So Afraid to Love You
They served up heaping plates of spaghetti and carried them to the table.
"Oops, let me get the Parmesan." Dean's father walked back to the kitchen. He spoke his next words into the fridge while rummaging around.
"Hey, do your mom and stepdad know you're here?" He headed back to the table with cheese in hand, and with a worried expression on his face. "I can't believe I didn't think to ask before. I guess this whole thing has thrown me more than I realized."
"It's okay. I called my dad...my stepdad...while you were out on that 911 call. He said...well..."
His father sat with elbows on the edge of the table, giving Dean his total attention. When Dean hesitated, he gave him an encouraging nod. "What did he say?"
Dean had to struggle to keep eye contact now. "He was shocked, and worried, but he just said to call him if...if I needed him to come get me."
Dean's father leaned back against the seatback and blew out his cheeks in a heavy sigh. Then he sat, staring into space, his expression a cross between bemusement and sorrow.
"What on earth do they think I might do to you?" he murmured.
When he finally looked back at Dean, sorrow had won out on his face. "What kind of monster did she tell you I was?"
Dean looked down, struggling against a rising sense of panic.
His father's hand came to rest, gently, on his forearm. "I'm sorry, Son. I shouldn't have put you on the spot like that. You don't have to answer that question." He gestured toward Dean's plate. "Let's eat, and let's enjoy it." He patted Dean's arm and gave him a smile...a small but honest smile that didn't demand any pretense in return.
It's awkward, but he's willing to meet me halfway.
What more could I reasonably ask?
Dean nodded with a little smile of his own, and dug into his food.
It turned out that "enjoying it" was easy. Dean started to wolf his food down enthusiastically. "This is really good!"
"Italian hands dumped those spices in!"
"Oh, is that the secret?" Dean smiled, and it felt good to do it, especially when his father smiled in return. But he couldn't pause his eating for long. He'd been hungrier than he realized.
His father ate heartily, too. He started out more slowly than Dean had, but apparently discovered his appetite pretty quickly.
Dean saw that he had a good conversation starter here. "You must really be hungry after that 911 call. It was intense!"
"Yeah, it was." His father nodded. "To be honest, I'm kind-of surprised that Winnie let you listen. Did you hear the whole thing?"
"Yeah. But please don't blame her. She wanted to turn the sound off when the shooting first began, but I begged her not to. And I'm glad she didn't. That call is the reason I stayed. It's the reason I'm here. And I hate to think what I would be missing if I'd left."
His father pushed his empty plate away, sat back in his chair, and studied Dean's face. "What...what was it that made you stay?"
Dean instantly knew the answer, but he felt terribly shy about mentioning the heartbroken words his father had said to the 911 operator. Finally he decided to settle on a generic answer. "I guess...I just saw how much you care about people, that's all. I hadn't expected it." He instantly regretted that last part.
His father's face clearly registered the pain of its implications. But he did not close down. Instead, he touched Dean's arm again. "Thank you. I can't tell you how glad I am."
Dean's phone beeped, and he fished it out of his pocket. "Sorry."
"No, no, by all means."
He read his stepdad's text message with a sinking heart. "Your mom knows something's up. She's getting upset. Going to have to tell her soon. How's it going?"
"Dean, I need you to level with me. Are you getting in any kind of trouble for being here?" His father had leaned close, but without intruding or trying to read his message. His whole demeanor had changed the moment he'd grown concerned for Dean's well-being. He radiated selfless concern, gentle care, quiet strength.
Dean considered for a moment, and then simply handed the phone to his father. Something about that man made him want to trust him, and made him want to earn trust in return.
His father read the message, and his concern visibly deepened. "I hadn't realized that your mother didn't know."
"Dad had agreed that it was wise not to tell her...at least not until I'd had a chance to think about what to say." He shrugged. "But I kind-of forgot to think about it."
His father handed the phone back. "You need to tell her, Son."
Once again, Dean felt the pressure of honor. He nodded. "You're right." But he was happy to let his stepdad convey the message. Face-to-face didn't even cross his mind this time.
He typed, "Just ate dinner at Greg's apt. Going fine." He hit "Send," and then continued in a new text. "Pls tell her I hope she will understand why I needed to do this."
He started to put his phone away, but then thought better of it, and handed it to his father. He studied the expressions that crossed his father's face as he read the words.
He saw sadness and concern, but not disapproval.
"I need to take you back to Shelby's," his father said softly.
"No, no rush," Dean protested quickly.
His father closed the phone and handed it back to Dean. "She hasn't replied yet. When she does, you may feel differently."
Dean sighed and shook his head. "Look...Dad..." he chose that word very carefully, and looked his father full in the eyes as he said it. It hit home, as he'd hoped it would.
"Dad," he repeated, "I feel like today has turned my whole world upside-down, in a really good way. I...I'm not going to rub Mom's face in it, okay? But I'm not going to let anything keep me from getting better acquainted with you." He suddenly feared he might have crossed a line, so he hastily added, "as long as YOU want to get better acquainted, that is."
His father smiled, but sadly. He looked down at the table for a few moments.
Dean began to feel a sick knot in his gut. Please don't say 'No,' please!
When his father looked up again, his eyes were moist.
"Dean, today you made my greatest dream come true. I've missed you so much..." His face broke up, and he hastily left the table.
Dean quickly rose to his feet with some alarm. But he stayed by the table, not wanting to intrude on his father's chosen privacy.
His father went into a side room and shut the door.
Dean didn't know what it meant or what to do, and he grew more worried by the minute.
His phone stayed quiet, and that began to worry him, too. No news is NOT good news, not this time. She must be screaming her head off at him.
He felt terribly antsy, and to make matters worse, he really had to go to the bathroom, and he didn't know where it was. For all he knew, it might have been the room that his father closed himself into.
Would he be upset if he came out of that room, and I was right nearby? Would he think I was trying to eavesdrop?
Finally he walked back into the kitchen and peered around until he spotted the bathroom. It was open and empty, so he hurried in.
When he came out, his father was waiting for him in the kitchen. He seemed fairly well collected, but his eyes were still wet.
"I'm so sorry, Son. I didn't mean to break down like that."
Dean shrugged. "It's okay. I mean...I'd hate it if I came back into your life after ten years and you thought it was a big yawn...right?"
His father put a hand on his cheek, then wrapped his arms around him and hugged him again.
This time, Dean did not hesitate to return the hug.
The hug lasted more than a few moments, but once released, Dean didn't feel the sense of relief that he'd felt when earlier hugs had ended. His father was as physically demonstrative as the Italian stereotypes that Dean had heard about. His mother was also a toucher, but his stepdad wasn't. He was very affectionate, but a pat on the shoulder, or an arm across the shoulders, was as physical as it ever got. That and, of course, the very occasional hug.
But Dean was already becoming comfortable with these new, fatherly demonstrations. And he was glad.
Even after his father broke off the hug, he still held Dean's shoulders in his hands. "Son, there's something I need you to understand." He looked down, clearly struggling with himself.
"Should we go sit down?" Dean suggested.
"Ok, yeah." They walked to the living room and sat side-by-side on the sofa. His father still seemed to be fighting an internal battle.
"Dean, today I faced men with guns...well, I do that a lot...but right now I'm more scared than I usually am during life threatening situations at work."
Dean's brow furrowed. "Why?"
"Because this matters more, and I don't trust myself not to mess it up." With obvious difficulty, he made himself look into Dean's eyes. "I...I made a lot of mistakes in the past, Dean...mistakes that cost me the people I loved most. And there is nothing, not even death, that's more frightening to me than losing the ones I love most."
"Mom said you were a drunk, but I don't think you still are."
"That's true, I'm not. But...while I've spent the past ten years making myself a better person, I've done most of that in uniform. I know who I am in uniform. I know my responsibilities. I have rules to follow. I have a history of success, Dean...not perfect success, not by a long shot...but enough success that I'm respected and trusted. But I don't have that kind of history as a father."
He looked down at his hands. "I was nothing but a failure as a father, Dean, and that's the worst pain of my life. And now..." He looked back up, quickly, gazing deeply into Dean's eyes. "Please, please don't misunderstand me! I'm thrilled that you're back. Absolutely. It's just that now I have to face the biggest fear of my life."
"The fear that...that kicking alcohol and becoming a success...becoming a better man at work...maybe it wasn't enough. Maybe I still won't have what it takes to be a good father to you." He put a hand on Dean's shoulder again. "But I want to try. I hope you'll still let me try, even though I've been a bit of a basket case this evening. I am sorry."
Dean looked away. His father's raw pain and fear, which most men would have hidden, made him terribly uncomfortable.
And yet, he admired his father's courage, more than he could fully absorb right now.
"Listen...Dad...I can't imagine how hard this has been for you. And besides..." he finally looked at his father again. "...I know that you...that you had to kill that man tonight. That's got to be rough, especially after I sprang all of that stuff on you. I don't blame you for being... overwhelmed."
His father looked down, but he actually wore a small smile again. He looked back at Dean after a moment. "I'm glad you understand that that was painful for me...having to kill that man. A lot of people get the idea that cops find killing easy. We don't, and I'm glad you know that."
"So," Dean continued after a short pause, "why don't we just admit that tonight is awkward, but it's good. And we can let it be awkward, and that's okay. It will get easier every time, right?"
A slow smile spread over his father's face. He nodded and put a hand on Dean's cheek. "Next time. I like the sound of that."
Dean smiled back, but soon his father turned away and looked at nothing again.
At least he seems peaceful now.
Silence reigned for several long moments.
"So..." his father clapped his hands together and then rubbed them a little nervously, it seemed. "What do you want to do?"
"You got any pictures?"
His father's eyes widened. "Yeah! Oh yeah, definitely!" He jumped to his feet and hurried to a bookshelf in the hallway. His words continued to trip over themselves in their eagerness to express his enthusiasm. "Absolutely, that's a great idea! Can't wait to look at these with you!" And yet, when he sat down beside Dean with the albums, he hesitated. His emotions welled up again, though they didn't spill over. "Wow...wow...I can't believe this is happening." He gave Dean a broad smile, and opened the first album across their two laps.
Soon Dean was utterly absorbed in the very first photo. It was an image he never could have imagined. His mom and Greg Parker, cheek to cheek, facing the camera with huge, happy smiles.
She loved him once. She actually loved him! It was hard for Dean to even take that fact in.
"That was the day we got engaged." His father's voice, full of poignancy, almost surprised Dean. He'd forgotten anyone else existed.
Wedding pictures followed. All the usual clichéd poses, but all with apparently genuine smiles on both of their faces. This feels so unreal...
"Hey, that's Ed!" Dean pointed at the Best Man in sudden recognition.
"Yeah, we go way back." His dad smiled. "See? There's the hair I told you about."
Dean laughed. In this photo, at least, Ed's fine head of hair gave no indication that it was going to disappear someday.
Dean slowly absorbed the wedding scenes, trying to reconcile them with his mother's pure hatred of Greg Parker now. His father let him look in silence.
More happy shots, these in obvious tourist poses. The location shots quickly impressed him with their beauty. "Where were these taken?"
His father leaned closer and looked at the photos with his heart as much as his eyes. "Our honeymoon. Banff."
Dean had never heard of Banff, but that strange word hardly registered with him anyway. The word "honeymoon" always sent his adolescent mind in uncomfortable directions, but the idea of this honeymoon, with these two people, nearly short-circuited his brain. He chose to focus on the scenery in those shots, and not think about them further than that.
Soon he found photos of his father's early days in uniform...an ordinary Toronto PD uniform, with red-banded hat. He refrained from commenting on how silly he thought the red bands looked. Dallas cops wore nothing of the kind.
And then there were photos of his mom with an ever-growing "baby bump."
Dean pointed at it. "That's me, huh?"
Dean glanced at his father, recognizing a whole range of emotion in that single syllable. But despite the depth of his feelings, his father seemed okay.
Dean spotted more photos of Ed, this time with a pregnant woman by his side. "What's her name?" he asked.
"Sophie." His father smiled. "Great gal!"
Dean just nodded. He could almost remember her now.
Yes, I do remember. I just have to give myself permission to.
"Oh, and guess what?" his father asked.
"Ed and Sophie are expecting another baby!"
Dean's brow furrowed. "Really? Wow. Are there any more besides Clark and this new one?"
Dean looked back down at the photos, still shaking his head. "I can't imagine getting a baby brother or sister at my age."
Labor room images caught Dean's attention next. He looked up quickly. "Are there any here that I wouldn't want to see?"
His father laughed aloud. "No, your mom never would have gone for those kinds of shots. And neither would I."
He recognized some of the baby photos. His mom had the same ones. But there were plenty he had never seen, and the reason was obvious.
His father was in those shots.
She did try to erase you.
Dean almost forgot everything again as he looked at photos of his infant relationship with the man who now sat beside him. "You looked so happy! I hadn't pictured you ever being happy," he murmured.
"I was, back then. You and your mom were the light of my life." His voice still brimmed with both joy and sorrow.
"There are so many pictures of the two of us!"
"Does that surprise you?"
Dean shrugged. "I never saw any. And...well...I had the impression that you weren't really a family kind of guy."
"Are you kidding?" The sorrow was back, though not overwhelmingly so. "I couldn't get enough of you guys! How could she..." his voice trailed off without completing the question, almost as if he'd answered it already in his mind.
The sorrow grew palpably deeper. Dean could feel it coming at him in waves, though his father made no obvious expressions of it.
"I guess..." he murmured at last, "...no...it's definitely true. At the end I wasn't good for much, wasn't there for either of you. I guess I can't blame her..." He trailed off again.
Dean wanted to lighten the mood, and he quickly found the photo to do it. "Aw jeez, why do parents have to do that?"
His father looked and laughed aloud, just as he'd hoped he would. "The traditional naked baby picture. It's a parent thing. You'll do it too, when you have kids."
Dean shook his head vigorously. "No way. I won't do that."
His father just chuckled.
Picture after picture followed of father and son enjoying each other. Feedings, first with a bottle, and then with a spoon (and all the related mess). Baby Dean sleeping on his father's chest. Toddler Dean riding on his father's back like a pony, or going piggyback on his shoulders. Preschool Dean wearing his father's red-banded Toronto PD hat. I guess I liked how it looked back then.
But Dean began to notice the difference...the change in the smiles in his father's photos. As the years went by, the smile got further and further from his eyes, until it was clearly only posed. The eyes took on a desperate, sometimes hollow look.
Beside him, his father grew noticeably tense.
Dean turned to look at him. "What happened, Dad?"
He sighed. "The pain of the job. It was just too much for me back then. I didn't know how to cope with it, and I made the worst mistake of my life. I turned to the bottle for comfort. Dumb, dumb mistake. Don't ever do it, please."
"Believe me, Mom has always drilled that into my head."
"Well, I hope you're listening. It only makes things worse. Much, much worse."
"Did it start because you had to kill someone, like tonight?"
"No." His father looked down at his hands and said nothing more for several long moments.
"Dad, I'd really like to understand. I mean...all my life I've heard the worst, but never any reasons, never any explanation. And I think it would help to understand."
"Well...the fact is...it all started when you were two years old. Some men, three of them, early twenties...except one was only eighteen..." He stopped and looked at Dean. "Only two years older than you are now. How can anyone so young be so evil?"
"What did they do?" Dean prompted, when it became apparent that the narrative had stalled.
His father shook himself. "They kidnapped a two year old. A little boy who looked a lot like you did. And they...did terrible, unimaginable things to that baby. We searched and searched for him, and when we found him, and I saw what shape he was in, and what had happened to him...something just broke inside of me. I mean, I already had dealt with a lot of tragedy. Accidental deaths, drug overdoses, kids stuck in terrible homes, child abuse of every kind, and covering it all like a blanket, the universal contempt that the public feels for cops whenever we're not dying on the job. It was all terribly painful. But I always felt like I was okay, despite it all. But after we found that baby...I'm telling you, I could almost feel a physical breaking inside my heart. And after that, I just knew that there was nothing I could do to make the world a good place. Nothing I could do to make it safe for you. Nothing could...could restore what I had lost that day. Nothing could fill the emptiness."
He paused, looking somewhere far away. But then he shook himself back to the present and looked at Dean. "I had already started drinking a little too much, but it went big-league after that."
"How did you ever get your life turned around?"
"Well, it took years, and it would probably take years to tell about it. But it boils down to people who love me, coming alongside and supporting me, helping me find my way. And others who inspired me by coming through hard times themselves." His eyes took on a faraway look. "I remember a moment...I think it was really pivotal. A moment when I realized that reaching out to others, caring about them, risking the hurt of connecting was what made life worthwhile. I'd been withdrawing, and by doing that, I'd been robbing myself of healing. Connecting was healing."
"But you're still tempted to withdraw when it's family, not work," Dean noted matter-of-factly.
His father's jaw dropped, and he stared at Dean as if he couldn't believe what he'd said.
"Well," Dean quickly backpedaled, "I mean..."
"No, don't worry, what you said was exactly right. Exactly right. I'm just stunned. You seem wise beyond your years, Son."
Dean just shrugged.
His father's gaze became intense. "I don't want to pull back from you, Son. I want to take the risk. I know it will be worth it."
Dean's phone beeped. He fished it out of his pocket and looked at it with a feeling of dread.
"I've told her," the text began. "It's bad. Come home. Meet me at the bus stop near Shelby's corner."
He showed the phone to his father, hating what had to happen next. "I don't want this to end, Dad, but it has to."
"Yeah, definitely." His father stood brusquely, like a man accustomed to facing unpleasant duties without flinching. Which, of course, he was.
"How long will you be in Toronto, Son?"
Dean grimaced. "We leave the day after tomorrow, first thing. And I doubt my mom will let me come see you tomorrow."
His father shook his head. "No, I'm sure she won't." He kept his eyes locked with Dean's as he, too, rose to his feet. "I don't want this to end either, Son."
"I know, but Dad, I still want you to drop the lawsuit..."
His father's face fell, and his breathing instantly came short. His eyes shone with sudden agony.
Dean rushed to clarify. "No no no no...I don't mean it like that. Not like that at all." He walked closer, but his father didn't reach out to him this time. His pain-filled eyes remained receptive, searching, but very much afraid.
"Dad..." Dean hesitated for a moment, and then shyly reached to put his hands on his father's shoulders. For all the touching that had happened today, this was the first that he'd initiated.
His father drew in a deep breath, eyes still locked with Dean's, responding to the unexpected touch with an apparent willingness to hope...but not with actual hope. For that, he waited.
Dean let his hands stay on those very human shoulders.
"Dad, I want you to drop the lawsuit because I never want there to be any doubt in your mind why you're back in my life."
He could see the wheels turning behind his father's eyes now. Gentle hands tentatively reached up, and briefly touched his elbows.
"If you kept up the lawsuit, you might always feel that you'd forced your way into my life. And I admit, that's the way I thought of it before I got to know you." He shook his head, struggling to put such profound feelings into words. "But when you drop the lawsuit, you'll know that you're in my life because I want you to be. And I really, really want you to be...Dad."
His father's eyes pooled. He shook his head, looked down, looked back up, laughed a little, and then grabbed Dean into a hug that nearly crushed him.
Dean felt choked up, but he kept his equilibrium as he returned the hug with all his heart.
But then his father's whisper melted all his defenses. "Oh, my son, my son, my son..." the words came out in a quiet sob.
Dean felt his own breath catch. How could I not have known how much I needed you?
He let his own tears fall, and his father responded by holding him even closer, swaying a little with that instinctive need to keep the hug active and alive.
And then a new thought tacked itself onto that one; a thought with a whole new feeling of wonder and joy.
I never dreamed how much you would need me!