“Do you miss it?” I’m startled by his question, but keep my eyes on the road ahead of me and do my best to not reveal my surprise in his asking. In my 10 years since leaving my previous career, it’s not a topic that my dad and I had ever discussed, and yet, he asks so casually, almost as if he’s the one reminiscing. He’s looking out the window as the building along the side of the road comes into view. Maybe it’s the long road trip we’re on that makes him open to this conversation. Perhaps it’s his old age and the news of failing health. Regardless, I answer honestly, not taking my eyes off the road: “I do.” His demeanor doesn’t change. Living an authentic life is important to me and hiding things about myself, no matter how controversial they may be, is not something I like doing with anyone — especially when that something lends itself to being one of the strongest experiences that shaped me into the person I am today.
So with that, I nervously decide I’ll be the one to push the conversation along. “You know what I miss most?” He doesn’t answer but turns his head inquisitively toward me. “I miss the honesty of it all. I miss providing the space for people to share their deepest, most secret parts of themselves; and them knowing they were safe to do so.” He’s looking forward now but hasn’t given any impression he’s uncomfortable. Regardless, I stop there. It’s more than I’ve ever said out loud and might be all I’ll ever say to him on the matter. He looks out the window as the twinkling red lights fall farther behind us. I hold my breath, wondering if I’ve opened some can of fatherly disappointment. He surprises me when he looks forward and states: “I can see that. I visited a prostitute once myself. Did I ever tell you that? It was when I was in Vietnam.” He says this with as little emotion or judgment as if I had just shared my love of tacos over pizza.
That conversation was three years ago. According to his doctors, my dad shouldn’t have lived that long. More surprising, he lived three more years since then. These past three bonus years were probably the most honest years I had with him.
When all of us in the family were first faced with his death, we each made an unspoken but conscious effort to make the most of our time with him. On one particular day, I was sitting with him in his backyard. He was in a reflective mood, and so I took a moment to ask him about what words of wisdom he had for me or anything remarkable he learned over the years that he’d like to share. He looked at me and smiled and said simply: “Just Love.” I was a bit disappointed at this. I suppose at the time I was looking for something with more meaning or depth. But from there, our conversation continued, and it was then that I was brought back to our conversation on the road. He said he never took issue with my career choice because doing so wouldn’t have been a loving gesture towards me. Humbled, it brought me to consider all the ways my opinions or comments were the opposite of that. I like to believe that I live my life with a theme of “Just Love” towards others regardless of their own journeys. But I’m certain I fall short more often than I’d like.
In December, my dad passed. We all knew it was coming, but the finality of it was gut-wrenching. Fortunately, upon his passing, none of us can say we had any unfinished business with him or words left unsaid. While I thought that my experience of being able to be so transparent with him about something so controversial as a career in sex work was unique, it turns out he had similar conversations with my brothers and mom. It turns out that he really was walking his talk. It turns out he really did lead and live with a motto of “Just Love.”
In the reflection of my life, love, and loss of this amazing person I was lucky enough to call Dad, I’d like to leave each of you with a bit of love and wishes you may go forward this next while with love, laughter, and a knowledge that the best-kept secret to a life well-lived may just be the simplest message of all.
Dr. Laurie Bennett-Cook is a clinical sexologist and divides her time between Palm Springs, Calif., and Salt Lake City. She can be reached at DrLaurieBennettCook@gmail.com