~This essay was previously published in The Gettysburg Review (2012).
“We call contrary to nature what happens contrary to custom; nothing is anything but according to nature, whatever it may be.”
Michel de Montaigne Of a Monstrous Child
“Look at that face! Okay you kids – get close to Sam – give him a tickle – let’s get him to smile – here we go.”
The earliest memory I have of my brother, Sam, is this photograph taken by my father with a Kodak box camera in 1950. Sam sits scowling in a red Radio Flyer wagon pulled by our older brother, Bobby, over the bumpy flagstone walkway in front of our childhood home behind the nursing home in Old Mystic, Connecticut. I am standing next to the wagon, my blond pig-tails sticking out like a four year old Pippi Longstocking, with a child-sized garden rake in one hand and the other on Sam’s tiny shoulder, steadying him on his perch. This pose with me as the big sister trying to keep a grip on Sam foretold our future. His expression, with his chubby lower lip pulled up to his nose and eyebrows scrunched together under a wide-brimmed girlie sun hat, was also prophetic. There were arrows coming from his eyes towards the camera. He was eight-months old in that snapshot, but I would see that same expression many times over the thirty-nine years of his life.
From his earliest days he could aim that scowl at anyone and the word went out: “Sam’s not happy.” He sent mood telegraphs with his facial expressions. As soon as he could stand up on his little mutton chop legs, he further illustrated his discontent by taking off in all directions as fast as those mini gams could carry him. Drooping cloth diapers never slowed him down. Sam could turn ornery at a moment’s notice and demonstrate demon behavior – something that I aspired to as a child but assumed I could never get away with.
Our parents battled for control over Sam’s moods and meanderings. Many a family outing ended with my mother’s frantic cry: “Where’s Sam?” and the alarm went up: “Sam’s taken off again!” We would all go to our lookout points. Even at a picnic table in a park in an open clearing with ten pairs of eyes looking left and right, he could vaporize.
He would never have his picture taken with Santa Claus at the G. Fox & Co. department store, in Hartford, Connecticut, a yearly tradition for the rest of us. He was already on the lam as soon as we entered the store. Each year, as my older brother and I waited like automatons to sit on Santa’s lap, standing on fake snow in the line of children that snaked through Frosty Village and the elves’ toyshop, Sam had already departed for the luggage department or housewares or men’s clothing with our parents in pursuit, my father panting in his wool suit, overcoat and felt hat, my mother slipping and sliding in her high heels and taffeta dress with her coat over her arm – both wearing a look of alarm. Sam could do that to adults. They never knew what he was going to do even though he seemed to do the same thing, over and over.
“What ails that child?” said my grandmother, “he just goes off on a toot whenever he wants. He takes after Grandfather Sam. He couldn’t stay t’ home either. Shouldn’t have named him after him.”
This knack at physical disappearance raised conversations within the family both about the origins of Sam’s behavior and/or the reinforcement of such propensities. Was it nature or nurture? “How did he get like this?” they wondered.
My father: “Sam needs a good hiding.”
My grandmother and mother, in unison: “Don’t you dare touch that child.”
Grandma lived with us and was the resident authority on child behavior. A family therapist might raise her eyebrows at this point, ready to pronounce: “Aha – triangulated parent system!” But, we didn’t have family therapy back then and Grandma would be very quick to assert that she knew what made Sam, Sam. She generalized that a lot of people in the family were “gad-abouts,” besides the infamous Grandfather Sam. My mother added that our little Sam seemed to have gotten all the “gad-about” genes and some other instincts besides.
He was insistent about certain preferences from an early age, like his desire to receive dolls and cars as gifts at Christmas, and his preoccupation with Shirley Temple from the moment he set eyes on her in an old movie. He was not in love with Shirley, he wanted to be Shirley and danced around the house singing On the Good Ship Lollipop. By then he was four years old with golden brown ringlets all over his head and considered “cunnin” (adorably cute) especially by my mother and grandmother. They encouraged him and fawned over his theatrics. Otherwise he scowled or disappeared, and everyone agreed he was a good singer.
“I am Miss Shirley Temple, and now I will sing …” he announced as he shuffled out of my closet in my white anklets, black patent leather shoes and blue satin dress and proceeded to his “stage” in the living room. It might seem unusual to others that we all sat lined up in chairs like an audience as he flounced in, tipping his head of curls back and forth, prancing up and down, belting out Meet Me in St. Louis.
“Listen to that,” smiled Grandma from ear to ear, clapping her hands, bouncing forward in her chair, “he’s right on key – every note.”
There were probably other signs that something about Sam was different but I had no means of comparison. My brothers and I did not associate with other children besides each other until we each started kindergarten in a three-room elementary school across the field behind our house. We lived in the attic of a nursing home, the family business, for our first years. We ate meals with the patients or in the kitchen with the nursing home cook and spent our days ready to play with anyone who might spend time with us, mainly old people.
In 1954, Sam entered kindergarten and the day before school began, my mother cut off all of his golden brown ringlets. They had grown into long banana curls by then.
“I don’t want the other kids to make fun of him,” she said as each curly lock was tied with a bow, clipped and placed in a cigar box that she had decorated with blue and silver flowers on a black background. He went off to school dressed in brown pants, white shirt and herringbone jacket with his hair short and a scowl on his face. I vaguely remember that he insisted on wearing his clip-on, red plaid bow tie, too.
At lunchtime, I left my second grade class to go to the kindergarten room to find Sam. We walked home for lunch in those days. Miss Pearl Johnson was waiting for me at the door to her classroom, holding Sam by the hand. I loved Miss Johnson. She was a beginning student’s dream; kind, smiling, soft-spoken and generous. She gave each child an Eskimo Twins coloring book and a box of crayons on the first day of school. The book seemed enormous - the height and width of a small child’s upper body. On the cover were two laughing twins, a boy and a girl, with rosy cheeks like the Campbell Soup kids. Sam showed no signs of being impressed.
“I didn’t get a smile from Sammy today,” crooned Miss Johnson, “I hope I get one tomorrow!”
“I want my curls back!” he informed me as we set out from the schoolyard for the five-minute walk home.
“I’ll show them to you in the box. Mama painted that box just for you,” I said. He was cute, I thought, even as he scowled and stomped and kicked stones all the way home. This was another version of our prophetic tableau – Sam announcing or proclaiming or complaining about something and me trying to come up with an answer.
Miss Johnson had her hands full that kindergarten year, keeping Sam in her classroom and in his seat. The soft grey hair that framed her face seemed whiter by June of 1955. She said that Sam was clever and cute as a button, the voice of an angel, the cat’s meow, but there was a problem. She announced at the end of that year that little Sam really should spend another year in kindergarten.
“He’s not quite ready to advance, socially that is,” she said.
It seemed that Sam was prone to outbursts among other children and couldn’t get along with anyone when he didn’t want to, poor thing, according to Miss Johnson. I could have told her all that and saved her the trouble of finding out for herself.
“And when he decides to take off – whew! He’s fast,” she said.
Our mother, not prone to applying psychology except in desperate times, decided that perhaps Sam felt displaced or jealous because another little brother had been born one week before Sam had his hair cut and started school. Finally, he was sent off to a new private school in the next town to repeat kindergarten where the student population was different, but not necessarily more harmonious. They all had problems even before Sam arrived. There was Hugo, taller than any elementary school child on the planet; Jimmie, who needed to poke you before he said hello; Marcia whose facial tic vibrated her short, blonde hair; and Mickey who could not sit still. Sam looked pretty normal in the class picture.
I attended third grade in the same school with Sam that year. I was not there merely to succor him. I had my own problems. In our old school Mrs. Robinson taught both second and third grade. Her grandson, Harold, with his button-down collar shirt and his pants hitched up almost to his armpits, would be left in charge of the class when she went out periodically for a few moments of undisclosed activity. Harold looked innocent from a distance with his red hair neatly combed, but he had a sinister side. He would sit behind her desk, drumming his fingers on the wooden surface with a foreboding tum-ta-tum sound, and then slowly open the top drawer from which he would withdraw a coil of black material in the shape of a leather strap or belt and place it on top of the desk. “This is my grandmother’s switch,” he said. “She’ll use it on you if you’re bad.”
He had me convinced even if Mrs. Robinson never exposed the coil herself. I volunteered to wash the blackboards after school and bang all the erasers against the building in an effort to bring up my score of good behavior. But the pressure to be good became so heavy that soon I would start out for school and return home in ten minutes with a headache or stomach ache or whatever physical ailment I could produce. My border crossing was a pile of rocks out of sight behind our house on which I would sit, conjuring my symptoms. After a few moments of concentration my shoulders slumped naturally and my nausea and headache or earache felt almost real. My mother, the nurse, was seduced by physical suffering and let me stay home.
After a month of school days lolling on the couch, my mother produced a psychological diagnosis for me, too. It was decided that I would avoid the third grade year with Mrs. Robinson and spend a year along with Sam in the school with the funny-looking kids. We liked Pine Point Private School but it was an expensive treatment program in those days, and we were both declared cured after one year away from public school.
“He’s a good eater,” said Gram about Sam who grabbed everything in sight at the dining table. His tastes quickly surpassed the usual bland New England cuisine of meat, potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. As a baby, he sat in his high chair, scanned the plates set before us, and exclaimed with pre-verbal babble, lunging and pointing at what he wanted, rocking his chair to and fro to the point of almost tipping over, trying to propel his small body in the direction of his desire. My father always had interesting things on his plate.
“Don’t give him any of those pickled pig’s feet, Bob! He’s just a baby,’ scolded my mother, as my father sliced him some of his sour ham hock.
On a family trip to Florida, I remember a particular breakfast at Rascal’s Pancake House in Miami, where Sam, aged five or six, announced to our parents that he would be having the double-dip hot fudge sundae for breakfast. Their initial refusal to go along with this was followed by a major, but not unexpected, tantrum on Sam’s part with scowling, shrieking and jumping up and down on his chair. This display was followed by a tackle maneuver in the spirit of a half-Nelson by our father, followed by our mother crying, “Stop hitting that child!” followed by all of us watching Sam happily lunge into a double-dip hot fudge sundae, ordered by our mother to “calm the child down.”
My older brother and I sat stoically, trying to pretend that we weren’t related to this Tasmanian devil who had brought all eyes in the restaurant in our direction. We slumped down in the high-backed booth and looked at each other as if to say, “How can he even like so much ice cream at breakfast”? Ice cream for breakfast was not the point of my parents’ objection; they were still in the dream that they could influence Sam’s behavior, but it was already too late. Today it seems obvious that Sam was reinforced by the fact that he usually prevailed in these battles – he did get the sundae – but was it also his nature that activated our little potentate?
After his curls were cut off, Sam fought with me, too. Our mother and grandmother cast about for other explanations of his behavior and made comparisons with Samson in the Bible and his problems after a haircut, but regardless of Sam’s defiant, demanding personality and the battles over whose doll was whose, we grew up to be close. Of course, he called the shots. I was the pacifier and peacemaker and he decided what we would fight about. When he was happy, he had a disarming charm. I longed for a Sam-o-meter so that I could prepare myself for the mood in which he would emerge in the morning. When we weren’t fighting, or when he would agree to desist, we had tea parties surrounded by all of our dolls.
His bedroom looked like the Victoria and Albert Museum with everything organized, arranged and displayed: an intriguing respite from my topsy-turvy room. He collected dolls, arrowheads, matchbox cars, and wooden Dixie cup spoons. A decoupage mural covered one entire wall of his room – a ten-foot panorama - depicting George Washington in all phases of his career, on horseback and off, along with profiles of Jefferson and Lincoln pasted among the branches in a forest setting. His closet was arranged precisely with shoes on shoe holders and shirts neatly folded. He managed his room and his collections like a maniacal curator who feared contamination by the rest of us. Occasionally, I was invited in on condition that I didn’t touch anything. My older brother appeared dumbstruck by Sam and his peculiarities. He would shake his head in amazement or blurt out a child-sized obscenity like: “You’re full of toilet paper up to your ears and the rest is bologna!” Or, in a more sinister moment of revenge, Bobby would send an eviction notice for the rabbit that Sam kept in our communal rabbit hutch in the garage.
Sam’s dolls were in much better shape than mine; his always had clothes on and neat hairstyles. Mine were usually half-dressed with hair frizzed into Afros or dreadlocks. When my mother bought a collector’s edition of the Shirley Temple doll, reissued in 1958, she kept it in her closet for three years, hoping that Sam would grow out of his doll fetish so she could give it to me without inciting a war.
Sam improved his social skills during his second year of kindergarten and had many more friends in our neighborhood than I did, especially among the little girls in town. He seemed to play better with girls than boys and, in our rough-and-tumble neighborhood with the number of sling-shots, cherry bombs, and jackknives in use, it was probably safer to stick with girls.
With his adolescence came violent screaming outbursts and the devouring of huge quantities of food. Excessive food consumption was not a problem for our parents. Overeating was encouraged at home. My mother believed that fat kids were healthier than the scrawny, and my father had starved during the Depression. Legends tinged with pride abounded about Uncle Joel who could eat nine eggs and a loaf of bread for breakfast and Cousin Timothy who made ice cream in vats and floated a barge on the Mystic River to sell ice cream to boaters in the 19th century.
But Sam’s appetite seemed insatiable. He could easily consume a dozen donuts and be ready for a meal. My father’s concern was not about the type of food and how much was consumed; it was rather the appearance of gluttony in social situations. He yearned for civility and decorum at the table, even if he had his own problems with impulsive and indecorous behavior when he lost his temper. And mealtimes were not spared Sam’s dissatisfactions. Meals were often interrupted by arguments that included food sailing through the air over the table at my brother and me, especially if our father was not at home.
So, what was Sam’s nature? What did he know, or want, from his earliest inklings? Was his little soul already in a battle with something in that early photo? Did that scowl foretell the petit Genghis Khan he evolved into in childhood and adolescence? More than likely, he was deeply affected by the presence of our youngest brother’s sick bed in the middle of the living room for two years – perhaps more than I was. I at least had a self-assigned duty to entertain our sick brother and busied myself watching my mother’s nursing care, the diaper changing, the tube feedings, the cooking of broths and creation of nutritious meat extracts, the giving of injections, Phenobarbital and Dilantin, the sponge baths. I’m not sure what Sam was doing during all those years when he was between ages five and eleven while Danny deteriorated from a seizure disorder. Perhaps when my attention swerved to the new baby in the house at the same time that Sam’s separation from his curls took place, he noticed that he wasn’t the center of my universe any more. Sam was eleven when Danny died and his wild trajectory continued.
At age fourteen he announced his plan to become a professional tourist. With a Brownie camera and carrying case, he took off on his bicycle for points of interest around town. He would usually invite a girl his age to accompany him and return home with rolls of film to be developed. This was the start of annotated photo albums that he maintained for the rest of his life. The early photos were carefully mounted on black construction paper and labeled with date, location and comment, and kept neatly in a scrapbook.
“June 10, 1963. Janis Fox doing a cartwheel next to a brook in Old Mystic. Nice place for a picnic.”
“July 1, 1963. Ruth’s cat, Blackwell. He brought a snake through her bedroom window yesterday. Ha Ha!”
By the time he succumbed to AIDS in 1989, he had traveled and photographed the globe, everywhere except Southeast Asia. He cooperated fully with our parents in their efforts to keep him out of the military with a CO status.
When I met my future husband, it was convenient that all of my dates were now two and one-half hours away at West Point Military Academy because otherwise I had to deal with Sam and his intense curiosity about my dating life.
“Why can’t I come with you?” he would plead as I left with a boy.
“Because I am going on a date,” I replied; a response that seemed logical enough to me, but never to Sam.
It didn’t occur to me that perhaps Sam was fixated on me in my life as a girl. I thought he was just my quirky brother and, looking back, he was possibly more vulnerable and less protected in some situations, where I would have been more cloistered because I was a girl. If Dickie Parasol, an older boy in the neighborhood, tried to burn my hand with a cigarette lighter when I was five or six, what might he have offered to do to Sam if he cornered him? With all the chaos in our family life and Sam’s propensity for disappearance and impulsive behavior, I’m not certain how or by whom he was protected in his elementary years.
When I married at age nineteen and moved to Germany for two years, Sam wrote to me and announced that he was coming for a visit. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was extremely homesick and missed my family; on the other, he was the only person who offered to visit. I wondered, “How badly can he behave?” I rationalized that perhaps what Sam needed was to get away from home. He’s older now, I thought. He’s graduated from high school.
Sam arranged the trip entirely on his own with a travel agent. He earned money for the trip working as a nurse’s aide. He flew First Class on Lufthansa and landed in Munich. When I found him at the airport, I was glad to see him and shocked by his appearance. In eight months he had grown in height and girth and wore a red and green plaid madras jacket that made his six-foot stature and 250 pounds stand out like a giant billboard as he smiled broadly at me in the arrivals area. Sam had become a mammoth! I surmised that the donuts and the Great Depression nutrition response program never stopped back home.
He was on his best behavior for the entire three weeks we spent together. Is this amicable, accommodating and loving person my brother, I wondered? In addition to sightseeing, I decided he needed to lose weight and we started the Atkins diet together. He complied, with not a single dissent, and during those three weeks he lost fifteen pounds. He confided, though, that when he got home, he would have to deal with the fears and wrath of our mother who, he claimed, liked him fat.
“She thinks I look good when I’m heavier,” he said. “She’s worried that I might contract a disease like TB, especially if I go to nursing school.”
“Okay,” I said. “Think of all the fun you’ll have gaining back the weight, if you decide to, when you get home.”
Sam never regained the weight when he returned and continued to lose down to a normal size, much to our mother’s dismay. He also never acquired normal eating behavior. He swung from binges to deprivation. His favorite position in the kitchen was to stand at the open refrigerator nibbling out of one platter while picking from another plate on the counter. But, with excessive exercise and intermittent extreme dieting, he maintained a normal weight for the rest of his life.
After his death, I found the detailed diary he kept on his trip to visit me in Germany twenty years before and there was never a mention of the diet. The pages glowed with descriptions of the places we went, the things he bought, the fun he had with us, and the wonderful German bakeries where he enjoyed dark bread, giant chocolate and vanilla frosted cookies and fruit tarts. Somehow he had it all, even on the Atkins diet.
When I returned from Germany, I learned that he had entered nursing school in the fall after his visit with me and had had a “bad experience.” The school he chose was Rhode Island School of Nursing - the same program our mother attended in the 1940s. The bad experience was never revealed to me and possibly to no one although my mother probably knew and decided that no one else needed to know. The official story was that he returned to our parents’ home from school one day, despondent (about what was never revealed), and attempted suicide in his bedroom with an overdose of mom’s sleeping pills. My mother found him in his pajamas, lying on his back in bed with the shades down and a suicide note pinned to his shirt. She called an ambulance and got him to a hospital where the family doctor pumped his stomach and discreetly altered the “cause of illness” in the medical record. My mother thought the words, attempted suicide, might not look good on his record. This creation of privacy around his “illness” also shut down communication about it - except with mom, the woman who had cut off his curls. She adored Sam but she was also preening him to be her successor. He was the most likely candidate to follow in her footsteps and run the nursing home business.
I was in awe of his abilities when he did succeed to become a nurse. Perhaps he had been watching, along with me, the meticulous care our mother had taken of Danny in the sick bed at home. Sam reveled in emergency situations and had an excellent reputation among all the doctors and nurses with whom he worked. He never hesitated to assist in medical emergencies wherever he was and reportedly revived two victims of heart attack on two different airlines. His sense of humor and love of the wild and offbeat, fit right in with the peculiarities that can occur in hospitals. He loved to tell the story about an exotic male dancer with a ruptured spleen who was brought to the ER straight from the dance floor in his costume. “When we cut off his silver lamè pants to get him into surgery, he had a giant kielbasa sausage taped to his upper thigh,” Sam laughed.
By age thirty Sam was hitting his stride. He had twice been engaged to marry (two different women); had trained and worked as a respiratory therapist; trained and worked as an emergency room nurse; received a Bachelor of Nursing and a Master’s Degree in Public Health; and was a certified Nursing Home Administrator. He lived in the same small town as our parents and aspired to buy up all the small nursing homes in the area and build an empire, following our mother’s dream. I learned later, after he came out, that he had become a world traveler, a sort of professional tourist, especially to places around the globe that catered to a burgeoning population of wealthy, mostly young, homosexuals.
It was 1980 and AIDS had not been heard of in the general population. At the same time, Sam’s path to self-discovery led to many new friends all over the world. He had finally figured out how to get along with boys as well as girls. When I was introduced to his friends they described him as great fun, unpredictable, and insatiable. How about grumpy, I asked? Have you seen him with that little scowl on his face? Oh yeah, they said, when he’s bad, he’s bad.
I learned from Sam how complicated it can be to re-present yourself to the world. When I consider how difficult it is to present myself honestly on the page, it’s nothing compared to embracing a sexual orientation that is morally abhorrent to some people, oneself included. On a visit in early 1980, he ranted about the “sins” he saw in other people and places, and spouted passages from the Bible. I didn’t understand the total discourse of his diatribe until he confided later in the same conversation that he thought he might be gay and that being gay was a sin.
I was surprised to think that Sam was bogged down in the hootenanny of religion. Maybe I thought he was like me and had grown away from the shaming aspects of our Protestant fundamentalist up bringing. Why was Sam torturing himself with notions of an angry, critical, Old Testament God?
In response to his revelations, I said something like, “Well – we are what we are. If you want to be with men more than women, it’s okay. I wouldn’t judge you. What a terrible idea – to think of yourself as a sinner.”
“Well, maybe you don’t – but God does.”
“So – are you hurting someone else because you’re gay?”
“Mom and dad – they’ll never understand this. Mom says it’s the Devil who’s winning when someone is homosexual.”
“So – is your mother – our mother – your biblical authority on this? Do you think she has a direct pipeline to God? What in the world do you think she knows about being gay, anyway?” I knew I was baiting him because I knew our mother did have some kind of hold over him, but I wanted to keep him talking. I couldn’t let him win this one and go away thinking that he had convinced me how wretched and unlovable – how sinful - he was.
What followed this fearful confiding of his confusion with me about his sexuality were periodic lengthy silences interspersed with furtive phone calls in which he revealed his full-blown entry into the international gay life and trips to bath houses in New York, Providence and Provincetown. I learned his itineraries and destinations eventually because I would periodically get the frantic calls in the middle the night when he required a rescue operation that only I could help him with, according to Sam. Twice he was in serious car accidents but he didn’t want anyone except me to know where he was, whom he was with, or where he was going.
He escalated in his pursuit of multiple relationships in far-flung places. The rest of the family assumed that Sam had just become a world traveler just as he had always wanted to be. The tricky part was that he was also running the family business, the nursing home, and conspiring with our mother about expansion and building the empire she always wanted. “I’ll run the business, we’ll add on, we’ll make lots of money,” he said. It was her dream and she covered for him in the office when he left for weeks at a time.
“Poor Sam, he works so hard when he’s here – he’s needs a little vacation now and then,” said mom, as Sam set off for Egypt, Prague, London or Zurich. The annotated photo albums filled an entire bookcase. She never commented on the fact that there were only other men in the pictures of Sam under the Eiffel Tower, or lounging on a beach in Nice, or exploring a castle in Bavaria.
Just as Sam’s newfound life spun into a frantic pace, as he came and went, pouring out his remorse and guilt in his conversations with me, a genuine tragedy occurred. Our father, also known for mood swings and dangerous behavior, fell, thirty-five feet from the roof of a new house he was building. He had severe asthma and frequently used an inhalant. On that day, after lunch, he climbed back up a ladder to the roof several times, carrying fifty-pound pallets of asphalt shingles. He was working alone on a steep pitch without a safety harness and probably used his inhaler and stood up too quickly, causing a flash of hypotension - a momentary blackout from exertion or rapid standing and crouching as he worked. He didn’t remember what happened, or his flight through the air to the driveway below. My mother, who said her intuition sent her back to check on him, found him thirty minutes later on his back on the ground where he landed. He was alive and conscious, but his spine was crushed. He was sixty-one, otherwise in excellent health, and henceforth paralyzed from the chest down. He lived only one year after the accident.
My father had seemed elusive before his injury. He was eloquent and well read and often appeared in various pulpits in town as a lay minister, but I knew him to shut down and be without words in emotional situations - unless he had created the event. If a subject was difficult to speak about, he lapsed into silence, his head dropping down towards his chest, his face disappearing and then he would disappear into the Bible, behind the Encyclopedia Britannica, out the door to work or church. Perhaps he had some of those genes passed down from the family “gad-abouts.” But now, he could not physically go anywhere without assistance, and I made an important discovery about myself. During one of many conversations with him after his injury, I discovered my urge to escape a subject, to disappear. One of those discovery moments occurred when my father asked me if I knew what was wrong with Sam.
“Why is he always gone – why doesn’t he come and talk to me?” he asked.
I knew that Sam had not told our parents about his sexual orientation. I wanted a phone to ring or someone to yell, “Ruth, can you come here for a second?” But, we were alone in the house and dad couldn’t shove off in his wheelchair. He was reduced from the former lively, dapper, man who could change out of his work clothes in a flash and transform himself with a fine, stylish suit, overcoat and felt hat. Now he couldn’t even pee without needing someone to insert a catheter. He had risen from poverty to become a successful entrepreneur, who could build and fix anything, only to arrive in the prime of his life at total physical dependence, after a three-second fall.
I decided that he needed to know about Sam. What could be the use of his not knowing? He could think that he was unlovable.
“Well – there’s something you have to know about Sam,” I said. “Sam loves you – but – you see he’s discovered something about himself – he thinks he prefers to have relationships with men – intimate relationships – physical relationships. I know he wants to tell you but he doesn’t know how.” I was stretching a little on this part. I wasn’t sure if Sam ever wanted our parents to know but, all things considered, I had to make a decision to tell or not tell the truth. Otherwise, where could my father go in his own justifiable self-pity? He had made a lot of comparisons between himself and the biblical Job since the accident.
There was a lengthy silence during which my father sat in his wheelchair with his head down and his hands clasped together, his arms close to his body. He looked up and said: “I’ve been trying to imagine being that way, with Wesley, for example, and I just can’t find a way to see it, to feel that way – with another man. I love Wes, but I couldn’t be that way with him.”
Wesley was my father’s closest friend.
Okay. Now I had to tell Sam that I had spilled the beans. I described to him the scene with our father and Sam increased his visits to his bedside. Sam said they never talked about homosexuality or relationships. I suggested that I could also break the news to our mother as well, because she would find out anyway, and he agreed.
She sniffed at my words when I told her, as if I was revealing that Sam had acquired bedbugs from sleeping in a seedy hotel. Her appraisal of his emergence from the closet was that he was in a temporary crisis and he would get over it. She also shared with me her notion that Sam could decide not to be gay. “He always was excitable. He has to say no – to the Devil,” she said, “and he’s too thin. He needs to stop his silly dieting and eat more.”
During that year, 1980, Sam was an infrequent visitor - he had to encounter mom each time - but in the days just before our father’s death, he offered him extraordinary care. The final event was total respiratory failure and his last three days a series of ghoulish efforts to keep him alive long enough to clear his lungs. He was kept on a bed of ice in the ICU to slow his metabolic functions and had a breathing tube down his throat into his lungs. He scribbled on a communication board, “Stop killing me.” But my mother prevailed. She wanted everything in hopes that he would miraculously “get better.”
Sam attended him in the intensive care unit as his nurse. The two of us were alone with him when he lost consciousness and the heart monitor showed a wavering beat that diminished to nothing. I stood back in horror, my heart beating so hard that I felt I could defibrillate him with my shock waves. Sam calmly and gently removed the tubes from his mouth and chest, detached the electrodes, washed and shaved him, and covered him with warm cotton blanket.
Sam’s partner at that time, Dennis, a former Jesuit priest, spent many hours with us in the hospital as my father was dying. One year later, in 1982, Dennis died of a new, strange disease. They were no longer a couple at that point and Sam was notified of his death by a mutual friend.
Sam called me: “Dennis died – some kind of pneumonia. Strange – he was a healthy guy.”
In 1984, even though he continued to circle the globe to meet male friends, Sam announced to me that he thought he was not completely gay and had decided to get married – to a woman. I asked his fiancé what she knew about Sam’s life. She responded with an easy smile:
“Oh, do you mean about his past? He told me everything. He thought he was gay, but he’s over that now. Everything’s okay. I can tell you that for sure,” and she winked at me.
The nature or nurture question loomed.
“What do you believe about homosexuality?” I asked her.
“I think it’s a choice people make,” she said. “Sam knows he prefers women. I can tell you – Sam is a real man!”
Lisa was well educated, over thirty and worked in health care, but it was early in the gay sexual revolution. How could she know? I was a little more informed than most, thanks to Sam. How many heterosexual people knew about the gay bathhouse scene in which, he said to me, it was possible to have thirty-plus sexual encounters in one night? I’m not sure how he kept track.
She didn’t have the experience to question Sam’s ambiguous behavior, nor had she been with him long enough to know that he usually got what he wanted – or what he thought he wanted. I believe that Sam thought he could make it work. It could be easy to have a secret life because it had to be a secret. Providence, Provincetown, Boston, New York were all easy driving distances if he needed to get away. He would look normal in 1984 Connecticut, build a dream house on the water and buy up all the small nursing homes in the area.
They were married in a grand church wedding with four hundred guests at the First Congregational Church in Lisa’s hometown, another quiet WASPy community nearby. Every doctor, lawyer and Native American Indian chief in her town and Sam’s was invited.
The happy couple honeymooned in Europe for three weeks, and one month later Sam was on a plane to San Francisco - without Lisa. She hysterically said she thought he was having a nervous breakdown.
“He told me he had to get away and think,” she cried. “But he’ll come around.”
“Maybe it’s not so easy to stop being gay,” I said “Isn’t it better to know now than later?”
She told me that they had started out with a passionate sex life and shortly after the honeymoon Sam couldn’t perform, sexually, anymore.
“I told him we could work it out,” she said. “We’ll go to counseling – and then he just left.”
When Sam returned two weeks later, he had switched back. “I had to get away. I’m okay – we’re okay,” were his words reported by Lisa.
“Don’t listen to him,” I said. “Find a therapist.”
The relationship took on a new dimension. Now they fought physically. They lived in an apartment in my mother’s house while they built their dream house. My mother called me: “There is crashing and banging up there – can you come and see what’s going on?”
I was an hour away and I told my mother to call the police if she thought there was physical violence, but she refused. “We don’t want the police involved – Sam and Lisa are professionals – just come down here and talk to them – they’ll listen to you!”
I acquiesced and arrived in time to see Sam careen out of the driveway in his car and disappear down the road. Within two months, the marriage was annulled.
“You just have to remember that it’s not about you,” I said to Lisa. “You landed in difficult, unknown territory when you met Sam.”
Within one year after the marriage ended in 1985, Sam developed hepatitis, and small lesions, like bruises, emerged on his shoulder and arm. He showed them to me and said they were weird, that he had never seen anything like them in the hospital. At lunch one day in a restaurant with our mother he announced that he thought he had Leukemia. His energy level seemed unaffected. He still traveled constantly and moved from one gay relationship to another. Our mother continued to say; he’ll get over it if he just puts his mind to it. He jogged and dieted. He bought and sold houses furiously and redecorated each new house in a different style. In 1987 he told me he was HIV-positive but there was hope: a new medicine to build immunity.
“The doctor says I might have had this for years, but I’ve got a strong constitution – I just have to rebuild my T-cells,” he said.
“What do you think about telling Lisa?” I asked. “Especially if you think this is what Dennis might have had.”
“I haven’t been in touch with her,” he said, “I don’t think I want to talk to her.”
I called Lisa and told her Sam’s news. She tested negative for the virus.
In 1988, Sam was diagnosed with AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer of the capillary bed. He entered a research protocol at Yale Medical Center and submitted to every new experimental drug available. On our drives back and forth to his treatment sessions, we reviewed our childhoods and tallied up our similar and dissimilar perspectives. His thoughts frequently went back to religion and his relentless belief that he was a sinner. During the final weeks of his illness he fought verbally with our mother and resisted her attention and nursing care. Perhaps the argument about good and evil was the heart of the matter for Sam; why he could not release himself from the idea that he was a sinner and he was getting what he deserved. He had adopted her view about sin and homosexuality and craved her approval, at the same time he spoke about her with bitterness.
“She thinks she knows everything. I think she hates me,” he said.
She said to me: “He’s still my little Sam – he just needs to do what I say and he’ll get better.”
He was a tangled knot of anger, fear and guilt. One midnight in April 1989, he called me to say that he had decided to commit suicide but he wanted to talk about it first. We sat at the bottom of the staircase in his house. As he spoke and cried, I sat below him and looked up into his bruised face. He said he knew things would only get worse. He would be a burden. I said I would do what I could to help him do things his way. He thought carbon monoxide was the easiest solution.
“Just a hose from the tailpipe into a window of the car - it’ll be like going on a trip,” he said. We kept talking and he talked himself out of it.
I didn’t have enough biblical knowledge to contradict or argue with Sam in his use of the Bible against himself. He needs a specialist, I thought. I contacted a friend who was rector of an Episcopal church in town. He seemed open and non-judgmental, and when I described Sam, he was up for the challenge.
“I’ve never worked with someone with AIDS before,” he said, but even Father Taylor’s informed and generous conversations with Sam about scriptures, God, and forgiveness, and the divine right of people to make choices, did not dissuade Sam from his belief that he was damned.
I took a leave of absence from my job at Boston Children’s Hospital where I worked two days a week in a clinic with children with complex nutrition problems and eating disorders. I couldn’t concentrate. Sam occupied my heart and brain and I worried about how to explain his illness to my son, age ten. I could barely explain it to myself. Sam decided a trip might help. He and his current partner went on a gay cruise that sailed out of San Francisco and my son and I met him when he disembarked and we drove down the California coast together. We made it to Disneyland before Sam needed to be home in his bed.
Back home, we talked and watched movies, especially comedies: The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, I Love Lucy. We discussed Norman Cousins and his “laugh your way back to health” philosophy. I approached Sam’s obsession with sin and his fixation on damnation from every angle but failed to convince him that anyone loved him, except perhaps me. Even that was up for question. “But, don’t worry, I love you Ruth, even if I can’t be loved,” he offered.
“What makes you think that I don’t love you? Why would I put up with all your craziness all these years? Look what we’ve been through together,” I said.
“Yeah – I know – you probably do, but I can’t explain. I’ve made a big mess but I shouldn’t have to die – but I am – now I know something – I know why I have to die.”
He was determined to have the last word.
Now, he was covered in dark lesions and suffered from thrush, a painful fungal infection of the mouth and GI tract, but he didn’t complain about physical discomfort. He stopped speaking to our mother and refused to see her. She came anyway. He turned his face from her when she visited.
“He’ll get better,” she said, “if he wants to. He’s got to eat something.”
Three days before his death we sat chatting together as we had for weeks in his living room. A year earlier he had bought his last house, directly across the street from mine in downtown Mystic. We were kids again with our bedrooms almost next to each other. We could have run a string across the street attached to two tin cans.
He was thin, his skin yellowed and bruised with inky lesions. His hair was cut short with just an echo of brown curls close to his scalp. He wore loose blue cotton hospital scrubs and sat with his knees spread apart in a recliner, gently rocking. We were in one of our quiet meandering conversations going from subject to subject, “remember this …, remember that … remember Gramma and her harmonica and making us practice Camel Train over and over on the piano, and slathering the cucumbers with mayonnaise?”
Only days before, he had ceased to bring up the subject of sin. He spoke frequently about my son. He speculated about what he would grow up to be and do. “Don’t encourage him in the nursing home business – unless he wants to. Let him be what he wants to be,” he said.
It was early June and Sam would not go outside. He said the sun was too bright and the beauty of burgeoning summer too exquisite. When his attorney stopped by one afternoon to check some aspect of his estate planning, Sam snarled after he left: “I hate that guy.”
He had to stop periodically to swish a yellow lotion in his mouth to relieve the pain of thrush. Finally, in the middle of a sentence, the flow of words stopped. He looked over at me with a new expression. There was a question in his face - no signs of a scowl.
“I’m trying to – to dial,” he said opening his brown eyes wide. His head dropped back against the headrest of his chair. He looked in my direction but seemed to focus on something beyond me at an indeterminate distance.
“Who do you want to call?” I wanted to follow him, to stay with him. I tried to make eye contact, but couldn’t.
“I’m trying to dial – 1954 – but I can’t – I can’t - get through,” he closed his eyes, and slipped into a hepatic coma.
Sam died two days later at 12:00 noon on June 23, 1989. The night before, when his doctor predicted that it would be a matter of hours, I called my mother with the news and she disagreed. She said she was going to come over and give Sam a “treatment.” Sam was unconscious and I thought, Sam can’t throw her out and she needs to do something. She needs to be a nurse; a mother and a nurse.
She arrived with four bottles of Dickinson’s Witch Hazel, a clear astringent topical lotion made from a local herb, one of her favorite cure-alls. The rest of us, Sam’s partner, my brother, my son and I, left them alone together. I called Dr. West and suggested that he speak with her directly about the imminence of Sam’s death. Now I was worried about her, who had seen death so many times. She refused to recognize it was coming for Sam.
“Some Witch Hazel compresses will make him feel a lot better,” she said.
She liked Sam’s doctor, Edmund West. She told anyone she met that she knew the grandson of H.G. Wells, which he was. In spite of the way she criticized doctors, as most nurses do, an element of hero worship always prevailed, but even Ed West, doctor and celebrity, didn’t convince my mother that evening. She figured it out herself after the Witch Hazel treatment. She went home exhausted but with a grain of triumph because Sam had come out of his coma for a moment.
“I asked him – hey – where’s the old Sam?” she said. “And he opened his eyes and said – he got up and left.”
Sam was blessed with a devoted partner in the last two years of his life. I didn’t intend, by not bringing him into the picture earlier, to diminish the role Johnny played in caring for Sam through thick and thin, sickness and health, and Sam’s gadding about almost to the bitter end. There were so many others before and during Johnny. He told me that he had always wanted to be the wife in a relationship and Sam was the perfect demanding, irascible but lovable husband.
I’d heard some of Sam’s wishes along the way, in case things don’t work out, as he said in his less optimistic moments, and I knew he wanted to be laid out in an open casket with a traditional Protestant New England wake. He wanted to be buried rather than cremated. He and our mother agreed on that point. Years before, after our father’s death, Sam and I quietly buried the family cat, my father’s favorite, next to dad’s headstone one night even though pet burials are not allowed at Elm Grove. After that, Sam would joke – plant me next to Tommy Tuna.
During the wake, Johnny and I stood side by side in our family group next to the open casket as family and friends passed by. Sam was resplendent in his mauve and gray suit and purple tie. The mortician was a high school classmate of Sam’s and had performed a miracle with make-up and hair styling. He looked okay, no lesions or yellow skin. He looked almost – healthy.
The conversations with Sam were over but I still felt the cord, the string with the two cans, between us. At a quiet moment between the hugs of mourners passing by, Johnny turned to me with a smile and said in his soft fluty Floridian accent: “You know, this is the first party that Sam and I have ever been to together when he wasn’t doing all the talking.”
The next day Sam was treated to all the sacraments of the Episcopal Church in the ritual service for the burial of the dead – in the church of our mother’s childhood. His closed casket was carried inside up to the front next to the altar and he was brought, with words and readings and ceremony, into the community of Everyman, the concept that we depart this earth as equals. At last I got to impose my opinion on my little brother and he couldn’t argue with me.
He was buried next to our father and Tommy Tuna in Elm Grove Cemetery less than one mile from where we grew up in Old Mystic.
I miss him - and his scowl.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
My brother Sam died of AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma at age thirty-nine during the height of the HIV-AIDS crisis, in 1989. It was a terrible time because we all knew, including Sam, that the diagnosis was a death sentence. A year before his death, he bought a house across the street from my house, and, during that last year, we spent hours each day talking about our childhood. One day in the midst of a story he suddenly said, “I’ve been dialing 1954, but I can’t get through.” Seconds later he became comatose and died three days later. I wrote his words in my journal during those days, but it took another twenty years to write about growing up with my little brother - and losing him. Writing this essay allowed me to embrace him, once again.
ABOUT RUTH W. CROCKER
Ruth W. Crocker’s essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Grace Magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, T.A.P.S. Magazine, Bennington Review, PersimmonTree, The Saturday Evening Post and others. Writing awards include a notable essay in Best American Essays and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is also the author of People of Yellowstone, and Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, a memoir of the Vietnam War. She lives and writes in Mystic, Connecticut. Visit her at: www.ruthwcrocker.com and www.PeopleOfYellowstone.com