My oldest son turns twenty-one today. It’s a milestone birthday for everyone, right? Some of us party till we puke and can barely remember what the hell we did twenty something years after the fact. As a parent, I will assuredly take a trip down memory lane… “Oh my gosh! It seems like just yesterday, you were turning one! We hired a clown for your party. Bad idea. You hated her.” I’ll probably give the guy a break and stop there. But in my head, I’ll keep going. Almost every year will bring a twinge of wistful nostalgia because it’s true what they say… they grow too fast.
If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit there were some painfully difficult years in my son’s life. The worst parts were between ages 10 and 13. I refer to them as The Bully Years. Maybe everyone experiences bullying to some degree but some kids definitely are targeted more than others. If you’re different in any way, you’re in big trouble. My son was different. Looks-wise he fit in. Tall, blond, blue-eyed… he’s a handsome guy. But there was something about his offbeat interests that set him apart. He liked (still does) solitary pursuits, such as reading and watching television. Nothing wrong there, right? I agree. But when you throw in foreign films and Hollywood actors from the golden era…. other kids didn’t know how to react. He preferred books to people his own age. Socially, he didn’t connect. Unless they were at least ten or twenty years older than him.
I couldn’t figure it out and yes, I worried. Constantly. I’m a huge reader with a love and appreciation for language so I would never discourage one of my children from hanging out in the library. But when I received a call from his fourth grade teacher telling me she’d put a stop to a boy in class bullying him, I had a feeling we’d entered a new phase. A scary one. He wasn’t in the library to read, he was there to escape. While I appreciated the teacher’s call, it served as a reminder I couldn’t be with him 24 hours a day to fight off the mean kids and give their parents a piece of my mind. Not that it worked anyway. When we called the parent’s of the kid who bullied mine in class, the mother simply couldn’t believe her son would ever tease or humiliate another child. My child must be too sensitive. In other words, “your problem, not mine”.
Maybe so. Here’s the thing. As adults we learn (eventually) that not everyone will like us, we won’t be invited to every party and though occasionally it will hurt our feelings, the older we get, the easier it becomes to accept what we can’t change things. It’s a harsh and opposing view from the lines we’re fed as children about love, friendship and inclusiveness. We learn the hard way, people are kind of crappy sometimes but we don’t have the skills yet required to deal with unkindness, segregation and loneliness. Some kids try hard to fit in, but socially they misread cues. Others separate themselves because they sense something inside them that is different. They’re terrified of the mental anguish they’ll suffer if anyone finds out who they are. It’s a dark place to be when you’re only 12.
I had a feeling my son might be gay when he was young. A mother’s intuition, I suppose. He was sensitive and thoughtful. Of course, I didn’t know until he was in his teen years that I was probably right but either way, it made me think. This child, this teenager, this young man… he’s a gift. He’s special. He’s not like the other boys and gee, I don’t mind that at all because he’s unique. His differences make something brighter and extraordinary in my world. Whether it’s because he’s gay or whether it add a layer to his individuality, I only know we are blessed by the very fact he can’t think inside a box. It’s not in his DNA.
When he was entering 8th grade (13 going on 14 years old), I knew something had to change in his daily surroundings. I hated the idea of him putting on invisible body armor for the rest of his teen years. I didn’t want him to be isolated. I was sure there had to be other kids like him. Kids who loved literature, writing and creative pursuits. We found a creative arts high school in the area (20 min drive with zero traffic each way) and encouraged him to audition. He did. He actually did a monologue from The Glass Managerie and sang for the teacher. (See? Selective. He knew she’s wouldn’t make fun of him.) He was accepted and went on to have a fantastic high school experience. Sure, there were normal ups and downs, but the key thing was acceptance. It was the missing ingredient in the public school system but thankfully we found it elsewhere.
He’s a different guy. He always will be. Last summer we picked him up at the airport in Maui in ninety degree weather. He was wearing a jacket and refused to take it off. He claimed the plane was freezing and he needed it (never mind that he was no longer on the plane). I asked how the flight was, he said it was fine but the best thing was the book he was reading, a book of short stories featuring Vogue editorials over the years. My husband and I exchanged smiles. He went on to quote Andre Leon Talley’s telling of the “piquant insouciance” of the male runway model wearing cowboy boots and a retainer. He was fascinated by the brilliant use of those words. We all were. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard. Who says shit like that? Piquant insouciance. It’s too fabulous! Why would I ever want anything else?
When my son came out to us at age 18, I knew. What I didn’t understand until I saw with my own eyes, was how much courage it took to say “I’m different” aloud. It humbled me. It inspired me. I write because yes… I’ve always loved romance and books are my passion, reading and writing. But I write MM romance because it offers a world of hope and acceptance. A well deserved happy ending. I write for him and for other young men who struggle to find themselves.
I have no new words of wisdom. If you decide to have children, remember they are a gift. They aren’t molded to your specifications. They will surprise you. Your only job is to love and accept. And teach them to do the same. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself the parent of the “weird” kid, embrace the challenge. He or she will undoubtedly bring you more joy in the most unexpected of ways. They will open your mind to possibility. On this twenty-first birthday of my beautiful boy, I wish him a happy birthday and I thank him for teaching me the meaning of love and acceptance.
Happy Birthday, sweet boy.