Healthy (Gentle) Differentiation — I Deeply Regret Calling My Racist, Republican Father a ‘Son of a Bitch’

Op-Ed

My father didn’t talk to me for three years. Not a sentence. Not a word. Not a syllable. Not a hello, good-bye, how are you? Not an “I love you” for 3 x 365 = 1,095 days. Life is very short, and three years is a huge chunk of time.

My father was a Rush Limbaugh/Fox News Republican. Dad even traveled to New York City to attend one of Rush’s shows, and he brought back a gaudy Rush Limbaugh tie. When were divvying up my parents’ stuff after they died, neither my oldest brother nor I expressed a desire for the Limbaugh tie.

For my illiterate Dad, listening to the evening news was extremely important. Long before Fox News’ launch in 1996, every night in our den, my father, in his recliner — he called it his “Archie Bunker recliner” — my father and I would watch the “NBC Evening News with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.” Invariably, consistently, predictably, at some point in the broadcast, my father, in disgust, would clear his throat, and declare, “There are a lot of stupid people in our country.” He was referring to Democrats, Liberals, Blacks, and, of course, Communists. He continued, “Black people are going to take over our country.”

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When I entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was a registered Republican. I even attended a couple of Young Republican meetings on the campus, which made my Dad proud as a peacock. My topic for my freshmen English research paper was, “The New Deal: Was It The American Way?” My predetermined answer was, no way was F.D.R.’s New Deal the American way. Except for the racism, I was a chip off the old block.

To be an Ayers was to be a Republican. My paternal grandfather, C.D. (Commodore Dewey) Ayers, had photos of all the Republican presidents on the wall of his den. President Reagan, the Republican god, got special placement and billing. C.D., during almost every one of our visits, and we visited often since we only lived a mile away, proudly counted the number of his children and grandchildren, assuming with ultimate confidence that number represented the number of Republicans he had brought into the world.

My parents’ marriage was an inter-political marriage, but the good news for my paternal Republican grandfather was my mother submitted to my father’s Republicanism. One less Democrat in the neighborhood/county/state/nation! Thanks be to God!

My mother’s family were strong Democrats, and as fate would have it, lived on the other side of the road, a very short distance from my paternal grandfather. My paternal grandfather and my maternal grandfather actually were good friends, and played checkers regularly under the old oak tree, which was about 25 yards from the lower side of C.D.’s convenience store. One day the friendly checker game became unfriendly. And what was the cause of the skirmish? My father drove up with my brother who was just a little fellah, and my maternal grandfather, Papa Horn — they called him Biggum — confidently asserted, “I’m going to turn him into a Democrat.” Keep in mind both my grandfathers were big men, one was tall — 6’6’ 225 lbs. (Papa Horn) and the other (C.D.) — well, he was rounder, 6’1” 260 lbs. My paternal grandfather did not take kindly to my maternal grandfather’s Democrat remark, and he proceeded to lift him up and punch him, knocking caught-off-guard Biggum to the ground. Thankfully, my grandfathers were able to shake off their political physical fight, and the two of them played checkers, uninterrupted even by passionate politics, under the old oak tree for years thereafter.

While I was at UNC, I got an education which called into question much of what I had previously believed, including my religion and my politics. My cement mind began to crack, and I became an off-the-chart liberal Independent, my father’s worst nightmare, although I was slow to come out of my political/religious closet. A few years after graduating, I remember whispering to my mother in my kitchen that I was a Liberal.

In 1990, Sen. Jesse Helms — famously known as “Senator No” — was up for reelection and his Democratic opponent was Harvey Gannt, a Black man who had served as mayor of Charlotte. That same year, my brother, talking to my father, noted Virginia had a Black governor, Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the 66th governor of Virginia, the first Black to serve as governor of a U.S. state since Reconstruction. My brother commented that he was — get ready for the earthquake — that he was going to vote for Harvey Gantt, who was not only a Democrat but a Black Democrat. To which my father immediately declared, “If you vote for Harvey Gantt, I’m taking you out of the will.”

In 1990, I was leading the church I served to be more liberal and more Christian, and I knew there was a high probability we would lose a significant number of members and a significant amount of contributions. So I entered a two-year program at the Presbyterian Samaritan Counseling Center to learn how to counsel people and to get certified by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. I figured I might end up being a bi-vocational minister, and counseling might be a good way to supplement what surely would be a reduced salary. I also wanted to learn more about myself, my family of origin, and why I was who I was and why I was the way I was. In addition, even though it was way more work than the hours allotted, I would be given credit for six hours for my Doctor of Ministry requirements. The main point, however, is I was involved in an intense period of self-examination in the counseling program and my own personal counseling process. Psychological stuff was volcanically getting stirred up!

So when my brother informed me of his conversation with my father, that my Dad told him in no uncertain terms the “I’m going to take you out of the will” declaration, I was livid. It was like a raging forest fire. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I could care less about the will or any money. I was very lucky with all my parents had provided for me, and they didn’t owe me anything in the will. I wanted them to enjoy their money for themselves in their retirement. It wasn’t about money. It was about love and acceptance. During the eight years since I had come out of my religious/political closet, I had remained silent while my Dad took jabs at me — took thinly veiled potshots at me, as he criticized Liberals to my face, and I was tired of being beaten up. So I dialed my parents’ phone number, and when my father answered, I immediately said, “You can take me out of the will too. I’m voting for Harvey Gannt. And I think you are being a son of a bitch.”

Click, click. He hung up on me.

I immediately called back. “You are being a son of a bitch.”

Click, click.

Enraged, I called again, “You are being a son of a bitch.”

Silence. Dead silence. My mother took the phone from my Dad. She was crying loudly. The mother who brought me into the world, the mother from the Democratic family, the mother who voted like my father told her to vote, my mother who could get tired of my Dad’s political and racist rants, my mother whose heart was broken, could not stop crying.

One of the things I learned in all that counseling training and my personal counseling is that differentiation is a normal, healthy thing, but it can be very hard and extremely painful. Years later, I would question if it had to be as hard as I made it.

In what ways are you just like your parents? In what aspects are you exactly opposite of your mother or father?

I learned being just like one’s parents or being just the opposite of one’s parents can be a sign of the power they have over you. Some people crave parental approval so much they never become their own person. And, yes, some people, in being damned and determined to be exactly opposite of a parent can also, ironically, give their parent an unhealthy power over them. Authenticity/freedom comes from being aware, and making conscious decisions to be who you are regardless of family of origin influences. In my case, I had to decide if my political/ religious stances were who I really was or if they were simply evidence of rebellion against my father.

In the counseling program and my counseling sessions I gradually came to realize the power my father had over me. I recognized my prophetic voice had an “I’m going to crush you” feel to it. Gradually — gradually — my religion/politics/being felt like I was being faithful to who I was and being more faithful to Jesus than any dynamic with my father. My being and my voice became more a practice of self-definition, and trying to do my little part to make the world a better place, than a fight with my father or with father-like people. I became less a debater/arguer, and more of a “this is who I am and what I believe” person.

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I also learned about recognizing family patterns. One of the patterns of my family of origin was having disputes and not talking to each other for a long period of time. By long period of time, I mean a decade or longer. I was determined not to repeat this family pattern. I resolved to call my parents once per week like I always had called them, and I resolved to visit them at least four times per year, my usual pattern of visitation.

I’ll never forget going home the first time after calling my Dad a “son of bitch.” I was literally shaking as I pulled our car into my parents’ driveway. Mom greeted us at the door, teary-eyed, but welcoming. I always kissed my Mom when I arrived and when I left, and this time was no different. As fate would have it, my second brother, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter were at Mom and Dad’s. We sat on the couch in the den, but Dad was not in his Archie Bunker recliner. He had gone upstairs to my parents’ bedroom and locked the door. I know the door was locked because shortly after we arrived my three-year-old son and his cousin were roaming throughout the house, and when they arrived at my parents’ bedroom, they tried to open the door. When it would not open, they began to knock loudly on the door. My father did not respond. We could hear them knocking from the den and shouting “Let us in! Let us in!  Let us in!” After about two minutes of their loud knocking and their loud calls, my mother went upstairs and got Dad to open the door. When my three-year-old son came back down to the den, he looked at my wife and I and said, “He doesn’t like us.” My heart was broken into pieces. I was so, so sad.

When I called home, if my father answered the phone, I would say hello and he immediately hung up. I always called back and my mother answered crying and upset. We would talk, and I always ended by saying “I love you.”  If I called and my mother answered, we would talk, and then I would ask to speak with Dad. She always said “he’s not going to want to talk to you.” And I always responded, “tell Dad I’d like to talk to him.” Mom relayed the message, but nothing ever came of my efforts, until one day. I don’t know why that day was any different than any other day, but somehow the dam broke. In subsequent conversations, I never experienced my father taking jabs at me.

I deeply regret calling my father a “son of bitch.” I don’t regret confronting him, though. If I had it to do all over again I would have told my father: “Dad, I love you. You saying you are going to take me out of the will if I vote for Harvey Gantt breaks my heart. I do not care about the will or any money you might give me, but I do care deeply about our relationship. And if you don’t accept me for who I am, then we can’t have a healthy and good relationship.”

Differentiation. Gentle differentiation. Self-definition. Naming what is going on in the relationship without adding harmful words or accusations or judgments. Staying focused on the issue at hand, not going off on a thousand tangents.

I have some LGBTQ friends who have experienced homophobic heterosexuals calling them awful names and saying all kinds of derogatory things. If I were gay and heard such vitriol I hope I could say: “Your words to me are hurtful and cruel. I don’t think you deep down really are a cruel person, and I’m confident your better angel will soon win out.”

Fifteen years after my Dad began talking to me again he died an agonizing death. I had always heard prostate cancer was slow-growing, and that men typically would die of something else before the prostate cancer got them. Not so with my father. His prostate cancer was aggressive, and relentlessly attacked multiple parts of his body.

We were all gathered at my parents’ home the day he died — my mother, my brothers, my sisters-in-law, my wife and son, and all the grandkids. I’ve never heard any horror stories about hospice, but ours was the rare exception. My Dad died during the weekend, and for whatever reason, hospice was not available. More tragic, Dad had a lot of fluid in his throat and it was — well, I said his death was agonizing — it was agonizing hearing the gurgling and seeing fluid come out of his mouth. My two brothers were able to stand by his side and attempt to relieve him of some of the fluid, but I couldn’t do it, and all their efforts couldn’t keep up with what seemed like death by drowning in one’s own fluid. We later learned a patch could have been used that would have eliminated the problem with fluid.

The good news is we had all made peace 15 years earlier. If we hadn’t, what was an awful death could have been exponentially more awful.

We were all by his side. I’ll never forget my mother getting in the hospital bed and placing her body as close as she could to the man she loved, laying her head on his shoulder, moving her hand on my father’s chest for hours — until he took his last breath. She was living to take care of him, to love him to his end. As it turned out, Mom died two months later. The lovebirds wanted to die together, and they almost pulled it off.

I’m crying tears of joy as I write these words. My Dad blessed me in many ways, but one of the greatest gifts he gave me was an example of a man who cried. My Dad, when he was happy, cried tears of joy. Yes, he did. Dad was so tender-hearted, and if anyone ever complimented one of his sons, tears just streamed down his face. Streamed. I saw it so many times. There’s nothing like having a crying father who is proud of you. My oldest brother and I ended up being clergy, and when we were young and preaching at our home church, our father would cry and cry and cry as we spoke.

After my Dad helped me unload my clothes, TV, stereo system, typewriter, small refrigerator, hot plate, dishes, utensils and box fan into Lewis Residence Hall located on the north campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I stood in the parking lot as he backed up the white and blue Ford Bronco and headed back home. Unsurprisingly, tears were flowing down my illiterate father’s cheeks. I went back into Lewis 115, shut the door, and cried tears of joy. Neither one of us that day could know the ways in which our love for each other in the years ahead would become more authentic and real.

Love you, Dad!

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