I thought you should know…

“Billy, um… have you looked on Facebook lately?”  my brother Steve was calling me on the phone.  Not shocking, but certainly an infrequent occurrence.  “I thought you should know what Cullen posted.”

Being called “Billy” always startles me just a bit.  I haven’t called myself “Billy” since the 7th grade, so it generally means family or a childhood friend.

One of the few famous people I know actually called me out with that moniker in college, and I was forever treated differently afterwards.  Fraternity hazing was still a popular sport in 1977, so at the University of Missouri Theta Chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho, I was “lower than the fish-shit scum at the bottom of the ocean.”  I can still smell the foul mouths of Kevin Shopher and Jim Famuliner as they shouted at the tops of their lungs what an embarrassment I was to the upperclassmen, and that I might as well quit right then, because I just wasn’t cut out to be one of the “finer gentlemen” of Ag-Rho.  “Ha ha, what a bunch of jerks; If these two can make it into this frat, any one can!” Dave McKee and I used to double over laughing at these idiots when they weren’t around.  But during the “evening activities,” we’d “Sir, yes sir!” and complete the obligatory 24,410 push-ups (we actually counted that pledge semester) that were required to get our ticket punched.

Anyway, I was in Schnucks Liquor store in Columbia, Missouri, with my “big brother,” Don Cupps and several others who loved me dearly, getting the beer, etc. for the football game pre-party at the frat house, when someone shouted, “Billy Klein” from all the way down the aisle.  I cringed hearing this childish name that I had graduated from, knowing my “brothers” now had new ammunition to tease me with.  We all spun our heads around to see James Wilder, the BMOC running-back for the Mizzou Tigers, who was in the midst of taking us to the Big 8 (later the Big 12) conference championship, and an unprecedented number 4 in ranking polls.  Jersey number 32, known as the “Sikeston Train,” was a giant physically, and as it turns out, a really nice guy as well.  He would later be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (keeping #32), and in breaking all their records, rescue them from being such an embarrassment.  His son James Wilder Jr, also wears #32 for Florida State (I do wish the Rams had drafted Wilder instead of the Bucs; Jr would be playing now for my beloved Mizzou Tigers, instead of the ‘Noles!

What nobody knew until that moment, was that I had grown up with Wilder in Sikeston, Missouri.  Number 32, as you can imagine, was quite a sensation in our home town also.  “The Mule” shattered every known record and the Sikeston Bulldogs went to the State finals for the first time in over 30 years!  We admittedly weren’t the best of friends, because that was back when blacks hung with blacks, and whites hung with whites; we also never met until 7th grade, since I had gone to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School for the first six grades.  But we did know each other from school, parties and athletic banquets; out of 365 kids in my senior class at Sikeston High School, only 5 went strait to the ‘ZOU, and so we certainly were acquainted.  So when James called out to Billy Klein, my esteem zoomed immediately.  Funny how life works.

(Back to that phone call)  So on that day, when my 16-year-old son Cullen “came out” on Facebook by saying he was “bi-” and “in a relationship” with a boy, it was rather upsetting to the fam.  I wasn’t thrilled that he had made the whole thing public, especially since Mom was alive and actively keeping up with all of her beloved family through FB, but I certainly wasn’t shocked.  I had known for years which team he’d be playing for, and as I’ve explained earlier, had anguished over every angle, and every “alternative.”  When we were going through the divorce, it was just horrible for everyone, and Cullen, as expected, acted out with some rebellious stuff, so I did take him to Anthony Feretti, a local family therapist to have “someone to talk to, and work things out with.”  (It would be disingenuous of me to deny that I would have thought it quite a relief to learn, in working ‘things’ out, Cullen had discovered he was just ‘going through a phase,’ and that he was now ‘normal,’ and playing for our team.)  Dr. Tony soon told me Cullen was fine, very healthy, and just a really good, sweet kid.  God knows I knew all of that already.

I was well aware that even then, long before Allan Chambers would abandon Exodus, that reparative theory really did originate from a loving approach, but was horribly flawed in its theory.  Sure, I blamed myself, blah-blah-blah, but I had read enough and educated myself well enough that none of this was supported by facts.  Just as many straight kids have horrible parents, and just as many gay kids come from supportive, interactive, loving, functional families.  Chambers and I have become friends, and I hope the world lightens up on him, as everything he did was out of love and honest integrity.  Remember, in the 50’s physicians appeared on TV commercials promoting cigarettes as a healthy way to relax.  It’s not lying if you believe current evidence supports your position.

Anyway, I’m not really sure what Steve thought I could do.  Get him “into therapy?”  Disown him?  Throw him out?  Give him a spanking, or at least a “good talking to?”  I know I’m being snarky, but it truly is as frustrating as hell, as well as all the other emotions I’ve described elsewhere.

But what about my poor dear Cullen?  It must have been so frightening, lonesome, embarrassing, and so many other emotions that I’ve had so vividly explained to me by so many gay people who have recently “come out of the woodwork.”

Having tossed that ball around in my head for so long, I replied with the only thing I could reply with.  Remember “Pascal’s Wager?” this is my play on it.  Weigh one horrible extreme against the other, and choose between the two possible tragedies.

“Steve, I’ve thought long and hard, cried many tears, and prayed many tears about this.  I have come to the decision that I’d much rather hold my son’s hand as he’s lying there, dying from AIDS at age 30 than walk into his room to find him hanging from a rope in his closet at 15.  So we’ve decided, God and I, to accept him, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll be there for him as much as he allows me to be, support him, and love him unconditionally.  I’ll cherish the small time I have with him (since he seems to prefer to stay with Debbie), I’ll support him as best I can, I’ll pray for him, and I’ll love him unconditionally.  And Steve, I ask that you pray for him, and us, as well.”

Steve really didn’t know what else to say, and I’m sure was , at that point, a little embarrassed.  I hope not, because he also acted out of love, the best way he knew how.  I did thank him for calling.

Every post I write seems so full of regrets, but how I reacted to the call, and Cullen’s coming out isn’t one of them.  It was the very best I was capable of at that time.  I love(d) him unconditionally.

I do however regret not telling Mom.  I also miss her so very much, and her warm loving smile, compassionate voice, and healing embrace.  In wanting to spare her “the hurt,” I robbed her of that true loving, honest relationship that she would have wanted.  I effectively kept my son and my mother apart.  I kept him from knowing her unconditional love.

I kept her from her reason for living, to love her family unconditionally, because she would have.

My mom was a true witness for God’s unconditional love through His son Jesus Christ.  If I really did love Cullen unconditionally, and I very much tried, it came from her.  Thanks Mom, and I’m sorry.

———-

Just a couple of footnotes.  None of my family, my brothers or sisters have never have had unkind words that I’m aware of (at least as adults), and all actions have clearly been rooted in love.  Feretti is a very competent therapist.  I do wish James Wilder, Jr. played for Mizzou.  Regardless whether or not you agree with his personal opinions, Alan Chambers is a good person.  Alpha Gamma Rho is a wonderful organization, and it does “build better men.”  I would join her again, in a heartbeat. I do miss my mom and my son.

Although I have lots of life regrets, I do have lots to be thankful for and feel very blessed.

 

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.