I never have had to doubt my parents’ love, not even when I had to explain to them what I meant when I said, “I’m queer.” In my days at home, my parents were the type to be at every event; my mother was given the “Team Spirit” award on my tennis team during my senior year of high school. My first girlfriend had called me “Angel Baby” because of the way my mother’s eyes lit up when she saw me for the first time in weeks or months. I knew being gay would be ok. It wouldn’t threaten my mother’s love.
Over the years, their enthusiastic support hasn’t wavered. Although I’m not the first in my family to attend college, I am the first to finish a terminal degree. Of course my parents wanted to participate in my becoming a doctor. When the time finally came for me to defend my dissertation in biochemistry, they flew from Washington state to New York and stayed in my apartment. New York hotels were too expensive for their taste. I had just broken up with my first serious boyfriend.
A few months earlier, this boyfriend had flown with me to Washington for my father’s retirement. The invitation was telling, he was welcoming this man into our family, but my father and I never really talked about it. That’s how he was: always doing the right thing but not saying it in words. My parents wanted grandkids, and, to be honest, so did I. They imagined me achieving a life that did not look too different from their own, and I felt that, in losing this man and our relationship, I had not only lost my own love, but I had also failed to meet their expectations.
By the time I finished graduate school, I still needed the security of my family, but I no longer wanted to need it. I was nearing 30 and yearned to be the type of independent adult I had imagined for myself as a child. My parents and I don’t necessarily share the language we use to describe ourselves. My queerness has sort of baffled them, as I tend to explain it using academic jargon. They roll with my punches, even when I write publicly about sex, even when I invite scrutiny from our family or our neighbors with my skinny jeans and limp wrists.
The weekend they were in New York to watch me become a doctor, I received a text from a friend, Omar, saying he was in town. I was out but not drinking much because of the emotional turmoil in my recent life. Omar lived in DC, but his family was from New York, and he visited often. We would get a drink or a meal when he was in town. If both of us were single, we would usually go out and dance and kiss.
iMessage to Omar: I’m out and about. Just having a drink now in midtown.
iMessage to Omar: … and just FYI, I’m single.
iMessage received: Lets meet!
iMessage to Omar: Ok.
It was that simple. We met around midnight at a gay country music bar in Hell’s Kitchen, and we talked about life and work and boys. Omar was already drunk. We kissed once at the bar. At the end of the night, late but not embarrassingly so, Omar asked if he could stay at my place. His parents’ house—all the way in East Flatbush—would take a couple of hours to get to.
I explained that it would be awkward since my parents were staying over. He did not beg, but I ended up offering. I was sleeping in my roommate’s room; my Dad was sleeping in my room, and my mother was sleeping on the couch. My parents were used to a king sized bed; they couldn’t sleep on a full anymore, not together.
So: Omar and I would tiptoe past my Mom and into my roommate’s room, shut the door, and sleep. It was the night before Father’s Day and my family was going to brunch early. I would text Omar once we left, and he could sneak out.
We got home and made it inside just fine, tip-toeing past my mother and giggling. It felt like high school. Omar was drunk and got naked, fully naked. He looked good, and we kissed. It was late, though, and so we just slept.
I did not learn about what happened next until it was too late. Around 5:30 a.m. Omar needed to pee. He got up and went to the bathroom. He had stayed at my apartment many times, both on the couch and once or twice in my bed. So, when he came out of the bathroom, naked, Omar forgot that I was not sleeping in my own room.
He made a hard right instead of a soft left, and entered my room. He crawled back into bed. Pulled the covers up, naked and drunk.
Omar had crawled into my bed—but with my Father.
My Dad tried to rouse Omar. He shook him, but he didn’t wake up. My father put his arm around Omar and picked him up—even though my father was five inches shorter, only 5’7”—and walked him back to where I was sleeping. He put Omar back in bed, shut the door, and left. He tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t. So he got up and went to Starbucks and read for three hours before making his way back home.
I woke up the next morning with Omar next to me, still asleep. I thought that we had made it. Of course we hadn’t. I got up and shut the door behind me. I made coffee. My mother gave me a look that I did not notice.
“Is your friend still here?” she said, the words reaching my ears like a punch to the stomach.
She told me what happened. I felt sick.
“You should apologize to your father,” she said. “What happened?”
I almost told the truth. I said that Omar had been really drunk and wouldn’t have made it back to East Flatbush. He was used to that being my room and acted on instinct. I didn’t tell her we kissed or that we had kissed before; I wanted to remain fully innocent in my mother’s eyes.
At brunch we ate pizza at Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge. I was hungover even though I hadn’t drunk much the night before. The conversation was sparse, forced, full of heavy silences and white space.
I texted Omar that afternoon:
iMessage to Omar: My father really appreciated his cuddle this morning.
He thought I was kidding; he had no recollection of going into my room, of lying next to my father, of being carried back across the hall and placed back where he belonged, next to me. That’s what I imagine my father saying—“This is where this belongs”—but I’ve never had the heart to ask. Another silence between us. When Omar finally understood that I was telling the truth, he was mortified. I still like Omar, and I think he likes me too, but I haven’t spent time with him since. Our collective embarrassment is too much to bear.
Two days later, my parents left New York. They haven’t visited since. The day they left, my father gave me a big hug. He said, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” And then there was a pause. “Even if you scare the shit out of me sometimes.”
These words, our “I love yous” come rarely, even on the phone. These words were pulled out of him by pride, because I had just finished something hard, or by worry, because my personal life seemed scattered, unkempt, a mess. I don’t know which, and I haven’t been able to ask.
“I love you too Dad,” I said. And I meant it.
Two years later, almost to the day, I was on the edge of crying over my next heartbreak in the bathroom of the boy whom I loved but who couldn’t seem to stop cheating. Another of my selfish choices, another disappointment for my family to bear. My Mom was on the phone. She was in Minnesota, in a big white cushioned chair in her mother’s house. She was watching her mother die. You can only survive cancer but so many times. You can only survive but so many days without food or water. My mother was not crying. She had hardly slept.
“It makes you think about things,” she said, “death; sitting in silence waiting for someone you love to pass. So I am taking my turn to say things while I can. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” She said, “You and your sister are the most important things to me on this planet. I love you, and I just want you to be happy.”
She said there shouldn’t be things left unsaid. She asked if she needed to ask forgiveness for anything.
“I love you too, Mom.” The words came easier when I said them to my mother, and not because I loved her any more. “You and Dad were the most supportive and loving parents I could have asked for. And I know how rare that is. You have nothing to ask forgiveness for, but sometimes I feel like I do.”
I wonder if my Mom passed this conversation on to her husband, my father. I wonder if it’s a conversation that he and I should have. For all of the ways in which I want to abolish gender norms in my life, the words still choke in my throat when it’s my own father on the phone. For as evolved as I claim to be, I am still guilty of assuming that he doesn’t want to talk about it, that his love will always be demonstrated in action and not in word and that that’s enough. And that my love for him can be performed just the same. Because that’s how we’ve always done it, and the silence never killed us before. He loves me. I love him. Words rarely spoken but written in stone.
Back with my mother on the phone there was silence again, both of us on the verge of tears. I would fly to see her a few days later and to remember her mother, and how she had loved us all, fiercely and no matter what.
But there are things unsaid, things I now need to say to you, Mom. And maybe especially to you, Dad, because it’s always been so difficult. I still don’t know why it can be easier here, on this page, rather than on the phone or over dinner. I know I made it hard for you to love me sometimes, but thanks for doing it anyway. I know that sometimes it feels as though we don’t have that much to talk about, but I know that if I were sick, you’d come and take care of me, and that when I have a child—finally—you will love it with all your might, even when you probably shouldn’t, and so will I because you taught me how. I know it hasn’t been easy for you to have a son who lives so far away, who is so gay, who has loved a bunch of times and failed at each attempt—so far—and who writes down family secrets for the world to read. I have been messy and ugly and selfish and terrible. I have made mistakes that you have had to clean up. I once dropped a boy off naked in bed with you, Dad. On Father’s Day, no less. And yet you love me, anyway. Nothing but a thick, fleshy, bloody love that never seems to dissolve or dissipate. And here is a thing unsaid: I don’t know how you do it.