Friday, October 15, 2010

The pain we feel when at last the joy we know: A coming-out story with some happy endings at long, long last

by Rev. Stephen Parelli, Bronx NY, October 15, 2010

A gay father's pain and joy
Rebecca, my oldest daughter, is now 29 years old. She was 16 when I separated from her mother. The estrangement between Rebecca and me had been insurmountable. Family sentiment - from her grandparents to her aunt and uncle, cousins and siblings - was unforgiving, and religious values were ridged. Because her Baptist-pastor father, beginning at age 44, was living an openly gay life, he was, in accord with separatist/fundamentalist teachings, restricted from all family affairs, including holidays, weddings, graduations and funerals; letters he sent to family members were generally returned and phone calls generally refused.

Rebecca with her
dad, Rev. Steve Parelli,
June 2010, Dover NJ
 In spite of the nine years of seeing her gay father stigmatized, when Rebecca was 25 or 26 years old she told me "I want to see you, dad, I love you, dad." I hung up the phone and I wept bitterly. I sobbed. At last I was feeling the pain that I had buried for nine years. I was shocked at my own reaction of sobbing and I remember telling my spouse, Jose, that at last I was free to weep over the hurt I had buried in not seeing my children for nine years because at last there was real hope. The joy had touched the pain; I could feel again.

A NJ Sussex County courthouse mediator, who helped me in my losing battle to obtain child visitation rights, asked me at the time, "How are you doing?" "I'm OK, I really am," I said in a quiet, but assured voice. "No you aren't," she answered back in the same quiet, but knowing voice. She knew what I did not know: I wasn't OK not seeing my children. I had told myself I was fighting for visitation rights because my children needed to know I loved them. But I kept from myself the crushing fact that I wanted them -- just for who they each individually are - as much as I wanted them to know I love them. They always brought so much joy into my life with their different, winsome ways. Each voice, each look ... often so predictable.

So it was that when Rebecca told me over the phone that she wanted to start again a relationship with her father, I wept, I sobbed. The pain I had buried over the nine years of separation I suddenly felt when at last I owned the joy of the real prospect of getting my daughter back:  a hope I had buried along with the pain. But now, all at once, and for the first time, I felt the pain with the rising hope. And I sobbed bitterly.

In 1997 Steve took the NJ Dover
 train into NYC to "never" return. 
In 2010 he stands at the Dover
Station reunited with his
forgiving duaghter
Since then my daughter has reconnected with me and has, with her husband, connected also with my spouse, Jose. The four of us make it a point to be together. Just a couple of weeks back, in a phone call, she said, "Dad, how sorry I feel for you that for all those years you had to pretend you were straight when you were gay. To have to live not being yourself."  How mature; an adult; my daughter; all grown-up at age 29: to be able to see her father in a different light.

A gay brother's pain and joy
Today I experienced again the same painful sobbing. This time, the onset of joy that released the bent-up pain came by way of an email from my brother Jeff, age 55, two years younger than me. Jeff and I were estranged from each other soon after my public coming out in 1997 (I had a private coming out to him in the late 1970s when I was about 26 and he was about 24). It wasn't religious extremism that caused the alienation between Jeff and me in 1997, but rather our years of dysfunctional family dynamics that, like fish in water, had immersed us without our knowing it, and, saddly, were primarily the only means by which we experienced connecting as a family.

After my brother was in an unfortunate auto accident that left him disabled, we both saw the folly of having allowed differences to stand between us and seriously worked together to forge a new, lasting brother-to-brother friendship. It has been about two years now that we've reconnected.

Today Jeff emailed me:
"Steve, you've got to see this. Please go to YouTube and bring up Joel Burns, a Fort Worth city councilman who is gay and talks about gay teens being bullied and committing suicide. He talks about his own experience. This must be seen. What is wrong with us? Any volunteer work I can do to help Other Sheep, you let me know. Probably can't do much, but whatever there is to do, maybe I can help...maybe not...but if there is something, let me know....this must end. Love you, Jeff"
Of course I immediately put aside my at-home Other Sheep work to view the YouTube. Aftrer all, my re-connected brother wrote.  The story that we all know too well now about the recent bullyings and suicides of gay young teens was ripping my heart apart as I watched Joel Burns tell it, and then to hear him tell the pain he too knew as a young teen.

But the words that both crushed me and enraptured me were my brother's own email words "How can I help?" And of course, the "how-can-I-help?" was in the context of gay teen suicides. The pain I had buried about being gay during my teen years - silently in the presence of Jeff - erupted. I stood alone in the quietness of my Bronx apartment, and walking aimlessly to the entrance way I leaned against the wall there in the foyer, and looking out onto the living room area, I howled as I sobbed. The howling was like a deep, deep "demon" within me, coming out at last.

"How can I help?" These were the words I had wanted to hear when a teen. If only my brother could have held me, literally, in his arms when both of us were teenagers; and if only he could have said, "How can I help?" I needed his help then. I was alone. I somehow made it through those high school halls all alone, knowing I was different. He was cool. He was popular. I needed him then, though not acknowledging it until now - not verbally acknowledging it then, not out loud then. Yet, I had wanted to tell him; I must have. Tell someone. I had actually tried to tell dad in my early teens; he didn't get it. So no one. No one knew; no one could know.

If only Jeff could have reached across that bedroom during our teen years -- from his side to mine, from his desk to mine. As we lay in our separate beds and talked: if only we could have really talked; but no one knew.

I loved Jeff and I surely wanted him to know. I felt he could know; that he could find a place in his heart to love me though so different. I needed him then; but how could he know.

Today he said "How can I help?" And like a pulling back of the voiceless years that could not speak, he reached into my teenage heart and, with his human kindness of old age, a wiser Jeff, living in a knowing and open society, he touched and pulled forth the pain that has been there for years.

I sobbed today as I played the unbelievable words over and over again in my mind - "how can I help, how can I help" - and I felt the pain I had long buried, that when living with family, I had lived alone, in hiding, in the closet, with no one to help.

And I sobbed and I sobbed. The acute pain I was feeling had been resurrected to life by the joy I was given:  the joy known when someone says "How can I help?"  Help! help! at long last, and from a significant other, i.e., my brother - his help, so sincerely expressed. And so I sobbed over the teen-years of numbing pain I could now, for the first time, allow myself to really feel.

1 comment:

Jendi said...

Beautiful story. I'm so happy for you.