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
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.