Thirty-Six Hours, Four Meals, and a Long Nap with Dad

It was a quick visit.  Only 36 hours tacked onto the front end of a business trip.  What made this even more remarkable is that my 84-year-old father travelled more than ten hours (with two lay overs) to get to me in Puerto Vallarta.  My friends here had all kinds of questions: How would Dad deal with the extreme heat and humidity?  Was he travelling by himself?  What do I have planned?  Where will we eat?  What my emergency plan (if there is one, god forbid).  One friend thought I should have a tank of oxygen available in case Dad has trouble breathing.  Another suggested I make sure he had wheelchair service at the airport.

But here’s the deal; when he told me he booked his flight, Dad said, “I don’t want anything fancy.  I don’t need a whole lot of activity.  I just want to relax and spend some time with you.  See where you live, make sure you’re OK.”  So in spite of my friend’s advice, I took him at his word, and didn’t plan any sight seeing tours or make reservations at any of the nicer restaurants in town.  I also knew that if he needed any special arrangements regarding his health, he’d let me know.  And aside from prunes, which he brought himself, he was good to go (no pun intended).

The biggest challenge for my father was around meals.  He doesn’t like a lot of spice, never did.  He reminded of this me as we sat down to eat dinner the first night, laughing at how my mom would try to sneak garlic into a dish without his knowing…

He stopped his sentence, looked directly at me and says, “I talk to her every day, you know…” tears filled his eyes as he continued, “I miss her so much…”  He reached for his water bottle and quickly washed his tears down his throat, blinked a few times, took a breath, and then pointed to the sun sinking into the horizon through a thick patch of gray clouds, “It looks like rain, huh?”

Those tears would show up several more times during his visit, each time Dad would swig some water, take a breath, and change the subject.

We met for breakfast the next morning, where ordering something palatable was less of an issue, and then walked slowly to my apartment.  “Your sister says I’m slowing down,” he offered between breaths as we made our way through town,  “I think she’s right.”  I reminded him we weren’t in a hurry and he said, “Good, let’s take a seat,” leading us to a bench under a palm tree.  We hadn’t been walking ten minutes and he was already winded.

Once at the apartment, Dad took a seat on the couch and placed his hands on his lap, feet under knees, looking like a kid outside the principal’s office.  I offered him a pillow, suggested he take his shoes off, but he said he was fine.  I was not convinced, but figured he’d relax when he was ready.

It was a light conversation, as I prepared our meal in the kitchen.  Slowly I could see Dad start to unwind.  First he put a pillow behind his head and stretched his legs out in front of him.  A bit later, he moved to my desk, turning the chair to face the balcony and began narrating the activity of an iguana in the branches over the river.  At some point, the conversation stopped leaving just the steady flow of the river to fill the air around us.  When I came out from the kitchen and asked if he needed anything, Dad was just sitting there with a lazy smile, “I am so relaxed right now.”

The next time I checked on him, he shifted from my desk chair to the daybed on the balcony and was asleep.  I followed his cue and lay on the couch and took a nap too, my mind floating on the steady current of the river below.

Later that night at dinner, Dad mentioned the section in my book where I described his family, and said I was right – when he was growing up, there was very little laughter in his house because of his father’s drinking.  “My father would be gone for three four days at a time, and then suddenly show up at the dinner table, embarrassed, not looking at anyone.”  Then he told me how meeting mom and her family changed his life.  “There was always laughter, and music…every time I stopped by for a visit.  I’d never seen that before….everyone sitting around the table telling stories, enjoying themselves….”

When we started talking about the recent changes in our family (see my last blog post), I could see Dad heading into his knee-jerk, faith-based approach to traditional families; and I could feel myself winding up for a long debate.  Then I looked at him and said, “I understand you’re confused about gay parenting, Dad….here’s a real simple way for it to make sense – just assume the parents are coming from a place of love.”  He was absolutely stunned – and, admitted he’d never considered that idea before.

The following morning, I walked to his hotel for breakfast unable to ignore the obvious – health, age, and distance made it very possible that this could be the last time I saw Dad alive.  Rather than think about all the stuff he did when I was a kid; teach me to swim, hug me when my Pinewood Derby car lost, or making Sunday breakfast….I burst into tears hearing him say, “I am so relaxed right now,” and thinking about him sleeping on the daybed.

He hugged me before getting in the cab and whispered in my ear, “God bless….” which, everyone in the family knows, is code for “I love you.”

I kissed his cheek and said, “I love you too, Dad.  Thanks for coming.”

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A New Generation

It was my “Summer Nor’Easter”, a three-week, action-packed trip back east to visit friends and family.  So much happened in such a short period of time, it’s pretty incredible.  A quick review looks something like this: lots and lots of laughs, some great meals with the best friends anyone could ask for, several jaw-dropping, completely unbelievable stories, a LOT of children and gorgeous babies, a few crazy cab rides, a good amount of tasty cocktails, one night with Jynnx Monsoon, intense coffee talk, a family fiesta, and even a night of dancing. 

After being away for more than a year, my vacation was filled with everything I hoped for….and more than a few moments I never expected.

But, there is one moment out of all the others I cannot stop thinking about.  I keep playing it over in my mind; slowing it down, panning back the view, turning up the volume, adjusting the focus.  And with each view, I feel the same sense of wonder, and pride….and relief.   

It was during the family fiesta.  I was sitting at the picnic table, talking with some friends when I heard one of my brothers shouting from behind me, “Hey…..there they are!”   A chorus of cheers erupted from the rest of my family as I turned to see who was coming.  Around the corner of the house I watched my nephew Rich, and his husband/partner Anibal, enter the yard, with their two little boys, Yandel and Aiden. 

I felt my heart both speed up and relax at the same time, my mind saying over and over, “It’s happening!  It’s really happening!” In spite of whatever resistance the older generations may cling to; my family is not just gay friendly, but gay inclusive; and celebrating the evolution.  Some of us, like my father, might not like it, or understand it.  But at 84, I think he is smart enough to recognize that he doesn’t have to.  

Still, there was a second moment during the party that has also been on replay in my mind.  It happened so quickly, I don’t think anyone else saw it.  My father was sitting by himself, which he is prone to do because sometimes “there’s too much noise.”  Suddenly Yandel, came running by, with eyes as big as his smile and stopped in front of my dad.  He giggled and put up his dimpled little hand excitedly.  And there was my stubborn, 84 year-old Irish Catholic father, smiling as he leaned forward to fist-bump with his Latino great-grandson who has two fathers.

Here’s to the new generation! 

 

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Powder Room Stories

When I was a kid, the Powder Room in our house wasn’t this soft and fragrant place where one enters in a state of need and walks out with fresh breath and newly applied lipstick, like in my friends’ houses.  Their Powder Rooms sat sweetly under the stairs, near the front door; a small bathroom for guests that welcomed you with tiny scented soaps cut like roses, and fringed little hand towels that matched the wallpaper draped perfectly from brass rings.

My family’s Powder Room seemed almost like an afterthought, as if a few square feet of the laundry room were cornered off with paneling nailed to a couple of studs and backed with drywall.  There was no softness in that little room wedged beneath the kitchen, whose back end held the darkness of the crawl space in check.  Half of that little bathroom was occupied by a hulking brown furnace and the hot water tank, occupying the space with solid edges and the menacing hiss of the pilot lights rolling deep and steady as a sleeping dragon.

Still, for all of its lack of comfort, with eleven children moving constantly about, our Powder Room was the most used room in the house.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that toilet got flushed more than fifty times a day as we ran in and out from the backyard where a game of tag or kickball was always in progress.

I have no idea how many times my mom cleaned the Powder Room during the week, but I do remember that every Saturday, one of us had to get on our hands and knees and scrub the toilet that nasty floor.  Keep in mind, there were eight boys using that bathroom, numerous times a day – often together, often engaged in “sword fights,” where piss splashed everywhere.  Everyday.  We all had a turn, holding our breath and pinching our faces as we reached down to scrub around the toilet, screaming at each other for being such pigs.

In spite of these conditions, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Powder Room my father’s favorite room – especially when we were little.  In fact, he called it his throne.  It was the first place we’d look, whenever we couldn’t find him.  After dinner, he’d literally run downstairs with the newspaper tucked under his arm and lock himself in that hot little space, reading while my mom supervised homework and made lunches at the kitchen table.  The scent of newsprint, mixed with sweat and shit, would hang in the hot air long after my father was finished in the bathroom.

Winter months were hardest on our Powder Room.  From November through March, there were from thirteen pairs of gloves and hats draped and planted on or near every hot surface to dry.  To use the toilet required stepping through and around thirteen pairs snow boots lined up around the heaters, dripping onto brown paper bags.  Please note, that in spite of this ridiculous crowding of space, my father continued to skip down the steps with his newspaper after dinner and add several layers of unpleasant odors to the earthy scent of wet wool.

For a while, the Powder Room became a library.  My mother, trying to add some small bit of charm and softness, decided to stack a long row of Reader’s Digest Condensed books on a makeshift shelf with pink-laced curtains she made herself framing the thick books.  During hot summer afternoons, I’d sit on the toilet and read stories that have stayed with me since I was eight years old; The Education of Little Tree, The Yearling, The Adventures of Mrs. Polifax. Eric.  I loved those books!  Imitating my father, I’d sit with my elbows pressed into my thighs and read for so long my legs fell asleep.

It wasn’t until my oldest siblings moved into high school that the Powder Room’s morphed into something much more useful, and important – a phone booth.  There was a phone hanging on the wall right outside the bathroom door with a cord long enough so that they could sit on the toilet to talk to their boyfriends or girlfriends – for hours.  My poor father lost his throne to the turbulent love life of his teen-aged kids, sending him up to the second floor after dinner where the scent of newsprint, and everything else, floated out the window high above the backyard.

When I finally moved into adolescence, it was no longer the Reader’s Digest that I wanted to read.  I used the drop ceiling in the Powder Room to hide my Penthouse and Hustler magazines.  And later, when I was in high school, I would sit in the dark just like my older brothers and sisters, the phone chord pulled tight inside the door jam, and talk with my girlfriend – for hours!  When I’d finally hang up and join my family to watch TV in the Rec Room, I’d stand at the doorway, blinded, squinting into the light.

I broke up with girlfriends and got turned down for dates in that little bathroom/phone booth.  With the heavy receiver pressed into my ear, legs once again falling asleep, I told secrets and lies, bought weed, planned vacations, got fired from a job and bought a car, all in the darkness of the Powder Room.  I also scheduled my first therapy session, whispering into the mouthpiece with only the hissing heater to hear, “I think I’m gay.”

It was only a little bathroom, added during renovations to accommodate our large family, but I like to think of the Powder Room as a half-bath with a whole lot of life; the smallest room in the house, where more happened than any of us will ever know.

 

 

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Low Season

Most of the snowbirds left after Easter, which everyone says came way too early this year.  Now, restaurants wait, empty as ghost towns, with bored waiters pacing back and forth by the bar or standing at the front door smoking.  All the souvenir shops by the beach sit in empty expectation with hand-made signs taped to the windows offering “30-50% descuento.”  Those few northerners still here are packing up and getting ready to leave town before the humidity and rains take over.  Low season has come to Vallarta.

Every morning, I see the clouds, heavy with moisture, growing darker and hanging lower on the mountains behind my apartment.  As the day warms up, they slowly roll back out to sea so that by late noon, the sun is out in full force.  Though lately, I’ve seen those dense, wet clouds hanging on past one in the afternoon, the humidity feeling so intense, that a short trip through town feels like a heavy, unending journey.

My dog has taken to sleeping on the tile floor, shamelessly spreading as out as much of her body as possible for maximum cooling effect.  Her tongue hangs from the side of her mouth when we come in from a walk, panting rapidly, she slurps up all the water in her bowl and collapses in a heap under the ceiling fans.  I lay on the floor with her and scratch behind her ears, waiting for her breath to slow down, thinking, “This is just the beginning, August and September are brutal!”

When the first big rain of the season finally arrives, the thunder rolls down from the Sierra Madre’s, shaking the ground and buildings in between huge flashes of lightening.  From the balcony, I watch the river being reborn from an ankle-deep, clear, ribbon of water into the familiar rolling, splashing current I first saw when I arrived in town.  Unfortunately, as the water washes down through the mountains it carries pounds of mud and debris that has fallen and collected over the year.  Branches and leaves are carried along the rushing current next to plastic soda bottles and styrofoam cups, eventually getting deposited into the ocean and washed up onto the beaches.  In addition, this steady flow of mud, pulled from miles away, creates a dull brown tide that seeps out across the bay.

Drying off after a shower is a useless endeavor and now, I change my T-shirts four, five, even six times a day, rotating through the sweat soaked ones hung out to never-quite-dry. It’s been a test of wills; not using the air conditioner in my bedroom.  Until last night, the ceiling fan and a rotating floor fan have been enough to keep me comfortable at night.  But I gave in and I turned on the air conditioner for an hour before going to bed, and again when I woke at two because of the sweat dripping along my neck.

I’ve heard many people say that this is their favorite time of year; all of the tourists are gone, the pace is slower, the drama of an afternoon thunderstorm from the balcony.  It all remains so new to me, the only thing I can do is listen to them, and shake my head as I change my T-shirt (again), and wait for the next storm.

 

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Feelin’ the Heat

At her first appointment, I asked the vet if he thought my rescue Sadie was fixed.  I watched him palpate around her abdomen a few seconds before saying, “It’s hard to tell.  We can always cut her open and check.”  I left the appointment with Sadie’s tail wagging ahead of me, and two very clear decisions; first, get a new vet.  Second, wait and see if she goes into heat.   You know where this is going…..

First, there were the subtle shifts in Sadie’s behavior.  Usually easy going and obedient, unless there is an important distraction (food, another dog), she was becoming more resistant, refusing to come when called.  Even worse, she would stop, look at me, and then walk away.  I swear I saw her roll her eyes a few times.  I also noticed that some of the male dogs she played with in the mornings would try to hump her in between chasing each other on the beach and wrestling in the grasses.  Not something they were interested in before, but I didn’t think twice about it, until…..

The first time I saw a big spot of blood on the floor, I assumed my roommate cut himself or had a bloody nose.  Then I saw another, and another.  I tried putting a diapers on Sadie.  For the record, a 42lb dog won’t fit in either an extra large baby diaper or a medium adult diaper.  Also, be sure to cut a hole in the diaper for the tail  – and cut it near the waistband, or it becomes a problem.  When I finally got a diaper on Sadie, (an experience worthy of a YouTube video) her first response, of course, was to try and eat it.  Then, she waddled around the living room looking very sad and confused.  Eventually, the diaper fell off and I gave up.  For the next few weeks, Sadie left a little bit of her all over the apartment, and bed linens, and my roommate told anyone who would listen about Sadie’s bleeding vagina.

Since Sadie couldn’t go off leash, her morning playgroup was out of the picture.  I started taking her on long walks around town, up and down the hills, threading our way through different neighborhoods, walking the back roads that ran parallel to the ocean.  She made sure to piss on every important dog landmark in a three-mile area; I swear she was squeezing out vapors when there was nothing left in her bladder.

These long walks were working perfectly until the day a little Corgie in a Christmas sweater, and a gray, lanky hound started following us.  All Sadie wanted to do was stop and “play” with them.  All I wanted to do was get as far away as possible.  We picked up our pace, twice I stopped to yell at them, stamping my feet and clapping my hands.  The gray hound would lope away a bit, but Christmas Corgie would stand his ground, panting with glazed eyes.

I started running, pulling a horny, whining Sadie behind me down one of the steepest hills in Vallarta.  Of course, they followed.  Next, I threw a few rocks, which was enough to stop the gray hound.  Not the Christmas Corgie.  He just panted and stared at Sadie – who was now making sounds I’d never heard before, from places I didn’t know she had.  I pulled the leash and kept us running down the hill.  Once we hit the ocean, we turned right and continued, weaving in and out of the crowds walking the Malecon (ocean walk).  Christmas Corgie was running steady behind us – for the next mile – until we turned and backtracked through the crowds again.  More than once, I thought we’d lost him, and then I’d hear his four little paws clicking behind us again and I turned to see that red/green/white sweater with the panting tongue.

I have to give that little dog props, he didn’t give up until I started running up and down the steep set of stairs on the island by our apartment – 124 of them rising high above the river into what’s called Gringo Gulch.  Up and down we ran, once, twice, and finally by the third time, Christmas Corgie bailed on us.  Sadie and I walked home sweaty and exhausted.  There were a few other dogs who followed us, but none of them had the tenacity of that little Corgie, who must have collapsed of heat exhaustion after that run.  In order to avoid any more Christmas Corgie-like incidents, I began walking Sadie at six in the morning, and kept to the main roads.

It was a long, seemingly endless three weeks of blood spots and early morning walks with Sadie, and then, one day, I brought Sadie back to her playgroup to see how the males reacted.  Her buddy Milo, a Jack Russell, came running over and knocked her down, happy to see her.  They started running around and wrestling like it was just another day.

And just like that, it was.

 

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The Laundry Chute (or….Nora, this is for you)

I am lucky enough to have a few people who check my blog regularly and have been asking where/when is my next post.  I am happy to say that I have been pleasantly distracted by another writing project.  Rather than let any more time pass, I thought I’d share an excerpt from a short story I am working on.

From:  Silver Lake

Lunch took place in a classroom located right next to the chapel so that Donny and his classmates had to suffer through the dueling smells of Fido’s tomato soup and the spicy incense from the chapel as they ate their lunch in silence.  After she finished eating and packed her thermos, Fido, yardstick in hand, led the class quietly through the halls of the Villa to a small gym at the back of the building, and left them with two parent chaperones for an hour.

Eugene and Donny, who were stuck by Fido’s side all morning, began running and jumping around the gym like madmen.  When some of the boys in class began forming teams for basketball, and the girls pulled out jump ropes, Eugene turned to Donny and said, “Let’s get out of here.”  They asked the chaperone standing by the door to use the restroom, and hurried away from the noise in the gym on tiptoes, eyes and ears on alert for Fido or any other nun. 

Donny wanted to go down to the basement and moved towards the stairwell door when Eugene stopped him and pointed at a hatch to the left of the doors, with thick, stenciled letters above that read LAUNDRY CHUTE.  “I dare ya!!” he said, opening the hatch.

The two-floor drop was dark and surprisingly quick, landing Donny in a large tub filled with women’s underwear, damp towels and dirty bed linens.  He tried, but wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way as he heard Eugene bumping and sliding down the chute behind him.  The two boys fell on top of each other wrestling and throwing huge cupped bras and wet wash rags at each other before racing back up the steps to do it again. 

The ride from the third floor was even better.  Worried about time, Donny stopped as they entered the fourth floor and suggested they get back to the gym before they got caught, but Eugene wasn’t ready to stop.  “I got a great idea,” he said, and jumped into the chute, his laughter falling with him into the laundry tub below.

Reluctantly, Donny propped open the chute door and set his left leg on the ledge.  He was about to hop the rest of his body into the hatch when Fido appeared behind him, pinching his right earlobe tightly.  “I might have known…” she growled into the back of his neck.  He screamed loudly as she squeezed his ear harder and pulled him to standing in front of her, fleshy cheeks and sagging jaw suddenly inches from his face.  Before she could raise her yardstick, his friend Eugene popped out of the fourth floor stairwell wearing a big white bra over his blue shirt and tie.

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Twenty Years and Counting

It was the anniversary I thought I was prepared for.  Twenty years.  So much time has passed, so much has changed.  I think back to the day I heard Stephan died, I can see myself sitting in the window of our apartment smoking a cigarette at two in the morning.  Twenty years later, and I can still feel that bottomless sense of confusion.  No tears, not right away, just wide-eyed, exhausted confusion.  It was finally over.

A few days earlier, I watched paramedics lift my partner into an ambulance, ignoring his moans of protest.  AIDS had reduced this once gorgeous dancer to nothing more than a demented skeleton.  A neighbor walking by touched my arm in condolence and asked, “Your grandfather?”  Stephan was only 38 years old.

And while I was definitely not alone, my loss, my relationship, was ignored by my family.  The conspiracy of silence continued even after Stephan died.  Eventually, I realized that my only way to  recover from the battle and survive, was to 700 miles away from my family and my old life.

In my first year away, I wrote to my parents and siblings, making sure to mention Stephan each time.  Not once did I get a letter back.  It was such a weird dynamic.  My siblings more than once let me know they supported me.  My mother even sent me red ribbon stationary.  But no one would ever mention Stephan’s name.  If I visited or called, conversation always remained on safe topics; the elephant with the big scarlet A was left sleeping.  At some point, I stopped banging the drum about Stephan, or relationship, the fact that we (as a family) were a part of the AIDS epidemic, because no one was listening.

But twenty years is a long time, and the truth is, so much has changed.  My family has shed some of their homophobic/AIDS phobic ways.  And I have learned more than once that’s there’s freedom in forgiveness.  Still, I’m not sure how to deal with what continues to haunt me, and my family – the silence.

Twenty years after his death, I got only one email from someone in my family on Stephan’s anniversary, and that was only after she had seen some pictures I’d posted on Facebook.  My guess is, if you asked my brothers and sisters (and their spouses), few could say when Stephan’s anniversary is – fewer would know we just marked twenty years.

I’ve often wondered what they do or say when a friend of theirs, or their children, make an anti-gay remark.  I doubt any of them stop it and proudly talk about their gay brother.  None have asked me any questions about being gay, or for advice on how to talk with their children about their gay uncle.

The conspiracy of silence continues, and the best I can do is continue to live my life, tell my story, and remind my family there is still more to do.

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