The Hysterectomy Handshake

Posted: March 29, 2014 in McTrip posts
Tags: , , , , ,

IMG0001The reason I came out of the closet on the day that I did — Mother’s Day, 1996 — had less to do with me or with my mother and everything to do with an innocent third party named Mike Regan.

I’m reminded of this story because I’m attending Mike’s funeral this weekend. He died at 73 after a long illness. The story of his role in my coming out will live probably as long as I do. And he loved telling the story. I probably heard him tell it a hundred times. I will try to do it justice, here, although I wish he were still around to do it himself.

Mike liked to joke that he “out-ed” me, although that’s not really true. Outing someone involves malicious intent and there was nothing devious in Mike’s role. He was an advisor and a counselor, not to me, but to my mother.

A little background.

I met Mike and his partner Steve Hermann for the first time in a hospital room in Scottsdale, Arizona, following my mother’s hysterectomy surgery. They sat one side of the hospital bed and I was on the other. I remember shaking hands with them for the first time, reaching over my convalescing mother to do so. (That’s Mike, pictured above on the right, and Steve, with my mom, at a cocktail lounge, not the hospital room!)

In retrospect, fate must have played a roll in all of this. There’s almost too much coincidence for any other explanation.

Three years earlier in 1993, my mother and my stepfather purchased a vacation cabin in the mountains of Arizona as a summer retreat for their golden years. Shortly after moving in, my stepfather made a startling discovery: he actually knew the next-door neighbor, from years ago! The two men had worked together decades earlier in a very different time and a very different place and hadn’t seen each other since the seventies.

Suddenly, the four of them were poised to live out their retirement years next door to each other. For my mother, who was in her late sixties at the time, Mike and Steve would become the first gay people she ever befriended.

At the time, my mother was fairly conservative, traditional, and somewhat sheltered. In many ways she was stuck in the fifties yet living in the nineties. Sensing this, Mike Regan set out to hold her hand through a reality check.

The two of them connected on many different levels. First and foremost they were parents and grandparents and loved to brag about the “kids” in their lives. The four of them played bridge for hours at a time. They enjoyed their libations. And they talked.

As it turns out, they talked a lot about me.When Mike learned I was in my thirties, was single, never spoke of women and appeared to be neutral on the subject of dating and sex, Mike’s gaydar went off like a foghorn! He knew she needed a mentor, someone who could assure her that everything would be OK if, in fact, his suspicions were true and she indeed had a gay son.

He went to work over consecutive summers walking her down the path of acceptance. Steve was there to offer his advice as well. Through it all, my mother got to watch Mike and Steve, who had been together for twenty-six years, act just like all the  straight couples she knew.

Jump ahead a couple years, to May 1996.

A relatively new non-profit organization was hosting a black-tie fundraiser in our city. Body Positive, as it was then known, became one of the country’s leaders in clinical trials, education and behavioral health for those struggling with HIV and AIDS. Today their galas draw over a 1,000 people, many of them connected to corporate sponsors, and many of them straight. Back in 1996, at just the third gala of its kind, there were maybe 200 people in attendance, almost all of them gay men.

My partner and I were among those in attendance. As too were Mike and Steve.

I’m still in the closet at this point. I had met Mike and Steve just once, in Mom’s hospital room, and had since entered what was then a five-month relationship with a man, unbeknown to the rest of the world. And on this night, Kenn was my date, which was probably pretty evident to everyone in attendance.

 

I wasn’t necessarily trying to hide from Mike and Steve, although my instinct was to avoid a conversation, if possible. I was at a gay event. Pretty much everyone was gay. And I was with a man.

But I had to say something.Even in a room of two hundred people, it’s a little difficult to go unnoticed all night. So I approached Mike and after exchanging pleasantries, said: “Are you surprised to see me here?” To which he said, “No, and your mother wouldn’t be either.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. He and my mother had had numerous conversations about my possible gayness, he said, and only recently was she in a place where she could handle the news. This came as potentially liberating news. I suspect I stayed in the closet as long as I did because I suspected the news might be devastating to her. Mike’s news seemed to change all that.

For the rest of the evening, going through my head in no particular order and yet in a constant loop, were the following thoughts: I’m at a gay event. One of my mother’s buddies is here. He now knows I’m gay. My mother probably suspects I’m gay. I’d hate for her to get confirmation from someone other than me. So this is THE opportunity. I now have reason to broach the subject. I needed to talk to my mother, now! Or, alternatively, tomorrow, which happened to be Mother’s Day. I suppose if your mother is homophobic, coming out on Mother’s Day might seem like the perfect time to punish her. But I wasn’t trying to punish anyone. I felt confident that Mike’s counseling had prepared her for this day. And I knew my mother. She’d love and support me through anything. So coming out to her on Mother’s Day might actually be like a gift to her, and would probably prove more difficult for me than her. Again, thank you, Mike.

Through the entire chat, my mother was stoic. She asked good questions. She didn’t judge. She didn’t cry. It was all very adult and non-hysterical. It cleared the air and ultimately made our relationship stronger. We were able to move forward in a more open and honest way. Not a bad Mother’s Day gift, eh?

If you still believe people are set in their ways and can’t change their fundamental ways of thinking, consider this final anecdote.

When Mike Regan met my mother, she was, at the very least, uncomfortable with the whole gay thing. She probably still thought, well over a decade into the epidemic, that you could catch AIDS from a toilet seat. She was just very ill-informed and over cautious, shall we say.

She went from that, to this:

My first partner was HIV positive when we met in 1995 and shortly thereafter moved into the category of full-blown AIDS.

At the same time my mother was getting accustomed to having a gay son, she was also wrapping her head around the idea that my partner was  HIV positive, and I wasn’t. This was something I didn’t share with her right away, but eventually I did, as Kenn became more and more a very important part of our family. Everybody loved Kenn. He was stunningly gorgeous, incredibly charming and the perfect gentleman. He taught dance and won ballroom competitions all over the world. His smile could stop a freight train.

He immediately won my mother over. He always made her feel like the most important person in the room. And she adored him. Everyone did.

Less than two years after we met, Kenn became very ill. It was about 10 days before Christmas, and his condition was deteriorating. He was alert and coherent, although he’d recently been transferred to an assistive living facility for AIDS patients.

Around December 21, my mother asked if Kenn was going to be able to spend Christmas day with us. “He requires access to oxygen and his vital signs need monitoring around the clock,” I told her. “He doesn’t get out of bed.”

“Well can’t they bring a bed here?” my mom said, referring to her living room. Look into having Kenn transported to the house, she said. It was about a four-mile trip. They could transport him in some kind of van, couldn’t they?

Whenever I hear that older people are “set in their ways,” I think about this story. Here was a woman, who just a few years prior could have been described as homophobic, now requesting that a dying AIDS patient be brought to her home for Christmas.

Sadly, it never happened. He died two days before Christmas.

I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened without Mike Reagan in our lives.  How long would it have been before I came out? It certainly wouldn’t have been on Mother’s Day 1996, I know that for certain. How many more Mother’s Days would have gone by with me harboring a secret? It’s very possible I could have still been in the closet when Kenn died. How horrible that seems now.

In case it’s unclear, Mike wasn’t just a friend to my mother but a friend of mine as well. He wasn’t someone I saw frequently, or called regularly, like I should have.

But when we were together, it was always special. We made each other laugh. He always knew how to push my buttons, like any good friend does. But we shared something most friends don’t share: a life-altering experience.

In that regard, he is, and will always remain, a friend like no other.

Thank you, sir. May you rest in eternal peace.
JMcT

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Comments
  1. So sorry to hear about Mike. Lovely tribute to your mom, as well.

  2. morgan says:

    My condolences (of course) in the loss of any dear friend. Stories like these are what make them special even if our time with them is abbreviated. Your mom is pretty grand too. Great pic.

  3. Michael Barton says:

    Really beautiful. Thanks for this Jim.

  4. Don Bigioni says:

    That was lovely and heartfelt … I’m teary. My sympathy to you and Linda on your loss.

  5. Alan S Andacht says:

    A beautiful tribute to Mike, and to your wonderful mother. Sending you and Linda our heartfelt sympathy….

  6. Your mom is one of the best people I’ve ever had the privelege of knowing.

  7. Shaun Regan says:

    Thank you for sharing this story… My dad loved you, your mom, and stepdad

  8. Thijs Franssen says:

    He Jim,
    Great story. I know your mom as a wonderfull woman and I’m glad te hear she still is!
    Thijs (The Netherlands)

  9. What a wonderfully written, totally unique ‘coming out’ story. I’ve read some of your postings before, but this one hooked me into pushing the subscribe button.

  10. This is an amazing story and so well told. I am sorry for the loss of Kenn but so glad you knew Mike. Life is filled with surprises.

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