Mother, you made him small, it was you who started him;
In your sight he was new, over his new eyes you arched
The friendly world and warded off the world that was alien.
Ah, where are the years when you shielded him just by placing
Your slender form between him and the surging abyss?
How much you hid from him then. The room that filled with suspicion
At night: you made it harmless; and out of the refuge of your heart
You mixed a more human space in with his night-space.
And you set down the lamp, not in that darkness, but in
Your own nearer presence, and it glowed at him like a friend.
There wasn’t a creak that your smile could not explain,
As though you had long known just when the floor would do that . . .
And he listened and was soothed. So powerful was your presence
As you tenderly stood by the bed; his fate,
Tall and cloaked, retreated behind the wardrobe, and his restless
Future, delayed for a while, adapted to the folds of the curtain.
And he himself, as he lay there, relieved, with the sweetness
Of the gentle world you had made for him dissolving beneath
His drowsy eyelids, into the foretaste of sleep—:
He seemed protected . . . But inside: who could ward off,
Who could divert, the floods of origin inside him?
Ah, there was no trace of caution in that sleeper; sleeping,
Yes but dreaming, but flushed with what fevers: how he threw himself in.
All at once new, trembling, how he was caught up
And entangled in the spreading tendrils of inner event
Already twined into patterns, into strangling undergrowth, prowling
Bestial shapes. How he submitted—. Loved.
. . . . How could he help
Loving what smiled at him. Even before he knew you,
He had loved it, for already while you carried him inside you, it
Was dissolved in the water that makes the embryo weightless.
No, we don’t accomplish our love in a single year
As the flowers do; an immemorial sap
Flows up through our arms when we love.
~Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, III, 1923~
This memoir was easy—and difficult—to write. My mother, my friends*, and I wrote it together. Between 1994, as I got ready to graduate from Seattle University and went on a Jesuit retreat and got my first lengthy letter from my mother, and about 2004, when the letters ceased coming in the mail with her identifiable handwriting on the envelope, the memoir was writing itself, out of joy and pain and yearning.
It has taken me ten years to share it with a wide audience.
As the millennium approached and e-mail became more ubiquitous, we still chose the traditional epistolary format, as did my friends. There was always something romantic, at least for me, about actually writing a letter, as we aligned ourselves with letter writers from centuries before (some of the first novels, especially by women, chose the epistolary format), working out our needs and loves and frustrations with paper and pen and sometimes printer ink. Writing letters afforded us more space to write, slowed down the pace of our thoughts, increased the tension as each letter left our part of the world and entered the cavern of the mailbox, allowed us the climactic experience (a climax to the expectation, the waiting) of walking to the front door, slitting open an envelope, unfolding a crisp tri-fold, and drinking in each others’ carefully crafted thoughts, rather than simply opening up a button on our computer screen with one touch, scanning the screen, then deciding whether to hit the reply button or which folder to stick it in.
Writing, folding, addressing, licking, walking, sending, waiting—these are all very personal and active and intimate actions. Therefore, choosing to present this decade in my life as letters instead of writing them as prose narrative was an easy decision. I want to welcome you into our conversation.
It often amazes people that all these letters still exist. It’s not like they are prehistoric tablets or medieval books bound to be museum artifacts. But it is fortuitous that I’ve kept them, stored them in an office box for over a decade, and even more so a blessing that these people shared their words with me time and time again. I’ve gone back to the box every so often, at least once a year, and read myself and my mother and my friends back to myself, shared them with new friends. I’ve read them to students and colleagues, sometimes in public forum. Now, I hope that this memoir has captured the spirit of those letters in a composite way. I pass them on to you.
As you read or listen, you will begin to recognize from their words and their style the writers’ identities. Their particular ways of expressing themselves will characterize them as much as their emotions and beliefs. You will hear a diversity of opinions and spiritualities and strategies for living; some will resonate with you, others will be more discordant. Some will likely anger, others will likely sadden. Whether you agree or disagree with any viewpoint within these pages, it has been my intention to create no heroes, no villains—only people who are, myself included, sometimes loving, sometimes (always?) selfish, always genuine.
You will get to know us gradually. Details will emerge that will be fleshed out only later. You will have to fill in gaps of sometimes months, but you will also encounter letters written back and forth, simultaneously, within the same week—our needs, loves, and frustrations almost psychically devoted to paper at the same time. One drawback for you, the reader or audience member, is that you will often have to infer or create details and motivations and causes (perhaps based on patterns in your own life), since the letters won’t mention how my mother once punched through a window to grab at her brother; how often she found herself kicked out of the house, with nothing to eat; how she had an affinity for graveyards and a disdain for school nuns; how she excelled in English and science classes at Queen Anne High (and how I majored in English and minored in Biology); how she fell in love with a shy boy from Tokyo who liked cars and drawing; how she found an outlet for her aggressions in judo; how my father went to Vietnam shortly after they were married at the First Congregationalist Church and how she lived with his mother, my ba-chan, while he humped the forest as a radio operator and, as his PTSD would later reveal, killed many people; how he had an affinity later on for war films and battlefield dioramas; how her liberalism morphed into conservatism when she found out about the hot tub in the rectory at Blessed Sacrament; how my mother asked him to remarry her in the Catholic church. The letters won’t reveal how I found my first porn magazine stuffed in the bundles of recycled newspaper from the neighbor across the street; how I borrowed friends’ cars in high school and went to adult bookstores during our lunch hour; how my father took me on a father-son trip to Vancouver and I got my first view of a woman sliding down a pole, then left the club to pray for his soul; how the Infant of Prague statue looking down over my bed made doing anything alone in bed a guilty, dirty thing; how I’ve never had sex with a woman. Some of this stuff you don’t need to know. Some of this “stuff” is just that—stuff from my life, stuff that you might recognize, in variations, in your own lives. Or is it more than just “stuff”? Is it everything?
You will also discover that this memoir has no happy ending. Mother doesn’t join P-FLAG and fight for gay rights, Son doesn’t anticipate a tearful reunion, neither compromises in the end. But both become tired. By the end, we’ve lulled each other to sleep with our epistolary mantras. I do not apologize for the ending. See it rather as the inevitable end to a ten-year lullaby or, if what you read or hear has not the qualities of a lullaby, then a ten-year bedtime story filled with every emotion you can imagine, with gods and goddesses, victories and defeats, lies and passion, angels, demons, and seas red with apocalyptic blood. It is in, perhaps, the constancy and tenacity of the collective letters of each person—my searching, my mother’s constant pleading, my friends’ devotion—that this memoir’s force and, I hope, beauty and humanity lies.
In his autobiography Les Mots (Words), Sartre claims that autobiographical narration is obituary in its nature, allowing the living to create a space where they can reexamine their lives and interpret them for others. This reexamination allows, I suppose, the living writer to recreate, remold, and even reform parts of his life (in the confessional box of the pages) and to highlight that sliver of his existence that has been meaningful and formative for himself, and also potentially meaningful and formative for readers. Again, I do not apologize for the ending: this sliver did not end happily. You will read or hear of happiness and happy times within many of the letters, but the ultimate happiness, change, or triumph a reader or audience might seek will only come in what the reader does with what they’ve read afterward.
This is for the sons and daughters who are trying to figure out who they are. For the mothers who are walking a thin edge between duty and the abyss. It’s what happened to me and what could happen to any of us. In the end, however, were it not for our open line of communication, I wonder what would have happened. If it would have been even worse. Or if it made it worse. The irony of trying to communicate with another human being is that it can lead to miscommunication or, in this case, a complete failure to communicate and a drifting off to sleep. That’s all I know, and all I can tell you. As a son or daughter, a mother, a friend, it’s up to you to decide which route to take when dealing with other human beings. To write or not to write. To talk or not to talk. To try, to risk. Or not to.
* All names other than mine and my partner Scott’s will appear as letters (e.g., “D,” “H,” etc.) to protect the privacy of the authors of these letters and those mentioned in them. I hope you get to know my letter (pardon the pun) friends by their “letters,” since many of them will appear numerous times.