“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.