“I love you,” Doug said to me.
“I love you, too,” I answered before we pushed the red hang-up buttons on our iPhones at the end of our weekly call.
My wife gave me a funny look, as she did weekly, at the affectionate way we always concluded our conversations. I suspect his wife did, too.
Doug has been my best friend since 1980, when we played Little League baseball together in Providence, Rhode Island. His team, which had yellow uniforms, was coached by a rough guy who would line the boys up before every game and whack their groins with a bat to make sure they were wearing their cups.
My team, outfitted in blue uniforms, was sponsored by a social club in the working-class Fox Point section of the city. Our end-of-the-season party was held in the smoky, dimly lit bar of our sponsors, where we sat at chipped wooden tables to consume our sodas and pizza. A couple of regulars, parked in their usual spots, would watch us with bemused smiles as they nursed their beers. Some of us would end up occupying those same bar stools when we grew up. Some wouldn’t.
At the time, it was hard to predict who would fall into which camp.
Doug and I met on the base paths, though we can’t remember if he was running and I was playing first base or the other way around. Looking at us, it wasn’t obvious that this was a friendship that would deepen for decades.
Even at that age, he was tall, handsome and had an easy way with people that drew them in. I was of average height, skinny and more of a smartass. He was a Red Sox fan, while I followed my dad, a native of the Bronx, in rooting for the Yankees. His family was Protestant; mine Jewish. He became a lawyer; me, a doctor.
Our relationships with our fathers drew us together, though, as we both struggled to navigate them. My dad helped coach my baseball team, and in an effort to dismiss any accusations of favoritism, went overboard in proving that I would receive no special treatment.
He drove to games, the team’s baseball equipment packed loosely in the trunk of his Dodge Dart, while I walked separately. When I struck out, he threw his hat into the dirt of the dugout’s floor, disgusted at my inadequacies. If I missed a throw to first base, he wouldn’t talk to me for days.
Doug’s Dad, an owlish history professor who spent most of his time in a home office from which we were eternally banned, never attended a game. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even notice Doug for days.
One father too present, the other too absent. Doug and I turned to each other to make sense of these dads ― and for reassurance that we weren’t bad kids. When my dad threw a tantrum at my batting foibles, I’d look across the field and meet Doug’s calm brown eyes. Not your fault, they’d say. I came to his games to cheer him on.
“We loved each other, even back then. But at that age, at that time and where we grew up, we would never say it out loud.”
Siblings — and we each had one — are thrust upon us. Best friends you get to choose. And we chose each other.
We loved each other, even back then. But at that age, at that time and where we grew up, we would never say it out loud.
As is true with any long-term relationship, we had our ups and downs. In high school, Doug’s father finally noticed him, didn’t like what he saw, and Doug left to join his mother, who was living in Massachusetts. We lost touch until our first summer after starting college. Doug tracked me down to the restaurant where I was working and left me a note with his address and phone number ― he was staying with his sister by then. We took up again as if no time had passed. I still have the note.
Over the following years, we met each other’s girlfriends and went out to restaurants and movies as couples. I told him excitedly that I was going to propose, and he did the same before his proposal. Then, after the fact, we called each other to review every detail of how it had gone. We organized each other’s bachelor’s parties, were groomsmen at one another’s weddings and were early visitors to see each other’s first children.
We didn’t express our love, though, until my wife and I separated, in 2004. Doug and his wife had divorced by then after she stunned him one night by announcing that they were inherently incompatible and might as well just get it over with. For months after their split, I talked with him daily and told him he was a good person, that he was lovable. Eventually, he believed me.
I remember the exact moment we said it, too. I had moved to a dingy apartment that I had furnished with a small kitchen table, two chairs, an old couch and a futon. Broken, devastated at my own failure in marriage and at the thought of losing my young son, I sat on the bare floor of the bedroom sobbing into the phone as Doug listened, soothed and calmed.
“I love you,” he said, stressing the I. “I love you.” No matter what I thought of myself, or what the rest of the world might say, Doug would always love me.
“I love you, too,” I answered, reassured by him, and as if we had been saying these words to each other for years.
This time, he called me every day for months until I could reassemble the pieces of myself, the closing signature to our conversations now firmly established.
“I kiss my boys and tell them how much I love them just as much as I do my daughter.”
We both married again, both to women, both happily, and served as each other’s groomsmen one more time. Our families get together every year, despite the thousand miles that separate us, and our kids refer to the adults as uncles and aunts. We’re not gay — though we joke that if we were, we would choose each other as husbands.
Our wives look at us funny when we say that, too.
A cultural shift has occurred in the 40 years since Doug and I played Little League baseball with each other, and it isn’t as strange today for two straight men to express their feelings for one another as it once was. However, we recognize that our openness still isn’t the norm, so we try to model how we treat each other for our children, so hopefully, it will be the norm for them. We say the words as they listen to our calls, and I kiss my boys and tell them how much I love them just as much as I do my daughter.
Over time, Doug and I developed our routine of weekly phone calls, and text a lot in between. The topics of our tête-à-têtes range from how work is going to recent bike rides to the occasional boyhood reminiscence, but always settle on parenting.
I now attend my kids’ sporting events and cheer them on from the sidelines. Doug coaches his daughter’s soccer team. Still, we worry about the relationships we’ve developed with our own children. I ask Doug for advice on how he would handle the issue of the week that has arisen in my family, and he does the same with me. I tell him how much I admire the father he has turned into; he echoes the compliment back.
And then we tell each other “I love you,” a lot more comfortable in saying the words out loud than when we were younger, and maybe a little more comforted in the dads we, ourselves, have become.
Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D., M.S. is Chief of the Division of Hematology and Professor of Medicine at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami. He is a widely published essayist and the author of “When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons From Leukemia” (The MIT Press). Follow him on Twitter at @MikkaelSekeres.