I woke up that morning and it all came back—what I did the night before—it all came back to me in a flood, and my heart started to race: how I wrote it down, how I wrote it down in the Christmas cards for my dad, my sister, and my mom, how I sealed the envelopes, how I gave them the envelopes, how I told them not to open them until the morning, how it’s morning now and the envelopes are open and they know.
I gave it to them in an envelope because I thought it would be easy. They would get up before me and open the envelopes, and I thought I would wake up in a new world. But it wasn’t as easy as that. I expected the envelopes to do all the work, all the opening up. I didn’t expect that I would have to open up, too.
I woke up that morning, stared at the ceiling, and listened.
I listened to my father turn his paper, sip his coffee. I listened to the fire crackle. I listened to the shower pull water through the pipes and the muffled hiss as the water-heater refilled. I listened to the dryer pound and tumble, while my stomach pounded and tumbled, too. I listened to my father fold his paper and press it into the bin with the others. I listened to him throw a log onto the fire, and my heart with it: that leap into somber stillness, that fall into combustion, that secret fire finally released. I listened to the dryer stop and the shower stop. I listened to my father sing Joy to the World while he emptied the dishwasher. I listened to the dishes bang, the glasses rattle, and the silverware clink. I listened to my sister leave the shower (only my sister takes such long showers) and open the dryer. I listened to her shake the wrinkles and static from her clothes and fold them too neatly. I listened for my mother. She should have been up. Not a single sound was hers.
My bladder convinced me to stand and walk to the small bathroom in my room. I flushed the toilet, and I knew there was no more pretending to be asleep: they would all know I was up. I came out of my room and my sister was there. She smiled, hugged me, and said, “Merry Christmas.” My father came over, beaming. “Let me have one of those, too,” he said, and I gave him a hug. And then I asked, “Where’s Mom?”
I walked upstairs. She was in bed with Casper on her lap. She was pretending to read a book. The cat was stretched out in some impossible configuration of limbs and fur, purring himself to death. My mom was crying and I knew it wasn’t the book. She was crying about me, about what I wrote in the card. I sat at her side. I asked her what was wrong. She didn’t answer immediately. She looked away and breathed deeply to choke down the tears.
As I waited for my mom to speak, I pet the cat (what I assumed was his stomach). His purr was like an engine idling at a stop light, waiting for the green light that says go, go, go. My heart felt bigger than the entire house, I was sure they could hear my heartbeat next door. I was waiting for the words that I feared the most: I can’t accept you, I don’t accept you, I won’t accept you. Instead my mother breathed deeply and said words I never expected.
She said she knows many gay men: some are strangers in passing, some are acquaintances, some are friends of friends, some are friends, some are blood. She has embraced them, given to them the same empathy and love that she gives to everyone, the same generous joy and laughter and insight. But I was different. I was different because I was her son.
The gay men she knew, most of them her same generation, were all rejected by their families, or in fear of rejection moved far away and barely kept in touch. Some of them were self-destructive, some were reckless, some were even suicidal. She saw in them a detached hopelessness, struggling in the face of a hateful, disparaging world to live a life of joy. She saw them accept the duality of well-kept secrets, the comfort of masks, the addiction of escape. All her experience had taught her that this was not a safe world for gay people, and knowing that I was one of them meant to her that I was destined to a life without joy and a life without children (the greatest joy of her life). This filled her heart with an overwhelming sadness. She said, “I love you, I will always love you, but it just makes me so sad.”
There is nothing like seeing my mother cry. It makes me feel vulnerable in a way that nothing else does, but it was in that vulnerability that I saw who I needed to be for my mother. The world my mother feared is a world I’ve never known. The streets where I’ve lived have been the backdrop for hatred against gays, even in my lifetime, even in my adulthood, but in spite of this, even because of this, I choose to live a life of joy.
It began that Christmas with a gift to my family, a gift unlike any gift that I have ever given: I chose that Christmas to sprawl out in the world, to make room for myself, to open myself to the joy of the world, to find in its bustle and darkness and forward plunge that crack of sunlight under the doorway that will one day, despite all resistance, burst open, to make for myself a world of joy, to transform fear into fierce pride, secrets into joys, to fashion out of resistance an expanding love. I chose to be proud of who I am, and to live my life in an open, honest, and loving way. I chose to live a life of joy. I chose to do this for my mom.
We sat there on the bed for awhile. My dad was singing Joy to the World downstairs. My sister came up with my stocking and hers. My mom worked her way through tears to smiles and laughter again. Casper was nothing less than entirely content. And I was whole and loved. It was a perfect Christmas.