Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Children Are So Cruel

One of the reasons that I started this blog was to have documentation of my relationship, as a queer adult, with my parents. I hoped that documenting the episodes of our relationship as it changed would give me perspective, and perhaps give others comfort.

There were some pitfalls and minor breakthroughs in encounters and conversations with my parents last year, and yet each of them felt like an echo of something that had happened before. I worried we were going in circles rather than breaking new ground.

I have little interest in circles.

About a week and a half ago on a Sunday, my parents joined Sonia and I for When the Rain Stops Falling (NYT review here).

The visit came about following a series of increasingly bitter emails between my mother and I last winter; after the dust settled, my father asked if they could come for a visit and see a play. It was a tradition I'd instituted in my early days in the city, a way of spending time with them and giving them a little exposure to worlds and ideas beyond what they're used to.

There are no plays in the summertime, so we were able to put it off.

I woke before eight the Sunday they came. Sonia had sprained her ankle, so my original plan was thwarted: a quick tour of the apartment followed by brunch and walking around the city. We adjusted, and I started cooking shortly after nine.

We'd have time between brunch and leaving for the play. I texted my dad to bring his drill. Our apartment walls seemed to be made of granite and I was having trouble getting our curtain rods up. That would give us something to do, and I know my dad enjoys few things more than a practical task involving tools. He was eager to help.

It was a brisk fall day, and I met them in front of our apartment complex, and led them inside. My mother wore purple and a determined smile. Dad was a little uncomfortable in a light suit, which he managed to sweat through before the play. They claimed to be impressed by our apartment building.

I've loved every place I've lived in the city, and my mother has done her best not to criticize them when visiting. The last place, she was most concerned by the stairwell, which she claimed was a fire hazard. It probably was. My parents built their home dream home by the time they were thirty-two; they don't understand choosing to live in an old building.

Most of the places I've lived were built in the early 1900s, which I thought gave them charm. I could also afford them.

My parents took their shoes off dutifully, and offered compliments about the apartment to Sonia and I. My mother even brought a gift wrapped in light green paper: a beautiful, heavy silver tray with a tree pattern. Sonia loves trays -- something about the implied luxury, I think -- but we both liked this one. Dad checked out the whole place; mom avoided the bedroom.

When they come for a play, I'm always torn between choosing something like The Importance of Being Ernest, The Lion King or The Nutcracker, and choosing a play I'd like to see. Every time, I choose what I'd like to see, trying within that to find a play as simply beautiful and non-controversial as possible.

Of course, I love theater most when it pushes my own boundaries. I'm inevitably mortified, sitting next to my father during an explicit sex scene or my mother as someone ticks off the reasons God cannot exist. The only difference this time was that Sonia sat next to me instead. My parents were good sports, despite the cursing and dark themes. I was shaken.

"Parents are so cruel," says one character about his mother's silence. This is a play about the secrets parents keep from their children, the secrets that may be horrible but are never as horrible as the silences that are built up around them.

I knew instinctively that the other line was coming, twenty or thirty minutes later, and it did: "Children are so cruel." It's also a play about children and the expectations we set forth for those who brought us into this world, the godlike expectations that are not fair and cannot be fulfilled.

Ok, I cried. A few times.

I was glad to have Sonia in the seat next to me in the final scene, as a father in the year 2039 handed down mysterious artifacts of his family history to his estranged son in a rare meeting. The artifacts passed through the hands of the ancestors and piled on the lap of a young man looking for answers.

We don't get those answers. They are impossible to know, within all those silences. Who were my parents before I got here? What were their desires and demons? Did they learn anything about life or happiness that could ease my journey?

If asked, my father is quick to point to the importance of family as the central value in his life. My mother would say it's accepting Jesus Christ. I don't mean those lessons, the ones they intentionally pass on. Those lessons are nothing more than their own incomplete stories.

I mean the deeper lessons that they haven't yet been framed or even acknowledged, the stories that arise out of their traumas and silences and wonderings.

Sonia would probably say that parents deserve respect, and it is not our right to ask these kinds of questions or try to see our parents this emotionally naked. She told me recently that I'm not fair to them. When she meets them now, absent years of baggage, they seem like genuinely kind people who are making an effort to understand their daughter.

It doesn't feel good to admit it, but she may be right.

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