I never knew my father in a way that makes writing about him easy. He is enigmatic, a man of masks. An ever changing follower of fashion. Mythical, Mormon, gay, incongruent. Contradictory. A gentle someone who cried the only time he spanked me.
Robert Michael Painter — Mike to his friends and Dad to me — was the first person in Utah to be diagnosed with AIDS. It was the summer of ‘83. I had just turned seven years old.
My parents divorced before I knew they were together. Mom didn’t know he was gay; he didn’t say. Still, she kept him close to us. She was afraid that someday all the world’s cruel nouns and adjectives would convince me to push him away.
Dad and I watched Dallas in the warm glow of his den. He set an alarm so I would never miss The Smurfs on Saturday mornings. He drank Diet Dr. Pepper in glass bottles. Used plastic milk containers filled with water as weights. He tanned in the bathroom. Listened to the Village People’s “In the Navy” as he combed my hair.
He knew people with personality. He went to a party dressed in a diaper; his boyfriend Bryan was dressed as a nurse. I smelled coffee for the first time in the basement apartment of one of his friends. Watched, but didn’t understand, Star Trek: The Motion Picture with him and someone forgotten on a date.
We appeared in a print and television Father’s Day ad campaign for a local mall. I saw the commercial once. He talked about land he had purchased in Montana. Said we’d go there someday. He left out that it was part of a polygamy compound.
I loved riding in his Mercades convertible with the top down and the sun on my face.
I’ve completely forgotten the sound of his voice.
He died on September 19, 1983, but his grass marker only reads “Robert Michael Painter 1949-1983.” His parents feared that if they included exact dates, someone would know that it wasn’t just pneumonia that killed him. I was still seven years old.
I remember missing him more than I remember him. So I wrote a book for him, Mom, and me called @theunexpectedson. It’s unbelievable and completely true. There’s just not enough of him in it.
Dad, I love you.