There’s a first-class two-parter from the third season of Grey’s Anatomy, a show that made a habit — almost a fetish — of noodling on a theme from two or three angles, using the ensemble’s character as lenses to train light of varying intensity on the topic of the week. In the case of “Six Days,” the topic is fathers: strong fathers, weak fathers, absent fathers, fathers who might have been but never were.
I mention this because I’ve been trying to imagine what it must have been like to be my own father, 24 years old and working in the Louisiana oil fields, when the news broke that I’d be making my entrance. Sure, he and my mom had thought about starting a family, had been looking forward to having a kid.
“But I didn’t know the first dad-gum thing about raising one,” says my dad, who still talks like that, Southernish, with a twinkle. For her part, my mom likes to tell the story of the maternity nurse at Touro Infirmary who—after my folks gathered their things and Mom settled into the wheelchair for the short discharge trip to the car—winked at my mother and grandmother, then turned to my startled dad and offered him the 21 tightly swaddled inches of his firstborn.
“I threw my hands up and went, ‘I don’t want that thing,’” Dad admits.
My sense of Mark Graham, when I was little, was of a guy who could do things: chop wood, build fires, hunt ducks, lay bricks, handle the higher math that to this day eludes me. But in that moment, he was a terrified twentysomething without the slightest clue.
“You were 5 pounds and 14 ounces,” he says. “You were real small. I could’ve fit you in one hand.”
Of Four-Wheelers And Fishing, And Feeling Like A Stranger
Me? I deduced early on that I had no interest in being a dad. Growing up Christian and closeted in the Deep South, I internalized my unsuitable Otherness early on, even as I grappled with models of masculinity and fatherhood that at best eluded me, and that at worst I turned my alienated nose defiantly up at.
My own eminently decent dad worked hard, in the field with his land-surveying crews early and late. He wasn’t distant, but over time his natural taciturnity and my intense bookishness made for a relationship that wasn’t exactly close either. We loved each other, sure. But I don’t think I knew him well enough, by the time I hit 13 or so, to know whether I liked him. (Did that make it easier to distance myself when the Oedipal phase hit? You bet it did.)
Up the block my Uncle Charles was a bully, mustachioed and mean, and my friends’ dads were mostly bigger, coarser, beerier sorts of men. Camouflage and four-wheeling figured significantly in their after-school activities with their boys, is my overriding impression of the years between age 10 and my eventual escape. There was camping, endless camping, and the seasonal slaughter of animals I didn’t particularly want to eat. This is a thing fathers and sons seemed to bond over where I come from, at least most of them: the skinning and the gutting, the cleaning of guns and the refilling of cartridges with shot and powder.
Me? My dad remembers that the first time he took me fishing, I cried for fear the bream I’d somehow hooked would die before we could put her back in the water.
“Everybody’s different,” he says, taciturn still at 77.
I was 22 when an exit ramp finally manifested, in the person of my first real boyfriend, and we fled to D.C. — the same age my dad was when he and my mom got hitched.
That parallel didn’t register back then, not that I recall, but I do remember that when 1990s Trey thought to entertain the idea of becoming a father, he dismissed it with something between scorn and incredulity.
Parenting was for other people, older people, duller people who’d bought into ideas of How It’s Done that I wanted nothing at all to do with. And for a while, I was triumphantly smug about that.
And then, in the late ‘90s, my boyfriend Griffin mentioned casually that kids were in his plan, down the road probably, somewhere between the job he was about to take in Zimbabwe and the criticism Pulitzer I was planning to win.
We didn’t make it long past our two years in Zimbabwe, Grif and I. As it turns out, I didn’t win a Pulitzer either.
From Russia, And Guatemala, And Elsewhere (With Love)
Around that time, though, an acquaintance adopted a Russian kid. A college friend who’d settled down with a doctor in Charlotte adopted a baby girl. Of course Sasha’s dad had been an Air Force captain, so clearly he was competent, and if Skip could land himself an internist then surely he could manage an infant.
And then Grif, a couple of years after our split and living in Bangkok, did the thing: He adopted a newborn, Alex, from Guatemala. On his own.
I mean sure, on an expat’s salary he could afford a live-in nanny, and Grif’s mom, like my own grandmother decades before, parachuted in to help out for a while.
But this was Grif! Not even 30! Single, and not sure where he was going to be stationed two years from now! And he just … went and did it!
Holding tiny little Alex on my lap, when I stopped in to see them on a vacation trip to Phuket and Chiang Mai that same summer, was when I really, truly realized: There are people much bolder than I. Much more prepared to trust themselves. More confident in their ability to imagine a thing, and do the work to bring it into being.
It was sobering, and a little sad. I’d convinced myself so long before that I’d never wanted this particular thing, when the truth was that somewhere deep down I’d probably known that I just wasn’t cut out to do it.
Of What I Knew Then, And What I Know Now
Tiny little Alex is a preposterously large 15 now, with another dad, Tommy, whom Griffin met in Bangkok, and a little brother, Kuna, adopted in Johannesburg, where they’ve all lived for the last decade or so. And in a story detail I’d dismiss as ridiculous in a novel, there’s a kid who … well, let me try to explain.
Grif’s housekeeper Prisca has a son, Graeme, who remembers me from when we were all in Zimbabwe together. I wasn’t anything like a father figure, but I was there, and I suppose I was kind enough when he wasn’t on his best behavior—he drove my pickup into a tree when he was about 10, among other things. Grif and I both stayed in touch with Prisca and Graeme after we were expelled by the Mugabe government, and we helped support the family when we could, and eventually the two of them came to live (and in Prisca’s case, work) with Grif in Joburg when he settled there. Now Graeme has a son, and one of that son’s names is … Trey.
Reader, I did not know what to do with that news when I heard it.
What I do know is that something I did resonated with Graeme. Something about who I am clicked with him. Some instinct I had left its mark.
And what I know is that I might just have been better at parenting than I let myself believe back in that Bangkok summer, on in those ‘90s days of ambition and tunnel vision. Or at least that I would be now— now that I’m 52, with an epic midlife crisis and a little rehab and a whole lot of therapy under my belt.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad no kid had to deal with all that nonsense. In so, so many ways, 2010s Trey was even less suited for fatherhood than 1990s Trey.
But now, on the other side of all that, I look at families like the one my friends Alex and Alejandro are building, I watch my friends Dejay and Mike with their son Prescott at the park, and I feel nothing but admiration.
I look at my nephews, good kids all, and I take a quiet pride in the influence I know I’ve had, even at my odd-gay-uncle remove.
I watch my friend Lee, a single dad who wasn’t born into a body that matched the man he’s become, parent his two boys with a delicacy and an honesty and a care and a concern that takes my breath away.
I look this quietly wondrous array of men unexpectedly doing a thing that for millennia was merely the expected — just not for them — and I feel a quiet, white-hot joy at the ways my tribe is remaking an institution I once turned my alienated nose at.
And where once I knew — I knew, mind you — that fatherhood wasn’t for me, I feel, of all things, a twinge of regret for the dad I might have been, but never was.
Trey Graham — Contributor
Trey is a part-time culture critic and full-time traveler—which is to say a semi-retired arts journalist pursuing a second career as a flight attendant. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Washington, D.C. He writes occasionally at treygraham.substack.com
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