01 February 2011


By the time I met him, Orville had mellowed. Years back he'd had a flash pot temper that went off without warning. As a child, my husband Dave ran scared of his dad's anger, always kept his guard up.

Orville was in his mid-80s when Dave came out. "You're my son. You're always welcome here," Orville told him. "Just don't bring any of your friends around."

At the time I counted myself one of Dave's friends. He and I had formed a mutual-survival pact. We'd agreed to companion each other through the coming out process, shared a six-month lease on an apartment.

Despite his dad's instructions, Dave soon invited me to accompany him on one of his regular trips to visit his father. I agreed to ride along. "He may not invite you in," Dave said. Fine by me. I'd heard enough stories about the old man's temper. I'd sit in the car, no problem.

To my surprise, Orville did invite me into the double-wide trailer house straightway. To my delight, he never looked back. He always welcomed me. I'd ask him about the good ol' days; I'd laugh at his jokes. He laughed at mine. He could hear the pitch of my voice easier than Dave's; I became the designated megaphone during regular visits to the house and later, the nursing home.

Dave's siblings had a harder time with his coming out than did their dad. I think they didn't know what to do with him (let alone me) and preferred to keep their distance.

Many a time Dave and I wished Orville would put his foot down, assert in his role as patriarch, "We are a family and no member of this family will be excluded from family gatherings." He never spoke these words; I think everyone involved lost something as a result. Only now after his death at age 97 have we taken tentative steps towards acting as a coherent family unit. I wish he were here to see it. I wish he had used his influence to make it happen.

In small ways and large we all of us exert influence on the world 'round. Even when that world falls apart, we may have more influence than we know.

When Dave came out, his world opened in many new ways. At the same time, the world his wife had been accustomed to turned suddenly on its head. Family dynamics shifted in the wake of their divorce. Their three adult children muddled through as best they could, provided support to one or both parents as they were willing and able. Holidays were celebrated in duplicate; a daughter's wedding gave rise to some tense moments.

Who knows how long this state of affairs might have continued. With plans underway for yet another daughter's wedding, Dave's former wife decided to take action. "We are going to be a family and present a unified front to the world," she said. She was as good as her word. She began by inviting Dave out for a meal to talk matters over. During their conversation her cell phone jangled. It was one of the kids calling to ask how she was doing.

"Your father and I are on a date," she said. Well. That news lit up the family hotline in nothing flat. Their parents were talking. And laughing together. Mom must be serious about being one family.

She was.

Leading by example, she enfolded both Dave and me into the wider family. We hugged, discussed wedding particulars, hung decorations together. We stood side by side in the receiving line. In the several years since, this one family has celebrated holidays and important events together, welcomed the arrival of two grandchildren, weathered job losses, medical issues and moves—the stuff of life, and for all of us now, the stuff of family life.

This past December I looked at the faces lit by the Christmas tree and thought, those kids' mother gave them back their parents. She gave me a family. What a gift.

My former wife and I took a different tack. Upon my coming out we parted ways and have remained east and west ever since. She found solace and refuge in a system of religious beliefs that left no room for a continuing relationship with me. Our three sons soon followed in their mother's footsteps. Now adults, they remain estranged from me.

Amazing, the power, the potential, of one. Of anyone. Of you, of me. And what shall we do with our power? Squelch it? Use it to build up or to tear down? Ours is the weighty responsibility—and amazing power—to choose.

This essay appeared in The Community Letter, February 2011