Sins of the father

This is one of the last and only photos taken of RJ Johnson and his father. Shortly after their relationship would take a turn due to RJ’s sexuality. See story, page 12.


I know that I’m a prisoner

To all my Father held so dear

I know that I’m a hostage

To all his hopes and fears

I just wish I could have told him in the living years

— Mike and the Mechanics, The Living Years

My father had so many amazing qualities. He could read a bedtime story better than anyone I have ever met. He created voices and characters and excitement with each sentence. He took you into the story and created a new world while he read. He was an amazing baseball coach and umpire. He believed in being fair to each player and always believed that kids had more potential than they ever knew. When he was on stage singing or at a pulpit preaching or testifying, he never faltered or showed nerves. His confidence and ability to command a crowd brought him a lot of respect from his peers. These are all strengths that I know I got from him, and they are parts of me that I am grateful to have learned. It took his passing away for me to realize this and wish that I had more time to talk to him about it. 

When my father passed away in June of this year it had been 15 years since we had seen each other in person. Save for a few phone calls and awkward emails over the years we really hadn’t communicated at all. I was angry. There had been issues between us since I was 12 years old. I held him responsible for so many things and I refused to forgive. More importantly, I refused to allow him to apologize and make amends. I refused to accept the fact that he may have changed. 

When we are young, we have a tendency to think of our parents as superheroes. They can do no wrong and the words that they tell us are gospel truth. As we grow, we start to see some flaws. When we find that Santa isn’t real and that there isn’t a bunny leaving us a basket each spring, we realize that sometimes the things they tell us aren’t true. When we start to become socialized in school and have them help us with homework, we may discover that they don’t actually know everything. For others, this discovery of truth can be much darker. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse can damage this image of our parents in a way that cannot be repaired. 

In no way am I suggesting that if you have experienced trauma because of your parents that you have to welcome them back into your life with open arms. You have to protect yourself and your well-being above everything else. In many cases, the wounds left by our parents cannot be fixed and you are under no obligation to allow an abuser to continue to torment you with their presence. “Family first”, “Blood is thicker than water”, and “Unconditional love” are all things that we have heard. In many situations they are false.

Being part of the LGBTQIA+ community means that you get a family you never knew about. A community around the world that all share at least one thing in common with you. A culture united by a common goal: equality and acceptance. Unfortunately for many of us the search for those things is often what causes a rift between us and our parents and family. Whether it is because we now realize that the politicians and laws that they are voting for are looking to harm us and silence us, or because of blatant homophobia, we are pushed aside. Some of us are kicked out of our homes, uninvited from family events, or told that we are welcome but to never bring our partners with us or told that we are welcome as long as we dress as the gender we were assigned at birth. This can cause deep resentment and also depression as once again we learn that if we are being ourself we will never be enough. 

The act of forgiveness is not about releasing a person from their accountability. Instead it is about freedom from the anger and resentment that you are holding on to. It also does not include forgetting the wrongs that someone has done to you. It also does not include not being angry. Anger is part of the process when it comes to healing from past trauma and pain. Anger is a passion emotion and when you try to shut it down, make it not exist, and not feel it, you are also shutting down the possibility of joy and feeling alive. Do not rob yourself of the emotions that are at the core of yourself. 

Imi Lo, a Psychotherapist, Art therapist, and Consultant for emotionally intense and sensitive people published an article in May of 2019 in Psychology Today titled ‘Unresolved Anger Towards our Parents’. In the article she lists the steps we need to take to start working towards our issues, because even if the trauma caused was someone else’s fault, we are responsible for taking the steps to begin the process of healing.

1.  We face the truth — The ugly, painful, inconvenient truth.

2. We tell our story — We can start with one person, perhaps our therapist, or even our diary.

3. We give voice to anger — This is a difficult step for most of us because we have mistaken anger for disconnection, betrayal, or aggression. It is essential that we do not direct the anger back towards ourselves in the form of shame. 

4. We grieve — The tunnel of grief is dark, but the light at the end is liberation.

5. We integrate our past into the present — We mature from a child-like mind to having a much more full and realistic vision of reality. We can see and hold both the good and the bad, the dysfunctions and the wisdom, the love and the hate, the anger and the compassion.

6. Finally, we learn to be with our family as they are today — This is when the rubber hits the road. While apologies and redemption are not always possible, we still must learn to manage our emotional triggers, set healthy boundaries, and healthily relate to them in the present day.

I knew that my father had gotten sick. The doctors thought that it was COVID-19 but the tests were inconclusive at many points. The longer they went with treating him the more that my siblings reached out to tell me that I should try to talk to him one last time. I hesitated because I did not want to take the chance on him being able to hurt me again. 

On a Friday we got the word that the diagnosis was cancer. A couple of days later he was hospitalized. Two more days and I got the call from my little brother that I had only a matter of hours. I made the choice in that moment to Facetime him and at least say goodbye. As soon as he saw my face on the screen, I was able to make out what he said through the ventilators. “I am sorry.” I immediately started crying. I had waited for so long to hear those words come from him. I wasn’t able to understand much of what he said from there, but I know my father’s tone. I know that I wasn’t a perfect child, so I also said I was sorry. I asked my little brother to play a song that had meant so much to us. Mike and the Mechanics, The Living Years. Then came the last words that my father will ever say to me. “I love this song, and I love you.”

That last interaction meant so much to me, but it is only the beginning of my healing process. I now have to make the decision to start to heal from years of memories. I have to focus on the good and make sense of and release the bad. It won’t be easy, and I sometimes don’t know where to start. 

I know that my final memories with my father will help a lot with the process that I must go through. I just wonder what would have happened if I had made the decision to start a little earlier. 

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