“I’m pregnant,” our mother said finally. “You two are going to have another brother… or a sister.”
We should have known it was going to be bad news. Dad had called a family meeting. And we’re not the kind of family that has family meetings. We are (were) the kind of old school patriarchy where the wife is a stay-at-home mother, and where the dad is the go-to-work breadwinner and final arbiter of all decisions, and the kids are best when seen and not heard. From all appearances, we were the mythical ideal All-American, nuclear family idolized by pre-60s nostalgia. Our family was like Ozzie and Harriet, really, except that any conflict was resolved by our father laying down the law and the rest of us buckling under. Because that’s the way we were told God wanted it.
And by “you” our mother meant my brother and myself. I was 11 years old. My brother, Brian, was 8-1/2. We were playmates, but not best friends. We lived in a state of détente, generally, except for when we competed with each other for our parents’ attention. We still shared a bedroom. And despite living in a 3-bedroom, 2-bath home, the house seemed small to us, probably because it was the mid-70s when no one dined in the dining room or lived in the living room except for once or twice a year on major holidays.
I had known for some years already that I was different. I wasn’t sure how I was different, but I could sense it. I could see it in how the other kids at school and in our neighborhood played and teased. For example, the boys across the street, Steve and Phil R., were about our age, but were so different that I couldn’t relate to them. Brian would go to their house on Saturdays and play backyard football with them, even though he was much smaller and by-far the youngest of their group. (It was clear their group didn’t spare Brian any hits when they played football. He nearly always came home crying from having been hit a little too hard during a play.) The idea of football didn’t appeal to me at all. I liked to explore the overgrown, vacant lots and semi-wild forests around our house, but I wasn’t rough-and-tumble the way they were. I didn’t want to play competitively, and I didn’t want to fit in enough to get knocked around for the privilege. Brian wanted other people to play with more than anything, and so did his best to toughen up against the much bigger boys.
Brian was blessed to come from the world of normal boys. He tried hard to fit in with that older group of boys. I felt like I had arrived from another planet. And that added just another reason I had begun to resent his presence. I wasn’t a good older brother to Brian, something I have come to regret quite honestly, but at the time I wanted an older brother myself, someone who could introduce me to the mysteries of life, how I should act, and what it all meant. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t feel like I belonged. And I didn’t have a partner in crime to help me figure it all out, either.
“How did this happen?” I blurted out, “Weren’t you on birth control?”
Near the end of 5th grade, our class had seen at least one sex education movie at school. I was kind of shocked my parents had signed the permission slip, we heard so much negative preaching about sex at church on Sundays. I had expected our parents to protest the Godless, secular teaching we would get from a public school sex ed film. And it turned out that I was oddly excited when I heard about the viewing, completely clueless about the content to which we would soon be exposed, but thinking it might be something salacious and forbidden. Or so I *hoped*. Was this how Adam and Eve felt the first time they considered the implications of taking a bite from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? As it turned out, the film ended up being very technical and mechanically oriented, not titillating or even terribly interesting. It covered the basics of reproduction in a sterile (pun intended), clinical manner.
Being curious about everything, I had seen my mother take pills from a plastic disk she kept in her dresser and had asked her what they were for. So I knew what *the pill* looked like even if didn’t know it by that name or quite how it worked. It meant no more babies in our house, and that gave me a small feeling of security against more competition for our parents’ attention.
So, yeah, I knew the technical *how*. I just could not wrap my mind around the *why*. The ground under my feet was moving and I had no control anymore.
I can’t remember if my parents had been smiling when they made their announcement. I want to say my mother had smiled, but the tension in the room belied the real emotions just beneath the surface. My focus was on my mother, so even though my father was in the room and somewhere near my mother, I don’t remember anything else about his presence there. Mom handled the touchy-feely stuff and Dad enforced the rules. So, in my mind’s eye, I can see Mom sitting on the hearth in front of the fireplace with Dad hovering somewhere near her side at the opposite end of the den from where I was slumped in an overstuffed, brown vinyl-covered rocking chair.
One thing I’m sure of, my response wasn’t what they wanted to hear, even if they might have predicted it.
“Sometimes, birth control doesn’t work.”
Not what I wanted to hear, either.
If we were the type of family that played practical jokes, I might have hoped this was a bad joke. But we were the earnest type of family that didn’t call a family meeting then make a solemn announcement unless it was the real deal. This family meeting was making me thankful we didn’t have family meetings very often, if this is why people called family meetings.
I don’t remember what else might have been said, or if my brother understood any of what was going on around him. I felt the adrenaline hit and was suddenly angry. Impotent, frustrated rage is as unattractive as it is unsatisfying. Dad didn’t show affection easily or often—he was a teaser—so frustration was an emotion I knew well. I left the living room and went to sulk in my bedroom. The announcement was over. Day-to-day life resumed, tense and bitter, it seemed, on both sides, without further discussion on the subject. What’s done was done. All that was left was to watch Mom grow bigger and bigger. Now, I had to try to imagine what life would be like on the other side.
All I could think about was how much more I would have to compete for my parents’ attention, and news that twins were due meant as oldest I would get forgotten. I felt as if I were a used car being traded in for a newer model.
That this pregnancy was in fact an accident was confirmed. She *had* been on birth control. This hadn’t been a planned pregnancy, she had admitted as much. They had had two boys, 2-1/2 years apart, and thought they were done.
Something I became aware of many years later made me regret my behavior even more. I can’t remember my mother ever voicing the desire to have a girl. But I believe that discovering she was pregnant with twin girls caused my mother to realize she really wanted to have a girl.
(With the exception of that one story they retold and retold about my thinking my brother, Brian’s name when he first came home from the hospital was *Jennifer*. So they maybe *had* been hoping for a matched set, only weren’t willing to admit the desire out loud.)
We just took it as a given that she had had two kids, both happened to be boys, and that was that. But with age came a growing realization that my mother never had a girl, and so didn’t get to have the same kind of relationship with a daughter like the close relationship she had had with her own mother. Her mother was my mom’s best friend throughout her life. As much as my father loved living in the same town as his parents, there was no doubt that my mother was so much closer to her own mother than our father was close to either of his parents. We could never have moved away from Pensacola. Both my parents would have been lost without their own parents close at hand. Today, with my mother’s parents gone, and with my father’s father gone and his mother slowly fading away in a nursing home, my parents still live in that little three-bedroom, two-bath house they moved into when I was just starting Kindergarten. Few people live with that degree of stability in this highly mobile 21st Century.
Their announcement came at a time when I was already in the throes of another transition as well as at the beginning of yet another transition.
Something shocking happened to the kids I went to school with during that summer break between Fifth and Sixth grade. Fifth grade at Pine Meadow Elementary had been a quiet, well-mannered experience. As part of the senior class, it was a known quantity and was even fun at times. Beginning Sixth grade at Ransom Middle School was an experience of being dropped blindfolded into an X-rated insane asylum filled with expletive spewing inmates driven crazy by testosterone poisoning. At 11, I hadn’t quite begun puberty. If the hormones were at work, the evidence wasn’t externally visible yet. Not to mention, I was the youngest in my class which was the youngest in the school. I was still a child, surrounded by tall, angry, horny, man-children. With hindsight, I know why the difference exists between the two experiences. But at the time, learning the new landscape and expectations in middle school was a challenge to my coping skills.
Aside from shifting social expectation at school, I was living with the feeling that nothing I did made my parents happy. I was an underachiever—intelligent enough, a good test taker, but not driven to excel academically. I generally held a solid B average, but my grades were never good enough for my parents. To make matters worse, my father made the mistake of praising one of my cousins to such a degree that I could only hear an implied insult that my choice of hobbies—being creative, reading, writing, drawing—wasn’t good enough, either.
My mother has one older brother, H., who married and has two children: J. and K. Our cousins were about the same age as Brian and myself. Like us, they also lived in Florida but were far enough away that they typically only visited on major holidays. J. was diagnosed as “hyperactive” when we were young, and began medication in the 1970s for what we would today name ADHD. He wasn’t actually retarded, but did seem a bit slow or dimwitted. As much an underachiever as I was, J.’s learning disability meant I was actually the academic star in our first generation of grandchildren. His grades were nothing to brag about, while I was passing my classes with honors.
During one of their visits, J. showed some examples of woodworking he had been doing. His father had some kind of woodshop or workbench set up in their garage, and J. had discovered he enjoyed building things with his hands. Wooden bowls, bird houses, small tables, that kind of thing. He was handy. I was happy for him. He’d found an avocation, something he enjoyed and was good at, and something he could make money doing if he chose it as a career path.
As we were driving home from that visit, my father went on and on about how wonderful it was that J. was into woodworking. It was honest, hard work that was wholesome and good. His praise was fulsome and began to annoy me. This wasn’t just praise for my cousin, someone who was facing challenges that I didn’t face, but was also a criticism about my own choices. My father was praising J. because his woodworking hobby was one my father could relate to, as opposed to my own indoor, creative activities. An additional implication was there was something unmanly about my interests. I never recovered from this perceived criticism, even as I chose a creative career path as opposed to a boring-but-good-paying white collar profession.
It was many years before I realized that people from my parents’ and their parents’ generation view children as an extension of themselves. Parents look for validation of their own choices in the choices of their children. I was making choices different from those of my parents, and it was increasingly clear as the years rolled along that the life I was going to live would be radically different from the Ozzie-and-Harriet life my parents had lived. Little episodes like my father’s overbearing praise for my cousin’s hobby acted like little wedges slowly being driven between us until we reached a point of complete alienation in my 30s. Our relationship slowly killed in a death by a thousand cuts.
Our parents took the opportunity of mom’s pregnancy to have “the sex talk” with my brother and me. I don’t know how intentional my parents were about this being a way of including us in the pregnancy. But with me in middle school, being exposed to the vulgar language and sex-obsessed secular culture, they probably felt they needed to get in front of the issue before puberty really did hit me in full force. They spoke to our Church of Christ preacher, and borrowed a set of books on human reproduction. In lieu of an actual conversation which would have been awkward and weird, they presented my brother and myself with this set of books, told us to read them, and let them know if we had any questions.
The books were actually really good. The subject matter was presented in language I could understand and had good illustrations that took the mystery out of procreation. They spelled out how a man and a woman get together to produce a child through sexual intercourse. As I worked my way through the material, I realized I had a problem. If this is what sex was about, I didn’t want that from a girl. This wasn’t just a “girls have cooties” type of reaction from an immature boy. This was something much more profound. I didn’t want to have sex with a *female*. I wanted something … else.
I get angry when I hear or read people stating that same sex attraction–being gay–is a choice. If you talk to many gay people, they will tell you the discovery of their sexual orientation is just that, a discovery, and in my case a growing realization. I didn’t make a choice to be gay. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t decide I wanted to offend God and man in the most extreme way possible. I experienced a growing realization about this aspect of myself. Sexual orientation isn’t good or bad in itself. It is one aspect of a person, not the whole person.
A couple of weeks passed during which Brian and I read through the book series. We were done with them, so my parents were collecting the books to return to our preacher. We had another mini family meeting where our parents again asked if we had any questions about what we’d read. I did. But I knew better than to ask… This wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, when I had a dawning realization that my life was going to turn out radically different from the life my parents lived. I pushed the growing realization of my sexuality along with all the fears of the unknown to the back of my mind. This was an issue I couldn’t deal with now. Eventually, but not while I was living at home, under the thumb of my parents, and definitely not while my grandparents were still alive—it would kill them. It would be several years before I would recognize the word “gay” as a category that corresponded to this aspect of myself. The best I could do at the time, without an adult or close friend I felt I could trust to share these secrets, was to do my best to pretend to be normal, biding my time until I could learn more and eventually figure out what all this really meant for my future. I kept my eyes open, and my mouth shut.
Our parents raised us in the Church of Christ. Or, as they liked to write it, the “church of Christ”. Members of this church are adamant they are not a denomination, symbolically refusing to capitalize the word “church” in the title. In the southern United States, you can still find the signs outside some of their modest church houses that read, “The church of Christ meets here.” Not a denomination, but the restored, First Century church founded by Christ.
The Church of Christ actually comes out of the Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement, which began during the Second Great Awakening in the United States in the 1800s. What began as an ecumenical call for unity in the body of Christ—to come out of denominations and be called just “Christians”—has stagnated into being just another ultra-conservative, non-denominational, fundamentalist sect. They believe they have the one truth, and everyone else is going to Hell.
The Church of Christ doesn’t perform infant baptism. It teaches there is an “age of accountability” where everyone becomes aware of right and wrong, at which point they become accountable for their own sin. At 11, feeling guilty about how I had reacted to my parent’s announcement that mom was pregnant, and following the comprehensive sex education I had received through that borrowed book series, I felt I had crossed that threshold of knowing right from wrong. I was convicted in my heart. I wanted to be right with God. I wanted to be good. And I wanted to be saved from my sin.
I don’t know what sins I could possibly have been guilty of at the age of 11, but I wanted to do the right thing and being baptized felt like the right thing to do. I knew my own mind, so I didn’t ask anyone beforehand. I just did it when I was ready. So, during a Sunday morning altar call, I came forward while the congregation behind me sang a hymn.
The preacher leaned close to me and asked, “You want to be baptized?”
I nodded my head, “Yes.”
When the song was concluded, the preacher motioned for everyone to sit down while he and I remained standing.
He then turned to me and asked, “Wayne, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the only son of God?
He turned back to the congregation, “With this confession, we will baptize Wayne into the body of Christ.”
I was led up some stairs to the changing room. I was given what looked like off-white pajamas to put on, then guided into the warm water of the baptistery. The curtains were still closed while the preacher and I got into position. The congregation was singing another hymn while we were getting ready. The song ended and the curtains opened.
“Wayne, before God and these witnesses, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
As I had been instructed, I pinched my nose with right hand and grasped my right forearm with my left hand. The preacher tipped me backward until I was fully submerged, then pulled me back up, gasping for breath as water streamed down my face.
For all the weight and solemn attention given, it was begun and over rather quickly.
Driving home from church, sitting in the back seat with my brother, I had expected my parents to be happy. Children raised in the Church of Christ face a growing social pressure to get baptized, a pressure that I had saved my parents by knowing my own mind early in my life. I wasn’t like some of “those losers” who wait until they’re 18 or older, with their parents and extended family fretting over when they’ll be baptized, because the longer they wait, the fear they will fall in with a worldly, sinful crowd or might die without being saved grows more and more ominous. This sounds ungenerous for me to characterize everyone, including myself, in these terms. But I saw how some families with older teens and college aged kids fretted and feared. We are talking about eternal punishment in hellfire, which the Church of Christ believes in quite literally. The tension and anxiety that these families feel is quite real for them.
I was still riding a high of having been the focus of attention through the last half of the worship service that morning. I felt I had done something profoundly right and good by being baptized. And my intentions were sincere in every way. That my parents would be happy, or so I thought, was just gravy that would make savoring the entire experience so much more wonderful.
During the drive home, dad mentioned how he thought I might have been considering going forward. I had in fact spent a few Sundays trying to gather the nerve to go forward. I had thought about it for a while, and the fear of being in front of the entire church, standing alone, was petrifying for me. So I had tipped my hand by struggling against my fear in the pew directly in front of my father. He had noticed, but hadn’t mentioned anything to mom.
“I wish you had waited…” Mom said.
“What?” Dad asked, and I thought, taken aback.
“He’s still so young…”
“No, don’t say that!” dad spoke up in my defense.
I was crushed.
First I was stunned. Then I wanted to cry. Then I just wanted to get home and find a way to hide and be alone. Couldn’t I ever do anything that made *them* happy? Couldn’t they ever just be happy *for* me? Dad was happy, but mom wasn’t, a rare reversal for me actually. Now, I couldn’t be happy, either. I was sad, when a second before I had been elated.
As the months and years went by, and our group of young people at church took their own individual trips forward to be baptized, I felt a bittersweet twinge at the memory of my own baptism. I wished them well, congratulated them on their decision, and quietly prayed no one ruined the experience for them the way my mother had mine.
As my mother’s pregnancy progressed, her belly grew larger and larger. And there were complications. She was retaining water, and by the time she was six months pregnant she looked like she was nine months. The twins were in peril, and my mother was miserable. It was at this point we took a trip to visit friends in Kentucky. Mom must have had her doctor’s permission to travel, but in hindsight it is hard to understand how someone who should have been on strict bed rest was going to take a long distance road trip. But their friend in Kentucky was an OB/GYN, so they must have felt some level of comfort knowing he was at hand. It didn’t matter. While we were in Kentucky, on Easter Sunday in 1977, mom miscarried and lost both girls.
So this period of time following my baptism, a time that should have been one of joy and celebration, was instead covered with a pall of sadness, guilt and regret. In the end, I didn’t feel very much different after my baptism than I did before.