was never something I tried to hide and most of the family figured it out pretty quickly. I assumed my father was among them. I was wrong.
I told you we weren’t very good at talking to each other.
Back in the car, dad looked over at me from the driver’s seat: “I’m trying to have a serious conversation with you.”
Claustrophobia started setting in. I cracked the window for a little air.
“Look, I appreciate your concern,” I replied, “but I think I’ve got it figured out.”
“Do you?” my father asked.
“Do I what?” I replied, confused. “Have it figured out? Yes.”
“No. Use condoms.”
“Oh my god. Are you kidding me?”
“Absolutely not,” my father scolded. “Sex isn’t a joke, Graham. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
I briefly contemplated telling him I was gay, just to clear the air. But I feared that might make the situation worse—or he might lose control of the car. All I wanted was to get back to the house, pour myself a giant glass of spiked eggnog and forget this whole conversation ever happened.
“I realize that sex isn’t a joke,” I said, “but I’m 27 years old.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“This conversation should have happened, like, a decade ago, Dad. It’s too late now.”
My father’s brown eyes widened. “Too late? Why? What happened a decade ago?”
“Jesus Christ,” I rolled my eyes. “Nothing happened a decade ago. Never mind.”
I flipped on the radio and shifted in my seat to glower out the window, as I had so often as a sullen teenager. “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” poured from the car’s speakers. I watched the houses go by as the music pervaded the vehicle, filling the space between my father and I that, with each passing year, seemed to grow ever wider.
We spent the next 15 minutes or so in complete silence, the tension in the car almost palpable, before arriving back at the house, which looked smaller than I remembered.
We spent the next four days pretending our conversation never happened. Maybe I should have taken a minute to tell my dad I’m gay and, yes, I practice safe sex. But when it comes to communication, it’s like my mother says: I am my father’s son.