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Learning to Leave

Learning to Leave

When I was 12 years old, I sat with my family on the back row of the middle section of the chapel during sacrament meeting. My sister Sheri sat to my left, barely 9, and my mother sat to my right. And as Sister Stratton bore her testimony from the pulpit, I watched my mother turn ashen gray.

She started with the standard ‘I want to bear my testimony that I know this church is true’, followed by professions of belief in the prophets and the scriptures and the love of God. And then her tone changed to something sicky-sweet, words so sincere that they sat like a piece of undigested roast beef in my stomach.

“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear my testimony on the blessings of temple marriage. I met my husband when I was 18 and he was 21, just off his mission. My father promised us back then that if we followed the teachings of God and honored our temple covenants, our lives would be blessed beyond measure. We now have seven beautiful children and are so happy. I want to promise you that if you follow the counsel of your leaders and marry in the temple, you can have what I have, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

She returned to her seat on the second row and snuggled up next to her husband, their children on either side of them taking up the entire bench. On the back row, I watched my mother swallow hard and close her eyes tightly as big tears formed and began cascading down her cheeks. She let out her breath slowly and more tears followed. Despite her best efforts, she was soon openly crying. She excused herself as I sat there, not knowing what to do.

My mother grew up in the 1950s in potato country, Idaho. Even the mascot at the nearby high school was a potato. She was the middle daughter of a farmer and a teacher, the only one in the family with blue eyes and blonde hair. They were the perfect Mormon family, descended from pioneers and strong in their faith. Her beauty blossomed in her teenage years, when she learned to style her hair in the perfect beehive. She was asked out constantly, and even years later, she bragged about ‘kissing up a storm’ with her high school boyfriend in the back seat, but never taking it so far that it would disappoint her father. She turned down several marriage proposals before she finally said yes to my father.

He was the good-looking son of a sheep farmer, with four older brothers and one baby sister. He was a returned missionary, and a veteran, and he had a strong testimony of the gospel. When he proposed, he was 25, and my mom just 20, and they were blissfully happy. They had children, finished college, built a house on the hill, started their careers, had a few more kids. My mother had four daughters and a son, the same composition as her family growing up, and she loved dressing them up for church every Sunday and parading them in to fill up a row, just like Sister Stratton’s family would years later. Perhaps she even bore her testimony about the blessings and happiness of marriage back then. Maybe she made promises that others could have what she had, through righteousness and obedience.

But then, when she was in her early 30s, my father started growing quiet. A darkness was developing within him, and she couldn’t make sense of it. When he grew distant, surly, and critical, she threw herself harder in to church service and raising the perfect family. Scripture study, fasting, prayer, and temple attendance weren’t working. He wasn’t getting better. Her testimony remained solid, but he grew darker. And then she started finding out about the credit card debt and his losses on the stock market, things he kept secret for years.

In the mid 1970s, my father abruptly announced his plan to move the entire family to rural Missouri, where he saw a chance to get rich quick. My mother, ever the good wife, acquiesced and packed up their entire lives into a truck. They sold their home and left their parents, foraging into the great unknown, like their pioneer ancestors before them, but for entirely different reasons. Once they arrived, my mother, now more isolated and fighting off a building panic, saw things get worse for my father, as he fell farther into debt and depression. And with her old children now hitting early adolescence, she got pregnant again, this time with me. And then again, with my little sister. And suddenly, it was the mid-1980s, and she had seven mouths to feed, ranging from baby to pre-teen, with maxed out credit cards and a house payment due. All that plus a husband full of darkness.

My mother stayed for far too long. Quiet painful hours in her marriage balanced by the joys she found in her children. Those hours stacked up to years. Two years turned to 5, then 8, then 12. The debts mounted from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds. The older children started struggling with decisions, going off the deep end, straying from her deeply held beliefs. She continued making the dinners, doing the laundry, paying the bills, cleaning the house. My father worked too much, and then came home and locked himself in the bedroom to cry. Well on the days when he wasn’t mean and critical, blaming mom for everything, leaving her lists of all she was doing wrong while telling her that if she was a better wife, then maybe the Lord would bless the more. He closed off, refusing to talk to her, to open, to touch her. She took on a part-time job, then another. My dad went to therapy and to treatment multiple times, but he never listened, it never worked. He grew darker still. I grew up with a mother who was attentive, loving, and playful, and a father who barely noticed I was alive, who sucked all of the energy out of the room.

It wasn’t until 1990, when my mom got spiritual confirmation while visiting the temple, that she knew she needed to leave my dad. Divorce didn’t come easily to her. It had long-term spiritual ramifications, eternal ones, as she felt that leaving her marriage meant severing sacred family bonds that were meant to extend into forever. Marriage was the most sacred institution, and she felt as if she hadn’t been strong enough to make it work. The consequences were astronomical and eternal. But after over a decade of increasing pain and unhappiness, she’d realized that the consequences for staying might be worse. And so she’d boldly packed the truck once again and drove thousands of miles back to her roots.

In her mid-40s, my mother moved back in with her parents. She took a teaching job and eventually started renting a home. She showed super human strength in rebuilding her life in the state she’d left behind. To me, age 11 at the time, my parents’ divorce came as a relief. Finally, I thought even then. Finally.

I grew protective over my mother in the following years. I was the man of the house now. I would set my alarm early and shovel the sidewalks, clean the kitchen, scrape the car windows, all before she woke up. I made myself the moral authority of the house, lording it over my sister. I took jobs doing paper routes and babysitting, and would often sneak the money I was making into her purse to help. Seeing her walk out of the chapel that day with tears in her eyes, hearing Sister Stratton profess how happy marriage was if you just followed the rules, well, it broke my heart for my mom. I had no words. All I knew was that my mother was the strongest and most Christ-like person I knew, and those things hadn’t worked out for her, despite the prophetic promises. I realized even then that sometimes breaking the rules requires more courage than staying miserable ever could.

I wish I could say life got easier after that. My mother fell in love again a year later, and then spent a few more years with a man who used fists, insults, and control to terrorize us. She had seven children, and she would see seven divorces among them happen in the following years, while many grandchildren were born. My father, though distant, would remain a painful presence in her life. And then her youngest two children would come out of the closet. Health scares mounted as well. But over the years, I watched her maintain her church attendance with grace and dedication, all while balancing out her love for her children, even those who left the faith she believed so strongly in.

I once saw my mother get a Priesthood blessing, on a night after my stephfather had hit her. The bishop laid his hands on her head and promised her comfort, then he told her that in the pre-existence, before she came to Earth, she had agreed to give these two men that she’d married the chance to redeem themselves during mortal life. That day, I watched her go ashen again, and that night was the only night I ever saw her go to bed without praying first.

My mother always called me her Nephi, her stalwart one, and I did my best to be that for her. She wrote me literally every day for two years while I was on my mission. And we talked often while I was in college. At a certain point, she started opening up to me about my father and stepfather and why the marriages had gone so poorly. At the time, I was going through training on how to be a therapist, and I was facing some deep depression of my own. I’d grown up believing that following the rules meant happiness and miracles, I’d even been promised a cure for being gay, and I didn’t know any other truth, not yet.

And in time, I recommended that my mother do some therapy of her own. I needed to be her son, not her confidant. Though initially heartbroken, my mother did sign up for therapy. She listened and learned quickly, and I watched a transformation happen. I watched a woman in her mid-50s learn that happiness is a personal choice, and that it does not come simply as a reward for obedience. She learned that staying in impossible situations, even marriages, is sometimes the wrong decision. The consequences for staying can last generations. She learned how not to hold on to pain for so long. And by learning to properly heal from her past and confront her pain, I saw her move forward with new light and strength. She faced life with an internal grace I’d never seen in her before.

I’m 41 today and my mother is 76. She has been happily married to her third husband for many years, and they have been sealed in the temple. She is a loving mother of seven children, and they range from a stake president’s wife to an ex-con, right on down to her two youngest, the gay ones. Sometimes we talk about bravery, and we draw the comparison between her hard choice to leave my father, and my hard choice to leave the closet and religion behind. And though I’m certainly not her Nephi any longer, at least not in the way she’d once hoped, we respect each other. We understand each other. And she remains the best example in my life of courage, grace, power, and love. From her, I learned that sometimes it is far braver to leave than to hold on so tightly to what hurts.

 

Sex Education Part 3: the Law of Chastity

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When I turned 12, I was set to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, the lesser authority given to worthy young men to perform ordinances in God’s name. 12-year olds with the Priesthood were given small responsibilities, like passing the sacrament during the main congregational meeting, a group of young men standing at attention as they passed trays of bread and water down the rows. At 12, young men moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, and they left Primary at church, the organization for children, and instead became Deacons. It was a powerful rite of passage.

We left Missouri when I was 11, when my parents finally split up. The divorce would take a few years. I had no idea how wounded mom was at the time. The older kids who were still at home stayed behind to finish high school with my Dad, and the youngest three went with my mom. She went back to work as a teacher. We lived with my grandparents for a few weeks, then rented a home and enrolled in school. I was in fifth grade, and I made friends quickly.

I was a very innocent and naïve 11, despite my upbringing. I enjoyed playing Nintendo, reading books, writing stories, and drawing. I played with kids much younger than me and organized them in neighborhood games. I couldn’t ride bike yet, or sink a basketball into a hoop, or throw or catch a ball, all bizarre tests of masculinity. And I was teased occasionally by other kids for being a ‘fag’, ‘sissy’, or ‘fairy’, all of which sucked. I desperately wanted to fit in, to be just a standard member of the student body, a part of the kids who happily co-existed. Somehow, whether because I was Mormon, or gay, or feminine, I was on the bottom of the pecking order, and I knew that as early as third grade.

In fourth grade, when I was 10, kids started talking about sex more. There were veiled references. “How far have you gone?” “How many people have you done it with?” “Are you still a virgin?” Every boy knew just to brag and boast when truthfully no one really knew what they were talking about. Strangely, I don’t think I remembered the abuse I suffered as a young child during this time. I didn’t know how to process it. I was just caught up in adolescence, in moving to a new state, and in the tragedies happening in my family.

And so, before I turned 12, in preparation for the Priesthood, I was called in by our new bishop. We’d known him a few months, but he was really a stranger to our family. He was a pleasant retired man, a grandfather in his seventies, with thinning white hair. We started the meeting with a prayer and then he asked me the standard questions. Do I pay my tithing, do I obey my mother and father, do I believe in the Mormon Church as the one true church, do I have a testimony of the Savior. And then…

“Chad, do you obey the Law of Chastity?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That is when a man and woman are sexually involved only with the person they are married to.”

“Um, I guess so.”

“Do you avoid pornography?”

“What’s that?”

“Images or videos of a sexual nature.”

“Yes, I avoid that. I’ve never even seen any.”

“And do you masturbate?”

“What’s that?”

And so he told me what it was. “Masturbation is when a man plays with and strokes his penis because he thinks it feels good. But it is against the commandments of God.”

“No, I’ve never done that.”

I passed the worthiness interview. And the next Sunday, I got the Priesthood.

Reflecting back on this interview as an adult, I see an innocent kid who had already been sexually exploited, who was then sent into a room with an unfamiliar man. Behind closed doors, this man asked questions about sex, pornography, and masturbation, and he used descriptive terms to teach me what they were. While I believe this man had good intentions, the very idea of this enforcement, of strangers questioning children, of perceived virtue being the sounding board for worthiness, these messages taught me all about sex. And these were things I should be learning from parents or teachers, not a stranger.

But I remembered his words. And I was curious. Within a few weeks, I tried out masturbation. It felt great to play with my penis. Like really, really great. It got hard and had so many nerve endings. I found myself closing the door to my room and playing with it. I’d even do my chores and reward myself with time to play with my penis later. (Processing as an adult, I realize that I was reenacting my abuse: masturbation as a reward for chores. But I didn’t know this then). I wasn’t thinking about sex or sexual intercourse or sexual partners, I just liked touching myself. I found myself doing it at the dinner table, in the shower, in the bathroom, when I thought no one could see. I knew it was wrong, knew it was forbidden, but it felt so good!

And then one day, early in the morning, I was playing with myself in my bed, and it felt more intense than usual, and I went faster, and then… I ejaculated for the first time. It scared me! What was that! Oh my god, what was that! It went everywhere and was sticky and messy and I felt like something was wrong with me. The pleasure passed quickly and I panicked, remembering how the bishop had said this was wrong. And so I cleaned up and then dropped to my knees, immediately begging God for forgiveness.

And that day began a cycle that would stick with me for the next 20 years. I would stave off masturbation, for days, weeks, sometimes even months at a time, and then I would give in. And after I gave in, I would feel ashamed and beg for forgiveness. Sometimes I got nauseous. Sometimes I got really nauseous. Sometimes even the idea of sexual pleasure would make me nauseous. And the older I got and the more intense the sexual feelings got, the worse the nausea got.

But for now, I was chaste. And I knew masturbation represented sin. But I wondered why, if God didn’t want me to do that, then why did he make it feel so damn good? Why was it a constant temptation? I guess so that I could show God that I was dedicated to him. That was my job, to keep that relationship strong, to be a good Priesthood holder, to be worthy.

And then puberty started, and the hormones hit, and the struggle intensified.

Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

Seattle Part 9: Far Away Daddy

November, 2014

The day I drove into Seattle, after unpacking my car into my new room, the very first thing I did was call my sons. Given their ages, it wasn’t easy to connect with them via phone, so it had to be over FaceTime. J was 5 and just starting kindergarten. (“Don’t go, Daddy,” still rang in my brain, sparking fresh tears easily). A was 3 and thriving in pre-school. Conversations over the phone tended to be about cartoons, and silly stories. As long as they could see my face and know my voice, I could make them laugh and we would stay connected.

Still, I made a vow to make it much more special than a daily phone call. I would be back to visit every month, I told them. I already had my first trip out planned in just three weeks. My best friend Kurt had already offered to let me stay there with them if I couldn’t afford a hotel. I promised my boys fun adventures. While my first trip back, in October, was fairly routine, the one in November had us booked in a local hotel and seeing sites we had never seen before, and in December I rented a car and took them to Dinosaur, Colorado for an epic weekend.

In addition to our daily calls and my monthly visits, I mailed my sons gifts as well as weekly comic strips. “The Adventures of J!” had my older son going on all kinds of crazy capers with silly endings. He teamed up with princesses and his favorite super heroes, fought ridiculous bad guys, developed super powers, and saw the world. We had a ritual of reading the latest comic strip I had mailed him together over the phone every Sunday night, and after only a few weeks, he began asking about the adventures over the phone, wondering what would happen to his comic strip avatar next. It delighted me to create this continuity in our far-away connections.

A, at 3, had to be entertained differently, and he had always loved animals, so his weekly hand-drawn comic strip became “A’s Amazing Animals!” I started with the letter A, and I drew him in the center of the page surrounded by all of the A animals I could fit. Alligator, Armadillo, Albatross, Aardvark, Army Ant. Each Sunday night, when I called, we would identify the animals together over the phone, and he began compiling a book of each letter that I sent. (Unknowingly, this weekly series for my toddler son would measure my time in Seattle almost perfectly. One letter per week until I landed at Z, ironically the same week I would return from Seattle to Utah).

I talked about my sons non-stop to anyone who would listen. Their pictures lined my bedroom walls. I ached for them. I cried for them. I knew I needed this time for healing, and I felt I deserved that time, but my heart felt torn in two being so far away from them. It was difficult not to dissolve into a ball of shame for my selfishness. I constantly thought about fatherhood and what it meant to me.

I’d had so little example of fathers in my own life. My own dad and squandered my childhood with depression and distance. My stepfather had used fists and angry words when not using fear and manipulation. My older brother had always been a bully. Outside of a few family friends and more distant relatives, the only examples of fatherhood I had were in my local Mormon congregations, and it would take me years to realize how much they emphasized obedience, conformity, and hiding who I was. Thus the ultimate example of fatherhood was a God I grew up believing in, one whose love became conditional upon my ability to be obedient and straight.

Over a period of weeks in Seattle, I explored my role as a father. I was meant to be a dad. I was a good one. My heart melted every time my children called me ‘daddy’. One day, they would be grown men, and I hoped beyond measure that they would view their childhoods with happiness and peace, with supportive and loving parents, and not the way I viewed my own, as one of conditional love, silence in my own skin, and painful growth. I wanted nothing more than for my sons to learn how to be the very best versions of themselves, and to grow up with self-love and confidence.

But I had come about my children dishonestly, in a mixed-orientation marriage where I wasn’t happy. For a time, I berated myself over this. But over time, I grew to view myself with more compassion, and less judgment. I’d done the best I could with what I had at the time. I hadn’t come out yet because I hand’t known how. And so I married, followed the path ahead of me, and that led to two children. I was grateful I had come out while they were young, and I loved them with all of my heart.

My judgment of myself grew less when I began looking at the world around me with a more critical eye. Children born into happy households with authentic parents seemed to be the exception, not the rule. How many kids were born to parents who didn’t yet know what they were doing? The results of teenage pregnancies, or one-night stands, or accidental and unplanned inceptions. More than that, how many kids were born to parents who changed after the births of their children, who grew to struggle with the circumstances of life, or debt, or stress? How many kids saw their parents divorce, how many suffered abuse or violence, how many grew up with different parents entirely? Ultimately, these realizations helped me forgive myself more quickly, forgive myself again. I couldn’t change the origin stories of my sons, the circumstances in which they were brought into the world. But I could make sure I led an honorable life from here forward, and that I continued making them my priority by also making myself a priority.

I might be far away, at least for a time. But I would speak to them every day. I would draw them comic strips, and visit for monthly adventures, and pay my child support in full. The would know, daily, that I loved them exactly as they were.

I might be far away, but I was their daddy still, and they were loved.

Seattle Part 1: the News

September, 2014

“I don’t make this decision lightly. In fact, this is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.” My hands clutched my coffee mug tightly, absorbing the warmth. My insides were churning.

Maggie, my ex-wife, the mother of my children, sat across the table from me. Her face was all-business, but I knew it guarded a mixture of anxiety, pain, anger, and compassion. “So that’s it. You’re going to leave your children behind, just like your dad left you? I don’t mean to be cruel, but that’s what it sounds like.”

I paled, and closed my eyes in shame. I had come out of the closet three years and six months before this. After the birth of our second son, Maggie and I had divorced, sold our home, and moved to Salt Lake City to start a new life. Despite the difficult negotiations of parenting in two different households, finding a new steady job, and making new friends, I had grown to love Salt Lake City in many ways. But this past year, life had gotten more difficult. There was something about this place that was infecting me, and I couldn’t seem to shake it.

How could I explain it to her? Would she understand? Every time I left Utah, even for brief weekends, I came alive. I felt free and clear, full of hope and potential; yet every time I returned, I was full of dread and pain, like shackles were being placed around my ankles. I wasn’t sleeping in my bed anymore, I had a permanent place on the couch, because my bed felt so lonely. I felt lonely when the kids weren’t with me, and lonely when they were, and I felt constantly guilty for realizing that just being a dad wasn’t enough for me. The constant barrage of Mormon everything around me was traumatizing, bringing back all those memories of pain. The men I dated were Mormon or formerly so, the clients I saw were the same. And every few months, the Mormons had something painful to say about gay people, and it haunted me. Mormon culture felt like the air I was breathing, and I had no idea how to stop breathing it. After all the work I had done to come out and face my life with grace, it felt like I was just constantly surrounded by the very things that had hurt me. I wasn’t dating now, and work felt empty. My sons were my sole solace, and it wasn’t enough.

But it was more than that. I was 36 years old and I hadn’t lived yet! When I came out, I had two children, and financial obligations. I hadn’t come out as a teenager. I had spent two years on a mission, then six in college, then seven more married to a woman, all of those years dominated by Mormon expectations. It wasn’t until now that I was seeing myself as someone capable of being happy, some who could believe in himself and see potential in the future rather than only dread. I couldn’t reclaim my 20s, or my teenage years, but I could try to live now, try to find myself now. I needed to grieve, I needed to learn to live for me. And I believed I could do it with honor, with integrity. But it meant leaving, and that part made me feel selfish and ashamed.

“I’m–I won’t be like my dad,” I promised. “He left and he was gone. He was depressed. There wasn’t child support, or phone calls, or visits. I will be in constant contact with the kids. Letters, phone calls every day, monthly visits, holidays. And I’ll stay up on my child support. I know this puts a ton of pressure on you, but I’m hoping with your parents here to help you, and with me visiting every month, that it might be okay. I know this is a huge risk. I need this. I need it for me. I need this opportunity. In fact, weirdly, if I stay I worry I’m more like my dad. In some ways, it feels like leaving will help me figure out how not to be that way.”

Sighing, Maggie peppered me with a few dozen questions.

“Why Seattle?”

“I was offered a place to live for very affordable rent. Remember Rob, my gay step-brother? He’s a doctor there. He has an open room.”

“If you don’t have a place here when you visit, where will you stay?”

“Kurt, my best friend, told me I could stay there on my weekends in town.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“I have some interviews scheduled. I won’t go without a job in place.”

“Our sons are 5 and 3. J is just starting kindergarten. How will you tell him?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’ll find a way. I’ll be open and honest. I think he’ll be okay, honestly. I will miss them more than I can possibly express. It makes me want to sob, nothing seeing them every day, not holding them. But I will write letters. I’ll FaceTime with them every night. I’ll be a daily presence in their life. I’ll be there for them, I promise. I promise. I just, I need a chance to make me a priority also. I’ve never done that, ever. I’ve never put me first. You know me, better than anyone. Trust me. Give me this chance, and I promise I’ll show up, I’ll do this with integrity.”

Maggie gave me a level look and nodded. “I get it. I never thought you’d be that guy. This isn’t fair, and I don’t like it, but I understand it. I can’t stop you. Our divorce paperwork says we will give each other notice, and you’ve done that. But you’ll be the one to tell the kids, not me.”

I thanked Maggie and watched as she left. I sat there for another twenty minutes, full of hope and dread. I was doing this. I was going to do this. I was going to move to Seattle, away, on my own. I was 36, and I was going to take a risk on myself, knowing I might crash and burn. My sons would have a father in another city. Was I only making excuses for myself, finding reasons that things would be okay? What if it was all a big disaster?

I owed it to myself to find out.

Your Villain

villain

“You’re the villain in my story.”

You said this with derision

With a gnashing of teeth

And a wringing of hands

And exasperated wails

Memories of everything we’ve shared

Replaced

Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”

And selectively viewed from behind

Only the darkest of glasses.

 

And after you finished

Listing my sins

You finally looked at me

I saw you there

You seemed wounded

But also

Smallhurtpatheticshallowmean

Incomplete

Like you were still rooted

Fixed tightly

In the past.

 

I responded with a list of facts

Rebuttals

Keeping it clinical at first

Until I started to shake

And then the tears

Big crocodile tears

(Why crocodile? Named such

For their size?

Or for their sharp teeth?)

And then the gasps for oxygen

The tight shaking stomach

My spoken words coming out

Jagged, with too many syllables.

 

“You-have-no-idea-

what-it-is-to-come-out-

to-lose-everything-

to-start-over-

to-change-every-relationship-

to-redefine-yourself-

my-mother-my-sisters-my-nephews-

my-sons-my-friends-my-clients-

my-home-my-job-my-marriage-

my-God!”

 

And then I looked back at you

With my hands clutched

Protectively

Around my center space

And my eyes went cold.

 

“Make me a villain if you must

If you need someone to blame

To shame

To toss aside

To justify your pain

Make me the villain

And never change

Never forgive

But if I must be your villain

I will be the very best kind of villain

With complex motivations

Contradictions of character

With love and ego and worth

And triumph

And progress

And strength.

 

“You can see me forever standing there

Twirling my moustache

Cackling ‘Muhahahahahaha!’

Over the melodramatic organ

As the train barrells down on you

At top speed

And you, the damsel

Tied down and only able to call out

‘Help me! Save me!’

 

Do this if you must

But recognize,

When you are ready

That there is no train

And I have no moustache

And there are no ropes.

 

It’s just you there

Lying down on the tracks

Screaming for help

And never looking up to realize

That I haven’t been standing there

For years.”

Mother’s Day

I burst through the door in her room. “Mom! She is taking an extra turn on the video game! She promised to let me play when she died, and she wouldn’t let me!”

I immediately regretted my decision. In my rage at my sister’s video game injustice, I failed to realize exhausted my mom was. It was Sunday afternoon, after a long three-hour block at church, and she had been dead asleep for only an hour.

I looked at her back as she faced away from me, the covers pulled up over her ribs, and I knew she was awake, but she barely spoke above a whisper. “Please handle it yourselves and let me sleep.”

“Okay, okay, Mom, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have woke you. Go back to sleep.” I retreated out of the room quietly and closed the door. But of course she couldn’t sleep.

It was 1992, and I was 13 years old. The sixth of seven children, I was the man of the house now. My older sister, Marnae, at 16, was always sneaking out and causing problems, and my younger sister Sheri, at age 10, was forever trying to get me into trouble. (The older four kids were already out of the house, married or divorced and raising their children). But I saw myself as the rock in my mom’s life, the one that could help ease her burdens a bit. I felt terrible for having interrupted the nap.

I decided to make up for it by making dinner. I scanned our cupboards, finding cans of chicken soup, crispy fried onions, and Rice-A-Roni there, and in the fridge was butter, milk, and a few essentials. I could cook all of this up and them Mom wouldn’t have to work this afternoon, she could rest.

As Sheri and Marnae kept fighting over the video games in the next room, I thought of how much our lives had changed in the past few years. In 1990, just after I’d finished the fourth grade, Mom had made the boldest move of her entire life; she left her husband. After over 20 years together, seven children, and a move across the country, she couldn’t take anymore of Dad’s depression, crippling debt, constant yelling and fault-finding, or the long crying spells. Though it had been good in the beginning, the last decade plus (right around the time I was born and afterward), Dad had been steadily declining. So Mom, in her mid-40s, packed a U-Haul full of keepsakes and left Missouri.

For two days, we had driven back to Idaho, where we’d moved back in with her parents for a time. Mom found work at a small-town Idaho school, using the teaching degree she had earned back before she’d had children, and rented a small brick house next door to the Mormon church, in a town that had less than 500 people. We registered in to new schools and our new lives began.

I wouldn’t understand for several more years how difficult this patch of life must have been for my mom. Many years later, as I faced my own divorce with two young dependent children, when I moved from a four bedroom home into a one-bedroom apartment and from financial security to massive amounts of debt, then I would begin to understand. Mom’s entire future had been built up in her marriage. She’d prepared for marriage through her entire adolescence, and she’d supported Dad through thick and thin. She’d carried seven babies and raised them, each with their own struggles and challenges. She’d had many joys, but she’d faced many hardships as well. And now, with the divorce final and three children remaining at home, she must constantly wonder what the future held for her. At 14, I simply lacked the capacity to see her courage, her unwavering strength, and the utter emotional exhaustion and devastation she must have been facing at the time.

When she left Dad, there might have been hope for a reconciliation. Maybe this would be the wake-up call that he would need to finally climb out of the hole he had dug for himself. But instead, he’d only gotten farther away, more angry, more critical. He’d sold the home, berated her for leaving, and moved himself to Las Vegas. He didn’t call us, he saw us maybe once per year, and he didn’t pay an ounce of child support. She was on her own now.

Earlier in the day, in sacrament meeting, I’d seen Mom wince, almost silently, and a few tears leak down her cheeks when one of the women in our Mormon congregation had stood up to bear her testimony of the power of marriage. She’d discussed her gratitude and love for God for providing her such an incredible husband to share her life with, and she’d professed that all who worked to keep God in their marriage could be successful and find happiness. After that, I’d gotten up to bear my own testimony, sure to tell the congregation how blessed I was to have an incredible mother who was my best friend and who sacrificed everything for her family. She was my greatest, and only, example of heroism in my direct life.

I worked quickly to prepare dinner, accidentally knocking a bag of sugar over, several cups’ worth of it spilling onto the floor before I noticed. Then as I was cleaning it up, the glass bowl that I had set on the burner, full of water and set to boil, exploded into a million billion shards that cascaded across the room; somehow I didn’t realize at the time that glass bowls couldn’t be heated from the bottom up. The explosion woke Mom up and she saw the kitchen littered with sugar and glass shards. I was worried she might cry, but somehow the sight of it was just ridiculous.

Mom got a broom and a dustpan and sat down next to me on the floor to start cleaning up the mess. She knew I’d only been trying to help.

“Sorry, Mom. I love you,” I said, a guilty, humbled expression on my face.

She looked past her exhaustion and saw me there. “I love you, too, Chad.”

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

24058784_10159745588220061_6214721636869232183_n.jpg

Fireworks at Christmas

snowbird

The snow drizzled down in wet dollops, and I wondered if it was fake, being shot out of a machine from a hilltop nearby. But it kept falling, heavier, collecting around my feet and settling on the trees. By morning, there would be a few feet of powdery, wet snow.

I stood facing the mountain, bundled up in a heavy coat, a snow cap pulled down over my ears. I clutched A, my 6-year old, close, to keep him both warm and safe. Next to me stood my boyfriend, Mike, his hands in his pockets. At his side was my nine-year old, J. We huddled together in front of a campfire, one built in a circular tin. There were hundreds of people on the platform, all in coats, scarves, and hats, many with young children. Some wore festive gear, like light-up Rudolph noses, Santa beards, or elf hats, and many clutched plastic cups of white wine or champagne in their gloved hands.

The night wasn’t going exactly as I’d hoped. When I booked the expensive room at Snowbird resort, I’d been planning a romantic getaway for Mike and I, one with wine, a nice suite, a hot tub, and a fancy dinner. It was Christmas Eve, after all. But the ex-wife had crossed wires a wrong way, so suddenly, there we were, my sons with us on our evening out. Santa had already visited that morning, on Christmas Eve, a regular occurrence for my sons who have two Christmases in two homes. Thus, with a mantra of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, playing in my head, I just packed the kids up to the resort with us.

When the fireworks started, a teenage girl nearby began jumping up and down in obnoxious excitement, putting on a show for her friends. “Oh my god, you guys, the fireworks are starting, yay!” Her jostling knocked me backward a bit, and I had a mental vision of knocking my son into the tin can fire. I spoke up loudly.

“Hey, please don’t jump! There’s a fire here!”, and the girl looked as if I’d punched her in the face.

“I–I wasn’t trying to–I wouldn’t have–”

“You’re fine. I’m not mad. Just please don’t jump around. There’s a lot of people here, and little kids.”

“I would never hurt a kid!” she said, defensively.

Her friend, a burly teenage boy, put a hand on her shoulder, turning her toward him. “Hey, come on, it’s not worth it. It’s Christmas.” They turned away, acting as if I had just started a fight, and I could do nothing but role my eyes, and console my son, who always grew worried when there were angry tones.

The fireworks flashed in the sky. I bent down to whisper to my son, “I bet you’ve never seen fireworks in the snow!” before realizing he was plugging his ears to avoid the sounds. I looked at the other son, whose face was bright red as he shivered.

Soon, a string of red lights began appearing at the top of the mountain, slowing winding into a long line as the fireworks blasted overhead. Skiers had headed to the mountain top and were headed down the mountain in a procession, holding red electric torches, forming a gorgeous, bold, crimson line that arced into a short zigzag toward us. The snow continued falling, and then Santa’s sleigh, bedecked in green and red lights, began flying down toward us, a modified version of the ski lift. I excitedly pointed up to the kids, showing them that if they squinted they could see his red suit and waving arm, but they were too cold to enjoy it.

The show lasted ten minutes. Santa landed and handed out candy canes. The skiers put out their torches. And the fireworks finished with a beautiful booming resonance, leaving evanescent plumes hanging in the dark, snowy air. Both kids were begging to go inside.

Thirty minutes later, the four of us squished in around a wooden table in a fancy restaurant. Old timey Christmas songs played on the loudspeaker. The kids drew Pokemon on the backs of the menus with broken crayons, soon ordering macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, at $18 per tiny plate. Mike and I ordered delicious red wine. He got crab and steak while I ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu, some savory mushroom concoction that left me hungry. Dinner took nearly two hours, and the kids, though well-behaved, began to almost pass out in their seats.

Coats and hats back on, we trudged up the hill back to our hotel. We’d been downgraded from the fancy suite to a standard room because of the kids. We slipped and sloshed up the hill, which was covered in inches of snow, and the kids began crying with exhaustion and cold, but in no time we made it. We collapsed into the bed of our substandard rooms, and I contemplated the dual reality that I was thrilled to have my sons with me, anytime and always, yet how very different this Christmas Eve night without them might have been.

The next morning, as we waited for the plow to come and pave a way out of the parking lot for us, I contemplated the hotel’s terrible coffee and how badly I needed a nap. One kid had a small anxiety attack about never getting out of the snow while the other consoled him. I held my boyfriend’s hand, remembering fireworks, red torch lights, wet snow, tin campfires, and jumping drunk girls, then compared it to the previous Christmas, when I had slept and awakened alone.

As we drove down the mountain, taking turns choosing Christmas carols to sing, I thought how maybe this wasn’t such a bad Christmas after all.

Resolute

Resolute

Seven hours remain in 2015, and I sit, engaged in my favorite pass-time: writing. And I realize at this moment, I am resolute (defined as admirably purposeful, determined, and unwavering).

I began 2015 in Seattle, Washington, where I had moved in a grand gesture to find myself. I had been there since September the year before, three months of intense personal growth where I dated, found new employment, and explored every corner of a new city. Now far away from my children, I found new ways to stay connected to them, through drawn comic strips, nightly webcam calls, monthly visits, and little mailed gifts and postcards.

In January and February, I found myself with new friends and new support systems, yet working in a difficult job with high stress and low satisfaction. I spread my exploration of Washington to varying corners, looking at rainforests, islands, mountains, and beaches, and I grew to love the climate, the people and the area, and to hate the traffic, the parking, and the cost of living.

As March approached, I came to a few powerful realizations. 1. That in Seattle, I was the same me that I had been in Utah, just a lot farther away from my children. That sounds like such a simple realization now, but it was a powerful one toward my journey. 2. That I was losing all interest in dating, and that I no longer wanted to put my energy toward it. I learned to spend time with myself, and had dinners, saw independent films, and went to plays and movies on my own. 3. That I had all the building blocks for a powerful life already in place: a love of history and books, a kind and strong heart, a curious and careful spirit, a great smile, talents for helping and understanding others, and a consistently developing skill of writing.

And once I knew all of those things about myself, I was able to return to Utah, stronger than before, and ready for the change. I left the difficult job behind, and seized a new life in an old place. I moved into a downtown apartment, renewed old friendships, and started brand new life initiatives.

In June, I opened up an Airbnb in my home, welcoming guests from around the world, and had some great and some not-so-great experiences. I began doing therapy part-time, and crisis work on the side, and I made the decision to work only for myself from now on, for as long as possible, so that I can love what I do and give it my all. I taught a few college classes again, and realized that I didn’t enjoy it like I used to, and I was peaceful with the change in myself.

I spent every waking moment with my sons. We drew, we played, we swam, we explored, we read and wrote, we laughed and screamed, we wrestled and snuggled and lived, and one night, one of my sons looked up at me and said “I’m so glad your back” and tears came to my eyes, and I knew that even though I had had to leave, I also had to return. I began volunteering in their school classrooms, and I learned how to be friends with their mom again.

I stayed in Utah for several months without leaving, and I tried my hand at dating a few times, though I didn’t really mean to. And against my better judgment, I fell just a little bit in love a few times, and I had my heart broken just a little bit a few times. And I learned that I was stronger than ever, better at taking care of myself, and independent, all qualities I had wanted for myself for so long.

In September, I made a surprise connection with someone from far away, forming a new and binding friendship, and it gave me foundation, hope, and strength, and I realized my own potential as a writer, a father, a counselor, and a man once loneliness was gone from my heart. I learned how wonderful it was to have someone care about my day-to-day life.

I went to my family reunion and found peace. I attended my sister’s wedding to her lovely wife in Massachusetts. I went on a wonderful weekend trip to New Orleans and awakened my wanderlust. I spent Thanksgiving with my mother and sister. And I ended the year with a surprise trip to Palm Springs. I realized again that my world is more full when I travel.

When gay marriage passed, I celebrated. When reparative therapy was shut down in courts, I rejoiced. And when the Mormon church put policies in place that called gay couples ‘apostates’ and turned children against their gay parents, I grieved.

I discovered more than ever my love of expressing myself through writing. I wrote about social justice, politics, zombies, dating, and my children. I wrote my observations on the world, on people around me, on ego, on courage, on the social work profession, on parenting, and on provocative and titillating professions and mindsets. I began a daily post on LGBT history that quickly became a personal quest with future potential.

I joined a Men’s Choir and began singing again.

More than ever, I began dreaming of the future, and realized that at 37, I am now just beginning to realize my potential.

In 2015, I danced, drank coffee, laughed until I cried, cried until I slept, and slept until I awoke with new hope. I set boundaries, made new friends, and grew closer than ever to some of the most important people in my life. I learned to say I’m sorry when I need it, and to ask for an apology when I need it. I learned to forgive. I learned how strong I am, and how things that I once perceived as weak are really just parts of my overall strength. I learned to relax, to work hard, to put myself first. I learned that the world has a long history, and I am only part of it for a brief time, and that I want to live that part as powerfully and authentically as I can.

And as I approach 2016, I vow to take care of myself in every category: physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. I vow to feed and foster the important relationships in my life. I vow to get out of debt. I vow to push my limits professionally and to learn just what it is I’m capable of. I vow to travel. I vow to let myself believe that love is possible so long as I love myself. I vow to embrace every emotion in its entirety, in safe and healthy ways: gratitude, fear, anger, sadness, peace, security, guilt, happiness. I vow to live, more than I ever have before, with my life and the lives of my sons as my primary priority.

And thus I enter the New Year not with resolutions, instead I enter the New Year… Resolute.

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