As Lincoln and I took our evening walk tonight, two guys holding hands passed us.
We said, “hello,” and then I asked them, “Did you ever imagine in Third Grade that one day you might be able to hold the hand of another man, and walk down the street like this?”
“Never,” they replied.
“Life is good. We’ve come a long way,” I said.
They smiled and agreed, and walked on, perhaps more conscious of the joy and freedom they now enjoy holding hands as they walked home.
Our ability to live and love with self-esteem was celebrated the night before at the gala of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives. Ray and I were there, and delighted to see so many people we adore but haven’t seen for many, many months because of COVID. There were LGBT history quiz cards on the tables that tested our knowledge of our movement’s early days. The ability of gay men and lesbian women to deeply love a life partner without worry about being arrested at a public event such as that dinner is a right fought for by thousands of us over the past 60 years.
While having dinner, Ray and I got a text from a niece that my beloved older sister might not make it through the night. She had entered the hospital a few days ago to repair a broken femur, got terribly constipated from the pain meds and required emergency surgery for a burst colon, and then developed fluid in her lungs.
We apologized to our table mates, and to our dear friend, Alix Ritchie, who was being honored for her philanthropy, and went home rather than cry the rest of the night in front of the 200 guests. Love, whether it’s gay, bisexual or straight, for a life partner or a family member or friend, carries with it not just the greatest joy life has to offer, but also the greatest pain. When we allow ourselves to love and be loved, we agree to accept extraordinary suffering as part of the deal.
My older sister made it through the night, and seems to be stable, but her children, siblings, and dear friends went through agonizing hours of fear imaging the loss of someone so central to their sense of being. I woke up this morning from a very fitful sleep feeling grateful for the 5 a.m. text that she had survived the night, but also shaken to my core, and weak beyond belief. Such is the power of love. A few hours later, when I met two friends at Stork’s for a regularly scheduled coffee, I cried openly without the ability to stop myself.
Love is manifested in multiple ways in each moment of the day. It can be the comfort of holding the hand of the person you adore, and sitting up all night beside the bed of your seriously ill mother. It’s a feeling that can make us want to sing and dance, and also weep ourselves to sleep.
At this very moment, my beloved Ray, who worked non-stop for three days trying to perfect the layout of my new book on Amazon, “On Being Gay and Gray,” is beside me asleep, as is our much-loved labradoodle, Lincoln, who lives in trust that he is safe and loved. My eagerness to be in a relationship with them both, to experience the deepest level of love for them both, comes with the agreed-upon condition that the more I love, the more I will one day suffer.
Choosing not to love doesn’t protect us from suffering. Life without love, without intimacy, without years and years of good, happy memories, is not a life without suffering. Loneliness can be much worse than the anguish of loss.
When I was in Third Grade, I never imagined I could love and spend my life with another man, nor did I imagine I’d ever lose my beloved sister. My desire as an adult is to hold Ray and Kathy’s hands forever.
The older you get, whether you’re gay, bisexual, or straight, the more likely it is that you have to let go of the hands of the people you most care about. Love and loss have no sexual orientation.
I go to sleep now, with my big sister sleeping in her hospital bed, Ray asleep beside me, and all of the people I love most still present and available to me. These moments are to be treasured. We only truly realize that when we spend time lying awake with the awareness of, or fear of loss.
Sing and dance now, and hold hands on the street if you can.
Two Guys and A Dog is a semi-regular column from Brian McNaught, who has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. Visit Brian-McNaught.com to access his books and DVDs for free. “No one has done a better job of chronicling what it is like to be gay in America.” – Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.