I'm six. My mom and I are in the front seat of her very smart 1962 Chevrolet station wagon when she turns to me and asks:
"Have you thought about what you might like to be when you grow up?"
Well, I have been thinking about it. Last night she asked my big brother Jimmy. He said astronaut. How dumb-dumb-stupid, thought six-year-old me. The costume is ugly and everybody knows there's no bathrooms in space.
"Yes, ma'am. I've thought about it."
"Really? What would you like to be? A doctor, like Daddy?"
"Maybe you could be a lawyer like Perry Mason on TV."
"He's fat and has weird eyes."
"Then what about a cowboy? Or an astronaut, like Jimmy?
"I want to be an interior decorator."
She lost control of the car and nearly smashed into a telephone pole. I wasn't sure what exactly I'd said, but one thing I knew: I'd crossed a line.
It would keep happening throughout my childhood. I found it impossible to keep my little Crayola self colored inside the rigid lines of gender-role conformity. I always seemed to be wanting the wrong things, like Easy Bake Ovens and Prom Night Barbies. I learned early to pick my battles. There were four boys and no sisters in my family, so I knew Barbie was a pale pink pipe dream. But a light bulb that baked a cake? That was science, right?
Under the tree that year I found a sheriff's costume, toy pistols and a baseball glove.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, where odds are, sooner or later, you end up getting born again. It happened for me at roughly 8:15 on a Friday night. I felt as though God had spoken to me personally, revealing that He had indeed come to earth in human form. And her name was Barbra Streisand. Watching her sing "I'm The Greatest Star" in the network premiere of Funny Girl, it was clear she was channeling the divine. Her voice seemed to seep into my every corpuscle, altering my chemical makeup. It was intense.
And so it continued as puberty bloomed. From Funny Girl to Sun-In'd hair to the Speedo shot of Mark Spitz ripped from my dad's Sports Illustrated and stuffed inside my Boy Scout manual, I was, unbeknownst to me, a standard-issue homo-in-training.
This fact hit home with a thud a few years later when I moved to the city. New York has a benevolent way of siphoning boys like me from our far-flung hometowns and depositing us into one of the few places we might actually stand a chance. You would think I'd find comfort in that. I didn't. I was mortified to find myself floating in a sea of me's, and awakened quite rudely to the fact that I wasn't the unique wonder I imagined myself to be. What I was, it turned out, was a Big Gay Cliché.
Almost. As I watched from the sidelines, one by one the other me's emerged from their closets, dancing and jubilant. I was envious of the abandon and release they seemed to find, twirling under the great disco ball of '70s freedom.
But something held me back. I found it difficult to make the same leap. Watching my freshly liberated brethren turn their backs on the past and eagerly morph into their new bodies and haircuts, I struggled with a stubborn dream I could not seem to let go.
I'd always liked the idea of getting married and becoming a father. My own dad -- a real-life Atticus Finch, straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird -- set a daily example of the best a man can be for his children, inspiring his sons to want the same for ourselves. But admitting I was gay meant saying goodbye to any such notion of family. Coming out meant crossing a line from which there was no coming back.
So I stalled for years, clinging to the ludicrous hope that out there somewhere was a woman who might change me. But by that time, Barbra Streisand was heavy into Don Johnson.
It was Fernando who brought the change.
Beautiful. Bi-polar. HIV-positive. Addicted. Addictive. His red flags should have sent me running; instead, I gathered them into a bouquet. We met in 1994 on a Los Angeles sidewalk one clear night just before Christmas. I was 38. And love, finally, bottomless and vast, swallowed me whole.
I was terrified of HIV, but adored this shy man in whose veins it swam. An artist, Fernando was always encouraging me to find my Big Work. I had no idea what he was talking about. But love has a way of enhancing vision, and his made it possible to see things ahead for me that I could not.
He had seen other things as well, horrors I could not imagine. Three years prior, he'd nursed a man he loved through an ugly illness to a hideous death. Having caught a glimpse of his own future, he spent each day remaining to him painting like a madman. Larger-than-life canvases of spectacular, dazzling women peopled his living room. Women in boats overflowing with flowers. Women lugging impossible burdens uphill. Women searching the sky for the secrets of flight. Peasants, queens, sisters, the idealized heroines of his native Mexico. They had populated his fevered brain for years, and he was determined to free them before time ran out. One by one, through his gifted hands they rushed in pastels and paint, surrogates taking their places in a world about to be done with him.
There was no way we could have known the drug cocktail that would have saved him was just beyond the horizon. I hoped we'd have five years together. We had 1995.
Suicide devastates, leaving its survivors jagged, in shards. Never again can you be as you were. In the wake of his death, slowly and over time, my life began to clarify. Unnecessaries burned away. I saw rising before me the outlines of a dream I'd long since thought impossible. I set about becoming a father.
Surprisingly, the most vocal opponent of my bringing new life into the world was the woman who'd brought me into it herself.
"Have you lost your mind? You can't have a child. You gave up that right when you chose to become a homosexual. And you're too old. You live alone. And what about the child? What if you have a son who turns out to be a homosexual. Or worse... a lesbian!"
I paused, trying to unravel that last one, but she wasn't finished.
"I'm not finished: A. Child. Needs. A. Mother."
There it was. The line. I was crossing the biggest, blackest, most sacred one of all. Motherhood.
It occurred to me in that moment that every screwed-up person I know has a mother, but I held my tongue.
Kelly was not expected, never part of the plan. I was not looking the day we met. At church of all places. When he asked me when we might go out to dinner, I told him it would have to be Monday or Tuesday. Why Monday or Tuesday, he asked, as any sane person might. "Because I have an egg donor flying to town on Wednesday, we're making embryos on Thursday and implanting them in my surrogate's uterus on Friday." I held my breath so as not to choke on the cloud of dust any other man would have kicked up fleeing in the opposite direction. But other men aren't Kelly. Who could have predicted that this amazing, smart, decent, deeply funny and very handsome man would plop into my complicated sphere at that precise moment in time, becoming the surprise love of my life and the anchor of my family?
My journey became our journey. A year-and-a-half later, after two surrogates, three egg donors, several reproductive endocrinologists, and a depleted life savings, our stunning, beloved Elizabeth was born. I was 44.
"I have a namesake? You don't MEAN it!!!"
We've since added a son to the mix -- a dimpled tyro named James, after my dad. From that day till this, my wonderful, evolving mother and these grandchildren she once thought impossible have enjoyed a giddy love affair which shows no signs of lifting.
I found my Big Work, and 11 years later, we're thriving. Marriage and family. My gut had been right -- I was born for it.
Last year, when Elizabeth turned 10, I was recounting special moments from our life together, as I tend to do on her birthday. Suddenly, one surfaced I hadn't thought about in years. A random, rainy afternoon when, at 2-and-a-half, after a long silence, out of the clear blue and apropos of nothing, she looked up at me, smiled and uttered two words I had no idea she'd added to her tiny vocabulary.
A few weeks later, I wrote my only poem.
through the lens
of a microscope
I was much taller
you floated below
trying to become sixteen
No eyes yet formed
to peer back at me
Just eight cells
A pinpoint promise
of the life I dared to dream
Your eyes are fully formed now
They are mine
They peer back now
beneath downtilt lids
familiar as the nearest mirror
Today you sing for me
beneath a torrent of impossible curls
press your face to mine
and collapse into giggles
awash with possibility
A thousands days
since that morning
we first met
through the lens
of a microscope
Eight cells times billions now
you peer up at me
trying to buckle your seatbelt
"Daddy help you?"
Daddy help you.
There is no line.
* * * * *
This post is the second in a series of Spilled Milk columns by William Lucas Walker that chronicle his journey through parenthood.