Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Day We Found Out

The day our lives changed forever started out like any other day. Our second son was in the middle of his senior year in high school and heavily entrenched in the college application process. Anyone who has been through this with their teen knows how stressful this time can be.

Applying for college is an overwhelming process, wrought with high level emotions, a lot of hand wringing, and outright worry. Add to the mix the pressures of an unbelievable school schedule loaded with AP and honors classes, the constant worry of keeping the GPA up, a job, the usual outside school activities, PSAT, SAT, and ACT testing and retesting, and you have a pressure cooker environment ripe for explosive parent-child confrontations. It is truly a wonder that any kid lives long enough to even make it to college.

It was under this backdrop that my husband and I found out that our son was gay. Sadly, he did not come out to us. And if he had any plans to come out to us, my guess is that it certainly would not have been at this point in time. No, unfortunately we found out quite by accident, a factor that only exacerbated the shock, sadness, and misunderstandings. Though the way we found out was not very dramatic considering some of the stories we have since heard from other parents, it certainly was no less traumatic.

Knowing the stress my son was under, juggling everything he had going on plus staying on top of the massive amount of work involved in applying for college, I offered to handle all of the more mundane and tedious chores that come with applying for college. We agreed that I could help by organizing all of the correspondence from all of the universities to which he was applying (I believe there were 10 on his list) and keeping track of all of the deadlines for him. We decided that it made sense to use my email address for any correspondence between him and the various universities so that way I could sift through everything and make sure that the important stuff got to him and dealt with in a timely manner.

Most universities require some kind of essay. The choices for subject matter usually include an option for telling about something that has profoundly affected your life. My son chose this theme and proceeded to churn out a run-of-the-mill paper about his school community service project (his school, a Jesuit high school, required a set number of community service hours in order to graduate). The trip he took to satisfy his community service requirement was a week working and living with a family in a very poor border town in Mexico, and it was a trip that did indeed profoundly affect him. Most of the universities to which he was applying were Jesuit as well and he knew this would appeal to them. The paper was very good, but now in retrospect, I guess it seemed very unauthentic and insincere to him considering he had something much more profound at that point in time affecting his life.

Unbeknownst to me, he decided that he needed to put into writing, to strangers, what he did not have the courage to do with his us ------ come out. So he used an essay that he actually had written for a high school class assignment (again I plead cluelessness, I had never laid eyes on this paper) and under the most stealth of conditions, sent it to every university to which he was applying. I would later ask him what on earth was he thinking when he did that. After all, the Catholic Church was not proving to be the most protective or inclusive haven for gays and his goal was to be accepted not rejected. He just stared at me, he did not have an answer. I can only guess that he felt he should know before getting accepted whether any of these schools had a problem with who he truly was.

I am happy to say that I underestimated the Jesuits. He was accepted to every university to which he applied. Not only was he accepted, but he received heart felt handwritten personal letters from many of these schools telling him how moved they were by his essay and that they would be proud to have him as a student on their campus! All but one of these letters came addressed to him by way of the US Postal service. The one letter that did not come by means of the postman came directly to my email inbox. And that was one of the best and one of the worst moments of my life.

I saw that email in my inbox and noted that it was from one of the universities that my son had applied to and I blithely opened it, completely unprepared for what I was about to read. Talk about an event that profoundly affects your life… I was stunned. My face felt on fire, my eyes filled with tears, my hands began to shake. I was unable to speak. The thoughts flashing one right after the other in my brain went from crazy to ludicrous. My head felt like it was going to explode. I wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to run.

Fortunately, my son was still at school when this happened. It gave me and my husband a few hours to collect ourselves. We needed to decide how best to handle this. It was obvious that he was not ready to tell us, a fact that painfully seared deep into my heart, but I knew I could not pretend to be the person I was five minutes before I had booted up my computer that day, that person was gone forever. I knew that I would have to confront him with what I knew soon after he got home. I was incapable of pretending to be June Cleaver.

After a bit of thought, I printed up the email and laid it on his bed. When he returned home from school that day, he did what he always did, came in and mumbled some semblance of the word hi, clunked loudly up the stairs with his overloaded backpack on his shoulder, headed straight to his room and closed the door. My husband and I sat nervously in the kitchen and waited. I did not know what else to do. I was so apprehensive and scared. I could only imagine what he was feeling behind his closed door reading that letter. I am sure his terror and sense of dread dwarfed anything we were feeling.

He never came down those stairs. Eventually I had to go up to him. When he opened his door to me, I saw a tremendously frightened kid whose face was scary white, the blood completely drained away. I was overcome with intense sadness and a love that made my heart hurt. It was at that moment that I realized that he was not sure if we still loved him. It almost killed me to realize that he could even think this. I could not have loved him anymore than I did at that moment. And yet all I could think to say at that moment was “Are you sure?” I wish I could take that moment back, it was such a dopey thing to say. OF COURSE HE WAS SURE. I knew damn well that he had spent years grappling, denying, pretending, pleading, crying, and finally accepting who he was. Who was I to question him on something that had so consumed such a big part of his life? In fact, I knew the moment I had read the email earlier that day that it was true, so many things that had nagged at my subconscious as he was growing up finally made sense. Damn, why couldn’t I have said something more profound like “I love you with all my heart and that will never change”?

He and I retreated back to the privacy of his bedroom and began to talk. My husband needed more time to digest what we had learned and decided to let us have this time alone. I will not go into the minutia of what we talked about, but the major point I needed to get across to him was that nothing could make us not love him. He was still our son and nothing would change that. I assured him that he no longer had to make this journey alone and that I was there when he needed to talk. I also mentioned that I would need to talk too, a lot – a whole lot, and he would need to accommodate me. I reminded him that he had had many years to get comfortable with being gay and that he needed to understand that we too would need time to get comfortable with it. We cried, we shared some nervous laughs, we hugged, and we shared a lot of nervous silence, but that evening marked the beginning of really truly getting to know my beautiful son for who he really was. Share


Finding One Song Glory said...

I just couldn't help but leave a comment. I stumbled across your blog while I was checking the results on the House vote today (while I should have been working on a column that's due in a few hours). I can only imagine what that must have been like for you, but I don't have to imagine what it was like for your son. My own story reads much like his, except my forced timing was even less convenient. You're reaction is what all of us dream of. Things may have been strange, they may have changed forever, and you may regret some things you said, but you never lost sight of the fact that he was your son and that you loved him. My own mother's reaction eventually resembled yours, but events conspired to make it nessecary to live with my grandparents, only one of whom knows (and it's an off-limits topic with her). As I dive into the middle of those college stressors you described, I'm beginning to understand that I can't continue in silence like I have, not after coming out to every other important person in my life. I pray my grandfather has the same clear sight as you did and is willing to work through things. Thank you for sharing your story, and I hope you don't mind me boring you with mine ^^.

Daniel said...

Your son, like myself, is very lucky to have such a supportive mum. Your reaction is exactly like my mum's when she found out. She asked if I was sure, too.

I told my mum in person, which is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but it was completely necessary. If I hadn't gotten it off my chest back when I was fifteen, I would likely not have had the emotional strength to be here today.

So really, what I want to say, is just to thank you for being an understanding and caring mother to your son on behalf of all the worried gay kids out there. :)

Jarred said...

This is an incredible and powerfully moving story. Your son is lucky to have such a loving and supportive mother.

I originally came out to my mother a couple months after finally coming to terms with my sexual orientation for myself. I wasn't prepared, but given the situation, I felt it was the best course of action. Just prior to our conversation, I had made the mistake of letting one of my cousins know I was gay. Due to the way that my cousin reacted and knowledge based on past experience that she was likely to gossip, I realized that my parents were probably going to find out soon one way or another. As I didn't want them to find out through the grapevine (I felt it would be too hurtful that way), I made the choice to sit my mother down and have "the conversation" with her. It was not easy, nor was it pleasant. But I'm glad I did it, all the same.

Sadly, while my parents still love me and our relationship is pretty decent all things considered, things haven't been easy. It's only been recently that I've even felt I could talk to my parents about things like relationship woes, and it still results in feeling like there's some distance there.

Anonymous said...

I just read this and began crying. I have not come out to my parents yet. I am terrified that my mother will not love me anymore. My college essays were all about my coming out process and the one person who should know that has been left out of it. And thinking that she may even possibly find out because of those made my heart...stop. Thank you so much for the hope that she will love me no matter what. Your son is so lucky.

Jarred said...


I don't know if you'll come back to this post. If you do, I hope you'll read my comment. Please no that you are not alone in this world. You don't have to live alone with your fears. Please be sure to reach out to those people who will listen to you and support you.

I hope you'll keep coming back to Seething Mom's diary, and while I wouldn't normally presume to speak for her, I'll be just daring enough to say that she would like that very much, too.

You're among friends here. Please don't be afraid to keep reaching out.

dbv said...

that story made me weep!!! my coming out was horrible and at 46, i have no relationship with my parents at all, mine threw me out of their home... i hope your son realizes how lucky he is!!!

Jan said...

I just read this for the first time tonight. I am grateful that you wrote so descriptively of "the day we found out." I was overwhelmed with your description of the love you felt when you saw your frightened son. That love comes through all the time for him. I am grateful for your story that you share. Thank you.

atimetorend said...

Thanks for writing this, I have tears running down my face. I have young boys, and the picture you convey of love for your son is extremely moving. I am glad to see in the comments that you have been an encouragement to others facing the same issue. It is such a tragedy that issues of sexual orientation, or any issue, can create so much division between people.

Seething Mom said...

Thank you for your touching words - they mean a lot. I decided to go over to your blog, a time to rend and found myself mesmerized by your own journey through the maze of organized religion and morality.