“He defined your gay experience.”
Once again, even though we’ve only known each other three years and even though we don’t see each other that often, my friend Rob had made an almost off-hand comment that had frankly blown me away in its piercing insightfulness. Mark and I had met him and his husband, David, three (only three?) years ago on a beach in Maui, and they became good friends first to us and, since Mark’s passing, to me.
This particular comment was made the last time I was visiting them in San Francisco. Rob was folding laundry, intently listening as I was talking about my coming out seven years ago, meeting Mark, how my life changed when that happened, and how my life has changed since Mark’s death.
When I met Mark ten months after I made the decision to come out, that coming out process abruptly changed. Coming out, at least at the point of life when I finally did, is about a whole lot more than simply (simply?) saying to yourself and to others for the first time in your life that you’re gay. I had suppressed vast swaths of my personality for so many decades of my life that I felt that, for the first time, I was discovering who I truly was—or could be.
Coming out also involved, for the first time in my life, exploring my sexuality, exploring the possibility of romantic relationships with other men. Though there was some of that before I met Mark, there wasn’t a lot. I’d only dated a few men before we met.
When I did meet Mark and fall in love with him, it was like I drew the “Advance to Go” card after I’d only moved a few spaces around the gay Monopoly board after just beginning the game. I hit the jackpot, finding a sexy, gorgeous, loving, beautiful man whom I could spend the rest of my life with, passing over all those stops and properties on the board that would have said things like, “Go on yet another date with a guy,” “Go through gay adolescence,” “Make lots of new gay friends,” or “Pursue an interest that you suppressed all your life.”
I fell headlong not only into love, but also into a relationship with a man who seemed too good to be true, into in a life that certainly seemed to be too good to be true—but that was wrapped up entirely in and with him, especially after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Thus, when it all too quickly came to an end, I was left asking questions: What do I do now? Is this it? Is the game over? Is there anything left to experience, to find, to live, to discover about love or about me?
Back to Rob’s insight: Mark, and my life with him, had defined my “gay experience,” and gradually, over the months that followed his death, in between mourning the loss of him and all that we shared, I had to think about moving on. In a very real sense, my process of coming out, which had in very real ways been frozen when I met Mark, started again. And it was, and remains, bewildering at times.
I now have to continue to define who I am, not only as a person, but as a gay man of a certain age. I have made efforts to make new friends – gay and straight – and that hasn’t always been easy. I have gone on a few dates, but haven’t really felt ready yet to open myself up to that world that is so mysterious and fraught with all sorts of things. I have explored interests, new and old, grateful for an opportunity to do so. I have issued physical challenges for myself and have just recently taken up swimming for the first time in over 45 years. I continue, as I always have, in my role as father to my children. Some days are really good and full. Other days, I look into the future and see nothing but uncertainty and, on bad days, emptiness.
And I think of something else Rob said to me on my recent visit. He has no idea how an offhand statement he made in the context of discussing his own life impacted me. It was just a phrase, actually one word. He said something about leading a “happy and fulfilling” life. Fulfilling. Fulfilling. Piercing realizations followed. For most of my life, I hadn't even considered whether or not my life was "fulfilling." I had simply done what was expected of me. Actually, I had abdicated to an organization--the LDS Church--the task of telling me what to do in order that I might live a “fulfilling” life. Fulfillment came from following the path that was set before me. Only it didn’t. Perhaps if I'd had a better sense of self, things would have been different. But I didn't.
Now—I suddenly realized—after coming out, after meeting Mark and living the dream for 4-1/2 years, after losing him and starting over, I get to choose. My gay experience, my human experience, is left for me to mold, craft and seek out. And in so doing, I get to seek fulfillment … on my terms, as me.