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A Christmas Tale of Love and Heartbreak

My mom raised hell at her Catholic high school in the 1950s. Carol smoked, skipped class and talked back to Mother Bourke, the formidable headmistress. Whenever the nuns asked her to rat on a fellow student or admit to some suspected sin, she’d reply, “My father says I don’t have to do that,” upon which Mother Bourke would send her home to her father.

At Mom’s 50th birthday party, her best friends from school, Cynthia and Mary, gave her a little notecard in a silver frame. The card read “Very Good” — in the style and with the school insignia of the good conduct notes that Mother Bourke handed out to the best behaved. Mom said she had been a “no-notes girl”: a student who never got a card because she acted fresh.

When I came along, adopted by my parents when they were in their mid-30s, Mom gave me two godmothers, Cynthia and Mary, and my baptism was a big family affair. She said she fell in love with me at first sight, that I was “an A-plus baby” and there was so much love going around that she couldn’t pick just one godmother. Photos from the baptism show me being passed from woman to woman to woman and back again and again at the altar of our local parish, St. Frances.

Mom took me to St. Frances on Sundays as a kid. I liked the gospel stories and the music, and shaking hands with neighbors during the Sign of Peace. I liked praying and thinking that Jesus was looking out for me. When I got fidgety, Mom widened her eyes and pursed her lips into a silent glare; it made me laugh and then shut me up.

What I liked most about church was that it was our thing together, mine and my mom’s; my dad golfed on Sundays and my brother, Gerry, who was 11 years older than me, didn’t like Catholicism or the lecturing priests. Later at home, my brother would crack Mom and me up by imitating the priests delivering sermons about “the sins of the flesh” and other allusions to sex or bad behavior. I imagined Mom saw these priests as she’d seen Mother Bourke all those years ago: rigid, humorless, out of touch with the ways regular people lived their lives.

But Christmas morning was special. All four of us got dressed up and went to church together. My brother would make jokes under his breath throughout Mass about the prissy-looking choir. My parents couldn’t contain their laughter. I loved it, too, but I was also the most serious of the four of us, even as a kid, and I always felt bad during the gospel story when Mary and Joseph got the cold shoulder at the inn.

As a teenager, I slowly stopped going to church. I was becoming a little more withdrawn, preferring to be alone, watching television, writing plays and short stories. I had started developing little crushes on boys my age; I would prank call the same boy in my grade every few days, hanging up the phone when I heard his voice. I felt bad about myself. My dad had told me stories about a man who tried to molest him at a movie when he was a boy, and in my house there were a lot of jokes and put-downs about “fags” and “fairies.” My mother once spotted me standing with my wrists pressing into my hips, my hands flared back, and said, “Only sissies stand like that.” I was nervous for a long time that they might send me back to the adoption agency if they found out I had crushes on boys, so I kept it to myself.

My parents enrolled me in an all-boys Catholic high school in Boston, and if I was never the cool rebel Mom was, I found my own great friends like she did. Cynthia and Mary had shown me how friendship can be the best thing in life; Mom often spoke about how they’d seen her through hard times, when she was trying to carry other babies to term after my brother. The only acting out I did was weirder and darker than what Mom did, like when I once sneaked into St. Frances and up to the altar and ate some of the communion wafers from a chalice. I got used to keeping secrets about my feelings. Mom and Gerry were cool; I saw myself, some of the time, as just bad.

The priests were no help. In classes and assemblies some would say there were “no homosexual boys” at our high school. I started trying to ignore my attraction to boys and focused on dating girls — preoccupied with the idea of marrying someday and having my own children. I knew this was Mom’s wish for me; she missed having a big family, and talked about getting grandchildren someday. If she sensed that I might never marry a woman, she never said it to me. But years later, my godmother Cynthia told me that when I was a teenager, she told Mom she thought I might be gay. They fought about it, until Mom said, “How would you feel if your son was gay?” Then they ended the call. They didn’t speak for months after that, Cynthia said.

It did not occur to me in high school — this was the late 1980s — that gay people could be in happy relationships, let alone marry. I was too scared to even give it thought. And I didn’t want to be different; I liked knowing how I was an A-plus baby, and I didn’t want to hear again about being a “sissy.” Certainly no priest I knew, including some I was friendly with, ever said a nice thing about a gay person. I couldn’t imagine priests treating a gay couple with dignity and respect.

But over time I started to imagine that Mom might. I knew she respected me, my loyalty as a son and my work as a journalist, especially when I chose to go to Afghanistan as a reporter after Sept. 11, 2001. I saw her as a freethinker who stood up to Mother Bourke, who laughed at the windy sermons. So when I returned home from Afghanistan at age 30, after a lot of nights there thinking about life and several years into dating men, I decided to tell the truth about myself.

The conversations started well. I told my brother over dinner, and he was loving. I took my dad for a walk on the beach; “you’re my guy,” he said. That night at home, with Mom cooking and my father at the kitchen table, I told her that I wanted to share something. I struggled a bit, then got the words out. Her back was to me, but I could see the reaction: She hung her head forward, dropped her shoulders, gripped the counter and started to cry. And then walked to another room.

When she came back, she said she worried I would live a lonely life, never have a family, never have a good career, and that I would be treated like a “nancy boy.” It was a phrase I didn’t remember hearing before, but of course I knew what it meant. For whatever reason I thought of the priests saying there were no homosexual boys at school. Respect and acceptance felt a long way away that night; at the kitchen table where I used to listen to Mom, Cynthia and Mary share old stories and laugh, all I felt was sadness.

Mom asked for some time to process things. In the years that followed, we talked about who I was and how I knew I was gay, and that I was happy being gay. That wasn’t always true — I was sad at the thought that I might not have kids, and I missed the old closeness that Mom and I had shared. She grew more tolerant over time and welcomed my first serious boyfriend, Ray, into my childhood home.

But I don’t think she ever really accepted who I was. She told me that she didn’t want to tell our relatives about my being gay. And when I told her that I’d asked Ray to marry me, there was no joy, no celebration; a woman whose own curiosity helped inspire me to become a journalist had no follow-up questions about our wedding plans or our life together. She never visited our home. Maybe I sold her short, but I didn’t see the bravery that I admired as a child, and after years of talking to her about who I was, I felt I wasn’t going to get much further.

The truth is, I also carried some anger: I would’ve liked to have married with Mom looking on proudly, but I knew that would never be 100 percent true. I once wanted to marry in the church, but that wasn’t in the cards. There were times I wondered: Why didn’t the church respect me for being myself? Why didn’t Mom care more about me than about the image of a nancy boy, the image of the sissy? Why do we sometimes treat others who are lonely and struggling — even our own children — with the cold shoulder?

I hadn’t thought about this much until Monday, when Pope Francis announced that priests could bless same-sex relationships. I wondered how my mother would have felt about the news. Would this new blessing have helped her to accept me more fully? Will it help bridge this tension that so many gay Americans have felt in recent decades — greater acceptance in society, but condemnation or disrespect in our own families? I have no doubt that my mother loved me, but I think she needed help accepting me — help the church could have given. I saw the pope’s announcement as an attempt at compassion, something I never thought I’d see from the church for gay couples. I like to think the church under Francis is on an imperfect journey, not unlike the journeys many of us went on with our parents, toward some measure of reconciliation. Respect and acceptance still feel far away, like they did at my old kitchen table, but things feel a little less cold now.

This is my first Christmas without Mom. She died in March, at age 87. I was her primary caregiver, along with her assisted living team. As she faded into Alzheimer’s over the last five years, her tolerance faded a bit, too. When I told her over lunch that I had married last year and showed her my ring, she asked who my wife was. I told her I had a husband, and his name was Ray; she widened her eyes and pursed her lips, like she did when I was fidgety in church. I just smiled and said I was happy. She smiled back and said she was glad, and I walked her back to her room.

Patrick Healy is the deputy Opinion editor.

Source images by Stephen Simpson, mauro mattarelli, 9Air and Maskot/Getty Images

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