Today is the 12th annual Blogging for LGBTQ Families Day. I participated last year through my travel blog. This year I’m releasing a sneak peek of my upcoming memoir. Enjoy!
My mom has always said when my dad came out of the closet, we stepped in. I was only twelve, and it had already been a difficult year with several family illnesses and deaths. School had just ended, and we were enjoying the first days of summer in June of 1996 when I found myself sitting at the dining room table with my sister and parents for another family meeting.
My sister, Katie, and I knew something was going on between our parents, even though they never fought in front of us. Over the course of the year, many discussions had taken place behind closed doors. Sometimes they would get home after eating dinner out and sit in the car in the garage for over an hour. When they finally came in their eyes were red and swollen from crying. Katie and I couldn’t figure out what was happening, but we knew some major rifts had opened in their relationship. We also knew they would tell us when they were ready.
Overall, we thought our parents were happy. But as we sat at the dining room table that day, the sense of foreboding was great because we were finally going to learn the big secret.
“I am gay,” my dad stated, starting the conversation.
Katie, who was three years older than me and understood what this meant, interrupted and asked, “You’re getting a divorce then, right?”
My dad was taken aback as the speech he’d prepared was immediately moved from gay to divorce.
“Yes, we will be getting divorced,” my dad replied. “But we will remain friends. We both love you and will always put you two first. You and Natalie are our priority.”
I was totally confused. I had lived a fairly sheltered life growing up in Idaho and didn’t really understand what it meant to be gay. When I asked, my dad told us this meant he liked men instead of women. In some ways, this confused me more, because he’d married my mom. At the same time, I was worried about my dad. He was crying, not only because of telling us about the divorce, but because he was terrified we wouldn’t love him anymore.
“I still love you Dad,” I told him.
“Me too,” Katie chimed in. “We can even help you prepare for dates!”
When it came to our parents dating, Katie and I wanted our parents to be happy and told each that if they met someone who brought joy to their life we would accept that person into the family. After these reassurances, there were more tears and hugs before the meeting ended and we left the table so my dad could get ready to move out.
We grew up with the concept of table talk meaning it was something we couldn’t share outside the family. This is how our parents taught us what was appropriate to tell others and what was meant to stay in our home. They had made it clear this conversation wasn’t safe to be shared. My dad was a judge for the Idaho State Court of Appeals. While he was originally chosen and sworn in by the governor, it was a position up for re-election every six years. Idaho is one of the most conservative states in the country; I’ve occasionally heard it described as the Deep South of the Northwest, which couldn’t be more apt. We all knew if his sexuality became public he would lose his job, which created a lot of fear for our family. This affected how we lived our lives for many years. Despite the risk, my parents gave me permission to reach out to my sixth-grade teacher, who’d already seen me through a turbulent year.
I’ve been very fortunate to have some amazing teachers throughout my life, but Mrs. Smith was one of the most memorable and impactful teachers I ever had. The first day of school, she walked into class and wrote her home phone number on the board. Mrs. Smith told the class to write it down in our notebooks so we didn’t lose it. She told us if we ever got ourselves in a situation during the school year and needed help that we were to call her, no matter what the time or day. She said if we ever needed someone to lean on and were too afraid to call our parents she would be there for us.
After I left the dining room table, I picked up the phone and called her. She was already familiar with the various family problems from the past year as she had been the rock I leaned on during my sixth grade year. Shortly after school started my maternal grandmother became ill. She underwent surgery and ended up having a stroke on the operating table. It was touch and go for a while, but by Christmas she had started to heal.
Then in January my paternal grandfather, Papa Ray, died two days after my birthday. My parents woke Katie and me up early in the morning, telling us they’d received a call he was sick. They were immediately flying to the hospital in Portland. I’ll never forget how my stomach dropped. I knew without a doubt he was dead.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so we didn’t have school. Since my parents left that morning, Katie and I were home by ourselves. It was an excruciatingly long day. The power had gone out, and we were having a hard time distracting ourselves without a TV to watch or music to listen to. We couldn’t escape our worries and ended up questioning whether our grandpa was really okay. Katie was convinced Mom and Dad would call if something was seriously wrong. She didn’t think they would wait until they returned home at the end of the day, but I wasn’t so sure. I still couldn’t shake the feeling from that morning.
I was close to my grandpa. He’d always wanted a grandson but wound up with three granddaughters (my only male cousin wasn’t born until shortly before his death). I grew up as a complete tomboy, which was great for my grandpa but also frustrating for my mom. She used to buy me a new outfit every Easter and would be so excited to dress me up. She then insisted on taking a picture before I was allowed to go outside because she knew I’d be covered in dirt within minutes.
I always loved spending time with Papa Ray. Whenever I visited he would take me back to his shop where we would trace patterns on wooden planks and then use the electric saw to carve flowers. He was the handiest person in my family and would often do small repair projects when he visited us in Idaho. He taught me a lot over the years that helped me to be self-sufficient and take care of small things around the house. He also understood my love for learning about people and cultures different from my own. He supported my obsession with Native Americans and used to buy me books on the history of indigenous groups in Idaho as well as those across the country.
Only my mom returned at the end of the day; my dad had chosen to stay in Portland with my Grandma Izzy. When my mom walked through the door by herself my suspicions were confirmed. They hadn’t wanted to deliver the bad news over the phone, but Papa Ray had passed earlier in the morning. They didn’t even make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye.
I felt guilty about my grandfather’s death. I’d been the last person in my immediate family to talk to him because he had called for my birthday. At the end of our conversations I would always say, “I love you” and would wait for his normal response, “I love you more.” It had been that way for as long as I could remember, but on that day he didn’t say it. He sounded tired and I wondered if something could be wrong, but I didn’t ask him about it and I didn’t say anything to my parents. Two days later when he died I wondered if things would be different if I had said something that night.
Three months later I was practicing piano in the hallway when the phone rang. My mom answered and listened for a moment before bursting into tears in the kitchen. My uncle Chris had committed suicide after murdering his ex-girlfriend. He was an alcoholic and suffered from depression. Twice over the previous months he had called my mom, threatening to kill himself. My mom tried for hours to calmly talk to him, but in his drunken state he was angry with the world and convinced the whole family hated him and that he had nothing to live for. When he would eventually hang up, she frantically called her other siblings who lived in the area to find someone to check on him. Some in the family tried to get him help but he was resistant. I think other family members thought he would never actually do anything to hurt himself. Ultimately, he could never get over his most recent breakup. In April of that year, he took a gun to the glass factory where his ex-girlfriend worked, forced her into the bathroom, and shot her, orphaning her two sons, before turning the gun on himself.
Wanna read more?
Book Release: June 19, 2017
*For more stories celebrating our families, check out the master list at Mombian.com