Op-ed: Madonna, My Father,
and a Life Outside a Tiny Island
Madonna may have a new album, but playing it makes one writer nostalgic over her music's support through a rocky relationship with his dad.
Growing up, I never felt like I belonged. I didn't like sports, I listened to Madonna (still do) and had mostly female friends. I was a closeted young gay man terrified of being rejected by my dad — who often called me a “faggot,” which hurt deeply because I was the one thing he despised. When I would hear him pull into the driveway at night, I'd be sure to run upstairs and lock myself in my bedroom. Madonna to the rescue!
Now I'm sitting in my Brooklyn Heights studio listening to Madonna's recently released tracks. She makes me reflective, thinking about my past, and my relatively estranged father.
We're from Brooklyn, but my parents defected to Puerto Rico soon after the September, 11, 2001 attacks. My father was excited to return to P.R. after his long-awaited retirement. My mom, on the other hand, wasn't too keen on the idea. Long story short, after 30 years of marriage they divorced.
I've always been to close to my mom and sister, but my dad is a mystery. We’re on "good" terms but haven't spoken in three years, and before that more than six. I was angry about how he treated my mom and the things that came out during the divorce, but thanks to a Kabbalah class, I was able to release those feelings. Then I was assigned to take an action outside of my comfort zone, and speaking with my dad was exactly that.
So I called him a few years ago, we spoke, and months later I flew to Puerto Rico for a surprise visit. During my flight my mind raced, reviewing what went wrong.
The truth is our relationship was never right. I remember my dad, in my childhood, working various jobs while attending community college at night. He would often pass out from exhaustion. I would hear him snoring from the kitchen as he slept in the upstairs bedroom. My dad — not one to express himself in a respectable fashion — would lash out if my sister and I made too much noise. After my dad graduated, he joined the police force, starting as a beat cop and eventually making his way into the narcotics unit. This was the '80s and crack was wack — New York City was rough-and-tumble back then. There must have been plenty of drug busts because my father was always working late or was too tired to interact with us on weekends.
I would sometimes overhear my parents talking about him breaking down doors and dodging bullets. I used to resent him for ignoring me, but I'm sure going to work and being shot at was traumatizing. My father had been shot before; he was wounded in Vietnam. Not only a cop, he was also an ex-marine, not someone to mess with. A man who believed in discipline, the slightest thing would set him off, so I tried to stay in line.
He would often have me help with home construction projects. There wasn’t much talking, but I did learn how to build a closet, refinish furniture, and put up a ceiling. Making me lift heavy objects was his way of bonding, although I saw this more as military-style training or a form of punishment.
For the same reason, Dad showed me how to use his gun, first a revolver and then later a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. He never let me shoot it, but he showed me how to clean, load, and remove the safety and poise for firing if need be.
As my dad excelled in his career, he became more distant. He had been promoted to detective and at this point was undercover — "plainclothes," as he would call it. And I'm not exactly sure what he did every day after that. Clearly he wasn’t able to speak about it — he would need to shield his other identity.
All the while it became more difficult to live at home because I was not allowed to be myself. My dad, for example, made me take down my Madonna posters. Well, he told my mother to relay the message; he would only confront me on his own if I disobeyed the indirect order. Just another way for him to strip me of my identity and project his disapproval.
I wanted to go far away. I dreamed of California; I dreamed of moving to Los Angeles to become a famous actor. Realizing that was fantasy, though, I'd have to settle for going away to college at a state school. Hey, I was moving out of my parents’ house — that's all that mattered; SUNY Oswego it was.
Oswego, a small town 40 miles north of Syracuse on the shores of Lake Ontario, might as well have been a world away. I could start over! I would decorate my dorm room however I wanted, with pictures of my goddaughter, telling new friends she was mine. I even told people I rode a motorcycle! I mean, I would just make stuff up. The truth is I didn't know who I was and the gay man deep inside wasn’t ready to emerge.
I was doing decent in school, so my parents didn't ask too many questions. My dad would drive me to school at the beginning of the semester and pick me up at the end. Sometimes these seven-hour car rides would also pass without a word spoken. He listened to news radio, with my mom in the front seat and me in the back smushed between boxes, listening to Madonna on my CD player.
That was the extent of our relationship. Over the course of four years, he didn't write or call. He sent money.
At some point, I came out to my mother. I had written her a letter and she would share it with my dad. Mom cried and did the self-blame thing, but my dad didn't mention it. It was just understood, not spoken about. Once again, I had to hide who I was, just like my dad did when he went to work every day.
In retrospect, I never really thought about his perspective or how hard it must have been to separate his home and work lives. I was young and egocentric — of course the world revolved around my quest for sexual identity.
After my dad retired, he was no longer living an undercover life, but did he know who he was, truly? He spent so many years practicing detachment; he would now need to be someone new. That could not have been easy, but that's simply speculation.
When I visited my dad, I knew he was happy to see me — I could see it in his eyes. He wasn’t in the best health. He’d had cancer and suffered a stroke. It was difficult to see him not as the strong man he once was. We had a pleasant but short visit; we met up in a restaurant and I brought a friend as a buffer. Conversation was somewhat forced, but after a few drinks we got through it. He asked me who I was voting for, and he laughed when I said "Obama." We had a nice visit, but I haven't heard from him since.
That is, until the other day, I received a voice mail: "Damon, it's your father, call me when you can."
"Oh, now you want to be my father," I said as I looked at my phone in disbelief. I haven't called him back yet.
When I do call, I want to be in the right mindset — loving, and not angry. My father, whoever he is, is waiting for my call.
Damon Gonzales is a business manager at Bon Appetit and an actor, writer, and commenter.