On Saturday June 11 I was in my kitchen as the boys finished up their dinner. Our apartment faces mostly south with a nod to the west. In these summer months, when the sun sets after 8, an amber light suffuses our home. In that twilight my husband Brian shone like a god at my table. My boys, aged two and five, were little cherubs. And even the crust-shorn grilled cheese sandwiches they demanded and the dirty clothes they wouldn't change out of after the park. . . it all looked like magic.
That Saturday I looked at them and pulled out my phone to type out an email to myself. This is what writing parents do. The modern equivalent of Grace Paley walking around with slips of paper, jotting down notes as she tended to her kids. I wrote:
“I know this is passing, fleeting. Experience, that terrible bitch of a teacher, has shown me that kids get sick on sunny days and parents get hit by cars in the most ho-hum of daylight.
It is impossible, or at least irresponsible, to speak about being an out gay parent without acknowledging the danger.”
Ugh, I thought to myself, as I put a period on that last sentence. This again. Not only is it overwritten, but I’m on that danger tip again. Can’t you just have a moment, I asked myself, without making it so dramatic? It stayed in my drafts, not even worthy of my usual subject title: Notes. I cleared plates and surrendered to demands for ice cream.
Early next morning I woke to the first reports on the shooting in Orlando. My husband and I are not TV people. We get our news from our phones, usually Twitter, comparing notes as we find interesting things.
“They’re saying it’s a gay club,” Brian said, putting cinnamon bread in the toaster for the boys.
“Yeah,” was all I said. “Awful.”
Brian is a family law attorney, and he had a client meeting that Sunday morning. I tease him that he is like a country lawyer doing weekend meetings, but we know that intended families work crazy hours so he stays flexible. When he left for the meeting, I took the boys to the church playground an hour before services so they could blow off steam.
While they played, I kept checking my phone to get the latest. I had to borrow another parent’s sunscreen, feeling like an amateur parent sending his boys into the blazing sun unshielded.
As I watched them going up and down the slide, I confess I felt a coward’s relief that I have some time before I have to explain the targeted slaughter of people. They are too young, though my oldest has done Quiet Drills in Pre-K. They practice hiding and staying absolutely silent in case the school is under attack by an active shooter. When I was 5, being brave at school was about Dodgeball.
Just before services at 11, I saw the number had jumped to 50. This was when the 49 lives lost were just a number. The grief I feel now strangely that of a parent hearing about the loss of another parent’s child. I don’t mean to infantilize these vital, complex, interesting singular people. I don’t know if approaching tragedy from this perspective is simply my go-to mindset as a dad now, or if I am simply reacting this way because many of the victims were so young. I am particularly gutted by the texts these poor people sent their parents. The idea of getting a text from your child saying they are about to die violently is a feeling of helplessness I cannot begin to comprehend.
When I heard that Brenda McCool died shielding her son Isaiah, I thought: “Of course she did.” In that terrible, horrific chaos, her instinct was to save her child. Isiah, 29, is one of her 11 children, and she liked to go dancing with him to show her support. Two days before she was murdered, she wrote in a Facebook post: “While we teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life's all about. Embrace, Encourage, Acknowledge, and Love them unconditionally.” As fathers, may we all have such grace and courage.
Sunday night I thought of that email in my drafts. And about how aware I am of the dangers my children might face because I live openly. There’s really no other option: My husband and I were meant to be their dads and they were meant to be our children. But still, I wish they didn’t risk being the collateral damage of people’s hatred.