I need to thank Adam Phillips, author of Crosscurrents (http://archerland.disbelieve.org/adam.htm) for his help with this chapter. Thank you also to Bill for his editing help.
as always, thank you to my partner. I love you more than words can ever
When I'd gone back to school to work on a Bachelor's in biology, Walt was one of the first members of the biology faculty I met. He was the professor of the very first class I attended when I went back to school.
Walt was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. He was flatly intimidating. Physically, he was tall and imposing; academically, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of his field. His expectations of his students were sky-high, but I soon learned that his expectations of himself were even higher. I was also to learn that he'd do just about anything to help his students achieve their goals.
Early in that first semester, I was in a lab which was being taught by one of his doctoral students. As I was working on a project one day, she walked over to my end of the lab.
I was so caught up in thought, I didn't notice her until she said,"Sam."
I looked up. "Oh...hey, Denise. I think I'm doing okay here, want to look?"
"I'm sure it's fine," she smiled. "I wanted to talk to you about something."
"What is it?" I asked.
She pulled up a stool and sat next to me. "Walt needs a research assistant for a project he's working on, and he asked me about promising undergraduates. I told him you'd be great."
I was flattered, but uncertain. "I don't know, Denise, do you think I'm what he's looking for?"
"I'm sure of it," she said.
"I have a lot on my plate," I said, looking into her eyes. "I have a son and I'm a single dad. I have to keep money coming in, so..."
"This will be good for you, Sam," she said. "You're wanting a Ph.D. here, right?"
"Well, yeah," I replied, hesitating.
"I'm telling you, you'll want to be doing your work under him. This is a good way to start."
I went into my head and considered it for a while. Denise wasn't going to wait for me to work it out, though. "I've already scheduled an appointment for you to talk with him at two this afternoon," she said.
"You heard me. So don't make me out to look like an idiot."
I smiled and shook my head. "Oh, all right."
She crossed her arms and nodded her head, in a "my-work-is-done-here" display of self-satisfaction. "Look," she said, "when you talk to him today--when you work for him this semester--whatever he asks of you, just trust him, because I guarantee he will always have your best interests at heart. There aren't many profs you can say that about."
I muttered an assent and she walked away.
That afternoon, I made my way to his office. As soon as I got to his doorway, he rushed out of his office, saying, "Hi, Samuel, just have a seat; I'll be back in two minutes."
I sat down and waited for fifteen minutes, drumming my fingers and staring at his diplomas and other honorary memorabilia on the wall.
Finally he came back and sat behind his desk.
"Okay," he said, looking at me intently. "Tell me why you're back in school."
I explained my plan briefly.
That was the beginning of a long period of grilling. He followed up by asking why I was choosing to come back now. As soon as I had I gotten that answer out, he asked why I came to this school, and then after that, asked again why I was studying biology.
He paused for a moment at the end of that set of questions. I thought the interview was about over, when he said, "Tell me about your son, and tell me about his mother."
I gulped hard and stared at him silently for ten seconds. I figured if I told him my story, he'd think I came from an unstable background and was thus unsuitable to work for him. I didn't see any way I could lie to him, though, or refuse to answer. So I gave him an abbreviated, but sufficiently detailed, account of my marriage to Erica, her troubled family, her sister and her tragic death, the struggles with drugs, and our son. He listened with obvious concentration, his face radiating genuine concern. Because I could feel the respect and compassion radiating from him, I relaxed as the minutes went by.
Next he asked about my family. I talked about my dad's strictness, about my mom's health issues. I mentioned that we weren't close. I didn't elaborate on why, but I'm sure I couldn't hide the tension and the grief in my voice as I thought about that last year in high school.
After I'd told him everything, I knew he was going to send me out the door and tell me never to come back. How would he ever allow someone so messed up to work with him?
After an hour of telling him the ins and outs of my life, though, he looked at me and said, "Okay." Then he led me into the lab and got me started on a project.
And that's how I became a research assistant for him.
Walt was hyper-involved as a teacher. We used to joke that he would "hovercraft" over our shoulders while we were working, making sure we did everything right, asking why we were doing everything, explaining every technique: why we did it, how we did it, what exactly was happening in the test tube. It was as frustrating as it was enlightening. When he'd get too obnoxious, one of us would turn to him and tell him, "Go write a grant proposal!". He'd laugh and say that he'd think we didn't love him if we weren't showing him the proper amount of disrespect.
Academically, Walt was an inspiration and a near-perfect mentor. If he expected us to be there for long hours, he was there even longer hours. But it was as a person that he touched me the most deeply. He remembered everything he was told about people's lives, and he got involved. He regularly asked how Chris and I were doing; he even came to his birthday party that first year. He remembered my name from the first time he met me, knew that my favorite color was blue, and even knew, without being told, that money was tight. He'd take me to lunch three days a week to "talk science," but I knew it was just a cover so that he could buy lunch for me. He insisted that I call him Walt, even while he insisted on using my full name when addressing me. He never called me Sam; it was always "Samuel." He was like that with all his students. Walt was the one I turned to whenever I had a question about parenting. I could bounce anything off him. He never pried, but he always listened and over the years he went from being my professor and mentor to being my trusted friend and advisor.
Toward the finish of my undergrad work in biology, he asked me to stay in his lab for a Master's degree. I was thrilled at the opportunity: Aside from his professional excellence, Walt was more like a father than my own father was, and he played a huge role in my healing during those years.
* * * * * * * * *
I was at a place in my life that was unlike anything I'd experienced before. For the first time ever, life wasn't throwing turmoil at me. I had a backlog of hurt to recover from, and I was finally getting the space and the motivation to do it. Part of that recovery involved repairing the relationship with the people I'd pushed out of my life.
The first people I knew I needed to reconnect with was the Walkers. It had seemed to me that being in their lives had brought the chaos and difficulty of my life smack into the middle of theirs. For all that, though, it was clear that they all cared for me and wanted me in their lives, so I knew I had to try to make amends by making myself available. I wasn't ready to let anyone get too close, but I finally had the energy to make the initial moves. It was helpful that the Walkers, and most of my friends, actually, were still a state away, back home. The distance gave me a little security from which to reach out.
I called up Mary one day. It was a strange conversation, really. She was a married woman, now; I was a disastrously-married man who had a son. As we talked, I couldn't help but think of those golden times where we loved each other and believed our best years together were ahead of us instead of behind us. I tried to keep the past--and what might have been--out of our conversation, though, and when I finally hung up, things felt good. It wasn't all that significant, as conversations go, but it was a step toward reclaiming something I'd lost: a place in the Walkers' lives.
Mary and I started talking and emailing regularly, and because that was going so well, I started reaching out to other old friends from high school and college again too. In retrospect, my time with Neal had seemed to blend into the years with Erica, and throughout that period, my attention was so focused on the dramas of those relationships, I had shut everyone else out. During the time with Neal I simply couldn't face them, and during my marriage with Erica, I was busy trying to give her what I could of my love, my concern, and my support. Now, the emotional energy and the time I'd expended on Neal and Erica were freed up, and I discovered that I wanted--and needed--friends from the past back in my life. With a little bit of initiative from my end, that was beginning to happen with my old high school and college friends, and it was beginning to happen with Mary.
But then there was Brian.
Quite frankly, I didn't know what to say or what to do or even what to want with him. From him. To be honest, I was afraid to face the thought of what I wanted. And beyond that, for all I knew, I'd damaged our friendship beyond repair over the years. Merely by being his friend, I'd dragged him into situations nobody should have to face. I knew he loved me like a brother, and I knew it cut him like a knife to watch what I'd let Neal do to me. It was unbearable to me that his love for me took him through that kind of hurt in my behalf.
That was on top of a final year in high school where people were whispering about him, wondering if he was queer because his queer best friend had the hots for him. And then in the aftermath of Neal, I was absolutely cold to him. I wouldn't let him in. I was ashamed to face him. He tried hard to be my friend as I came out of all that, and I just gave him the cold shoulder.
And on and on it went. I'd done a horrible job with Brian. I'd failed him in every way conceivable. Even though he was Christopher's godfather--even though we both seemed to have this connection that we couldn't shake--I was afraid I'd put him through more than he could handle, through more than our friendship would handle.
I called him up one day, a couple of weeks after I'd first talked to Mary.
"Hello?" As always, just hearing his voice called to deep places in me I was reluctant to acknowledge.
"Brian...I...uh, it's me. Sam."
"Oh. Hi, Sam. How you doin'? Mary said you called her." His voice seemed guarded.
"I'm doing good," I said, tentatively. "I wanted to call you too."
"Oh," he said again. "Good." He paused. "So what did you wanna say?" My heart sank. He didn't sound at all happy to hear from me. He didn't sound angry, but there was a distance in his voice.
I couldn't think of what to say next. I didn't really want to say anything; I just wanted to fix something between us, somehow. I wasn't even sure what, or how.
I stammered, "Well, I...I mean, I didn't have anything in particular to say. I just wanted to touch base. It's been a long time."
The other end of the line went silent for an agonizing twenty seconds. "Yeah," he said, finally. "It has."
"Tell me how you've been," I said, barging through the awkward pause and ignoring what was clearly our mutual discomfort.
"Oh, you know," he said casually, "Okay, I guess." He talked about school a little bit, then grew quiet again. As if he were waiting for something.
I jumped in again. "Let me tell you about this biology prof I'm working with," I said, and proceeded to tell him a little about Walt.
The conversation went on like that in fits and starts. I kept it reasonably short, and we hung up after a few minutes. The contrast with my phone calls to Mary was dramatic. With Mary, I began to feel we were on our way toward becoming friends again. With Brian...
With Brian, conversation felt like knife wounds. Unspoken paragraphs of conversation lay underneath our stumbling words. Neither of us could acknowledge it.
Still, I didn't let that phone call keep me away. I kept trying to touch base with him from time to time.
Our conversations were always stilted and awkward. I knew I had done him an immense amount of harm with my choices, and I didn't feel I had the right to push him to be friends again. But I tried to let him know that the door was open, because I knew I'd hurt him before by shutting him out. I was also determined to let him know that I was sorry, without forcing the issue in case he didn't really want to be friends any more.
That was the problem: I didn't really know what he wanted, and I was afraid to ask him. I knew I'd hurt him a lot, but I didn't know how much. When I got him on the phone, the conversations were always strained and about nothing-in-particular. You know, the how-are-you?, I'm-fine, Seen-any-good-movies-lately? kinds of conversations. And always, there would be these huge chunks of silence between each block of conversation while we both searched for something to say.
It broke my heart. All during my teenage years, talking to him had always been easy. Even when I was dying inside to kiss him and horrified at that, I could always count on his friendship and the easy companionship between the two of us. Now it was hard. Next to impossible, in fact. There was a huge, invisible wall of some kind between us and neither of us seemed willing, or even able, to talk about it. For my part, I was in utter confusion. I didn't know why it had become so hard, I didn't know how to fix it, and I didn't even know what I wanted with him.
I'd probably been back in touch with him--if you could call it that--for about two months when I'd left a message for him one day because he hadn't answered. Several weeks went by and I didn't hear from him. Then one night the phone rang in the middle of the night.
My heart was pounding as I answered; when the phone rings at that time, the news isn't often good.
"Sammy, izz Brian," I heard from the other end. It took me no time at all to realize he was drunk.
"Brian, are you okay?" I asked. "Where are you?"
"I'm home, I'm juz' home, I'm not nowhere," he said indignantly, as if I'd accused him of something. "I just had a good day. Goooooooooood day, and I wanted to call my boy Sammy and tell 'im," he slurred.
"What's been going on?" I said, trying to be patient.
"I gotta tell you 'bout this girrrrrlll," he said. "She was so fuckin hot, Sammy, you'd a been hot for 'er too, I met her at this club, and she did stuff to me I only seen in porn before." I listened as be babbled incoherently about hooking up with the girl in question. As annoyed as I was with his condition, it was impossible for me not to envision Brian naked with a girl, kissing, touching, loving.
I hated this girl. I'd never met her and I hated her.
He went on and on about her, so much so that I thought he'd never quit. It was excruciating. Then, seemingly out of the blue, he said, "I miss you Sam, I miss you so much." And just like that, he hung up.
The abruptness startled me. I was as unprepared for the sudden turn the conversation had taken as I was for its unexpected termination. It was agonizing.
Over the next few weeks, I'd have essentially the same conversation with him, at the same late hour, about his latest hookup, and invariably at the last second the conversation would turn to how much he missed me; then he'd hang up before I had a chance to reply.
Those conversations scared me. It seemed as though Brian was unraveling, and I didn't know what to do about it. The day after the third such conversation, I called his brother Mike.
"Hello," he said, answering the phone.
"Mike...this is...this is Sam."
"Sammy-boy! Haven't heard your voice in ages! What's up, my man?"
"I'm good," I told him, and summarized my life for him in thirty seconds.
Then I took a deep breath and said, "Hey, have you talked to Brian lately?"
"No," he said, "but the two of us were at Mom and Dad's last weekend. Why?"
"Well," I ventured, "When you were there, did he seem okay?"
"Yeah, I guess," he told me. "Why do you ask?'
I told him about our graveyard-shift conversations and about how Brian was always drunk during them.
"I don't know, Sam," he said. "I honestly haven't had much time to think about him, and like I said, we haven't talked. But I'll ask him if he's messed up."
"No, man, don't do anything to make him think I'm checking up on him," I said. "Just pay a little attention when he's around. See if he seems okay."
"Okay, Sammy," he said, "and I promise I'll let you know what I think."
I was relieved to hear it. "Thanks, Mike," I said.
"Not a problem."
When he hung up, I felt relieved.
My relief was premature, though. I got a call from him one evening the next week.
"What's up, Mike?"
"Well, I just wanted to call...hey, look, don't freak out or anything, because he's okay, but I just wanted you to know that Brian's in the hospital."
My stomach felt the way it feels when you take the first big drop on a roller coaster.
"What's wrong with him, Mike?"
"His blood sugar's out of control," he said. "I've been checking up on him lately. I'm glad you called, I just haven't been paying much attention to the sibs. I've been so busy, lately." He sounded almost apologetic.
"Anyway, I went by one evening and I thought he didn't look so good. He was kinda irritable, too, and I've seen that before with him. I asked him if he'd been checking his blood sugar and he just snarled at me, so I made him take it. It was over 600, so I put him in the truck and took him to ER. They admitted him to the hospital right away. He's doing okay now, and he'll probably get out tomorrow. I just wanted you to know, though. I might not ever have noticed, if you hadn't called."
"Mike," I said, "He's not taking care of himself, is he?"
"No, Sam, he's not," Mike replied. "I'm not sure what's up with him."
I was. And I felt coals of guilt burning into me.
"Well," Mike said after I hadn't responded, "I gotta go, Sam. He asked about you, by the way. Maybe if you could call him when he gets out..."
"I'm glad he's okay," I said, evading. "Thanks for calling, Mike."
"Sure. Talk to you later."
When he hung up, I sat there blankly. Everything I touch breaks, I thought to myself. Everyone I love gets damaged.
After he got out of the hospital, I did call. We had a tense, halting conversation. Subtext practically screamed at me from the broken conversation and patches of silence: I wasn't clear on what it was, but there were unspoken words separating us. But I didn't acknowledge that. Neither did he.
In the subsequent weeks, I would call him occasionally. We stumbled through those conversations; the easy friendship that seemed to be so good for both of us had vanished, replaced by misgivings, uncertainties, and guilt.
Brian's trips to the hospital became a semi-regular. Several times a year he'd end up there, sometimes for short stays, sometimes for longer ones. His blood sugar was always too low or too high. Mike would check in on him and he'd either be feisty and combative and irritable, or semi-comatose. So Mike would haul him into ER, they'd throw him in the hospital and get his blood sugar straightened out, and he'd go back home, only to cycle through the same thing a few months later. And throughout all of it, he drank steadily.
His family was worried. So was I. I knew I wasn't being a good friend to him. I could never bring myself to go see him in the hospital, though. I would call and send flowers and pray that things would get better somehow, but as for actually seeing him...I was afraid of what he'd say; I was afraid he'd tell me he didn't ever want to see me again. I was afraid he'd tell me what I already knew...
....that this was all my fault.
* * * * * * * * *
My life continued to move on. I had school, and I had Chris to care for. Over time, my contact with Brian waned to a few phone calls a year and a few emails.
His life went on, too. Sometimes he would move and I wouldn't know the new phone number for months until Mary would give it to me. The deterioration in my relationship with Brian felt like an open wound, but I didn't know what I could do about it.
There was a time in my life, a time when I had too much else to deal with, where I'd simply have numbed out to the troubles with Brian. But I was getting better, and, ironically, that meant that the failure of my friendship with Brian hurt me all the more.
That wasn't the only thing bothering me. My psycho ex, Neal, kept up his harassment, getting more and more irrational as time went on. After he'd found out where I lived, he transferred to my school to finish his degree. He continued to loom ominously in the background of my life, putting in just enough of a presence to spook me. He was having troubles of his own, though; he failed out at school. He got a job at the university as a computer administrator, and he used that position to break into my account repeatedly. That got him fired.
aside from an occasional
brush with him, my life had settled into a manageable routine, and I
feeling okay. I had my son, I had a direction in life, and things were
The months rolled by, and turned into years. Neal would show up from time to time to blame me for his life's failures, and I continued to be haunted by the rupture in my relationship with Brian, but I didn't walk through life tortured anymore. It's odd the way healing worked in my life. I always had wanted to think that if I could only work through my emotional issues from my traumatization, that would resolve all the problems in my life. That didn't happen, but what I did notice was that things began coming together in ways that I hadn't even been willing to hope for.
One aspect of my life I'd never expected to improve was my relationship with my parents, but to my astonishment, even their rejection of me wasn't permanent.
It all started with Christopher. I had called them when I found out Erica was pregnant, and then again when Chris was born. My father and I hadn't said a complete sentence to each other since I moved out, but my mom would call every six months or so after I told them the news. It wasn't comfortable, but she did try to keep in contact.
Something about being a grandfather softened my father's attitude towards me as well.
They drove down when Chris was six months old. I remember watching my father hold Christopher. He looked so lost and sad. He still didn't say much to me, but for the first time I could remember, he hugged me and told me he loved me when they left. It was a start.
My mother had been in poor health most of my life. She had contracted polio when she was young, along with her younger sister. She recovered almost fully, but her sister didn't. Throughout her childhood she had to deal with her younger sister getting the lion's share of the attention. Additionally, her mother blamed her for bringing the disease home from school and giving it to her sister. So she carried a lot of baggage from childhood. As an adult she developed additional neurological problems. She hadn't been able to walk at all since I was in grade school. The combined effect of her difficulties was that she had been an angry, bitter woman as long as I knew her, but she did have her good side too.
She developed an ulcer during the trip to visit me and Christopher that she didn't take care of until the tissue had eroded down to the bone and she had become septic. She was hospitalized for months. Right after she went in, she called me, sobbing hysterically, apologizing for being such a terrible mother. We had the first real conversation I think we had ever had. I told her I loved her and always had, and that I forgave her. She said the same. I thought we might have a chance at repairing our relationship finally.
She went in for surgery the next day to try to close the ulcer and remove the infected tissue, and had a stroke while she was under the anesthesia.
She wasn't the same woman when she woke up. The stroke affected her personality, bringing out all her worst traits and eliminating most of the good ones. Her short term memory was all but gone. She had lost her ability to reason through the consequences of things, so she was almost like a child: a petulant, demanding, bitter child.
My father told me not to bother coming up that Christmas. Every time I suggested a visit to any of my family after that, I was told not to come. That went on for two years.
Then one day I got a call out of the blue from Mary.
I was delighted to hear from her. She'd just had a daughter--her first child--and I'd sent a card and some flowers.
"Thanks for the flowers, Sam," she said. "They were beautiful."
"I'll bet not as beautiful as your little girl," I said. "Mary, you'll love being a parent. Take it from me."
"I know I will," she said. "I'm in love with her already." She paused. "The baptism's coming up, Sam, and I really want you there."
"Of course," I said. "I'll always love you, Mary, and I want to be there for the important times in your life."
We finished the conversation, and I felt a wash of gratitude that I'd gotten Mary back as a friend. When the day came, I went back home for the baptism. I stayed at my parents' house during that trip. There were ghosts there, but I was ready to face them. What I wasn't quite prepared for was the change in my parents.
My dad met me at the door when Chris and I showed up. "Sam," he nodded. We shook hands perfunctorily. He looked awful.
I came in with Chris; we sat down in the living room. "Your mom's asleep," he said. He looked at Christopher and smiled a little.
"Dad," I said, "You don't look so good. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said.
I discovered that he wasn't fine. He was exhausted from caring for my mother. When I asked him about it, he snarled, "What am I supposed to do? She won't let anyone else help."
We talked for a while, and after about an hour she woke up and wheeled into the room.
When I saw her, I was stunned: She was almost unrecognizable. Her face wore a permanent scowl, and she directed her anger at everyone and everything.
I discovered during my stay that she was spiteful and aggressive; violent, even. She had a motorized wheelchair, and during my visit, she tried to run over Christopher when she thought I wasn't looking. She wouldn't even speak to me. I watched as she slammed her wheelchair into the wall several times during that visit, just because she could.
Chris and I went to church for the baptism Sunday and stood with Mary and her family. Brian and I spoke briefly, but didn't say anything of significance to each other. My mind was occupied at the time, I guess. I wanted to pay the proper attention to Mary, for one thing, and my mother was heavy on my mind, for another.
service we went back to my
parents' house, packed up, and said goodbye. My mom refused even to
my presence in the room.
She died two months later. Aside from immediate family, there were only five people at her funeral; all were friends of mine there to support me. The priest said Mass, but his homily was perfunctory at best.
It was heartbreaking: She had spent so long being bitter that, by the time she died, almost no one cared. I felt I had never really had her, so the loss didn't hit me as hard as it probably should have. I grieved the lost opportunity to make things right, but I'd never had much of a relationship to lose.
* * * * * * * * *
For all the hurts and disappointments and guilt I'd wrestled with during those years, though, I had a sense that I was regaining myself. And there were other blessings.
During my senior year in high school the Catholic Church had let me down. Some congregation members who had accepted me before shunned me when word of my feelings for Brian got out. Even priests treated me like dirt. As a result, my faith took a pretty severe beating, and my feelings about organized religion turned sour.
I didn't think much about faith as my life began to repair. But I walked past the Society of Friends meeting house every day on my way to class, and something about it pulled at me. I barely knew anything about the Quakers before then, but suddenly it seemed as though I was hearing references to them left and right.
The first instance came from an interview I'd read with our state representative. In the interview, he said he thought the Quakers were the most effective of all the religious groups at lobbying and getting their views across.
The next week, I mentioned reading the article to a faculty member and added that I passed by the Quaker meeting house all the time.
"Interesting that you should mention that," he said. "I actually attend the worship meetings there."
"Really?" I asked.
"Yep. You ought to visit."
I shook my head. "I don't know, I'm a Catholic," I said. "Officially, at least. Anyway, I'm not so sure about church these days."
"That's fine," he said. "But you'd be welcome. I think you'd like it, too."
I didn't think much more about that conversation. Then one day I saw the woman who drove the bookmobile to Christopher's daycare coming out of the building. That very same day, a friend in the lab sent me one of those online quizzes to determine which faith was the best fit for you. I took the quiz, and to my shock and surprise, Quaker was number one on the list, followed by Unitarian.
I don't much believe in signs, but it was starting to get way too spooky for me. So I started reading about the Quakers, and I discovered that I liked what I read. The Society of Friends seemed to embrace everything I believed, and brought me back into contact with my faith. Growing up I'd had inspiring examples of faith and loving role models in my congregation, and in my school, which was run by the congregation. But the bureaucracy, the power and wealth, the judgmental self-righteousness of the organization made me leery, especially since I hadn't seen a whole lot of charity and compassion directed my way after I was outed. As I began to research the Quakers, though, I felt a strong inner pull to check out the local worship meeting of the Friends.
my inner voice for almost
a year because of my misgivings about religion, but finally I couldn't
longer. So one Sunday morning I took a deep breath and walked through
It was the most welcoming, warm group of people I'd encountered outside of Brian's family. They brought me in, accepted me instantly, and demonstrated the kind of love that the Bible talks about but churches don't often demonstrate.
That day began a whole new chapter in my life. I found my faith again with the Society of Friends; it was bruised and battered, but it was there.
And I found something that had eluded me most of my life: