Out in the Open

Bill Gaston describes the 'mystical experience' at his father's deathbed

The author says he forgave his dad's flaws in an instant at the end of the man's life.

The author's recent memoir explores the things fathers and sons don’t talk about until it’s too late

Bill Gaston, left, and his father used to go fishing together. (Submitted by Bill Gaston)

Bill Gaston says his relationship with his dad was typical. They liked to go fishing together, and his dad would tell tall tales of his younger years – how he'd been a basketball star in the NCAA, or fought in the Second World War, or had a successful career in business. John Wayne was his father's model of manhood. 

But his dad's flaws became more apparent to Gaston as he got older. For one, he was an alcoholic.

"I'd come home for a visit and (it) might be Saturday and he'd be passed out on the couch at one in the afternoon already," Gaston told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay, "and a kind of tide of disgust would rise."

Bill Gaston (Submitted by Bill Gaston)

Gaston was coming around the house less and less.

"You know, I guess he kept falling off it, whatever pedestal he had."

Gaston's conversations with his father were always surface-level. He never knew how to pick apart fact from fiction in his dad's stories.

But over time, Gaston learned some truth about his dad's childhood from his mom.

His dad's dad, Osro, had been abusive. When his was 10-years-old, Gaston's father tried to intervene in a fight between his parents.

"My dad grabbed a fireplace poker and tried to protect his mom," Gaston said. "At this point, Osro beat them all up, and beat up my dad really bad, broke his arm, broke his nose."

Gaston said his grandmother fled with his father. But when his grandmother could no longer afford to care for him, she put his father in foster care, where he was also abused.

Gaston started to understand how his dad became the way he was. But they didn't speak about it.

Bill Gaston's father (Submitted by Bill Gaston)

One day, Gaston got a call. His father was dying. He went to the hospital to visit him. His father couldn't speak, but could squeeze Gaston's finger when asked. He saw the fear in his father's eyes.

"If I've ever had a mystical or religious experience, that was it, in this room with my dad."

In that moment, Gaston's feelings about his father shifted. He instantly forgave his dad for everything. He saw how all people are a product of their difficult circumstances.

"I came to see that at a certain really fundamental level we can't be blamed, we shouldn't be blamed. We're all trying our best to live our life."

Gaston thought back on the lies his father used to tell – his own form of self-protection.

"I wish you would have told me the truth," Gaston would say now to his father, if he could. "But it doesn't matter now, because I know the truth and and I love you for it."

Gaston recounts his relationship with his dad in his memoir Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood.

This story originally aired on August 26, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "The Secret Lives of Parents".


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