On the first night of Hanukkah a few years back, I returned home from work to find my son Alec by the stove, flipping potato pancakes. "I wanted to make latkas," my high-school senior announced. As the family sat down to eat, Alec walked to the table slowly, carrying a lopsided mound of the greasy treats. "I've been waiting till everyone was home to say something," he explained, rubbing his eye uncomfortably. After a pause he said, "I'm gay."
No one uttered a word. Another three or four or maybe 10 very long seconds passed in silence. My breath stopped, and my body started to tremble. It felt like my insides might explode. I wanted to say something, but words failed me. Then I got mad at myself.
This wasn't a complete surprise. Over the years I'd suspected at times, but I'd hoped it wasn't the case. Alec doesn't look the part, I'd thought. Broad-shouldered and toned, with sun-bleached hair, he'd competed in Junior Lifeguards, played water polo and dated girls. Yet, on second thought, he was gentle and reserved, certainly not an alpha male. As a young boy he'd gravitated toward female friends, and in high school he'd seemed bored with his romantic interests. Once, asked if he'd enjoyed a date, he'd replied, "It was tedious." Most telling was the fact that, during the six months before he came out, two of his closest friends had come out themselves. Each time he'd shared this news with me, I'd asked how he felt about it, providing an inroad for him to declare his sexuality. "Weird," he'd replied, closing the door on any further discussion. Secretly I'd been relieved: Maybe he is straight, I'd thought.
Why me? I thought now. Couldn't someone else's son be gay? I'd gladly help them learn to cope with it. My eyes filled with tears as I imagined how others might react. I thought about my friends, even close ones, gossiping behind my back. "That's OK," they'd say while patting my shoulder with a sense of pleased superiority. Or they might try to comfort me, but I didn't want comfort. Alec wasn't sick or impaired; he was gay. I hoped that my friends wouldn't feel sorry for me, even though I felt sorry for myself.
I also didn't want to give up my daydreams about Alec's future wife. I had developed a real relationship with her. My mind enjoyed circling through the possibilities: Jewish with brown curls, Asian with long hair, probably not blond. Would she be an M.D., an engineer, an artist? I was just getting to know her. I hated to say goodbye.
Why him? I thought. Alec was the ultimate people pleaser. He'd do anything to make others happy. During the toddler years of "me" and "mine," he'd give away his toy anytime someone wanted it. Throughout his childhood, my husband and I had continually pushed him toward competitive team sports, thinking they would help him develop more conventionally masculine traits. He'd been a reluctant athlete, but no matter how much he'd hated the rough play or squirmed around the pack of aggressive boys, Alec had never complained and had even excelled, probably to please us. Now I cringed inside thinking how hard it would be for him to live a life condemned by so many. What a cruel challenge fate had presented him.
Is this my fault? I wondered. Alec and I had always had an easy bond. Had I done him a disservice by being so close? Sigmund Freud would surely blame me for disrupting the resolution of the Oedipus complex. My parents would likely point fingers too, chiding, "Susan, we told you to toughen him up." Alec's non-aggressive nature had unsettled his grandparents. I'd wanted scream, "Let him be who he is!" But now I knew I wouldn't tell my parents about this new development for a long time. When that day arrived, would they continue to love their gay grandson?
I had always strived to be the type of mom who completely accepts her kids, and I'd struggled through a Ph.D. in psychology in order to learn how. Wounded by my parents' statement that I was a mediocre athlete, I'd vowed that I would always find something positive to say about my children's performance. I'd learned to stick closely to politically correct vocabulary and removed the word "stupid" from my lexicon. When cultural-sensitivity training had come into vogue, I'd eaten up the concept, rushing to every seminar, joining each committee. "Tolerance" and "acceptance" were my mantras. I served on the diversity council at our neighborhood school and on the LGBT committee at work, and I'd posted a "No on 8" sign in front of my house.
So here was the ultimate test. Was I the real deal? At this crucial mom moment, probably the most important one of my life, my mind had shut down, and I'd lost my voice. I'd expected to perform much better. This had been a D-minus at best.
My husband finally broke the silence. "That's OK, honey," he said. "We love you for you. It doesn't matter to us."
His words slowly registered through my dark and draggy thoughts. Hey, I was supposed to say that, not him! I thought. Fathers are the ones who typically botch these things with "No, that can't be!" or "Maybe it's a phase?" or even "You just haven't met the right girl yet"! My husband hadn't even suspected that our son might be gay, yet he'd nailed it. By comparison, I'd dropped to an F.
"Yes, we love you and always will," I finally stammered. "Thank you for sharing this with us."
Was this all I could give my son at such an important time?! These empty words disappointed me. They were the kind of things you say when you don't know what to say. Even a Hallmark greeting card would have been more personal than this.
I desperately wanted to pick Alec up, like when he was younger, and hold him. Unfortunately, he weighed 140 pounds and tended to stiffen when touched. I just couldn't locate the adult equivalent of wiping away his tears. I searched but simply couldn't find the following simple words -- what I should have said: "I'm so glad that you told us this, and that you are true to yourself. You are so brave, Alec, and I'm proud of you. Let's celebrate this important moment."
My husband once again broke the silence. "I think it's time to light the Hanukkah candles!" he said.
Determined to do something right, I quickly retrieved two brightly colored candles from a kitchen cabinet and placed them in the Yemenite menorah, its silver patterns dense and interconnected. We formed a tight circle, our arms intertwined, as we recited the Hanukkah blessings. The beauty and familiarity of the prayers helped calm me down and provided reassurance that, as a family, we would move forward together.
Afterwards we sang the Shehecheyanu, a blessing recited on the first night of a Jewish holiday or when something important happens for the first time: "Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who gave us life, sustained us and brought us to this moment." I'd recited this prayer more than a hundred times over the course of my life, but that night it shook me awake. It dawned on me that even though the evening had been messy, imperfect and full of failed expectations, it was still holy and blessed. It was as if something Godlike had brought us to this moment in our lives and given its blessing. Then it finally hit me: Yes, this is something to celebrate.
I rushed over to Alec. We were both crying. "I know how hard this is for you, and I'm sorry that you have to see me struggling too," I said. "I'll get through this, and so will you, sweetheart. I love you so much."
He smiled. Then we embraced each other and continued hugging for a very long time.