Kenji writes a letter to his younger self, Ryan — to meet him in grief and comfort that sometimes only hindsight can offer.
DEAR LITTLE RYAN,
You will always remember the day your mom sat you and your sisters down on the fraying living room couch, black and brown fibers teasing through anxious fingertips. You can replay the entire scene in your mind, like watching a troupe of actors carefully parsing out a script — it plays out: Your dad steps into the foyer near the front door; he's tall and strong in his pressed slacks and yellowed khaki vest. He shifts his state trooper hat low on his forehead. Next: He pauses. "I love you," he says. "See you later." He walks out the front door — exit stage right.
Your mom fights back tears as she slowly begins to tell the three of you that Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce. Your sisters, then 8 and 6, immediately start bawling, gushing hot tears they can't fully understand. As a little 10-year-old boy, you just sit for a moment, and realize somehow, beyond sense, this must be some cruel joke. You start laughing uncontrollably, harder and harder. Your mother and sisters look on in shock, yet you can't stop screaming in laughter for the longest time afterward.
As a little 10-year-old boy, you just sit for a moment, and realize somehow, beyond sense, this must be some cruel joke.
More scenes flash by in a mélange of uncomfortable blurs. There are more serious talks, tears, and more fleshy couches. There is no laughter now, only stiff-backed, graying sofas in child counselors' and seasoned therapists' offices, itchy coral-blue surpluses in school social worker waiting rooms, and lumpy, gray pillows in Mom's new apartment. News delivered on these perches include updates on vicious and expensive court proceedings, embattled custody agreements, and well-meaning books and pamphlets on how to handle your house with Mom and your house with Dad.
There is much crying, and you are this scared boy flying from couch to couch who knows in your heart that what is happening to you is uniquely unfair. For all the people you talk to, no one understands. Seeing my-prince-charming talk turn into speak-to-my-attorney talk tears your soft heart to shreds. You run away from home a couple of times, but always end up in school the next day wincing, pretending to be OK. Everybody's fingerprints are all over your case files, and calm strangers with glasses and pale faces jab at the most vulnerable parts of your life. You just want to be forgotten.
Ryan, I know it is painful to recall these memories. They are always easier to abstract away, bury deep in your unconscious, and think them nothing more than bad dreams.
You cry for hours the night before your first day of middle school. You beg to be home-schooled, so you won't have to be thrown into a new place with new people. Seeing your reflection in the bathroom mirror, your mother stills your sobs and firms your resolve: "Remember when I taught you chess? People are just like chess pieces — conquer a new one every day and soon you will have plenty of friends, the whole board."
The next day, you dress up nicely to make a good impression on your new friends, donning your first button-down shirt. You quickly gel and comb your hair sideways, staring in the mirror; you feel like an adult. Your dad tells you he loves you and plants a kiss on your shining forehead as you exit the car and head down the hallway to find your locker. Before anything happens, a student two lockers away sizes you up: "You look like a faggot." You don't know what that word means, but the venom of it sticks to your skin.
"You look like a faggot." You don't know what that word means, but the venom of it sticks to your skin.
A few months before this, your world collapsed again when your mom sat you down on a sympathetic, light green couch in her new apartment and told you, slowly, that she is going to be with a woman, now a girlfriend, and that her partner would be a big part of your life. You were wide-eyed, surprised, and confused.
You are only 11. You don't know what "LGBT" stands for, but you know that "lesbian" is what your friend called Jessica when she sat on another girl's lap, and everybody laughed at her for what seemed like days afterward.
You begin to notice the cruelty of your classmates — calling your gym teacher a "dyke", playing "smear the queer" during recess, or hearing gossip about not wanting "to share a room with Michael" on the class trip to Washington, D.C. You begin to feel cold and squirmy inside when kids call things "gay", like how it feels to pick up a wriggling insect. A pit the size of an orange opens in your stomach every time homosexuality is even joked about. You wonder how your friends would feel if they knew about you, about your family secret.
One night, while walking down a winter road at a church retreat, a pimply cabin-mate sidles up to you and begins fantasizing about lesbians making out in the snow. His salacious tone confuses you. Lesbians aren't sexy, you think, they are your mom and her old friends. You shrug off a chill. He must have never met a real lesbian before.
His salacious tone confuses you. Lesbians aren't sexy, you think, they are your mom and her old friends
In school and in church services alike, you hear a consistent message: Gays and lesbians are not OK. We are not like them and we do not like them. You are hounded even in play, in your Boy Scouts troop, where your mom serves as a volunteer leader. You know that trivial arguments with other leaders in the troop always hold a potentially sharper edge — if anyone reports your mom for being gay, pursuant to official Scouting policy, she would be removed from her position. You double down and resolve to keep your secret all the more.
• • •
Little Ryan, if beyond our imaginations, I somehow had you sitting on this couch right in front of me, plucking at stray cushion threads, looking at me expectantly, I wouldn't say anything. Not at first. I think I'd pick you up and just wrap you in a big hug. I wouldn't speak until both of our bodies started to rack with sobs.
I would tell you, slowly, through tears of my own, that your mommy loves you, your daddy loves you, and that I love you, too. Even though your parents don't love each other anymore, they both love you and they will always do their best to honor and care for you and your sisters. Your family, though culled, legally cauterized, and publicly picked apart, is still a family. I would smile and tell you that you are not alone, that as the child of a gay parent, you have nothing to hide or to be ashamed of. There are actually millions of kids like you, though you might not believe me.
You are not alone, that as the child of a gay parent, you have nothing to hide or to be ashamed of.
You will face more pain, especially from religious friends. They will heap shame and heavy burdens upon you like salt on wounds. Asian American church elders will shame your family in public prayer; you will endure condemnation online and in person; your campus ministry colleagues will one day openly pray for your death. It will be arduous.
But for every community characterized by disdain and derision, there will be another of acceptance and inclusion. You couldn't even dream about it before, but more and more voices are speaking out from the pulpits and the pews, affirming and celebrating parents like yours, families like yours, people like you. The church is moving in a direction that will honor your family's splintered, broken wholeness.
This is not a capitulation to "cultural norms", but the result of God working redemptively in and through the hate and hurt you have endured, speaking through Scripture and society to name and bring the fullness of divine love to bear on all of God's children.
This is not a capitulation to "cultural norms", but the result of God working redemptively in and through the hate and hurt you have endured.
There are so many more things I wish to tell you. I know there have been so many tears, but in the end, you will not topple. Rebirth is on the horizon. Your mother was right: Pawns can become kings. You will breathe in peace, and your torn heart will start to heal. You will even take a new name — Kenji — as countless spiritual ancestors have done before you. Know that all of the bristling and shattered fragments of your past will be with you as you go on. What you are going through now will one day help you wipe the tears away from the eyes of others in need of love.
After telling you all of this, I would have to step back and take a shuddering breath. Then maybe we would go outside and I'd lift you high to sit on my shoulders, like how Dad used to carry you. I'd ask what you wanted to do next. Maybe we would hold hands as we talked some more and got some mint chocolate chip ice cream. Mom's favorite.