We all sat around the dining room table, my grandpa, my parents, and my aunt and uncle, slowly drinking bitter, watered down coffee to wash down the roast beef we had just finished. I switched between my seventh glass of red wine and my black coffee as my father turned to my grandfather and asked, “what exactly IS the average cost of cremation in the United States?” In case you’re wondering, the average cost of cremation in the United States in roughly three grand, as we discovered. The evening had remained relatively one note, but I had to remind myself how dynamic people were when they were marred by strokes and a lack of cartilages. My parents warned me that this weekend in Hendersonville, NC would not be exciting, but I knew that. I have been coming here since I was eight years old and I’ve rarely seen past the walls of my grandpa’s house. Since my last visit, it had been two years and I can’t help but feel punished for the time I’ve taken to grown and mature. Since I came out of the closet, published my memoir about being gay, and allowed my sense of self to flourish, my grandpa has suffered two minor strokes, he’s fallen down four times, once shattering his kneecap, and when I entered the house two hours ago for dinner he met me with a feeble grin and in a loud, booming voice called out, “Jason!” When I corrected him, he stared at me vacantly, as if I were some familiar wisp of wind.
There was a time in my life where it would have pained me to hear my grandfather call me by the wrong name. I would have taken it to heart that he could barely see the way my once crooked teeth and acne ridden face had morphed into that of an adult, but the cataracts in his eyes make it nearly impossible for him to distinguish me from a sack of potatoes at the age of 90. As much as I wanted to rekindle our relationship, I knew that simple tasks were now cumbersome to him. My mission was simple, to ask him about a story that has haunted me since the day I came out to my father. On the back patio of our home in the unusually chilly northern Florida weather, my father had told me how much he had disagreed with a decision his next door neighbor had made. When my father’s neighbor had come out to his father, his father told him he was no longer welcome in his home; that his very existence was a disgrace to the family name. Coming out to my father, he began to cry and recount this story, expressing that he did not understand how a father could turn his son out into the harsh world for loving himself.
Back in the ‘60s, things like cancer, pregnancies out of wedlock, and homosexuality were hushed secrets whispered over shrubberies between sneaky neighbors. If it wasn’t discussed, then it couldn’t possibly exist; not to the good, God-fearing people my grandparents were known to rub elbows with. The day after my seventh glass of wine, I sat my grandfather down in the Buick dealership he had insisted on me driving him to in order to check if one of his tires was low. I poured us both a cup of dark roast coffee and popped two Advil, nursing the deep red wine hangover that continually washed over me like a toxic low tide every time I opened my mouth to breath. Handing him his coffee and positioning our chairs closer I made sure he was focused on me when I asked him, “Pop-Pop, what happened with Alex’s son?” It took him a few moments before he began to spin his narrative. Without prompt, it was as if he understood what I meant, but felt very unsure of how to tell me.
Sipping on the tea he held in his shaking hand, he slowly told me that Alex’s son had come out of the closet shortly before his eighteenth birthday. Ashamed of his son, Alex had turned him out into the cold world, insisting that he never come back. So instead of going home, Alex’s son took a lover and moved to San Francisco where he began to work “as a poof hairdresser,” my grandpa told me. Alex was rejected by his wife and daughter, two people who could not understand why a man could cast out his own son and his marriage remained strained for the rest of his life. When I asked, I prompted my grandfather to tell me what happened to Alex’s son in the end, he looked me in the eyes and said, “He got sick. Very sick, he is dead now,” then began to cough violently, spitting up a wad of phlegm into his sleeve.
When he had finally finished his eyes had glazed over and he only returned to me when someone called out his name to announce that his car was ready. He struggled to get out of his chair and patted me twice on the back as he inched towards the man holding out his car keys.
Say the name Kevin Horne to almost anyone who had a queer child during the 80s and they’ll immediately feel pure terror. Horne was a San Francisco resident who had the first recognizable diagnosis of AIDS at the time. To rehash the details of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s in simple statistics seems to devalue the emotional ravaging it had on the United States, but to put things into perspective, by the time the decade began to twilight 100,000 people diagnosed with AIDS had been reported to the CDC.
Beginning as what many considered isolated incidents of a rare form of cancer, the disease quickly caused gay men to shake in their pants. By 1982 it became wide-spread opinion that AIDS was a “gay disease.” When the body count mounted to 121 known victims of the sickness people to panic and take drastic measures to ensure that they were not the ones to contract it. By the mid 1980’s the term “AIDS hysteria” became a popular phrase, one that was associated with a lengthy TIME article entitled “The New Untouchables.” As if hugging your gay child close would ensure you were next to suffer and die.
Families who were raised in the early 60s took the staunch route of not talking about the disease, choosing to pretend it was something that couldn’t touch them. Believing they were protected by their privilege, their bloodlines, and their prestige in their communities they build what they considered an impenetrable fortress of solitude. When my grandfather said Alex’s son was sick, I knew he had meant that Alex’s son had contracted AIDS. This fact, which was later confirmed by aunts and uncles of mine, showed how deep this ideology of ignorance ran. These families with queer children were being ripped apart by an “illness” too sinister and shameful for them to talk about.
My mother is a broken kaleidoscope when it comes to revealing pieces of her childhood. She will withhold information, carefully selecting what she will share and what she will bring to her grave. Then, suddenly and all at once she will release staccato bursts of memories that ripple through the years in bright reflections of colors, bringing what has made her, her, into focus. Pouring over the notes I had collected over the weekend from my grandfather on the six hour car ride home, she chose to tell me a story I had only brief glimpses of before.
Growing up, my Aunt had a gay best friend named Tom. His sexuality was never really a talking point between the two of them, instead they chose to intersect its importance with partying and nights of frivolity. Eventually, Tom moved away to California and the two of them lost touch much like childhood friends do. When my aunt became engaged, she wanted to extend an invitation to Tom, a memento of the childhood she was about to leave behind upon entering matrimony. Only she was unable to get a hold of Tom and no amount of scouring the yellow pages or California directories could shake her feeling that Tom had dropped off the face of the earth.
In a desperate attempt to reach out to Tom, my Aunt called up Tom’s sister-- she said she would pass along the message to her brother, promptly hanging up the phone before any more questions could be asked.
Three weeks went by before my aunt received a letter with no return address from Tom. It stated “I’m sorry, girl, can’t make it to your wedding but we’ll get together soon to dish the dirt!” My aunt felt her stomach turn as she read the letter. This was not from Tom; in all her years of knowing him he had never once said “dish the dirt,” to her. My Aunt called back up Tom’s sister on the phone and she conceited. She told my aunt that Tom had moved to California and while there, contracted AIDS. Although he was sick, his family was so ashamed of his disease that they swept him under the rug. They didn’t know how to talk to other relatives and friends about Tom’s condition, so they simply didn’t. When he died there was no funeral, there was no obituary in the newspaper. Tom’s family was under the delusion that pretending he was still alive would placate the shame and confusion they felt for the way he went. Children like Tom were simply “sick,” then gone, then attempted to washed away by their families in an attempt to keep up appearances.
When I left my grandpa after the weekend he pulled me close and hugged me. I could feel his balance shifting as he positioned himself against mine to steady the legs that were beginning to fail him. He pulled back and stared at me with his pale blue eyes that I knew could barely bring me into focus. I wanted to tell him all about who I was, about who I loved and who I wanted to build a life with. Instead I told him how much I loved him and how grateful I was that I got to see him. He waddled out to the car and leaned against the door to tell me, “I am so proud of you, you know that?” As we drove away I watched him steady himself on his cane, wondering if I would have the chance to see him again; if I would ever be able to introduce him to the man I love. As people age they begin to understand the gravity of their lives, and at 90 every moment we had spent together felt filled with the silence of everything I still wanted to say to him before he is gone.
As we speed through the mountains, the trees looking like they had burst into flames with yellowing leaves, my grandfather’s voice boomed throughout the car as I replay our interview over the speakers. I am asking him a question about his combat experience during WWII when his voice cracks and silences. The 30 seconds between my question and his answer feel like i’m being pulled through the decades, colored in shadows of his pain. When his voice returns, it is filled with angry tears. When he answers, it does not relate to the question I had asked him, instead he seems to be speaking to everything that was never said between us. As if he was pulling through all his elderly confusion to reach the ghosts of sons who were hidden by their families for an illness that cracked them to their very core: “I am sorry for what we have done...for what we are doing…” his words reverberating through the car on infinite loop in an echo chamber.
Shawn Binder is an essayist for Bustle and VICE News. He is currently working on his second book, I Can Self Destruct, when he isn't eating hummus or watching videos of otters.