My son’s father had another son before mine, he’s six years older. I lived with my son’s older half-brother for brief periods when he was a kid. He’s in his thirties now. Living in distant states, we’ve never spent much time together since he was little and hadn’t seen each other in several years. His new girlfriend is from Minnesota & they were in town a few weeks ago visiting, so he gave me a call. I invited them over for dinner. During dinner, he asked what we were up to these days.
So the older brother and his new girlfriend got “the conversation”. He said my son (his half-brother) had already told him I’d been a prostitute. He was mostly interested in my method of sharing. “What did you do, just give him the draft of the book you wrote him and let him deal with it on his own?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Put that way, I wondered if I’d been remiss. I’m sure I followed up to get my son’s reaction, several years ago, after giving him the original draft written just for him, but I didn’t remember it clearly. Perhaps I ought to discuss it with him some more.
So this morning when talking to my son, I asked him. First we reestablish where he was in his own life story as he read my book, what was going on around him. He was in Japan, in his first week of his first year studying abroad. Utterly miserable and hating it. He had not fully recovered from a very traumatic relationship (well, to say “fully” on that one is naive. It was the kind of thing he may never be “fully” recovered from. But he’s doing a good job working through his healing.) The fall of 2004.
“So, how did you feel, as you read it? What was the impact?”
“It made me proud.”
“Oh yeah, I remember you telling me that before,” I thought for a moment.
“But why were you proud? Were you proud that I wrote it? Proud that I did it? Proud that I stopped doing it? Proud that I got so far from it since, what? “
“No, it was none of those,” he said, gathering his thoughts. “I was proud of what that said about me.” I waited.
We’re both practiced listeners. It’s a dance we know how to do together, borne of twenty-five years of living apart at least much of every year. The vast bulk of our relationship is in conversation, both because that’s what you’re left with when all you have is the phone, and because we’re both naturally talkers anyway.
We have conversations that most people wouldn’t have with a best friend, let alone a mother or a son. We know how to plunge down into the depths, let one another swim around down there, share discovered treasure or horror, and come back. Admittedly, it has it’s dark side, which is more his to deal with than mine. There are ways it can be unhealthy for a son and a mother to be too close, and though I was always cognizant of that risk (after all, a whore knows what a mother can do to a man. . .) and tried to avoid it, I can’t claim to have navigated those shoals leaving him unscathed. But even there, we both understand our jobs. His to grow up, mine to let him.
But there is an upside as well to how we’ve learned to be in relationship to one another, and among them are, for him, a high degree of self-awareness, emotional astuteness, transparency and openness, faith in his own instincts, and a sense of dancing with a conversation, trusting the pauses, trading the lead, feeling the rhythm, shifting with the timing.
For me the upside has been learning to stand my ground in the face of the thing that has the greatest power to make a mother surrender her own needs – her own children.
Anyway – while I was leaving space for more from him, he was waiting for me to process what he’d said and decide if I needed to say something of my own or probe for more from him. “Proud of what it said about you? How so?” I finally prompted.
“It was about who that made me. . .” he groped in his heart for the words. “It was like, when you say you’re a whore, it says something. . . It’s like, people hear that and they know that’s something they can’t understand. They can be confused, or scared, or whatever, but they don’t know what it is, and so, it’s like an awe. There’s just an Awe they have to feel, and I like being the son of that.”
He thought some more.
“It’s like when I read that, I went ‘oh, that’s why I am who I am.’ I understood myself better. I knew what I came from, because you were right, you wrote about it in that draft, how I always sensed something about you that was different. It was something I needed to know in order to know myself.”
“Because there’s something about you. . .” He continued, “I don’t want to say it’s a consciousness exactly, but there’s something that’s in you that other people don’t have. Like you have this awareness of something that’s deep, and dark and mysterious, and mucky and womanly, and you taught that to me somewhat. . . and I like that. I like telling people who I am. Not that I tell everyone, but when I do, it’s like, I like being the son of a whore and a gay man. Like the other day, I was joking with a friend about something and I said ‘Don’t forget, I’m the son of a whore and a faggot’ and she laughed and said ‘yeah, you are, aren’t you?’ It’s like, yeah, I’m gonna have a different perspective, that’s what I am.”
“I mean,” he continued, “a prostitute and a gay man both have a lot to say about patriarchy and macho men and sexuality, and so I was raised to question all of that, and I always have. I never just accepted so much of what people assume is how things should be, and I like that. It leaves me struggling with what does it mean for me to be a man who isn’t gay, but that’s ok. I like that I have to define that myself.”
I let that wash over me.
He went on to tell me the expanded version of when his dad “came out” to him, I’d only heard the outline of it many years ago.
“So, I was about ten, and I already knew he was gay. He had told [his older brother] about four years earlier and [older brother] had told [a friend] and I remember [the friend] teasing [older brother] about it, like [older brother] was going to be like his dad & I was like “What?” and [the friend] said “don’t you know what a faggot is?” and once it was explained I was still like “but what? so what?, yeah, I knew my dad loves men, what’s the big deal?”. So then later, I’m ten and he dad takes me to see Philadelphia story, which is about the last movie a ten year old boy wants to see, and maybe I’ve exaggerated how horrible it was in my memory of it, but anyway, we see this awful movie and then on the way home, Dad says ‘There’s something I need to tell you’, and I’m going ‘What, is he going to tell me has AIDS?!?’.”
I can just see it – his dad all serious and prepared for a freak out about homosexuality, and the kid afraid his dad is about to tell him he’s dying.
“But no, he says he’s gay, and I say ‘I already knew that’. But the thing I was left with, with both of you is ‘why?’, it’s like it was such a big deal, like my dad, he was so uncomfortable, and I’m like ‘why?’. And you, why?”
“Why, what?” I ask – why did we tell him, why were we what we were, why what?
“Why, like why, why was that such a big deal, why was he so uncomfortable? Why? I mean, now I guess I get it better, but to a part of me, it’s still like ‘why?'”.
I see – he means, one doesn’t come out to their kids as a banker, or a motorcycle rider, or a movie buff. He doesn’t really get the sense of transgression we carry. We haven’t even transgressed in his mind.
Anyway, I asked him “Ok, the message was not traumatic, but what about the method? Like, did you feel I dumped it on you by writing it – should I have sat with you in person, and, I don’t know, held your hand while you processed it?” No, he liked that it was written, he could take it at his own pace and stop when he needed to digest something. He was just really curious about it as he read.
“But what about the timing?”, and that, he concluded probably wasn’t the best for him, given where he was in his own life at that point.
“But the thing is,” he said “I was just really curious and I felt it wasn’t about me, it was about you. I mean, it was your story. You needed to tell it to me the way you needed to tell it, it wasn’t like it was my thing, or for me to say when or how to share it. And maybe the timing could have been better for me, but I really didn’t think about that, it was yours to tell when you were ready.”
My mother would have been proud of him.