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?”
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.