• On Thanksgivings, I am grateful for my gay ex-husband

    by Judith Newton

    On Thanksgivings, as I wash the bubble of a wine glass or polish the forks from my mother’s wedding silver, I think of my gay ex-husband and am grateful. We lived together for some twenty years, inventing and reinventing what it meant to be a couple and to be “at home.” It is with him I learned that there are more ways than one of being family.

    I met Dick in graduate school during the middle sixties, the kind of smart, studious young man I’d always been drawn to but never managed to date. He said “oops” a lot and was so funny that being in his company made me feel like I was having a childhood for the first time. He knew music, wrote poetry in a serious way, and was, in my eyes, the smartest person in our circle. We only saw each other in groups, but we began to rest in each other, to draw close without touching.

    In the spring of our second year, he had a series of anxiety attacks, and that summer he left graduate school to teach and to enter therapy. We sent each other letters—he rather less frequently than I—and two years later he returned, giving me a passionate kiss upon arrival. In November he told me, “I think I love you.” That same month I told my friend Sylvia, “He is the only man I have ever wanted, and I will do anything to have him.”

    In December, he and I were standing on a corner waiting for the light to change. An older man walked past, suddenly swiveling his head, to follow the progress of a young man wearing jeans that fit like paint. Dick took my arm.

    “I have something to tell you.”

    “What is it?”

    “If it weren’t for you I’d be homosexual.”

    “Is that why you went into therapy?”

    “Yes, in part.”

    “Couldn’t you just get more therapy?”

    “I could try.”

    It was the sixties, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness, and my own ignorance was profound. More importantly, I wanted to believe that therapy would be the “cure” because I felt with him what I had longed to feel for most of my existence—happy, valued, loved, secure, at home.

    We married and moved east for our first jobs, then things began to fall apart. This time it was I, not he, who would need the therapy. The pressures of my first job in the sexist English Department of an Ivy League university, and, paradoxically, the fact that I was with a man who made me feel secure and loved, brought the darker elements of my childhood to the surface. I broke down, developed odd rigidities and withdrew sexually, and he had insufficient lust to make up for my sudden lack of it. I entered analysis, but the stronger I got, the more uneasy I felt, not just about our lack of sexual passion, but also about my growing need for independence. He had been my best friend, lover, and husband, but also my mother, father, and twin. I had merged with him so fully that, in the course of my therapy, I had begun to feel I couldn’t become a person in my own right. I suggested that I rent an apartment near our home and spend a few nights there each week. We began the experiment that summer.

    One year later we were still living separately and also together. I took a month-long trip, and when I returned we made arrangements to meet for dinner. I’d slept with someone else while out of town, and my guilty conscience plunged me into a kind of panic about whether he had too. I had no right to ask, but my head and ears felt swollen, as if all the cavities of my head were full of water.

    “Dick, did you see other people while I was away?”


    “Did you sleep with someone?”


    “A woman?”


    I felt my stomach and my chest letting go, the swelling in my head begin to fade. I was still the only woman in his life. “I admire your courage,” I said, and meant it. It was the beginning of the gay rights movement, and I saw his sexual venture as an act of personal politics, much like becoming a feminist had been for me. Somehow I felt he hadn’t really left me, although I learned later, there had been seven men, not one. That evening he wrote in his journal, “Judy I love you desperately and completely. I feel great hope for our future. Now life really begins again.” And he was right. Like swans, we’d coupled for life.

    After he began his sexual journey, we both fell in love with other men, but within two years we were living as roommates and would continue to do so for the next ten tears. “Home” was where the two of us could be together, no matter what the terms. “If ever two people were made for each other,” we’d say, “it’s us.”

    He met another man; I met another man too, and mine came to live with me and Dick. I married my new man—with many second thoughts—and the three of us moved to a multi-story Victorian house, ideal for sharing. A male friend of my second husband joined us.

    We settled in, rotating the shopping, the cooking, and the washing up. I was married to one man with whom I would have a child, but it was the sound of Dick’s step on the stair that filled me with a sense of home. When my daughter was born the following summer, life felt complete.

    In getting ready for the baby I had made little of the fact that Dick was having odd bouts of illness and losing his way on familiar streets. Over the winter, he continued to decline, and in June, after Dick had a mysterious seizure, his doctor suggested that I attend his medical appointment with him. We sat in the office holding hands through a tangle of tubes attached to his arm, and the doctor said “You have full blown AIDS.”

    “What can we do?” I asked, not even knowing—it was the middle eighties—if this were fatal. The doctor told us of some drug trials at the National Institutes of Health. Dick entered NIH, stayed six weeks, and then came home. Bouts of illness, trips to NIH, and returning home continued throughout the summer and the fall.

    In October, we went to see a performance of Hamlet. We held hands throughout the play, he sleeping through the final act, missing Hamlet’s lines about his coming death: “If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” We went home and sat at the kitchen table, drinking champagne and talking about tragedy until long past midnight, I, savoring the sweetness of the moment, feeling ready for whatever was to come. But two days later when he stood baffled in the kitchen, not remembering the relation between a box of cereal and a bowl, I wasn’t ready. And if I had been, I wondered, how could any “readiness” be all?

    In early November, Dick was back again at NIH, two new lesions on his brain, the drugs not working. He came home, returned to the hospital, and arrived home again with an IV attached and instructions for me to administer his shots. By late November he had slipped into in a semi-coma.

    “If you take him off the IV,” his specialist said quietly on the phone, “he’ll die sooner.” I went to his bedside and took his hand. He was skeletal, his eyes showed strips of white, and I felt the way I once felt in a dream when I’d returned to my childhood home and found the roof of my old room had fallen in.

    “Press once for No. Press twice for Yes. Do you know me?”

    He pressed my hand twice.

    “Are you too warm?” Again he pressed two times. I slipped my hand under the cover, and he was boiling. I took off the extra blanket.

    “The doctor says you will die sooner if I take you off your IV. Do you want me to do that?”

    He pressed my hand twice. Tears stung my eyes. I removed the IV. The next day he couldn’t respond to my questions, and at 1:00 a.m. the next morning, his breath was strangled. I took his hand and sat by the bed.

    “Dick, I think you’re leaving us.”

    At 1:58 his breathing stopped, his lips became the color of white smoke, and I felt his hand turn cold. The silence in the room felt like thunder.

    He died at 46, on Thanksgiving morning.

    Through all the months of his dying, I wasn’t losing him. I was joined with him more intensely than before. Only after the funeral did I begin to dream that my eyes burst from the force of my tears. I entered grief therapy, wrote poetry because he had written poetry, listened to his music because he had known music, vowed to imitate and perpetuate his wit. Taking him into me was the only way I knew not to lose him entirely. And I did not lose him—not entirely. He is a deep part of the woman I’ve become.

    Because of his death, Thanksgivings make me sad, but with sadness comes remembering, and with remembering, the realization that even now our bond belongs to the present and not just to the past. There are many ways of being family, and I found one of them. As I fold the teal napkins for Thanksgiving dinner, I am thankful once again.

    • Very nice Ms. Newton. Thank you.

    • Tribute to your love for your ex-husband. And I am glad, as I am assuming, you don’t have the disease. The seven men had me worried how this story was going to end.

      • Carolyn Wyler

      • November 28, 2011 at 8:43 am
      • Reply

      Wow, that is absolutely beautiful!

      • Judy N

      • November 28, 2011 at 10:50 am
      • Reply

      Dear Donald, Madge, and Carolyn, thank you for writing!

      • Jesse

      • November 28, 2011 at 9:42 pm
      • Reply

      Judith, your capacity to love is greater than most I have known. You are amazing, this is amazing, Dick must have been amazing too. I cannot say enough about the writing, only that I wish you wrote the story in book form. So much is left out here and I want to walk the house with you, them.

      On a private note, my dad died on Christmas day. It still colors the holiday but it has been 28 years.

      This was amazing. Thank you. Jesse

        • Joan

        • November 30, 2011 at 11:14 am
        • Reply

        I couldn’t agree with Jesse more. Brilliantly written, but it is the capacity to love and to be understanding that I find so laudable. I’m glad to know there will be a book eventually. I’m sure there are others like my daughter who face similar situations that would profit from such a book. Like Judith, my daughter and her husband have found a way – a different way – to be a family with their two adult children and grandson. Like Jesse, my husband and son died as a result of a fire in our home shortly after New Years in 1971, which forever after has colored the Christmas/New Year season. I’ve written about it in It’s an Ill Wind, Indeed…which has just recently been published. I’ll look forward to your book, Judith. What is the title going to be? How can we find it?

      • Judy N

      • November 28, 2011 at 10:35 pm
      • Reply

      Jesse, what a generous comment you have written. Thank you so much. I’m honored. I have, in fact, written this in book form but it’s still in process. I like your line about walking the house. Thanks for writing and for sharing about your father. Twenty-eight years seems so much and so little time.

    • Wow, this took so much courage to write. And… so beautifully written. And lived. What an amazing, bittersweet story.

      • June

      • November 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm
      • Reply

      So real, taking us readers on this journey. I feel the love and emotions, so much love. Thank you for sharing.

    • So powerful, loving, humane, brave. I’m so glad I read this tonight. What a pleasure to discover.

      • Tom

      • November 30, 2011 at 8:58 am
      • Reply

      Wow, that is perhaps the most beautiful story I have ever read… Merci.

      • Arry

      • November 30, 2011 at 10:07 am
      • Reply

      Wow, powerful story, thank you so much for sharing. Your story made me cry and it reminded me of my own best friend who also died of AIDS in the 80’s. My friend had moved to Southern California to be a lawyer and he never let on that he was sick. I didn’t know until I sent him an invitation to my own wedding and his mother sent me his obituary with the RSVP. I was so angry with him that he had not told me because I had just spoken with him on the phone a month prior to his death. His obituary said that he died of “cancer” but I have since found his name on the AIDS quilt. I knew it beforehand in my heart anyways because I knew that if Brian had cancer, he would have told me and he was gay and I was familiar with his lifestyle. What a terrible disease that has taken so many smart. loving and creative people from us.

      • Judy N

      • November 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm
      • Reply

      Debra, June, Kari, Tom thank you so much for your good words. They mean a lot. Arry, I really relate to your comments. I went to so many funerals the year Dick died–friends of his–and the denial of what had killed them was so thick on the ground then.

      • Claire

      • November 30, 2011 at 12:46 pm
      • Reply

      This is so good! The writing so simple and gentle, like the story itself, a wonderful representation of love, and at the same time, of the innocent hopefulness of that era.

      • Julianne Morris

      • November 30, 2011 at 12:49 pm
      • Reply


      This is such a powerful beautiful story – so well written. It resonates with me so much since my husband died the day after Thanksgiving, and so that Holiday always has such meaning for me. I too think about all I have been given as I take out my mother’s dishes. Thank you so much for sharing.

      • Judy N

      • November 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm
      • Reply

      Claire and Julianne, Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond. I know, Julie, that we share Thanksgiving in this way. I thought of you.

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