© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 15, 2008

In 1993 my father called and told me he had lung cancer. At Thanksgiving I went to see him in Houston and the next year I visited every couple of months. He died Sept. 12, 1994, and I got on a plane to Texas once more.

I stayed at his house the next week, and several times some neighbors whom I had never met would come to the door and say, "You must be his son. I wanted to offer my condolences." Then their voice would break and I could feel that my loss was also their loss. I wondered if my father had known how much they cared. So much of the love we have for each other is unseen and invisible. Love can be like a shy little animal that peeks out of its burrow and then ducks back down.

This morning I'll tell you about dad's death and about his life. This talk will be very personal, but I believe that psychotherapist Carl Rogers was right in saying, "What is most personal is most universal." I hope what I say about my dad will stir up memories and feelings about your dad, or about others who have been like a father to you.

I did not know my father while I was growing up, because my parents were divorced when I was three and my mom moved away from Illinois to California. Mom was a wonderful person, but the divorce brought out her anxious and fearful side. She did not want me to have contact with him, and as a result I feared my father. When I was eight, I was filling out a school form that asked for the name of one of my father's friends. I told my teacher I didn't know any of his friends, so she suggested I just make up a name. I wrote, "Mr. Danger." As far as I know the teacher never responded to that obvious red flag.

When I was nine, my mother explained to me why she and my father had divorced. He was homosexual. Later Dale told me that he had known he was gay as a teenager, but he never talked about his sexual orientation with his family. He didn't hide it either, and he even did a little gender bending. One day his stepmother sat down with him and said, "Dale, I don't care who you associate with or what you do with them, but that coral nail polish has got to go!" This was in rural Illinois in the 1930s!

His father, Harve Schriner, had no understanding of gayness, but he was generally supportive of his youngest child and praised Dale's talent as a pianist.

When Dale went to college, he became romantically involved with his male voice teacher, who was just a few years older. But he also met a classmate named Margaret Baker. I guess Dad was a little bit bisexual, since he said later that he had been attracted to her. They naively believed that marriage would change him. And so they were wed, and then Dad went off to World War II. I was the tangible result of that marriage.

Dale was a pilot, and flew 67 combat missions from India into China, over the hump - meaning, over the Himalayas. It was a perilous assignment, and many of his fellow pilots didn't make it home. He was a proud member of the Hump Pilots Association for the rest of his life. After returning from the war, Dale filed for divorce, and began living with his former voice teacher, Don Johnson. Later they moved to Houston.

Although I grew up with negative feelings about homosexuality, in college I found out that there is no evidence that gay people, as a group, tend to be psychologically disturbed. And in psychotherapy I worked through many of my feelings about my father and about gay people in general. I also chose to live for a while with a gay couple, Frank [The Rev. Frank Robertson, then Minister of Religious Education at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington, D.C., one of the first un-closeted UU ministers] and Frank's partner Rick, and that definitely helped me get over being uncomfortable about gayness.

So I was changing. And Dale was changing too. While he and Mom were married, he was capable of insensitivity and even cruelty. He drank to excess, caroused till all hours, and spent too much money. But when he was around 50, he and Don both went to AA. Dad quit drinking for a while, and thereafter drank only moderately. He also quit smoking. Dad was deeply religious, and he and Don attended a big Methodist church in Houston for many years, with Dale singing in the choir. And he began corresponding with me and with my mother.

In 1981 Mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dale asked our permission to visit, and it was amazing to see the two of them almost picking up where they had left off, except with a mature sense of mutual acceptance, healing, and forgiveness. I even got to hear them call each other by their old pet names - she was "Bobbie" and he was "Bunny." A few months after Mother died, Dad invited me to visit him in Texas.

I still remember staring out the window on that plane ride, wondering what this was going to be like. For one thing I would be meeting his partner, Don, for the first time, the same man for whom he had left my mother. Both of them taught piano, and when I walked into their living room I saw two grand pianos nestled together like a giant yang and yin symbol.

Dale and Don made me feel quite at home, and for about 15 years I visited them annually. It was quite educational to observe my reactions to them and let go of old prejudices. Often I would catch myself being surprised at how typical they were, as if I expected them to be like men from Mars. So much of prejudice is the false belief that one difference implies many other differences. Sure, it makes a difference to be gay. But mostly, people who love each other are just people who love each other. And as a family therapist, I could see that Dale and Don interacted just like any typical old married couple, except that they didn't have male-female gender issues. If you had simply read a printout of what they were saying to each other, 99% of the time there would have been no clue that these were two gay guys. Like straight spouses, there was the same ability to almost read each other's minds, the same longstanding petty irritations, the same daily routines and seasonal rituals, the jokes that only they fully understood, the deep mutual dependency, the comfort in each other's silent presence, the same loyalty and abiding love.

When I met my Dad, he was 65, the age I am now. He was easy-going, slender, medium height, with horn-rimmed glasses and a brown toupee. I've brought a few photos. He was a friendly fellow who would start up conversations with complete strangers, including people of all racial backgrounds. He also had a zany sense of humor, an ability to be childlike even though he had outgrown being childish. For example, he taught me a variation of Pig Latin called Goose Latin, or Goolafoose Lalafatin as he would say in that "language." And he had several little off-the-wall sayings. For instance, instead of saying, "Well, whatever turns you on," Dad would say, "Well, whatever makes your socks go up and down!"

Dad was a fiscal conservative and a Republican, although he disliked that party's opposition to gay rights. Eventually he gave up and switched political parties.

Our visits followed a pleasant routine, always enjoying the same restaurants - Luby's Cafeteria, Goode Company Barbecue, and Gaido's Seafood down in Galveston. On Sunday night, we'd watch "Murder She Wrote" on TV. Dale was a superb gardener, and he'd always take me through his back yard, telling me about every single plant and how it was doing.

I inherited Dad's love of music, and it was wonderful to hear him play Debussy and Chopin. He also loved music from the 1930s and 1940s. He was the pianist for an adult Sunday school class, and once I saw him play boogie-woogie while the class was gathering. One woman whispered to another, "That doesn't sound like religious music to me!" The song was "Sentimental Journey," which we heard earlier in the service. Also, after living in Texas all those years, he came to enjoy country music. Dale was also a rabid baseball fan, and he sometimes sold peanuts and crackerjacks during ball games for the Houston Astros. We went to one game together and I can still picture him shouting, "Go! Go! Go!")

During nearly 15 years of visits with Dad, I never saw any sign of meanness. In fact he encouraged me to be more gentle and forgiving in my dealings with people. In the last few visits, I rented a video camera and interviewed both Dale and Don at length. Don told me, "Well, Chris, I feel you have made me immortal."

One day in 1993, Dale found Don dead from heart failure. A few months later Dale was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Dad became more outspoken as his life neared its end. He told one of the nurses, "I'm 78 years old and now I just say anything I want to." I was reminded of "When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple." We could take that sort of liberty sooner, rather than waiting for a terminal diagnosis.

One afternoon Dad and I were talking about death and he said, "I don't think I'm afraid of dying. In fact I don't think I've been afraid of anything or anyone my whole life. Sometimes I think it's just arrogance." I should emphasize that Dale never showed a hostile or domineering arrogance. But there was a subtle swagger about him, a quiet self-confidence, which probably made him a better pilot during the war. I'm quite sure that this soft-spoken, somewhat feminine man had more physical courage than a lot of guys who look tough.

Once when Dad had just a few weeks to live, he told me about a dream. In the Methodist Church choir, Dale would sometimes make little side comments to amuse people during rehearsals. (Does anyone ever do that when the Peak Performers are practicing?) During his dream, the choir was rehearsing and suddenly he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the music. He whispered to someone about it, and the choir director, Dr. Wehr, said, "Dale, what are you saying now?" And Dale replied, "Oh, I was thinking that we should just stop and appreciate this magnificent music." And the choir master replied, "You know, Dale, you're absolutely right. Dale we're so glad you're one of us. We're so glad you're here with us. You're one of a kind."

When Dad said, "You're one of a kind," I heard so much feeling in his voice. Dale Dudley Schriner was one of a kind ... and every person is one of a kind. This is not just Dad's dream; this is you and this is me. We are all ordinary, and we are all extraordinary.

And then Dale's physical being came to an end. At his memorial service Don was mentioned as his lifelong companion. Most people knew what that meant. Remarkably, my aunt Nellie put a picture of both of them by the guest book for the memorial service, instead of just a picture of Dale. But I wish their true marriage of heart and mind had been openly recognized and celebrated before they died. Their relationship had lasted over half a century, except for the few years that Dale was married. Many of their younger gay friends looked to Dale and Don as role models.

I spoke earlier of the people who came to offer condolences, and one of them was a woman of about 35. Her daughters had taken piano from Dad and she was just dissolved in grief. She said she'd do anything to help - clean, sort his papers, whatever. While she gathered up items to donate to thrift stores I urged her to take some things and she said, "How could I take this? It belonged to him?" Have you ever felt as if it would be wrong to take what belonged to someone who has died? I did too, but today it feels special to wear this tie of Dad's which celebrates his love of flying.

Then this woman told me she had needed someone like a father in her life, and Dale had served as a kindly father figure. So the man who could not be there for his young son was like a father, many years later, for this young woman.

Eventually everything was packed and I was alone, saying goodbye to his empty house and his vivid presence. I decided to also say farewell to his beloved back yard, with his dear plants all around the edges, and the magnificent tree in the middle like a Tree of Life. As I walked toward the gate to the backyard, right in front of the gate I saw a dazzlingly beautiful little snake - about two feet long, rainbow hued and just impossibly, ethereally slim. As I approached it, it zipped into a hole by the house with a kind of magical flowing motion I had never seen. I don't know if it was a leaping slither or a slithering leap.

So then I thought, "I will imagine that this snake has given me permission to enter the garden." I opened the gate and walked to the great tree on that sultry Houston afternoon. The only sound was a resonant choir of cicadas. You know what cicadas sound like down south? The air will be silent for a while and then they'll begin, sounding like hundreds of castanets played at 10,000 rpm, louder and louder, step by step, to a crescendo. Then the sound drops and drops into silence again. I stood through several choruses of cicadas playing castanet crescendos for my father, and then I took my leave.

On the plane trip home I thought about how the good that we do goes on and on. Even though names and memories fade, our impact upon the future continues as a subtle energy flowing outward without limit. And so everything we cherish about people is in some sense safe. Everything we cherish is in some sense secure. And all that we cherish is, in some real sense, eternal. My father is gone and yet he is present. As the late Ric Masten put it [From Voice of the Hive, p. 31]:

"He having been must always be.
Nothing is lost.
Nothing is wasted."
And this is so.

Back to Top