I was nervous yesterday morning as I drove from my apartment to my old house for Thanksgiving. Having separated from my wife two and a half years ago to live my life openly as a gay man, this would be the third Thanksgiving since our separation, that I returned to the house for a big family Thanksgiving.
There were a number of conflicting emotions. I had just left my boyfriend recovering from knee surgery at his home. I felt bad that we were not together on this holiday which is our culture’s ultimate expression of family togetherness. I also felt a bit like someone entering the lions den, not having seen my brother-in-law and his family or my sister-in-law for a year. How would they be with me? Last year they were both cool and aloof. I knew others like my in-laws would be warm and welcoming, but I was still a bit nervous
Dinner was called for 4:00 PM but my wife had suggested I come early to spend some quiet time with her parents, who always arrived early. I arrived shortly before 1:00 PM and one of my wife’s oldest friends, Bob, who was visiting from California, greeted me at the door in a hushed whisper. “Why are you Whispering?” I asked him. “Your wife is upstairs in bed with chills and a fever and your son is still sleeping.” What? This was certainly not the Thanksgiving I had expected.
There would be nineteen people for Thanksgiving: my in-laws; my sister-in-law; my brother-in-law, his wife and children and his wife’s parents; two more of my wife’s oldest friends; and a new coworker of my wife’s, (which none of us knew), along with her coworker’s husband and daughter. It was going to be quite the crowd
Bob and I began to review what had to be done to get ready. Suddenly I was no longer a guest but the host of the event. My in-laws arrived. Soon my sister-in-law called, demanding to know if my wife had a fever and had anyone checked on her. I had not checked on my wife. It felt kind of weird to go into our old bedroom where she was sick in bed to check on how she was doing. My sister-in-law’s mother was in remission from cancer and could not afford to get sick, so it was important to determine how sick my wife was before my sister-in-law’s parents would agree to come. I went up to the master bedroom, opened the door quietly, and stepped in. My wife was under the covers sound asleep and did not move. I quietly stole out of the room and back down stairs. My mother-in-law took control and made her pronouncement: her daughter did not have a fever, it was food poisoning. Everyone should plan to come. And so the event continued as planned and everyone did come
I love my in-laws. They are wonderful people. When my father-in-law entered the door, he hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I really miss you.” I know he does and I miss him and my mother-in-law too. It was my in-laws, who are kind, decent and warm individuals, that showed me how to be closer to my own parents. It was my wife’s family, so different from my own, that twenty five years ago, gave me a taste of a different kind of family closeness
Soon all the other guests began to arrive. There were two turkeys, one in the oven and on in a turkey fryer. The turkeys were finished cooking and put on the counter to rest. Soon the carving began. The food was, unpacked, items to heat were placed in the oven, dishes were arranged on the center island in the kitchen and soon all the food was ready.
I realized that with my wife upstairs in bed, it fell to me to gather the guests and offer a formal welcome and thanks. This was no longer my home and it felt odd to play the host, particularly since most of the guests were my wife’s family and close friends. But I had been greeted warmly by everyone and so I put on my game face and did my job. I gathered everyone around the kitchen center island where all of the food was arranged, ready to eat, and offered my welcome and thanks. I then turned it over to my son to offer his thanks. Then we moved on to my wife’s new friend.
Just as she had begun to speak, my sister-in-law yelled, “someone call 911.” I came running. As a former EMT, I knew the basics of emergency medicine. My mother-in-law was sitting at the dining room table unresponsive. Someone was holding her up and her eyes were glazed over and she couldn’t speak. I went on automatic, checking her pulse, which was weak at that moment, and then grabbing my blood sugar test kit. Both my mother-in-law and I were diabetics. I thought possibly her blood sugar was low, but it tested at 191, quite high. My sister-in-law called 911 and handed the phone over to my son to give the details. Within minutes the paramedics arrived.
By the time the paramedics walked in the door my mother-in-law had begun to recover and was talking and responsive. Her blood pressure and EKG were both normal and she refused to be taken to the hospital. We learned that she had just taken an antibiotic, given to her the night before in the emergency room. My father-in-law had taken her to the ER because her foot was in pain after having dropped a humidifier on her toes a few days before. The ER doctor had diagnosed cellulitis, a common but potentially serious bacterial skin infection. While we did not know for sure, we assumed the antibiotic to be the culprit. The paramedics left and the dinner begun to return to normal.
I asked everyone to take their plate off the table and to begin eating, as all the food was still warm. This was turning out to be quite the Thanksgiving day event. But things did return to normal. The rest of the meal was delicious and uneventful. Deserts, which were laid out on the dining room table, was overflowing with fantastic pies and cakes.
Of the three Thanksgiving I have spent with my wife, son and my wife’s family and friends, this was in many ways the easiest. My wife’s brother and sister, who last year were quite distant and cold to me, were warm and friendly this year. In some way, the absence of my wife, who is always such a large presence at these events, made the gathering easier for me.
There was one noticeable difference this year. In past years my brother-in-law’s two children were warm and friendly to me. I remember last year my nephew asking me where I had been since he had not seen me very much. The children, at their fathers request, had not been told that my wife and I had separated. This year both children, now ages nine and ten, looked at me with suspicion and distance. I had no idea what these children had been told about me, but I knew that they now knew, at a minimum, that my wife and I were separated. I wish that I had been able to pull them aside and ask them what they had been told, but that was not possible.
Both of these children have traits that make me wonder if they are gay. The boy, who will be eleven in January, loves football and baseball, but also loves to watch cooking shows and to dress up in grandma’s wig. His father for years has teased him for being too sensitive and easily frightened, both more effeminate qualities. The girl who turned nine this past summer, and loves girl clothes, also has some very masculine traits. She is fearless, tough, and loves rough sports. At one point yesterday she berated her father for not letting her play football. I have wondered for years if these kids will turn out to be gay. We will know in just a few years. I have imagined many times getting a call from my nephew, a few years in the future, as he discovers his sexuality and needs support from his gay uncle.
As we went into cleanup mode I noticed that not one of the men was helping. They either sat watching the football game, like my son, or sat in a circle talking. It was only the women and me who were cleaning. At one point my sister-in-law’s mother, as she stood over the sink washing dishes, with me next to her drying dishes, commented almost to herself,“of course it is only the women cleaning.” Then she realized I was next to her and added, “oh yes, and you too.” I laughed. And I thought to myself, how typical, the women and the gay man are cleaning as the straight men sit and watch football. What could be more of a cliché? Then I thought, why not say this out loud, she knows I am gay. So I said, “Yes, it is just the women and the gay man cleaning up.” She laughed, and the ice broken, began to tell me about a new LGBT group that had formed in her retirement community, which I told her I had read about in the newspaper.
Soon the event began to wind down. People began to leave. As I sat resting for a few minutes I heard footsteps in the bedroom above us. I had not yet talked to my wife all day, and assuming that she was now up, went up to check in on her. My mother-in-law was sitting on the edge of the bed talking to her daughter. We spoke for a few minutes. I had made my pilgrimage up to the master bedroom to see how she was and I was now good to go.
I called my boyfriend on the drive back to my apartment to fill him in on the events of the evening and to see how he was doing. I still felt bad that he had spent Thanksgiving alone, but I also felt it was important for me to be with my son on his holiday. There were no easy answers.
It was a surprisingly easy and comfortable Thanksgiving. I felt bad my wife had been upstairs in bed sleeping while the event went on below her, but in many ways her absence made it easier for me. There is no other event in my life and in our culture like Thanksgiving. I realize as my new life progresses and that I develop new relationships, like my boyfriend, which are very important to me, that this split between the past and the future will need to be brought together. For now, it is too soon to merge these different aspects of my life. But that future is coming quickly.