Thursday, January 9, 2014

Innocence Lost... and Regained

A few days ago, I received a Facebook friend request from an old friend that took me quite by surprise.

He and I were in the same deacons and teachers quorums when I was a youth in the Church, growing up in the Rochester, NY area. He and his brother were both my friends.

One of my favorite memories of our friendship was of him and his brother teaching me how to dance. I was a socially awkward teen (to say the least), and one day while confessing to them my feelings of inadequacy on the dance floor, they promised me personal lessons to alleviate that. So we met one afternoon, and they took turns showing me dance steps, how to lead, etc. I guess I thought it was a little odd, three guys getting together and dancing with each other. But it was also thrilling to me literally being swept off my feet by them.

See, they were good-looking guys. An unspoken truth of our friendship was that I had an unrequitable crush on them both.

Unfortunately there was, truth be told, some rather unkind speculation I occasionally heard expressed in the form of jokes or innuendos or gestures or nicknames given them by other members of my deacons and teachers quorums that these two young men were gay. They talked a certain way, with a certain inflection; had certain interests (in dance, theater, the arts); presented themselves a certain way. I say "unkind speculation" because certainly in the Mormon ward I grew up in -- in the Mormonism I grew up in! -- such things were not looked upon kindly.

Yet, these friends of mine were unfailingly kind, generous and faithful. They were innocent in every meaning of that word.

I lost touch with them after graduating from high school. It was at the end of my junior year at BYU that everything in my life crashed and burned (almost committed suicide, resigned from the Church, left BYU, etc.) and I lost touch with almost all of my LDS friends at that time, including these two brothers.

Still, I always remembered them. I still always thought of them from time to time, wondering whatever had become of them. As I was coming to terms with my homosexuality, I remembered the speculation about them. I wondered if they were gay too.

Through the miracle of social networking, in the last year or two I've begun to reestablish relationships with quite a few old friends from that time in my life. And then a few days ago, this friend's name showed up in a Facebook friend request.

I immediately clicked "Confirm." I went to his FB page, and it didn't take much exploring to confirm he was gay. I messaged him, and we started a conversation via FB messaging. Eventually, the emotional and spiritual charge of the conversation outgrew the capacity of FB messaging, and we exchanged phone numbers. And through the miracle of modern phone technology (namely iPhone "Facetime"), we were suddenly looking each other in the eyes and talking to each other.

His first words to me were, "Hello, Old Man!"

I laughed. "I suppose I am fifty now," I replied.

"Are you that much younger than I am?" he riposted, "I just turned 51."

The shock of old friends seeing each other literally for the first time in over thirty years.

It's hard to express the sense of awe I felt seeing him and hearing his voice. Old friendships really never die. They might go dormant when friends are separated, but they can spring instantly back to life again when friends are reunited.

(This is why I trust the Eternal Kingdom will be a most marvelous place.)

So he told me his story. BYU. Mission. Marriage. Kids. The whole messy sexuality thing. The ugly, painful divorce thing. Coming Out. Family/loss of family. But the reason I had felt the need to call was because of what he had expressed about spiritual yearning. I knew we had to talk voice to voice, face to face about that.

After telling me some of the facts of his life, he actually apologized to me. "I didn't mean to load you down with all this stuff." But, see... I always loved him. I realized, hearing his voice, seeing his face (what a beautiful man), I still love him. No, he wasn't loading me down. Telling me about his life -- including the parts about the abuse and the heartbreak, and losing everything that ever mattered -- nothing is more sacred than this.

I remembered us as young teachers, as young Boy Scouts, as young men. We were innocent then. We had no idea what kind of pain life had in store for us. What life had to teach us. He told me the part of his story that I didn't see back then. The hidden pain. The hating oneself, the wanting to die. He said he used to write down every night: "I want to die." There was suicidal ideation and suicide attempts and suicides in both our stories.

At a key moment in our conversation, when he had asked me to tell him my story, particularly the part about coming back to the Church (which is what interested him the most), he asked me: "Were you angry [at the Church]?" I was telling him about leaving the Church, resigning my membership. "Hell yeah, I was angry," I said. We had both been angry.

Yet, here I was looking into his face. And yes we were "old men" now! And now we both knew about particular pains that had been part of our lives that we dared not speak of back in those days of our youth and innocence. And now we'd told stories of since then, that had led through still more pain, and the plethora of ancillary stuff that comes with that kind of pain.

And yet, here he was, still the same kind, generous, beautiful man. The same man who had once taught me dance steps on a Saturday afternoon so I could have a little more confidence at the next Stake youth dance. The man I had secretly loved and still love!

We talked about our faith and about our lives, and I didn't see bitterness or recrimination or anger.

We can choose to be innocent, no matter what life throws at us. Perhaps we feel at a certain point that we have lost innocence, that innocence is irrecoverable. But we only truly lose innocence when life makes us bitter, and we seek to give bitterness back. Even when that has happened, we can always choose to lay down our arms. We can always choose peace. And as he and I spoke, I had a growing sense of awe, a dawning realization that whatever innocence he might have lost in all these years, he had regained it. He has claimed the high ground of love, and he's not relinquishing it any time soon.

When it was time to say goodbye, we both wept. Not because we will never see each other again! We are already plotting an in-person reunion, possibly at the Affirmation gathering in Mexico City in February, where he promised me the hug to end all hugs.

I wept mostly tears of gratitude for what we now can see in each other with a clarity that only the vicissitudes of life can have taught us.

5 comments:

Christian Harrison said...

What a beautiful gift.

Adon said...

I really enjoyed this post. It was sweet and poignant. I too had a high school friend that I found out years later at a class reunion that he is gay. In school he was a tall gangly youth who had drawn the attention of the other students with his awkwardness. He was referred to very unkindly as "Ichabod". I befriended this lonely boy and he invited me to his home one afternoon. I don't remember much of what we did that day. But since then I have always wondered about him and what he was dealing with during those years and how he is doing now. Thanks for sharing.

Bill McA said...

John,
What a beautiful post/story! How great that you were able to connect with your long lost teacher's quorum friend and share each other's odysseys.

Trevor said...

What a testament to friendship and its enduring means.

Oliver Maughan said...

Wow. What an amazing story. I still wonder where some of the people from my childhood are...and I still hope to come in contact with them again some day soon. Hopefully it can be a great experience like yours!