Why I Felt Robin Williams’ Loss So Deeply

A lot of my friends are talking about Robin Williams today.  They’re all talking about the sadness, the loss,the iconic man that he was, a man who made others happy but couldn’t do so for himself.  Many of us are commenting on how this celebrity passing is touching us in a way others haven’t.  Sure, Michael Jackson was a major influence that we all grew up with too; but there’s something about Robin Williams, the depth and breadth of his work and talent that has made us all feel like we’ve lost a family member. 

I feel it too, though quite likely for reasons that very few of my friends would understand, and one that I don’t really ever talk about.  Sure, Dead Poets’ Society is one of my favorite movies, a huge reason why I ended up becoming a teacher (the idea that I could change one, even just one students’ life in the way Mr. Keating did….).  But it wasn’t that movie in Robin Williams’ filmography that made the most impact on me and my life.  It wasn’t Good Will Hunting or Patch Adams or Good Morning Vietnam, although I loved all of those movies. 

It was The Birdcage.

I know, right?  How could that be the most impactful of his entire body of work?  The hilarious comedy about a gay couple and their son and the frantic antics they engage in to pull off the son’s marriage into a conservative family. 

I’ll tell you why.  Because I’m the child of a gay man. 

That’s right.  I don’t say it out loud that much.  It’s not that I am ashamed of it.  It is just that we never, ever really talked about it when I was growing up.  My parents got divorced in 1977.  I was seven.  I found out later it was because my mother, who had long suspected my father was having an affair, had her suspicions confirmed.  He was indeed sleeping with someone else.  Only it wasn’t another woman.  It was a man. 

The world was very, very different in 1977.  My parents never told us that my father was gay.  When my father moved in with another man we were told it was because they were going to be roommates.  They maintained separate bedrooms.  I actually found out about my father from my sister, who let it slip one day while she was talking to a girlfriend within my earshot.  I think I was 12. 

There were no gay people on TV then.  People weren’t talking about gay pride back then (at least not that I knew about).  Gay people were stigmatized.  My father and his partner maintained separate bedrooms all throughout my teens, and while it eventually became clear to my father that we all knew about him and Steve, it was something we simply did not discuss.  They were not “obvious” and Steve hardly ever came to any family functions.  They were both firmly in the closet at their respective jobs.  I didn’t tell anyone but my very closest friends about my father.  It was like a shameful secret.

The Birdcage came out in 1996, the same year I got married.   And in it, for the first time, I saw so much of my life depicted.  The awkwardness of having to explain your father and his “friend”.  The impulse to lie because it just is easier.  The anger and frustration that you feel when you realize people can really just be jerks.  That being a kid of a gay person does not mean you are destined to be gay yourself.  And the slow realization that these two people, these are just people in love just like anyone else.  My father and his partner are more married than many heterosexual couples I know, even though they are not legally allowed to marry. 

The Birdcage took all of the crazy stereotypes that people have about gay couples and truly just turned them on their ears.  Through Robin Williams wit and comedy, that movie made even truly conservative people stop and think about their prejudices about gay people.  By going to the most crazy level of stereotypes about gays and transgenders, he showed that in the end, there are a lot more similarities than differences.  That moment when Calista Flockheart says in a choked voice, “I really would have loved to have been part of your family.”  Because gay or straight, at the end of the day, that three person unit was just that.  A family.   Something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

And now, nearly 20 years later, the world is a very different place.  In 1996, my father’s partner wouldn’t attend my wedding, no matter how much I begged, because he didn’t want to be a spectacle.  Last year, he attended my son’s wedding and my father proudly introduced him as his partner.  The world is changing, for the better.  We still have a long way to go.  But we’re headed in the right direction. 

So when I think of Robin Williams and his direct influence on my life, I think of the Birdcage.  And I thank him for finally showing me and the world that being the child of a gay person isn’t something to keep a secret.  My family may look different than yours, but that doesn’t make it wrong.  It just makes it different.  And if someone can’t accept that? 

To quote Armand Coleman:  Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I’m not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator, I don’t give a damn what he thinks.”

Rest In Peace Robin Williams.  I hope you find some measure of the peace you were able to give me through your gifts. 

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Love In Many Forms

My son and his wife of seven days (typing that just seems amazing) are somewhere in Jerusalem right now.  In Israel.  Yes, the one that is seven hours time difference from where they live in Alexandria, VA and where I live in Connecticut. I was pondering that the other day.  For my honeymoon, my husband and I went on a Carnival cruise.  We went to Grand Cayman, Cozumel and New Orleans.  It was the first time I’d been outside of the US save for Canada (because every good Detroiter has gone drinking in Canada).   My son has been now to Spain, to Croatia, and to Israel.  He’s passed through France for connecting flights, twice.  What a different life has than I did.

What a different life he has than I ever imagined for him.

At my son’s wedding last week, after he and I shared our emotional mother/son dance, I walked him back to his new wife and hugged her hard.  Then I went back to sit at my table, with my husband and our two much younger children.  Within a minute, there was my father, red in the face and clearly just as emotional as me.

Maybe more so.

“I remember the day he was born,” he struggled to tell me, tears flowing from the corners of his eyes.   And he was right.  Of the hundred or so people standing in this room with us, there were only three of us who were there the day Zach was born.  My sister, myself and my father.  My brother was in the Navy in basic training at the time, and met him about a month or so after he was born.  Everyone else in the room met him sometime later in his life.

It was hard, at that moment in time, staring at my son and his lovely wife in this gorgeous hotel ballroom, with everyone dressed in their finery, to imagine what those days were like.  My father had literally been there since the moment this boy was born; he’d been my Lamaze coach.  He’d watched this young man come into the world, take his first breaths.  He’d been ultimately supportive after his initial skepticism  regarding my “situation”.  I was 18 and alone when this little baby came into all of our lives, and life could have turned out very, very different than the moment we were all experiencing together.

But what was overwhelming all of us, as my sister had now come to join my father and I, both redfaced in the front of the room together, was my mother’s absence.  “She should have been here,” my father said next, putting his head in his hand.  “She would have been so proud of him.”

Seeing my father cry about my mother is truly a humbling experience for me. While my father has been with his partner since before my parents’ marriage ended, it’s clear to me that he truly did love my mother.  While the demise of their marriage was fraught with difficulty, fighting and anger, eventually everything settled in to the way things were supposed to be.  In fact, I always kind of thought that my pregnancy at 18 and my parents banding together to support me and my child truly was the last step of pulling them back together as a family unit, if not a married one.  And when my mother passed, my father was there to hold her hand along with us kids.  It was my father who helped us eulogize her at her memorial.  They had a clear and deep connection, and it is easy for me to forget that on a day to day basis.  I suppose I deal with my grief often about my mother, but my father likely doesn’t.  So it is in these family moments where it comes roaring to the surface for him, still raw and harsh, even twenty years later.

In some sort of awful way, it made me feel good to see him that affected by her absence.  That while his life is very different now, the affection he had for her was real and true and honest. I held him and told him about the wedding song, and how sure I was that she had a role to play there.  That I was sure she was watching all of us here, this night and smiling from wherever she was, happy to see her beloved first grandchild so successful, so sure of himself, so clearly in love.  “She loved him so much,” I said to my father and my sister, which gave them both a fresh set of tears, but gave me a strength and surety that stopped my own.

Yes, Adam and Steve

All over my Facebook feed, there are people posting, talking, supporting Marriage Equality today.  It’s truly an amazing thing.  What a different world it is today than it was five, ten, twenty years ago.

Last night, as the evening news talked about the Supreme Court challenges to California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA, as straight people were everywhere were talking about marriage being a civil right, it seemed a good a time as any to talk to my daughter about how this applies to our family.  She is just thirteen, the same age (or maybe even a little older) that I was when I discovered that my father was gay.  I found out by eavesdropping on my sister and a girlfriend talking derisively about my father’s boyfriend.

I remember the shock, the fear, the mild revulsion as I processed the information.  Back then, of course, one didn’t speak of such things.  It was perfectly acceptable to call people fags, homos and queers.  There weren’t any TV shows talking about gay people.   But then as I thought about the whole thing, I realized that it didn’t change anything.  I liked my dad’s boyfriend.  I didn’t want to think about them having sex any more than I wanted to think about my parents doing it.  So they were gay.  They were still good people.  Whatever.

We hardly ever spoke about the gay thing as a family.  My mother knew that I knew, but we didn’t speak of it.  My father knew that I knew, but we didn’t talk about it.  I certainly didn’t talk to my siblings about it.  And most of my friends were blissfully unaware of it.  Plenty of people had divorced parents, and my father’s boyfriend never made an appearance in our lives.  He just happened to be at the house if we went to visit my father.  But he didn’t come to funerals, graduations or weddings.  I worried what people would think if people found out he was gay.  What would they think of me?

But telling my daughter was an entirely different experience.  Of course “gay” still isn’t something that is widely accepted amongst her peer set.  Being called gay or queer at school is still considered negative.  But the plethora of information and familiarity her generation has with homosexuality through pop culture has led them to a much more open attitude about it.  Some people are gay, some are straight.  It’s just who you are.  My daughter shrugged her shoulders when I talked to her last night, as if the news was a: not at all a surprise (after all, she knows my father’s partner lives with him we see them together every Christmas) and b:  no big deal.  The stigma and the strangeness of it all just weren’t there as they were for me.  Gay is just part of life these days.

In fact, the only question my daughter had was how my father could marry my mother, since obviously you are who you are, and if he was gay, why would he choose a woman for a partner?  Explaining society in the 1960s, where being gay was simply not an option, where one got married because that was simply the only choice that existed, was hard to do.  Because she can’t even imagine a world where black people sat on the back of the bus and gay people couldn’t talk about who they were.  I told her that while my father loved my mother, and was happy to be a father and have a family, eventually he became very frustrated.  He was who he was, and eventually he had to live the life he was made to live, not the one that society forced on him.   I am still not sure it made a lot of sense to her, but she nodded and said she understood.

How wonderful it is to have that time, the time when being hateful and bigoted, seems strange and foreign instead of the norm.  We’re still not there yet, not by a long shot.  But the tides definitely have turned, in a big way.  I am not sure if the Supreme Court will be as far along as our society is….only time will tell.

“That’s So Gay”

“Oh, that is SO gay,” my daughter said the other night at the dinner table.

My husband and I looked at each other, a question there for both of us.  Do we go there?  My 22 year old son, home now post college graduation and furiously interviewing at any number of amazing companies, looked down at his plate.  He was surely wondering, “Let’s see how they handle this one.”

This was obviously my job, my responsibility here.  After all, it is my father who is homosexual.  It is my dad whose marriage was broken up after my mother found out about his affair with another man.  And it was my own anger and frustration at the way I discovered it that made me vow that with my own children, it would be different.  No one came to me, sat me down one day and told me my father was gay, and that was the reason my parents weren’t married anymore.

It was another time, back in 1977.  No one talked about homosexuality.  This is a world my children don’t understand:  no Will and Grace, no Arizona and Callie, no “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”  I’d never even thought of it as a possibility that my father was gay; by the 1980s, there certainly was a stereotype out there of what gay men must be like.  My father didn’t fit a single one of them, so when he moved in with another man, I accepted that they must be roommates.  These were just things that didn’t get talked about much in my family (to be fair, they didn’t talk about straight sex to me either, leaving me to find out about all of the details through conversations with my best girlfriend).

And my father really still doesn’t talk much about being gay.  I’ve never really asked him about how he met his partner, Keith (although my mother probably mentioned it to me one night late after she’d been drinking; I’ve never thought to verify it).  He still lives with that same man he moved in with in 1978, and they are just…there.   Keith never came to any family weddings, because he always felt it would be too much of a distraction.  He doesn’t travel with my father when he comes to visit us kids.  Keith isn’t my stepfather, or even my father’s husband.  To be honest, I’ve never thought to ask my dad if they want to get married (not that they can, they live in Florida).   And while I love Keith and have never had a problem with him in any way, I really don’t need all of the details of how their relationship works.

Which means there isn’t really much of a guidebook for introducing your children to the fact that their grandfather is gay.  We finally told Z, somewhere in his early teens that his grandfather was gay.  He seemed a little surprised, which honestly surprised me…my father and Keith don’t even bother with the pretense of separate bedrooms anymore, and Z has been to their place many times.  But I suppose for him, like me, that one simple fact answered a lot of lingering questions in his head.  It hasn’t seemed to alter their relationship in any way.

“Missy,” I started slowly, “Does that mean you think that being gay is bad?  Because it sounds like a put down, what you just said, using gay in that way.”

She looked at me, surprised at being questioned on the phrase.  I’m sure she was thinking that everyone says that.

“Missy,” I repeated.  “Do you know what being gay is?”

She made a face somewhere between disgust and anger.  “Really?  Of course I do.”

I forced myself to sound steady.  “Why did you make that face?”

“Because being gay is gross.”

And there it was.  Even at 11 years old, she already had heard the talk on the schoolbus, on the playground, from her friends.  Because of course she would have never heard that at home.  And it was clear to me she didn’t realize at all that her grandfather was gay.

“Missy,” I said a third time.  “Being gay is not gross.  It’s just another way to be.  Some people love the opposite sex, some people love the same sex.  But it’s all love.  And love is a good thing, not a gross thing.”

She looked up at me, her big brown eyes caught up in confusion. “Okay…” she said, trying to give me what I wanted, but clearly not there yet.

“There are a lot of people who are gay,” I started.  But I paused.  I had to get this lesson into her before I could go to the next one.  I just couldn’t give her the whole thing yet.  I had to work past our church, the kids at school, the culture of hatred that was so prevalent everywhere and get her to acceptance.  I couldn’t go all the way, not here at the dinner table.  Not yet.  “Lots of people.  So many, because it isn’t something you choose.  I’m sure a lot of people would choose to not be gay, because it is awfully hard to be that way when so many people are so awful towards them.  But I need you to understand that being gay is not gross, it’s not wrong, it’s just the same as my blond hair and your brown hair.  It’s the way you were made, and that’s all.”

She nodded slowly.  I looked around at R and Z, nodding at my words, waiting to see if I was going there.  I shook my head the tiniest bit at them, and they both started talking to her, taking up the torch, following my lead.

I’m a coward, I know.  I’ll get there, I will.  But for now, I am hoping that my little girl is just a little less judgmental than so many in this world.

Happy Birthday

September

Click to listen to "September"

Crazily, the summer sped by, and soon it was my birthday.

I had always hated the placement of my birthday in early September.  It made it hard to have birthday parties (not that anyone really ever planned one for me as a child) because you never knew exactly who would be in your class, and you never had much contact with your friends from school during the summer unless they lived in your neighborhood.  Not like today with computers and Facebook and IMing and texting.  When I got older it was better, because I had the car.

I was turning 18 and getting ready for college.   Michigan State started back then in later September, because they worked in trimesters rather than semesters.  So me and my pals were mostly still back at home for my birthday.

Joe wanted to make my birthday special, and I love d him for it for many reasons.  Firstly, he hadn’t had an easy time of it.  His mother was in some sort of financial trouble due to her divorce, and they had to leave their apartment.   Joe was spending the last few weeks before school started living with his grandparents’ house.  His mother, for lack of a better term, was “in hiding”, I think from the IRS.   She contacted Joe when she was sure no one else would be home, and no one else was supposed to know where she was.  He didn’t really care for his aunt, who also lived with the grandparents, but he was making the best of it for the last few weeks before we went to State.

Joe promised to take me out to a fancy restaurant on the other side of town for my birthday.   It was the most grown up thing I’d ever done with a boy; dressed up and went out to dinner, just like real adults.  It was calm and quiet and beautiful.  During dinner, he presented me with my gift:  a jewelry box with a hand painted iris on the front.  It played music when it opened up, and it was stunning.

I couldn’t believe how thoughtful his gift was.  It wasn’t a silly gift that a boy picked up in a last ditch effort to have something to give the girl.  He spent hours, clearly, trying to find the best gift he could for me.  It was not cheap.  It was the nicest thing anyone my age had ever given me.  In fact, I have no recollection at all of most of the birthday gifts I’ve ever been given, but I still remember (and own) this one.

After dinner we decided to go over to my father’s house.  He lived not far away.  Again, I was in awe of Joe.  Going to my father’s house was fraught with issues; Joe knew about my father’s boyfriend, but it was another thing entirely to meet the boyfriend.  I trusted him completely to meet the boyfriend and be polite, something I couldn’t say about most of the rest of the people I knew at the time (I was just eighteen, after all).

My father and his partner were gracious and invited us out to the patio for cold drinks.  I sat there, soaking in the surreal moment:  just a few years ago I was screaming at my father, wondering why he wasn’t there for me to protect me.  Now here I was, sipping iced tea on his quiet, lush patio with my boyfriend, getting ready for college.  Everything was different.  Everything was good.

It was the perfect birthday.

Bittersweet

It had been over a month since I had heard from my dad.

My brother was released from the hospital and enrolled in the private, live in Catholic school. On the weekends my father would take him back to the house he shared with his partner. I didn’t see him, I didn’t want to see him. It was like he simply evaporated from my life, from our lives.

My mother, sister and I looked around our newly quiet home, shell shocked. My sister took the opportunity to dive in further with her friends and full time job. My mother did the same. She started Weight Watchers and went out with her girlfriends on Friday nights, often staying out so late that she went to breakfast with the girls on Saturday mornings.

As for me, I listened to my Rick Springfield and Corey Hart tape cassettes, searching the poster paper eyes on my walls for “la raison d’etre”. I grew bitter looking around at my friends with easier lives. I didn’t invite my friends to our tiny, untidy townhouse. I waited and waited for someone to notice my sadness and misery and anger. And finally, one day, someone did.

He was over six feet tall, with a moustache and a penchant for slightly geeky, but hip only to himself clothes. He was my English teacher, the one that I’d wanted to have so much that I spent a whole semester answering phones in the guidance office.

He noticed.

Melting Away

This was the third hospital that my brother stayed in; he’d been at this one before. The name of the actual facility escapes me, but it was located down the street from a factory that made “Fruit and Nut” confections. My mother, sister and I thought that was a riot that there were two places with nuts on that street. Maybe we were just laughing because that was better than the alternative.

My father came over and I could tell this was going to be a turning point in the relationship with him. He was angry and upset that it had come to this. He was not happy about the price tag that he was assuming by sending my brother to this boarding school. I didn’t even know there were boarding schools in our metro area, but I guess when you got into the more upper class enclaves, you could find one. The Catholic school my brother would attend (which we all found ironic) had a seminary attached to it in addition to the regular high school.

Looking back on it, I think there was no place for any of us to find common ground. Everyone blamed everyone else in the scenario: I blamed my father for not intervening sooner and saving all of us living under lock and key years of anxiety; my father blamed my mother for not having provided more supervision to keep my brother away from the rougher elements that influenced him so badly; my mother blamed my father for reducing the child support and forcing her to work extra hours to be able to pay the bills that mounted as my brother’s depression and anger increased. There was no sympathy from any one of us for any on the other side of the fence. Instead, the battle lines were clearly drawn now: boys against the girls.

I got up and went to school every day. I wanted to feel grief and anger and something that would garner me the kind of attention and concern that was being lavished over my brother. But it all felt so stupid to me. Too much energy, too much drama, too much out of control. I could feel it all swimming in my head, but couldn’t find the words to reach out to anyone with to express how messed up I felt about it. Who would listen anyway? My parents and sister were all too busy dealing with it all themselves. My few close friends were doing the best they could diverting me away from it, but only a few really knew how bad things had gotten. I just wanted to close my eyes and forget. I wanted to have a different life, like some of my friends at school, with parents who didn’t yell at each other, with fathers who weren’t gay, with brothers who didn’t leave bruises.

I threw myself in, head over heels, into school. These people didn’t know what was going on behind the closed doors at home. They thought I was whoever I projected myself to be. I was the smart girl, just like all the other kids in my honors classes. Let them all think I had the same great life they all did. Perception could be reality, couldn’t it?

I tried, in that winter of 1986, to hold onto appearances, though I felt it all melting away inside.

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