To hear the anti-gay crowd describe it, the concept of “family” is a narrow one. While claiming it to be “traditional,” their idea of family seems to be Adam and Eve stepping out of the Garden of Eden and right into a 50s-era sitcom. Eve sports pearls around her neck and an oh-so tasteful house frock, and Adam a cardigan sweater and a pipe. There are no elders, they were born of dust and rib bones. Cain and Abel morph into rambunctious kids with a dog, and life is ideal.
Some businesses go so far as to try to monetarily reward “classic TV” families over other families, as Karen Lee-Dufell of Jacksonville, Florida, recently experienced. In renewing her family’s museum membership, she was informed that they did not qualify. Her spouse had the “wrong” anatomy.
If we are going to define our “family values” by television depictions, I would prefer an even more traditional one—a family of the 1930s, The Waltons. There were no pearls and pipes for this clan. There were a core married couple, a pair of grandparents, and a gaggle of kids. The couple were both parents and kids, living with their children and their parents under one roof.
That is a more accurate depiction of the life my partner, Jim, and I are experiencing these days. We are in the process of adopting my 86- and 88-year-old parents. In our family, while parents to my sons, we are also . . . “the kids.”
So often in our discussions of marriage equality we focus on the relationship of same-sex parents and children. We have been studied, lied about, maligned, and praised. We in many cases are also the cement that supports an older generation, and our marriages have value as part of that family foundation, a reality that is often ignored.
I am not ignoring it any longer. It started two years ago when I was out with my dad, the former marine colonel, and I realized that he had no clue what his AAA roadside emergency card was for. Since that time, he has been on a continuous decline, to the point that he often forgets where the kitchen is, and looks instead for the dog that passed away decades ago.
My father’s decline has laid bare a fallacy about the benefits of the “traditional” marriage and its cut-and-dried roles. My dad has filled what many might consider the pure “husband” role—bread winner, finance master, driver, and pathfinder. My mother had been the archetypal “wife”—cook, homemaker, decorator, holiday planner, and hearth keeper. These parts have been played to perfection for sixty years. The downside is that when one of the partners in this scenario is suddenly MIA, the function of the other one is threatened.
That is the case for my mother. She feels as unprotected and vulnerable as my dad is lost.
It is time for the “kids” to take over. In our family, this is not a problem. Jim and I are there, as are my sister and her husband. We are not backing down and we do not hesitate in our resolve to make the final years of our folks’ lives comfortable and happy.
To that end, I have had to move my parents from the distant home they have occupied for thirty years, and move them to a closer, but equally familiar, location that is safer and in better proximity for Jim and me to care for them. This last weekend was a purge through a lifetime of accumulation, streamlining, and, ultimately, freeing them from worry.
There were some enlightening moments, too. My sister and I walked through much of our family’s history, including letters of my parents (read by permission). One such letter highlighted the deep soul mate, best-friend core to my parents’ relationship. My father was stationed in New Mexico for a short while, and wrote to express his longing for my mother. They had been married for 13 years at that point. He also talked about me, a happy 5-year-old. He outlined his plan to write to me, using postcards that were more visual and he hoped more interesting. He also wanted my mother to send him an outline of my foot. He saw the local wares and the unique moccasins that were for sale. He wanted to get me a pair and needed the perfect fit.
I sat back and reflected on that young couple and the family in the letter. That family was not based on gender; it was based on love, care, and an earnest desire to be with one another.
We are still that way, although all the roles are reversed. I am now the guide, the finance master, the pathfinder. Jim has stepped up as the support, homemaker, and confidant. We are parenting our elderly. In terms of our marriage, what gender we both are, and how well we “model” caring for our loved ones, matters about as much in terms of our parents as it does in terms of raising my sons: not at all. From a moral and legal standpoint, Jim needs to be viewed as the family member that he in fact is. There may be situations and hospital visits in our future; we need his participation, and he has the right not to be questioned on the legitimacy of his presence.
My parents’ old dwelling is now empty. Everything of value, including them, is on its way to their cozy new home near us. My sister will deliver them next week after Jim and I have set up and arranged their new household.
Yesterday, I hugged my dad goodbye with a “see you soon.” As I held him, he transformed in my arms from the slightly scared, disoriented, frail adult child back into my daddy. In that moment, he was the young marine who took the time to plan postcards for me, his 5-year-old little boy.
This time, it is just my turn to make sure that his moccasins fit.
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Special thanks to Rachel Hockett for editing help on this article.