The divorce happened when my dad was eleven. He was the fourth of six children, and all six children stayed with my grandmother. She spent the next twenty years working to support her children on nothing but a high school education. But she did it.
My grandpa moved on to greener pastures. After decades of distant and unconcerned parenting, he eventually realized that home was where he’d left it. By then he was on his third marriage, and his children were mostly grown with families of their own. He has spent the last few years trying to repair his relationship with his children, but it’s been a slow process, especially with the younger ones.
I remember sitting in my grandmother’s home a year ago, listening as she told me how difficult that relationship still was to some of my aunts and uncles, even though it’s been years since my grandpa came back into their lives. That estrangement felt so familiar in that moment. My relationship with my own parents was strained, especially since I’d come out. As my grandmother talked I broke into tears.
“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked me.
“Sometimes I worry that will happen with my parents and me, too. Things haven’t been very good lately.”
She paused for a moment, then said, “You know why, though.”
I did. And I told her how difficult it had been, hiding everything. And then how hard it was becoming an outcast in my own family. I hadn’t chosen any of this, I told her.
She admitted that she didn’t understand much about being gay. And that she believed me when I said it was never something I chose. She surprised me then, asking if I’d ever had a partner. Yes, I told her. For two years.
She could see what that relationship had meant to me as I spoke. And when I finished, she said, “Nicholas, I don’t know how this will all work out, but I have nothing but love and acceptance for you.”
She smiled the purest smile as I wept. Then she added, “and you’re still one of my favorite grandchildren.”
Throughout my entire coming out experience, these were the words I needed. This was what I needed to hear from my family, from my parents especially. And they came from my selfless grandmother, the matriarch of the family.
My grandmother passed away yesterday. She’d been feeling ill, but no one expected this. Her body just stopped. In her wake she leaves a massive family who sees her as the strength and cornerstone of our lives. Her love, acceptance, and selflessness changed us all forever. Of all people, she was the one who first accepted me, even though she didn’t understand.
The last time I talked to her was three weeks ago. I called about an assignment I needed some family information for, and we had a really nice conversation. I especially remember smiling, feeling genuinely happy and loved during that conversation. My dad told me that she was really happy I’d called. She always said that to him, every time I visited or called. She lived for us, her kids and grandkids and great-grandkids.
As we move forward, working for greater acceptance as LGBT people, it is people like my grandmother that will make the difference. People who are willing to love first, then listen, and then love some more. I hope that I can offer that same love to others. Because when it comes down to it, that’s really all that matters.