The most recent letter came several weeks ago. Picking up my mail, I recognized it immediately, as I do all of the letters that come from Sabir, my father. With the red and blue border of international mail, the envelopes that contain his letters stand apart from the usual clutter of bills and junk mail and plain white envelopes in my post office box.
I've been getting the letters for exactly a decade now. Ever since I stopped talking to him.
Tales of the unaccepting father incapable of dealing with a gay son are hardly rare. Sadly, they are all too common. Whether the premise is religion or culture or morality, reasons and excuses come handily to those parents who reject their gay and lesbian kids.
It wouldn't be fair to say that it was harder for Sabir to embrace a gay son. But it is accurate to say that the odds were never favorable. Though Sabir is a Muslim, it is not religion that poses such an insurmountable obstacle for him. Sabir is a Muslim who would sometimes eat pork, and occasionally drink alcohol. That never made him "less" Muslim. Most people pick and choose what they want from their religion, and Sabir is no different.
Culture is far more a factor than religion. A Palestinian, Sabir was raised in the Arab world, where the need to have sons to carry on the family name is a colossal imperative. Also, in Arab cultures the topic of sex of any kind is all too taboo. The notion of homosexuality remains virtually unspoken.
I remember the single time in my life that my father spoke to me about homosexuality before he knew I was gay. I was a teenager, and we were living in the Middle East, where it is not uncommon for men to be affectionate with one another. Best friends of the same gender can be seen walking down the streets holding hands. That was normal here, he explained to me, but if a man ever "touched you there," I should kick him in the groin and run.
That was all he ever said about homosexuality, until years later when my mother and he found the personal letters I thought I'd stashed safely in my bedroom at home while I was off at college. We were back in the United States by then, and I had hoped the more liberal environment would help moderate his attitudes. After all, my mother, an American raised in the South, eventually progressed from thinking I was mentally ill to mailing me condoms to help ensure I was practicing safer sex.
The leap was too big for my father. He continued to refer to my gayness as "my condition." I continued to grow more militant about introducing him to boyfriends. When he retired and moved with my mother back to the Middle East, I couldn't help but think it was at least partially to escape me.
But he could not escape the knowledge that I would not give him a grandson.
Soon after their return to the Middle East, the news came that after 30 years of marriage, Sabir was divorcing my mother to marry a woman half his age. If his only son would not produce the obligatory grandson, he reasoned that the burden of carrying on the family name once again became his. My mother moved back to the United States to live out her final years with me. And at the age of a grandfather, Sabir became a new dad again.
He eventually fathered three more sons. But as far as I was concerned, he had lost his oldest son forever--despite the periodic letters he has been sending me for 10 years now. He sends about a half-dozen each year. I never write back.
I open this latest letter, already knowing what is inside. All the letters are the same. "I love you," he writes. He talks about his age, now 77, and his fragile health. "Why don't you write me back?" he asks, surprising me every time that he doesn't know the answer to that question.
Maybe I really don't know the answer to that question, either, the same way I'm unsure why I've kept all of Sabir's letters. They are tucked away neatly in a filing cabinet, held together by a frayed rubber band as worn and fragile as the biological bond that holds me to him.
I go to install his last letter into its chronological place in the filing cabinet, but instead find myself leafing through 10 years of Sabir's handwriting. As I reread the letters, what stands out is less anything on the pages than what is missing from them. He never utters the word "gay." He never writes, "I'm sorry." He never asks for my forgiveness.
Even if he asked, I wonder if forgiveness is within me.
In anger and hurt, I tell myself he is still convinced he did nothing wrong. Even as I stand there holding them, I ignore the pile of letters that are evidence of a different, more complicated truth.
All these years, I have held out for those simple words, insisting I cannot budge until he acknowledges his wrongdoings--not against me, but against my mother. As I watch his most recent letter tremble in my fingers, I find the old adage quite mistaken: Time does not heal all wounds. I wish it did.
Instead, I find time working against me in yet another dimension. Although I cannot guess how much of it is left, I do know the time remaining to respond to Sabir's letters, to make whatever kind of peace with him I might be able to find, is finite, and shrinking.
Surprising myself, I vow that this last letter will not go unanswered.
I only wish I knew what to say.
I am rubbing Margie's tiny fingers, literally for dear life. An unwelcome bluish tone has started creeping into her fingertips, which are cold to the touch. I rub harder, desperate to knead some color and life back into my mother's frail hands.
But even as I do it, a terrible pang deep inside me tells me that my efforts are futile. Margie's chest is heaving deep breaths, but only with the mechanical aid of a ventilator. A large, white plastic tube is taped into her mouth, along with several smaller blue ones. Clear IVs run into both arms. Margie's hazel eyes have lost their usual color and focus. They stare blankly at the ceiling. She cannot talk to me now in her rich Southern drawl, filled as it normally is with hope and optimism.
I do not know if Margie can hear my cracking voice. The nurses tell me when someone is in a coma, you just can't be sure.
I talk to her as if she hears every word. But as I sit by her side in Intensive Care, I know that what I must tell her is goodbye.
For nearly four years, Margie's precarious health has been slowly eroding, week by week. I've known, of course, that the end could be any time. But even when you know it, even when death is staring you right in the face, it comes as a shock, a surprise, as something unexpected and surreal.
Minutes before her stroke, Margie and I had been busy with the daily routine of her physical therapy. Normally, she dreaded the exertion required from her exercises. But this evening she seemed energetic, even eager to get on with things. As she performed her legbends and arm stretches, she spoke hopefully about the day when she would once again walk.
But before long her wizened body grew tired, and she begged to lie back down in the hospital bed. As she lay there, we talked about her return home, perhaps as soon as a few weeks away. Still time enough to enjoy the marigolds and impatiens blooming orange, red and white in the front yard. Just in time to watch the sunflowers sprout their golden heads.
Then, without warning, her body betrayed her optimism. Her eyes rolled back to the position they would never leave again, and her tongue, bloated and purple, bulged out of her mouth.
I don't see her again until she's in the Intensive Care Unit, with her cold, blue hands. I realize now that Margie will leave the hospital sooner than either of us had expected when we spoke about it earlier in the evening. And I know she will not be walking out.
Perhaps selfishly, I am thankful she has cheated death of a few hours, so that I may say my final goodbye.
As I sit there holding her cold, limp hand, I speak out loud about the unconditional love she has lavished on her gay son.
I remember the early days of the epidemic, when, as a volunteer for a local AIDS organization, she manned a table in one of the gay bars, passing out leaflets on safe sex and handing out free condoms. I recall how she demonstrated in protests outside the administrative offices at the university I attended, blasting the college for its refusal to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy.
I talk about the time she marched with me in the gay pride parade. She found herself an unexpected celebrity as she trudged along, plump and gray-haired, with her rainbow-colored sign declaring "PROUD MOM." Then, as always, Margie was baffled at the attention she attracted. She couldn't understand why gay people, friends and strangers alike, seemed so enamored. She was only doing what any mother who loved her child should do, she would say.
In a perfect world, of course, she would be the rule, not the exception. But in a world so far from that, in a world where so many gay men and lesbians never feel the kind of absolute parental love Margie dished out daily, it was no surprise to me that she won so many gay and lesbian hearts besides mine.
Behind the public displays of allegiance were the ones that mattered most, the innumerable personal ones. The unquestioning acceptance of my lovers, who were granted automatic status as family members. The daily reinforcement of love and value she gave me--not just as her son, but as her gay son. Margie once confided that she truly believed gay people had a special message for America. I wonder if she ever knew she was the one that was so special.
In the last moments we will ever have together, I try to tell her that, through my tears, through the fog of her coma. And as I do, I realize I am not saying goodbye. I am saying thank you.