Teach Your Children, A Case Study

Ryan Heller
Last night.
Last night my father’s eyes were two bright stars held in the palm of a small child. Filled with an emotion that has yet to find a word, an emotion caught only in a net of phrases and concept, metaphor and adjective.

But I won’t try.
Last night –
I can say simply my father’s eyes were filled with joy.


Eighteen years ago, maybe seventeen – I’m no good at time. Eighteen years ago I lay within the stiff embrace of two hospital chairs pushed together as a bed.
Lights out except for a sliver of yellow beneath the door. You could see a nurse walk by as her shoes broke the thin glow with shadow.
I don’t think anyone was asleep, just quietly counting minutes with eyes closed. Each in our own space. Muddled thoughts of what could be qtreatment, might be. Tomorrow. The day after. The day after. The day after that.
You get the idea.
My mom in a cot.
My father in a hospital bed.
I had the chairs.
They flew me in from sleep away camp the day before. My father had a heart attack and was scheduled for open-heart surgery in the morning. I had no comprehension of what was happening. My father was an indisposable fixture – death, a far concept held beyond reach.
What I remember from that night, what I remember more than anything was listening to “Hold On” by Sarah McLachlan. Spread across those two chairs, headphones plugged in my ears – I was fifteen years old.
That night, the night before my father was sawed open. That night was like the hours before a hurricane. Grocery shopping done, windows boarded, emergency supplies laid out. Now the family sits in darkness, waiting.
For the storm.
The three of us wait.
Me with this song on repeat:

Hold on,
Hold on to yourself,
For this is gonna hurt like hell.
Hold on,
Hold on to yourself,
You know that only time will tell.

If only we knew.
If only I knew what was to come. Stuck in the box of a fifteen-year-old mind, there was no way to digest how life would evolve with time.
The time ahead.
Earlier that night, the nurse shaved his thigh where they’d remove an artery. Shaved the beard from his face. His chest bare. Unrecognizable. Not just because his hairless face made him a stranger. But unrecognizable by the fear in his eyes. My father was strong, he rarely broke down in front of me. But that night a very different man curled against starched hospital linens.
My dad and I had a strained relationship.
It was the stereotypical bond you’d expect between a masculine father and his closeted gay son. We agreed on little, shared nothing in common and fought constantly.
There were days I wished my parents would divorce so I could be with my mother. Days I despised the man I felt saw me as a disappointment. A father who signed me up for sports when I wanted to be in theatre, who told me in first grade I walked like a girl and kids would laugh.
But there we were.
The shaved stranger in a hospital gown surrounded by his wife and son before doctors took a knife to his heart.
Shadow covered furniture, curtains drawn, linens hung to the floor. Bags piled on a dresser, empty cups litter a small rolling table by the bed. My moms black hoodie draped over another chair, her purse seated on its lap.
Eventually I passed out.
Eventually I woke.
Eventually my dad was wheeled off.
Eventually, and this was hours later, eventually I walked into the recovery room where a ghostly, abstract version of the man I called “Dad” lay unconscious. Dozens of tubes wired out his body, his face smudged in near-death. The sight reminiscent of a Francis Bacon painting.
I’ve always loved Bacon.
This wasn’t one of his finest, however.
Or mine.
I may have said I love you. Maybe not. It was one of those moments where words vanish and your voice becomes a hollow breath of dust.
My father, the shell of him.
A man I barely knew.
Had almost died.


Tonight I shut the door to my childhood bedroom before curling to sleep. Tomorrow my father has spinal surgery to relieve the pinching on his nerves that has crippled him for a year. I’m spending the night at my parents to help with the coming hours. They are asleep.
My mom said something like, I remember when
Her long gaze was fixed somewhere behind me.
I remember when he had his heart surgery. When we were in the room together. I remember walking up and down the halls like a nervous wreck.
Eighteen years ago.
She is a ball of nerves.
But tonight.
Tonight I lie in my childhood bedroom staring at the ceiling, a desert of white popcorn texture spans for what seems like miles. Shadows dance across a vast blank page. Leaves rustle outside, there is a low hum from the fan overhead, the crinkle of bed sheets as I twist my body to get comfortable. These are the only sounds.
I remember when–
Something about being in this house, something about being home. Always makes me feel like a child, always make me feel a sense of loss for days gone. So many memories in these four walls. The echo of my childhood resonates.
Above me, against the dancing shadows and popcorn desert, faint yellow light scatters. It takes a minute.
Eyes adjust.
But a crescent smile creeps across my face as I realize–
Stand on the bed, reach toward the ceiling for a closer look.
I realize –
Those echoes now loud and clear as I uncover fossils from another life, artifacts of youth so deeply burned in my spirit.
A quiet laugh escapes.
My finger grazes the small circular spot on the ceiling to make sure it’s real.
A glow-in-the-dark star shines a faint yellow glow after all these years. I put up hundreds of these stickers when I was fifteen or sixteen. I’d lay on the floor and stare for what felt like hours. Planets, stars litter the ceiling. I assumed my parents took them down after I moved out.
I shine my phone light for a closer look.
They’re still there. All of them.
Like a portal to another time.
I pull the light away and watch the stars glow brighter, stronger.
Back under the covers I stare toward the stars like so many years before. Peering into distant memories, other lives. My father would sit in a chair across from my bed while I’d lay, arms folded across my chest, facing the wall. He’d get lost in tangents with long-winded words of wisdom, life lessons I wasn’t ready to hear. Usually after I’d done something to warrant punishment. It feels like forever ago and still feels like yesterday. Maybe now I’d listen to him. Maybe now things would be different. If only I knew then what I know today. Maybe now he’d sit across from me and we’d have a conversation.
But that chair was replaced by a new chair. My old bedroom was converted to a guest room. I grew up.
And so much has changed since then.
My dad’s surgery is in a few hours.
I fall asleep under childhood memory.


Through eyes of glass, lids fighting to close, he struggles to take my hand. It’s hard to look at my dad in this state, wrapped in a stiff cocoon of hospital shit. White sheets, green garment, IV tubes and blinking lights.
I remember the sight of him after open-heart surgery all those years ago. A fragment of that man resurfaced.
I rest my hand on his.
Dark purple and brown spots pattern his pale, cold skin.
He takes hold of my hand, locks his gaze on me. He looks like a puppy opening its eyes for the first time. That hazy-eyed squint, partly confused stare. That old man baby gaze.
“I love you, son.”
Surgery finished an hour ago, anesthesia still runs heavy in his veins.
“I love you too, Dad.”
He squeezes my hand. Offers something like a smile.
“I’m proud of you, son.”
I’m caught off guard, smile back. “Thanks, Dad.”
I’m proud of you, son.
For years I wanted to hear those words. For years I fought an invisible demon to hear my dad say he’s proud. Proud of me. Proud I’m him son. And more than likely he said those words before. More than likely after seeing me act in a play or write a story he said, I’m proud of you. I’m also sure it went in one ear then out the other.
Because I never believed it.
I fought so hard to earn his approval that I became numb to receiving it. I fought so hard to earn his approval that I overlooked what really was missing – approval of myself. Love and acceptance of me.
These were never thoughts. As a kid I never said, I want my dad’s approval. It was quite the opposite. I blamed him for so much, kept a finger pointed at the man who didn’t understand me. Who wanted the athlete instead of the artist. I would never be what he expected in a son, would never be the all-star. Would never bring a girlfriend home or want to throw a ball into a net.
I’d never fill the role of son.
Whatever that role was.
I was angry, resented my father. Wanted nothing to do with him. I did the opposite of earning his pride, I rebelled against it. But through the angst, the teenage exploration and rebellion; through the promiscuity and drug use, the arrest and fuck you’s – through it all I was still a little boy who wanted the approval of his father.
But by then the damage had been done.
The message that something was wrong with me had been ingrained. Those subtle messages, sometimes more obvious than others, sometimes those messages are communicated through silence. By a distant stare left to a child’s interpretation, by the downturned lips while son plays dress-up. Or telling him he walks like a girl.
A progressive mound of shame builds. Never discussed, never examined. It just continues to breathe, to grow somewhere far enough from sight but near enough to access. So while the words I’m proud of you may have surfaced, it fell upon deaf ears– muted by the pile of mixed messages collected over time.
And I know–
I know in my heart – my gut – know in every molecular fiber of my being, I know my father loved me. I know he wanted only the best for his son and know without hesitation I was the central focus of his life.
I know it now.
But then, back then it was a harrowing and hopeless fight for worth.
I also know much was gained along the way.
Because while bound by blood and an unforeseen unconditional love, my father and I were each other’s greatest teacher. Both on a path of acceptance without seeing the other walking parallel footsteps.
That Neil Young song, “Old Man” plays in my head.

Old man, look at my life
I’m a lot like you were
Old man, look at my life
I’m a lot like you were

My dad took me to see Crosby, Stills and Nash years ago. He still talks about that concert, one of those memories where he and I were able to share a mutual passion for music. Something I attribute to the many days he’d play classic rock or Motown with a vast vinyl turned CD collection.
I’m proud of you, son.
To hear those words –
Hear them.
To digest those words –
Accept them.
To honor those words as truth. To know even without saying. He is proud of me.
I’m proud of him.
For showing up as a father.
For not giving up.
For allowing change.
For being my dad.
The parallel path we walked, fought along, pushed through – has merged. No longer separate roads, but a common page to read.
I think part of it is letting go.
Of the hurt.
The blame.
The right or wrong.
Letting go of what was, letting go of the image I had of him from years passed. Just as I want him to let go of my old skin, to not hold my past against me. I’ve always expected acceptance from others, to see me as an equal, to not judge, to view my choices with understanding. But I’m not sure how much I returned or gave freely. Especially to my dad.
He had to understand me.
Forgive me.
Love me.
Accept me.
Show up for me.
I expected him to embrace me. My sexuality and every decision while I still hadn’t embraced it myself, let alone shown the same acceptance to my father. But it’s part of growing up. How many teenagers practice acceptance and understanding toward their parents, toward other kids? It’s the journey.
Hindsight clarity.
As my father recovered from his eight bypass open-heart surgery eighteen years ago, I stepped into the first chapter of a blossoming drug addiction and routine chaos that comes from teenage self-discovery. I learned how to test the strength of my parents. How to test my own strength and push limits further than I could have imagined. Deeper into new lows and dangerous highs. Discovering the loneliness of insecurity, the consequences of living in shadow. An unimaginable amount of internal abuse seems inherent as a gay adolescent. Self-hatred, depression, take your pick. My response to fear, the fear of being sixteen and gay, the fear of self, the fear of fear – my response was to shut doors and crawl out windows. Interpret that however you want, it probably all applies.
Being gay was my ultimate failure.
My scarlet letter.
The reason my father was never proud of me.
There was no open-arm embrace after my sexuality was uncovered. It was amidst learning of my drug use and secret escapades that so many closet doors opened at once. Instead of just the Ryan’s gay Bomb, it was the Ryan’s gay, doing drugs, sneaking out the house, having sex Bomb. My father sat me down to say, “I accept you because you’re my son, but I don’t accept your lifestyle.” From that point forward, any chance of seeing eye-to-eye was lost. I went off to college, dropped out of college, was arrested for driving under the influence, hit bottom after bottom until the floor couldn’t possibly break from under me anymore.
The same old, same old. You’ve heard something like it before by someone else who’s gone through it before. But the root is so much bigger than the story, so much bigger than a father and son not seeing eye-to-eye. And the story is so much bigger than just father and son.
But don’t ask me what it is – because I don’t know yet.
All I really understand is that for the first time I feel like I’m getting to know my dad. Or better yet, for the first time in my life I want to know my dad. And this is a way to pull bricks off a wall I’ve had up for many years. A wall that kept me quiet because I had nothing to say to him. Or couldn’t connect. Relate. Open up to. Whatever.
I’m ready for that wall to crumble.
While I may not be sure where any of this writing is going, I am certain there’s something of substance beneath the layers of woven memory and scattered thought.
A fog clouds the forefront of my brain when I write about my father. A sort of mind haze that makes exploring the emotional aspect of our relationship difficult. I have memories – some good, some bad. Some beautiful and others uncomfortable to examine.
There are specific moments I can describe in pristine detail as if they happened ten minutes ago, however the depth of emotion that makes it raw and substantial is lost. Somewhere in my dream space lies an answer why, somewhere within a therapy session is a perfectly understandable explanation.
But it hasn’t surfaced.
So I’m left with empty images and hollow memories with base level feelings like happy or sad.
But as I type these words, as I turn a mental pebble, the tiniest thread of light breaks through. Maybe this is the beginning. A beginning of understanding, of accepting the complex, tangled history with my father.
I wanted a reason to be angry.
To shut a door in his face.
Because I was angry with myself and he was a constant reminder why. Of what I was or what I wasn’t, what I should have been or never will be. Of disappointment and shame. I wanted the approval I couldn’t find anywhere.
Until much later when I realized the only way I would make him proud, to make my father truly proud of me – was to be happy.
Even in days he didn’t agree with who I was, when he didn’t embrace his gay son, when he would yell in my face or I did anything to spite him. Even then I believe he wanted me to be happy.
And I never knew the only way to be happy was to accept myself.
It was never really about throwing a baseball.
Never about having a brag-worthy career.
It’s not the things I acquire or the money in my bank account.
Not the clothes I wear or the words I write.
It’s a pure, unfiltered sense of self. Flaws and all, scars and all.
Because once that happens, once I release stale ache and allow room for change, my father shifts to where I can see him for what he is –
A living, breathing member of the human race who came into this world with as much wisdom as me. Who has his own demons and fears, his own dreams and layers. His own journey and destination. If we are here to lift one another to higher ground, that is what my father has done for me and I believe I’ve done for my father. Forced each other to shift perspective, a change in psyche. Forced each other to look at something in a new light and rise.
Our relationship is a testament to transformation. As someone who I never understood, who never understood me, I now see even the most nuanced similarities.
The lower dip of my nose. That’s where I see an immediate resemblance to my dad. An inspired passion for music, the ability to open my heart for others. But most of all, the strength to grow.
To change.
And being on the cusp of change, you ride a wave blind to the tide. Blind to the undertoe.
I don’t think we ever learn to breathe underwater, but over time swimming becomes second nature. I used to tread frantically till my legs cramped and my head soon went under. Gasping for air, choking on the current. If I tried to swim, it was short lived because either I doubted my ability or it took too much effort. I wanted the instant fix. I wanted someone to ride me back to shore.
But change is insidious.
It moves at its own pace, in its own time, and change presents itself when the timing is right.
I’ve learned that my father and I were on similar paths. A journey to discover ourselves independently so we could learn to accept each other collectively. In recovery I’ve been taught to look for similarities rather than differences. My whole life I saw only the differences between me and my dad, the faults, every reason we did not work as father and son.
But today I am starting to see something else.
A reflection.


Last night.
Last night I sat on the couch watching a Woodstock documentary with my dad and husband. Chris scrolled through his phone, my dad talked about Joe Cocker as he sang “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Then Crosby, Stills and Nash – one of his favorite bands. Whenever I hear “Wooden Ships”, I immediately think of him.
It is days before he goes to the hospital for spinal surgery. Eighteen, maybe seventeen years since his heart surgery. Feels like a million miles away, feels like different people all together. This time I understand the magnitude of the situation. I understand the love I have for this man. I understand the profound impact he has made on my life, in creating my life. I understand the beauty of transformation as he sits with my husband teaching him about classic rock like he used to do with me. I think about my future children, how dad will be a grandpa soon. How happy I am for him to hold his grandchildren and echo in their lives as he has echoed in mine.
A split screen shows Crosby, Stills and Nash singing one of his favorite songs, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”.
I sing along with my dad.

Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now
I am not dreaming
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are

Last night.
Last night my father’s eyes were two bright stars held in the palm of a small child. Filled with an emotion that has yet to find a word, an emotion caught only in a net of phrases and concept, metaphor and adjective.
But I won’t try.
Last night –
I can say simply my father’s eyes were filled with joy.

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