Shared Birthday “A Parent’s Coming Out”

My birthday was actually in August and that was the date I had wanted to post here for the first time since walking the Camino de Santiago, but the emotional energy required just seemed elusive.

I’ve tried several times, but I seem to sit and stare at the keyboard, and type, and delete, and copy and paste, and delete, and stare, and just find myself not at all sure where to start, and what to feel comfortable sharing.  It’s been 3 months since I opened up on any of my blogs, and my shield must be back up and trying to protect my “me.”  I got up from my session, and exited without saving anything.

Finally, on my 90 minute drive to work yesterday I had my epiphany.  I got my introductory thoughts, my segue to what I really feel like I need to say out loud.

It’s funny how our childhood events stay with us over the years.  I’m over 50 and I still am moved by some of these experiences; many make me cringe.

I was never particularly athletic as a kid.  So (unless “captains” were best friends), yes I was typically picked last for sandlot baseball, football, basketball, and even pretty awful trying to do stuff like waterski or fish.  I didn’t know crap about how to do these things, I just hadn’t been taught.  My big brothers were much older and weren’t around much, nor was my dad. In fact, modern psychology would likely blame these experiences and their consequences on their father, or on his absence.  I suppose I should cross-post this to my blog involving him, and how the marriage counselor (who I saw as I desperately attempted to salvage my first marriage) had blamed all my faults and flaws on the absence of Jean Klein.  Not that I didn’t try.  I remember vividly climbing up in his lap to pretend I cared about Cardinal baseball or his one TV show, “Combat,” a 60’s series about life in the trenches during the battles of WWII.

We don’t usually see ourselves as others do, especially during childhood and adolescence, so I’m not sure if I was just a little guy and not very macho, or if I truly was the sissy that Paul Sherman referred to as he tried to beat the crap out of in high school; another time involving Sonny Riley also comes to mind.

The point is not that kids bully, or that I was bullied, but frankly, “Why are kids bullied?”
Today we tend to think bullying always involves a “gay” thing?”  Why else (as if that would have been a legitimate reason) would you pick on someone for being what you thought was a sissy?  Was it just to pick on someone who they perceived as weaker, so they could get away with it, ie. nature’s way to ensure the strength and longevity of the herd, by eliminating the weakest – survival of the fittest?

Or was it even more sinister?  Guess there’s no way to know for sure; I’d guess the perpertrators wouldn’t even know, or even remember that they had committed these horrible “hate” crimes so many years ago.  Probably just “boys being boys.”

I did my best to “push back.”  Although I didn’t even try out for the football team – I was just too tiny, and had no idea whatsoever about the rules or what most of the positions did – I did go out for the wrestling team.  I wasn’t very good here either but at least it was size appropriate.  I worked my butt off, and got into pretty good shape in the weight room, but still just wasn’t very athletic.

Not really sure what it was, but I must have put off some funny vibes too.  I remember getting a series of late night phone calls when I was about 14 from some anonymous boy, who was apparently attracted to me.  I was stunned that he agreed when I called him a queer, and kept prodding me to admit I was too!

Bear in mind that this was a small town in southeast Missouri in the 70s; I didn’t have a “odd uncle Donald,” nor did I even know that “homosexuals” even existed in the real world.  The closest I knew of such things was the reading the headlines of the Sikeston Standard Newspaper (as I rolled them for my paper-route) about a group of “perverted men” that were caught “running around naked at the rodeo grounds.”  I had (have) no idea what that even means – perhaps 2 were caught in the act in a car or the restroom, but it sounded to an eleven year old like a naked free-for-all where they were doing rodeo stuff like riding horses, or bulls, or even playing tag or some other worthy olympic endeavor.  Just wasn’t really sure why they wanted to be naked, or why it was against the law or newsworthy, or what a pervert even was, except something really bad.

Anyway, so this kid kept calling me late at night, and I remember getting really upset, and angry, and disgusted that I would be such a target.  He only stopped calling when I claimed that the police were involved, the phone was tapped, and I only needed to keep him on the line for 6 more seconds.  He never called back.  However, I did find these calls disturbing.  What signals or mannerisms had I been sending out?  I was clearly attrective to him, and never gave it any more thought that he (they?) might think I played for their side!

Clearly not.  I liked girls.  Alot.  Really. Perhaps too much, or perhaps it was normal to have my raging thoughts and fantasies about lots of girls.  I couldn’t even name them all without a yearbook, or a phone book.  Whew, what a relief.  I was normal, not a freak.  Hmmm… freak?  pervert?  queer? – what about – pansy?  sissy?  pussy?   Is this what the “bullies” were thinking?  When people were called these latter things, were they really thinking the former ones?

Have I been holding this crap in since I was getting “unsolicited” calls at age 14?  or since I got hit in the face batting in little league trying to bunt at age 11, or when I was laughed at when I ran onto the sandlot for a weekend 10 year old football game wearing my dad’s vintage helmet from his days?  Did they just think I was an idiot, or did they think I was a lesser “guy” because I didn’t have boy “stuff,” equipment or knowledge.  Was my lack of “skills” because my dad never showed me, or was I really some kind of a “borderline” sissy?

So this has perhaps been my lifelong shield – to overcompensate, to hide my “issues.”  Wow, the shrinks would have a field-day!  Hours spent in the gym, so I could look manly.  Dozens of girlfriends as “conquests,” again, proving what a “man” I was.  An embarrassing, phenomenal amount of alcohol (etc) abuse – was it to numb the confusion and frustration? or to be like my old man, so history could repeat itself, yet another generation?  Hundreds of weekends away, proving what a “great father” I was, at dance, gymnastics, and cheer competitions.  The only thing I’ve proven is that I can be a shitty husband too, since my first attempt resulted in her infidelity after 19 years, and immediate divorce.  I’m apparently pretty forgiving too.

So I’ve now spent a thousand words setting the stage, describing where I came from.  How could this crap really be relevant 40 years later?  Well thirty years ago, I became a father.  Certainly I wasn’t the first man thrust into this role without a guidebook, or even much of a role model.  Some of the finest men, strongest leaders, and successful athletes never even knew their fathers – or knew that they were a bum.  So I really and truly doubt that any of my faults were because my own father didn’t have much of a guidebook either.  His best friend, Mr. Dick Tongate, told us after Dad’s funeral that when they were kids together Papu would berate him and didn’t think he had ever told Daddy that he had done a good job (on anything), ever hugged him, and certainly never that he loved him or was proud of him.  Wow, my brothers and sisters were so moved to learn this.  So, would we kids be expecting too much from the old man?  I should expect him to realize that it was important to teach me how to throw, buy me football gear, take me fishing, watch my band concerts, little league games, wrestling matches, teach me how to tie a tie, jog with me, discuss the Lord with me, talk to me about love and sex, or even explain what was going on in the Cardinal baseball and the Mizzou football games?  To hold me with one hand, even if a Falstaff beer was in the other?  This is rhetorical, of course.

Perhaps Jean Klein really did do the best he could.  He had a rat for a father (had Papu’s father been inattentive and cruel as well?). Dad faced death in Belgium, France, and Germany.  I’m sure he saw (and did) horrible things during that war.  He had come home from that overseas hell addicted to nicotine and alcohol.  Mom told tales of war demons that would haunt him for decades, often through nightmares.  Life was frustrating also – as a farmer, he constantly pleaded for rain, or less rain, or less heat as his crops often failed, and his father berated his efforts for a bountiful harvest.  Yes indeed, Jean M. Klein may well have done the best he was “capable” of.

Anyway so I quickly fathered two daughters, and thought I was a pretty good dad.  Perhaps I was, but it was, in retrospect being a “pretty good mom.”  You see my parental role model was really Mom.  Maureen Blanton Klein was actually a bit of a supermom.  I can deal with that in a different post, but suffice it to say, her’s was really the role I was playing.

But, as I would later say in his funeral eulogy, “Although daughters are wonderful, and mine hung the moon, a man wants a son.”  So twentyone years ago, on my own birthday, I was blessed with William Cullen Klein.  Not only did we share the same first name and birthday, I’d soon find out just how much alike we really were; and how different.

Like me, Cullen had my daddy’s piercing beautiful blue eyes.  He was always so determined – it seemed like he could do almost anything he set his mind to.  Despite the fact that I really (or so I remember) tried to teach him to throw and hit a baseball, and throw and catch a football, or even shoot a basketball, he had about as many athletic gifts as I did.  I took him to Marlin and Dolphin and Cardinal games, and tried to explain the games’ rules to him, but he didn’t really care.  Regardless, he was incredibly intelligent, in the “gifted” program at Gemini Elementary School, honor society, and strait “A”s.  When I overheard a couple of his classmates call him a pussy, i flashedback to my own inner torment.  My beautiful son was me, all over again.  I saw a the proverbial “target” on the back of his head, and had to do something.  I enrolled him in Tae Kwan Do, and even went to classes with him.  He had his second degree black belt in no time, and we even went to the boxing gym together.  My son would NOT be bullied.

Not so deep down, just under the surface, I saw the writing on the wall, and when he didn’t act on the advances of an absolutely beautiful 12 year old neighbor girl, I knew for sure.  Cullen was gay.  It doesn’t take much digging to know that I knew long before then; its likely that’s why I tried so desperately to do those guy things with him.

Was it my trying to protect him from those hurtful words and fists that I had felt 30 years earlier?  Or was i actually continuing to protect myself?  Did those same taunts still keep me up at night? Would this prove them right, what a pussy I really am if I raised a gay son?

So this was my epiphany as I drove home.  Does this explain some of the pieces missing from the puzzle?

Of course I did the typical things all parents do when a child “comes out.”  This will be a later blog post, but here’s a snippet: I grieved the loss of MY OWN dreams – family name would not go forward, no grandchildren, no generational Christmas mornings or Easter egg hunts;  Fear for his physical and mental health and safety; Fear for his soul – as Catholics, we weren’t exactly “bible-thumpers,” but I certainly doubted this was part of God’s plan; We’d never do those things I had so longed to do with my own dad – football games, hunting trips, girl stories, grandchildren on the lap.  Yes, and as I’ve read, those are pretty typical selfish emotions for parents of a gay child.  But for me, there was much more, and I was just beginning to realize it.

So here it is.

To this day I have never posted on FB or even said to my social friends or employees, or even a single person on the Camino the words, “My son is gay.”  Lots of people know, of course, but I have never said the words, except to family and my closest friends.  This, in fact, makes me very, very sad.  I have lost my son and will never again on this Earth hold him in my arms, and yet I’m still too embarrassed to tell people.

I’ve always used the excuse that anyone’s (his) sexuality is a non-relevant detail – like blue eyes, or a big nose, or even whether or not they like asparagus.  These details don’t “define” the person; someone (Cullen) isn’t a “homosexual” or a “gay,”  they are not a noun, they are an adjective.  Instead, someone (Cullen) is a person that happens to be attracted to the same sex, and that’s ONE of many things about him, it certainly doesn’t define him.

That, in fact, is all true.  That’s what I often told him.  He wasn’t a “gay.”  He was a great kid who happened to have SSA, as well as all of his other attributes.  But has this all been a convenient excuse?  My belief set was clear – absolute unconditional love, and this one feature did not define him.  Although he didn’t choose this cross, he could certainly choose how to act.

But really.  Was all this rewording simply an exercise in semantics?  That’s the topic of a future blog.  But my point is, did this re-wording allow me to sweep under the rug this little fact?  When someone asked if he had a “little girlfriend,” I would smile and just say, “No.” Was I also obliged to share that his choice would rather be a “little boyfriend?”

Admittedly, there was a difference between asking Cullen to be discrete and not post “in your face” pictures of Tim and him embracing or kissing when Mom was alive and followed all her children and grandchildren’s every move on facebook.  But those days are past, so what’s my excuse now?

I just don’t know.  Hopefully simply expressing these feelings, and posting them, no longer so anonymously, is a first step.

Dear God, Thank You for this Family

Father’s Day, 2013

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My girls here with me.  We took up an entire row at Mass – the only thing I asked for today.

So much love and support from Sharon, Kayla, Noah, Camille and Emily.  What have I done to deserve this?  I am humbled by my gifts in this life.  I miss my son so much it hurts, but I would be selfish to ask for him back.

I have this warm faith inside that Daddy is with Cullen today, together with Mom; all in our Lord’s embrace, sending out love.  Actually makes me smile.

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I prayed for three things today.

Thanksgiving for all I have.  My family is the personification of Your love, supporting each other every moment.

That my God cradle and hug him, and let him know how much we love him.

For healing, faith, and consolation for my wonderful family.

We are sad for us, but so very hopeful in our faith and love that our God has him in His loving embrace.  This father’s day is so different than last year.

Perhaps it’s the Camino.  Perhaps it’s just time.  Perhaps it’s the Holy Spirit.

Thank you dear Lord for the confidence that my dear son is ok.  And that you allowed me to know him for 19 years. And that you inspired him to do so much good.  Much Love.

Happy Father’s Day 2013

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Road to Emmaus

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Everyone who knows me, knows that I have a horrible memory.  Not just, “Where did I put my car keys?” or “Crap, I forgot why I came in here” type of bad memory, rather more like, “I could hide my own Easter eggs!”  I could watch the same movie ten times and be shocked each time at the ending!

So, I dread seeing clients in public.  As a veterinarian, I form personal relationships with my clients, and get to know them, their children, and their pets – often a very real part of their family.  People appreciate when you connect with them, and I do genuinely love my job and (most of) my clients and their “families.”  So when I greet them by name and remember their kids, and that their cat purrs on Grandpa’s lap and the dog digs up the daffodils and enjoys leg humping Uncle Donnie, and never left Maggies side when she had cancer surgery, I get to show them that I understand, and that I’m honored to also be included in their family’s story.  But remember, I have “crib notes” or “cheat sheets” called a medical chart.  I’ve not only read “Otis’s medical notes, but also the post-it notes attached that remind me of the personal stuff.  Please know that I am truly interested in you personally and your family, but frankly, I do well to remember my own Kayla’s swim meet this weekend, or that I agreed to pick up printer ink for Noah’s book report on my home tonight.

So that explains the “deer in the headlights” look in my eyes when I see you at the grocery store, as I cheerfully blurt out, “OH Hi!! How ARE you???!!!”  But, I really don’t have a clue who you are.  Now I do know you look familiar, and so you probably are a client, and I very much appreciate that you like me, and I truly do like you also.  Because I like everyone, or most people anyway.  And I really and truly DO wish I could remember stuff like that, because you really ARE important to me – and not just professionally, because you pay the bills.  No, much more so because I believe “we’re all in this together,” and I do enjoy your company and your stories.

But that’s the sort of stuff that settled into my mind as I listened to Luke’s gospel today about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Apparently, these were two guys that were with Jesus daily, were His friends, and actually saw Him perform miracles.  The loved Him dearly as a friend, broke bread with Him, and actually heard Him say the words of everlasting life, that He would be resurrected and come back.  And yet these two disciples, who knew Him so well, didn’t know Him after all.  They didn’t recognize Him at all as they walked down the road for miles.  Only that night, when they again broke bread together did the light bulb go on.

Which is a pretty transparent segway to my own road.  Where is Emmaus anyway?  I guess none of us know exactly where this road will end, but I truly have learned that we encounter our Lord multiple times on this journey.

An therein lies my real dread.  When I don’t recognize Christ in those I encounter, I’ve lost that opportunity forever to impact that person’s life.  How many times have I walked on past my Lord, too busy to care, too focused on myself and my family, too forgetful to remember that I really do know this stranger.

As I begin my Camino de Santiago in 14 days, I’ll try to remember that those I’ll encounter are already friends.  And when I return, I can only hope that I will have learned some valuable lessons.  But most importantly, I desire a better ability to remember the one I’m actually looking for.

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Falling in Pamplona

My new friend Matt, a teacher in California, has a student who had an accident, falling and hitting his head so brutally that he’s been on a ventilator for a week.  His family and friends prayed and held hands, and sang and played guitar in the ICU.  They prayed and told stories, and hugged and lifted each other up.  They prayed and pleaded, and made deals, and became angry, and sullen, and cried, and fell to their knees, and said goodbye to Gregory.

They unplugged the ventilator and lost their friend, their inspiration, their dreams, their son.

We will always look back with regrets.  But we know that living life is at its very core, running the race, not watching others.  How I wish I could lift them up and give them strength.  I’m only able to get out of bed, and put one front of the other, and breathe at all – because I’ve been lifted up and granted strength.  Prayers lift me up, prayers will lift Greg’s family up.

As I’m anticipating my approaching Camino, it occurs to me that the running of this race seems like the running of the bulls – absurd to those watching, exhilarating to us running.  When we stumble and fall, the near misses force us to doubt whether it has been worth it to be here.  Then we see the horns approaching a neighbor; we swoop them up to safety.  We can because we’re here.  I’ll be in Pamplona in a few weeks for the first time.  Again.

Buen Camino.

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Consumed

Yeah, I suppose I am consumed at times, most of the time in fact.  OK, all the time.  Sharon says I’m obsessive about everything I do.  Well, she IS always right.  Seriously.  So although I do seem to be consumed all the time, it’s not always with grief.  At least I don’t think I am.

This Camino thing will be really, really physically demanding.  I mean, I AM 53 years old, and it will be pretty rough.  And I’ve never even hiked before, unless you count boy scouts or walking through the woods to the cliff dive place a couple of years ago with Emily in Hawaii.  So I bought all the right (I hope) gear, and started hiking with my 28# backpack a couple of times a week.  Ok it’s like everyday, but just for a short walk before anyone wakes up.  Well maybe more than a short walk, cause I walk from like 5:15 to about 7:00, but really that only like 6 or 7 miles every day.  Does that sound obsessive?  A little, I suppose, but I gotta get prepared for 18-25 miles each day, and I’m a long way from being in the shape I need to be in. And frankly, the “short walks” are kicking my butt!  I am so sore, and not just pulled muscles and strained ligaments and sprained tendons, but my joints themselves are showing me a frustrating amount of intolerance to this kind of activity.  I remember some arthritic changes in both knees and both hips in the XRays we took about 10 years ago when Cullen and I took Tae Kwan Do and I had a bit of a run in with my aging shell.

I do notice that  the training doesn’t look so compulsive now that Sharon is walking with me when she can doesn’t have to be at work early and if I instead do an afternoon trek.  Kind of kicking her younger body too!

Really though, I am.  I can never just buy something.  I am driven to research for hours.  Heaven forbid not getting the best product for the best price.  Buying socks takes hours; a phone weeks; a car takes months.  Seriously.

Maybe a little ADD too, but that’s a different blog post.

She is right though, I am compulsive, and consumed.  Since I discovered we were mortal, me specifically, I’ve been consumed with exploring faith, religion, God, death, and finally, living.  Not really sure when that happened, but probably when the girl down the street from me named Kim Inman died from Leukemia when we were like 12.  That’s the first death I really remember.  She was someone I knew, a part of MY world, a 12 year old’s reality.  She was there, my playmate, then almost instantly, was gone.  Of course then there was Nana, Papu, Grandma, Grandpa, and Dante.  And then Daddy.  Lots of things there I wish I had done and said, and not done and not said.  And lessons learned – good ones, bot what to do, and unfortunately lots of things not to do.  But that’s another post also.

Also unfortunately some of these lessons came much too late about what not to do.  How to stop generational history from repeating itself…  You know, we become our parents.  But again that’s the other post, but don’t look for it yet, cause its all still in my head.

But yeah, I do obsess about God and the other stuff I mentioned, as well as my perceptions about others’ relationship with God, and their perceptions toward mine; BTW, what the heck?  Why all the vitriol about Catholics?  We don’t worship statues, and think Mary is a God, and where does all this stuff even come from?  Haha, but seriously – we’re not Christians?  We were the ONLY Christians for over a thousand years before Henry got upset that the rules couldn’t be changed so he could get a divorce, and Martin Luther (and probably lots of others) were upset about indulgence abuse and threw out 17 books from the bible that he didn’t like.  They’re inspired for 1500 years, then you decide you knew more than the early Church Fathers?  Guess that’s a different post too.  Don’t look for that one either.

Did I mention I’m a little ADD?

So I am consumed with Cullen’s loss, and no, it’s never gonna be the same again, and the “new normal” grief counselors talk about is bullshit.  No, I’m not always consumed with grief and sadness, but yes, frankly the whole thing sucks, and I do think of Cullen every minute of every day.  But lots of it is good stuff.  Most of it in fact.

 

Camino de Santiago

After returning home from FSU with Cullen on April 27, 2012, he stayed with us that weekend before leaving to study in China. Cullen went to Mass with us at HNJ, then expressed a desire to stay late for a Eucharistic Adoration service that Fr. Tony was having, with music by Sarah Kroger.  Cullen remarked that she sang “like an angel.”  Afterward we all returned home.

Cullen always wanted me to stay up late and watch a movie, and I typically declined because I was up very early the next day for work.  Agreeing this time to do so, we proceeded to dig through DVDs, looking, of course, for Napoleon Dynamite.  I remarked that it was too bad we had just returned a movie the rest of us had watched earlier in the week, because when we were watching it I remembered thinking that I knew he would enjoy it.  Anyway, Noah thought that although it hadn’t been available as an instant download that perhaps it would be now that we had watched it – I was skeptical, but upon checking – there it was – “The Way.”

Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in this story of a man’s “final journey” with his son, discovering what he had meant when he said, “You don’t choose a life Dad, you live one.”  This is the story of walking “The Way of Saint James,”   with a few glimpses of the pilgrim’s experience as they walk the 500 mile “Camino de Santiago.”  The journey climaxes as the group enters the Cathedral of Santiago, each surrendering the burdens that they have attempted to carry alone.

After the movie ended, the two of us sat together in silence, until the music and credits ended.  I started to engage, “Well … ”  Cullen interrupted, “Of course I’ll walk it with you, but I gotta finish my master’s degree, so we’ll do it in two years.  We agreed and hugged goodnight.

I’ve read many reviews of the movie, and heard lots of people comment on it.  No one understands the depth of the message and foreboding for us.  Watching that movie was the last thing I was to do with my son.  He left me the next day, and I would only see his beautiful face once more; in a box rolling into the Chinese crematory.

I leave on my 500 mile, 30 day Camino de Santiago on April 16, 2013.