Now the Good News – Your Dying Baby is having a Baby
I don’t like to rock the boat. I just don’t. More to the truthful point, I don’t like to subject the people that I love to an unpleasant swell of choppy water on my account. To do so intentionally has historically struck me as some kind of twisted, selfish, needless imposition. From my current vantage point, however, this desire to try and keep an unrealistic calm around me at all times seems detrimental; an unfortunate symptom of my disease of unworthiness.
When it comes to making waves, I think there is certainly a happy medium. That is to say; while it is unwise and unnecessary to pull our loved ones into every minor squall, I also believe that it is antithetical to the truest meaning of the word family to habitually exclude those closest to us from the significant ups and downs in our life’s voyage. When it comes to sharing personal news that could cause a stir, I have long chosen to err on the side of an extreme and secretive caution. I have abused this pretense of protecting my loved ones as a justification to withhold information all through my life; in both good times, and in bad. Let us simply henceforth refer to this recurring, cagey excuse as the martyr defense.
I brought my mom and dad into the baby making loop rather late in the game. In retrospect, it seems like the kind of conversation I should have started with my parents very early on. Yes, I rationalized that I wanted to spare them any disappointment in the very conceivable case that the fertility process proved to be impossible. But let’s be real. My mom and dad already had six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, so my inability to produce a progeny would hardly lead to the demise of our family dynasty. No, in reality there is much more to the martyr defense than simply protecting others. I was likely acting much more selfishly – to protect myself.
All of that psycho-dissection aside, I was eventually presented with an ideal opportunity to share the news with my father. Not only was his long-term HIV-positive baby doing well (at the age of forty-seven), but I was doing so well that I was about to have a baby of my own.
You see, my father was invited to a memorial for the wife of a longtime friend and colleague. The service was going to be held in Newport Beach, located about an hour-and-a-half south of my parent’s home in the San Fernando Valley. He asked if I could drive him. I was not only glad that he was willing to request a companion for the relatively long drive, but I was looking forward to spending some quality alone time with my dad.
In retrospect, that ride down south was much like one of those early afternoon visits to my mom and dad’s home in the late-eighties when I was trying to muster the courage to share the news of my HIV status. Our conversation was filled with pleasant chitchat, this time mostly about some of the folks that we would likely run into at the memorial and some of the details about my dad’s relationships with those various people over the years. Always in my mind was the task at hand, but I chose not to force my agenda and trusted that there would be ample opportunity on the ride back. Also, waiting just a little longer to tell him would allow my father to focus on the death of a friend before having to process the idea of a new life entering the family. #blackbeltprocrastinator
As we entered the small, beachfront community of Newport, I was caught wholly off guard by an unexpected wave of nostalgia. Yo, this was my old stomping ground with Guy; the man I shared a bed with for two years before coming clean with him about my HIV. It all came flooding back in a rush of ocean air and a sweep of familiar scenery. The memories were complex; ruminations of a young love and a grand lie. They were recollections almost a quarter-of-a-century old, but their emotional impact was still potent. Considering it now it seems prophetic; entering Newport Beach, the spawning ground of my most notorious deception, while harboring yet another secret from someone that I loved.
With my melancholy senses now fully reeling, we arrived at the restaurant and began to mingle. I always enjoy watching my father in these situations. His overwhelming capacity to foster and enjoy a genuinely reciprocative love with his friends has always been enviable. If I am fortunate enough to inherit even just a fraction of that, I will be forever blessed beyond calculation. During the proceedings, chicken was served, stories were shared, and tears were shed. The tears were mostly in response to the stories of course, but, if I remember correctly, the chicken was also a little sad.
Eventually we were back on the road – this time headed home. In the car, our conversation ebbed and flowed until I managed to make a clumsy transition to the matter at hand. I don’t remember any of the interchange verbatim, because I probably went numb for much of it. But if I could write the dialogue, it might go something like this:
DAD: It was sure nice to see everyone.
DAD: That chicken was a little sad.
ME: It was.
DAD: So, any luck on the job front?
ME: Well, funny you should ask. Do you remember that whole…imminent demise from AIDS plan that I had for myself? You know, the one that I laid out for you and mom there at the kitchen table back in the late eighties?
DAD: Oh yeah, whatever happened to that?
ME: You know…. Things just don’t always go like you think.
DAD: Don’t I know.
ME: Anyway, as long as I’m still here and all. I’m just gonna go ahead and have a baby with a couple of these lesbians that I know.
DAD: Wow, another grandbaby.
ME: Yep. What’ll that be? Seven?
DAD: Seven. Your mama will be so excited.
ME: Hey, I was thinking we could stop at Pink’s on our way back through town. Grab a hot dog?
DAD: That chicken was sad.
ME: Yeah, it was.
Truthfully, I don’t recall a specific response from my dad, though I do remember there was an overall sense of pride and excitement. Again, from my father I would have expected nothing less. Above all, I was happy to finally have shared the information. I dropped him off at home and assumed that he would convey the news to my mom at a time when he felt it was appropriate. As it turned out, however, I was presented with an opportunity to tell her myself in fairly short order.
Just a few days later my mother suffered a serious fall. By the time that I met my dad at the hospital, my mom was stretched out on a gurney in the emergency room waiting for x-ray results. In the weeks and months leading up to that fall, my mom’s memory had begun to show some signs of deterioration. There had been no definitive diagnosis of any kind, but there were episodes of confusion and some concerning instances of marked forgetfulness. The details of the fall that she had just experienced even seemed to be impossible for her to recall.
At some point during the hullabaloo in the ER, my father said to me, “I think your mom could use some good news.”
I understood immediately that he was alluding to the news of my impending fatherhood. Clearly he had managed to keep the secret himself for a short time. I expressed some reticence with regard to the timing. I was concerned, given my mother’s current state and circumstance, that a declaration from her, Gay, HIV-positive son about a recent stork sighting might seem bewildering. This is where the self-analysis gets a few degrees more complicated. Was my kneejerk response to censor information in this particular situation rational, or was it simply another example of me falling back on the martyr defense? This is precisely the kind of quagmire that my friends who play cricket refer to as a sticky wicket. Who am I kidding? I don’t have any friends who play cricket. Not yet, anyway. Nevertheless, in that moment, before the doctor came in to let us know that my mom’s broken hip would require immediate surgery, my father prodded me to share the news and I complied.
I’m not sure how much sense my mother was able to make of the information I was conveying, but talk of babies always seemed to make her smile and that occasion was no exception. Even through the physical pain and the chaotic circumstance, there was a genuine gladness that came through in her expression. And again, I was happy that my mom and dad were both finally in the know.
Like decades earlier, when I had struggled for so long to share the news of my HIV, the thought of telling my parents about the baby had provoked some evil, pestering voice in the hollow of my soul, “What if they stop loving you?” Utterly absurd, I know. My parents are far from flawless, but without question they have a love for their children that is without measure or condition. I have known this always in my head and even in my heart, but there was still some slight poison in my spirit; some mysterious, soul-tainting tincture that caused me to pause in both situations. It was likely a toxic combination of various ingredients. In relation to being Gay; there was a large dose of condemnation from my church, along with a hefty dash of American, mid-twentieth-century, societal revulsion. My HIV-positive status infused some healthy measures of disgust and shame, of course. And perhaps most profoundly was the prevailing, base element of my God-given nature. I was a diehard people-pleaser. So much of my self-worth seemed to be wrapped inextricably with how I perceived myself to be judged by others. Together, these components created an emotionally debilitating concoction.
On top of all the internal angst, there was the reality of my external existence. When the time came to share the baby news with my mom and dad, the waters around me were obviously already a little rough. My parents, or anyone in my circle for that matter, could have easily pointed out that, along with my HIV: I was close to fifty-years-old, saddled with debt, sharing a home with my sister, and still without the prospect of permanent employment or a steady income. The truth is that many of these harsh factors did become topics of discussion at various times, with a variety of people, and to varying degrees. Always, however, at the core of almost every conversation was caring, love and support.
In retrospect, it seems that maybe my unwillingness to make waves has been a warning signal to the people that I love. Perhaps my aversion to rocking the boat has communicated to others that I am uncomfortable with rough water, or unwilling to test them, or worse, that I am incapable of navigating myself or others through a storm. If so, I need to be sure that this is not a message that I convey to my son.
So, moving forward; I believe that I need to keenly consider the course that I have taken, do my best to make an accurate assessment of where I am, and then have the courage to continually make the necessary adjustments while heading toward the horizon of my choosing. Finally, I accept that sometimes these adjustments might cause the rocking of a boat or two…or three…and from here on out, that will be OK with me.