Monday, November 24, 2014

Growing Up Milestones

Being a Gay Man of 70 years, I have not been able to measure my life in milestones as do non-gay men who grew up when I did. In the traditional situation, a man measures his life by his accomplishments and successes but also by family events.

As far as accomplishments, I was able to celebrate completing my BA, MA, and Advanced Certificate. I also earned the ubiquitous ABD (All But Dissertation.) I was able to celebrate the self-publication of two volumes of poetry and the opening of Michael's Museum: A Curious Collection of Tiny Treasures as a permanent exhibit at Chicago Children's Museum on Navy Pier.

On the family front, I celebrated my Bar-Mitzvah but it stopped there. I was not allowed to celebrate my wedding. I was not allowed to have/adopt children. I did not watch my child begin kindergarten or graduate elementary or high school. I did not see my son off to college nor hope that he would join the fraternity I did.  I did not walk down the aisle with the bride, my daughter, on my arm nor wonder when she would make me a grandfather.

Nowadays, Gay men and women can choose to include these milestones in their life. Too late for me but grow up I did anyway and many unique milestones did exist none-the-less. It was just that they were not traditional.

My first milestone was owning my own refrigerator. I.E. not my mother's. I could fill it with the food items I wanted and arrange it in a way that made sense to me. As a child my parents would tell me "Don't "sit" in the refrigerator!" as I stood with the door open contemplating what I wanted to eat. As an adult, just to show them, I opened the door to both the freezer and refrigerator and literally sat on the shelf created between the two.

Another milestone was the purchase of my first car. I was working at University Ford at the time in Champaign / Urbana, Illinois and going to school at the U of I. The sales manager took me under his wing and helped me through the details of purchasing a car. The car was a gold Mustang with an opera roof (they called it in those days: the roof covered in beige vinyl.)

Getting my BA degree. My first job when I began teaching in 1972. Completing my Masters of Education in 1980 and my Advanced Certificate in Administration and Supervision in 1982. These were milestones too.

A big milestone, which is shared with the general population, was my retirement from teaching in 1999.

I share all of this in getting to the point of this blog: Ben, Ken, Alaksh, and Isaac.

Gregory, my life partner was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2004. He did well, with my help, for approximately 8 years but then his decline necessitated additional support and care.

The first round of care giving "companions" included Ken and Ben. Ben made the transition to needing a companion for Gregory easy if only because of my having known him since he was a little boy, nephew of dear friends. He was responsible, loving, and very good with Gregory. Their mutual love of music helped them pass the time and Ben's knowledge of psychology helped him deal effectively with Gregory's needs.

While both were great and very helpful to Gregory, Ken was more of an actual milestone for me. Besides being Gregory's companion, he ended up living with us for a couple of months. His lease was up and instead of finding a new place, I suggested he take over our guest room for the few months he had left to his studies.

Being newly from Japan, Ken and I had many discussions about differences in culture. We learned from each other. He offered young, new, culturally different ideas and I offered older, wiser ideas. We often had dinner together and visited various Chicago sites. Ken quickly became more "family" than "companion."

He caused me to think deeply about my culture and discuss/explain it in ways that were as honest as possible and not too stereotypical. We talked about cultural differences including racial, sexual preference (read GAY!,) male vs female, lifestyle, rich vs poor, and many more.

When he was looking forward to applying for his MA, after completing foreign student core courses in Psychology at Northwestern University, he sought my advice. I helped with the application essays. I helped think through the opportunities of the various universities he was thinking of attending.

With his acceptance in Nashville, his assistantship came with a job in which he needed a car. While he had been driving for a long time in Japan, he needed to learn the Rules of the Road American Style including driving on the right/wrong side of the street (in Japan like England driving is on the left side of the road, not the right like in the U.S.)

So I offered to give him driver's lessons and let him use my car to practice and take the test. This opportunity gave me what must have felt like the first father/son relationship I had ever experienced.

He was careful, responsible, and respectful. I was calm, patient, and helpful. So in some ways this was not like the "typical" father/son relationship.

At one point while about to pull away from the condo, we had an argument about how to set the side view mirrors. He tried. I corrected. He disagreed. I disagreed. He said he had "googled" it.

I backed off and said, "Lets look at it together when we get home." I let him practice that day using his mirror adjustment technique which took a certain amount of bravery on my part. We laughed and I asked him if he realized that we had our first father/son argument. I am not sure either of us had thought of it in that way until that moment.

Turns out the "google" had presented a "traditional" and a "current" way of thinking in side view mirror adjustment. Mine was the traditional, he preferred the current. We agreed to compromise using the best of both techniques. So again not like most "typical" father/son encounters.

When Gregory and I took him for the final drivers test, we sat nervously in the waiting room. He returned from the test with a smile on his face. He had passed the test. I actually cried fatherly tears of pride. In him and in the role I had played.

The relationship Gregory and I had with Ken definitely became one of family.

After seeing Ken off to Nashville, Alaksh next came into our life as Gregory's companion. Alaksh was completing his MA in Biology at Northwestern and was Indian.

Similar conversations regarding cultural differences took place. In addition, Alaksh loved to cook and one day a week, he and Gregory would plan dinner, shop, and cook. I would come home from my errands to a wonderful dinner. Most times he cooked "Indian," but also did a mean "Chinese" and "American."

To celebrate the Indian holiday Divali, Alaksh took us to a University Indian Student Association party. We watched various groups entertain and afterwards partook of dinner. One time Alaksh cooked for Gregory and me at his apartment and we got to meet his roommates.

He often offered medicinal and health cures as passed down from his Grandmother. Often he decided that I was like his Grandmother when if fact Alaksh took care of Gregory and me like he was our Grandmother.

Alaksh was accepted for his PhD in Boulder, Colorado. Again I helped with application essays and decision making. Father and Son relationship or at least Grandmother Grandson. Periodically Alaksh calls just to chat and sometimes still to ask my advice.

We miss him dearly and Alaksh too became part of Gregory and my extended family.

Recently, Isaac who is Gregory and my God Son and son of friends Jan and Jake, moved in with me. He was going through a break up with a girlfriend, their apartment lease was up, he was looking forward to quitting his job and earning money as a waiter for a while, and then leaving for Japan to teach and follow his passion for all things Japanese.

Again the father/son but not typical took place. Advice asked, advice given. Wisdom shared, young blood new views offered. Social media and computer expertise shared. Living together expectations most often met. Sometimes, but rarely, heads banged. Meals eaten and cooked together. Part of the difference in this experience is that since January, Gregory has been living at The Lieberman Center Memory Care Unit so Isaac also brought company and companionship to me.

I shared all of this, Ken, Alaksh, and Isaac, as the point of this blog because these three young men have given me a new milestone to celebrate. That of being a mentor to someone younger, much like the relationship a parent has with a child but not fraught with the emotions that usually come with that relationship.

It felt good to have opinions to give, well thought out ideas to share, experiential comments to make. All without total personal investment and being responsible for having raised a child. It felt good to be valued, respected, queried. I love these three boys like sons, but better!

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