In ten years, I hadn't seen any of my family members - not even immediate family, let alone heard from anyone since I'd left. I made no effort to contact them, and they certainly made no effort to contact me.

I'm a fag. Fags don't go over well in small towns, with deeply-rooted religious beliefs. The whole town could fill the church, and my childhood memories are peppered with the influences and icons of Catholicism. When I was eighteen and announced to my family that I was gay, the loving atmosphere the church created had abruptly collapsed around me when my parents told me to leave.

Hello, Nicky? I just thought you ought to know.

When I left, everything I thought I knew just dissolved. I stopped going to church, I became hateful of the whole idea, I hated the hypocrisy. It was lies, growing up, all I'd been fed were lies and false assurances. The priest preached forgiveness of thieves, adulterers, murderers, but there was no room for homosexuality in the house of God.

When I left, I barely took anything with me, leaving the same day, taking a bus out to the city. I don't remember how I managed to do it, how I found a place to stay, or get myself through school, and get a job. If I had to do it again, I wouldn't know where to start. It's not easy to uproot yourself.

Hello, Nicky? I just thought you ought to know. Your father died the other day. Cancer.

Cancer. I didn't know he had cancer. I wondered what kind of cancer it was, if I could end up dying from it, too. I wondered what he thought about, if he knew he was going to die the moment before, if he was aware of his last breath. What was the last thing he said? Did he have any regrets, or did he die content with his life? Was he alone, or with family and friends, was it at home or in the hospital? Was he afraid?

The funeral is this weekend, at the church.

The voice on the answering machine was getting shakier, now. I heard something break in his voice. Was he an uncle? Which uncle? Or was he a cousin? I could not guess his age by the recording, so I could not be sure, no matter how many times I played back the message and tried to recognize the voice.

I found it interesting that he'd said the church; it meant that most of the family hadn't left the small town. They still had the same roots, same priest, same circles of friends, same annual church flea market and fund raisers. They saw the same mass every Christmas, with the same Sunday school group doing the same interpretation of Jesus' birth; with the same innkeepers, the same shepherds, three wise men and stuffed donkey on wheels, and the same Joseph wheeling it around, the same Mary sitting on its back. The same choir to sing the same hymns. They'd still live near the same schools and the same stores, they'd walked the same streets and most likely lived in the same house, with the same fence and the same walls. I imagined them sitting around the same kitchen table, drinking from the same coffee cups, eating the same banana bread my mother baked.

Except it wouldn't really be the same; my father would not be there to sit in the same armchair in the living room, or the same chair at the kitchen table. He wouldn't go out and buy his same brand of beer and share it with the same friends on Saturdays, on the front porch, after mowing the same lawn. I tried to imagine what everyone looked like now, sitting around the kitchen table, with the one empty chair that no one would have the nerve to sit in.

The service is Saturday at nine o'clock. Then to your mother's for, you know, coffee and tea and stuff.

The voice paused and took a deep breath, collecting himself.

Anyway. I just thought you should know. I'm sorry. This is probably going to be a terrible message for you to come home to.

He hung up the phone carefully, the click of the receiver was very faint. I stood, still reeling in my bedroom, and when I felt I was going to lose my balance, I sat down on the edge of my bed. I felt like I should cry, and I tried to, but I couldn't, just scrunched my face and tried to force sobs, with nothing coming out. I didn't really know what to feel just then. Yes, he was my father, but the way I was forced to leave home is my last memory of him, and it's still very fresh in my mind.

I didn't eat supper that night. I'd come home planning to order pizza, and sit in front of the TV to watch the game. This changed everything. The rest of the night, I played the tape over and over, trying to muster some emotions in myself; feeling guilty that I wasn't capable of feeling more.

Finally, I changed the tape in the machine, not wanting to tape over the message. I staggered into the bathroom and was physically sick.