Call Me “Dirt”: A Parable of an Accidental Prodigal

My uncle died at the end of August. He wasn’t the first. My mom had three siblings who never made it out of infancy. Three others – my Uncle Rodney, my Uncle Jerry and my Aunt Sue – died before I was born. When I was in junior high, my Aunt Annie died of cancer. I remember seeing my mom rush out of the gym from the basketball court during a game.

In a large family, there is a lot of loss. When I was a kid, we had a running joke that the life expectancy in our family was thirty. It helps sometimes to laugh at the things that hurt most.

When my Uncle Chuck died in August, it was a different kind of death, because it marked the beginning of the deaths to come. For half my youth, I had only one grandparent. My Grandma Ada died when I was nine, my Grandpa Harold died when I was five, and my Grandpa Bill died before I was born. My Grandma Helen, she was the one who made it until I was an adult, but only just. She died two months after I turned nineteen, a year after I left home for good.

Next, it will be the uncles and aunts and parents, then cousins and so on as life goes.

I didn’t go to my Uncle Chuck’s funeral. I had been kept informed of his condition and told when he died. During these updates, I could tell from the sound of the voices on the phone, from the underlying tone of emails and texts that I was supposed to come when called home by death, but I had seen my uncle twice in the past decade with good reason. I have seen all my extended family, whom I was once so close to, that little.

The day of my uncle’s funeral, I was in New York for a play. No one forced the issue.

My Uncle Chuck’s oldest son didn’t go to his funeral either.

During his illness and right after his death, I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with my mom, more time than I have spent talking to her in many recent years. It was during one of those lengthy conversations that I asked about him, my cousin Mike, how he was doing.

“Mike’s dirt,” my mom said. “I don’t want to talk about him.”

I was more surprised by her words than by Mike not returning to Ohio for his father’s funeral.

I haven’t seen Mike in nearly twenty years. I can pinpoint the approximate date, because 1995 was the year my nephew was born and Christian was a baby when my sister and I were bridesmaids in our cousin Stephenie’s wedding. Most of the wedding party was made up of strangers, but Mike was a groomsman, and, by luck, I got to sit next to him at the table for the wedding party, which sat on a raised platform, looking out over the attendees like a royal table at a banquet.

When they were young, Mike was super tight with my brother. They met up in the Pacific Northwest while Mike was home from the Army, drove down through California, and then back across the country to Ohio in Mike’s car. Video evidence showed Mike’s obsession with Beverly Hills, 90210 displayed without shame in a sticker on his glove compartment and Vanna White waving to them from her convertible.

“How’s Mike?”

“Mike’s dirt.”

Earlier the same month, my sister and her family came to visit. Within an hour, I’d heard the first barb about my nephew being gay for one of his friends by my brother-in-law. Ready for it, because I am nothing but preparation and stress in my family’s presence anymore, I said, “Oh, a gay joke already, huh?” To which my brother-in-law responded, in all casual lack of realization, “We’re always on him with it.” 

Apparently, at some point later, there was a conversation I didn’t hear, because the next day my brother-in-law asked me about some things, and it started a torrent of truths I didn’t know I could confess. I admitted for the first time to any of them that when I stopped coming “home” was when I had begun feeling suicidal every time I left.

It is a stunning, difficult thing to realize you feel less yourself and more alone around your family than almost anywhere. You miss them like crazy, you experience the loss almost as a death, you want to relate to them more than they know, but the day you think, “I love you, but I don’t know if I’ll survive you,” you have to make some very difficult decisions.

Last month, my nephew texted me and asked if we would come for Christmas. I almost always say “yes,” because I want so much for things to be different.

When we left on Monday, I could not look forward to it, though. I could not be excited. I went with trepidation, with those walls up that work pretty well against the constant onslaught of things I hear and read about “people like me” in the media, but are so inadequate against the stereotypes and jokes and comments when they come from the mouths of the people I love. I went there, not with an open heart, but with a heart that has become terrified to open for fear it will take a direct arrow. I went with that usual fear that, at some point, out of the blue, I would hear that thing that, no matter what the actual words are, echo in my head as –

“You have no home here.”

As usual, I was right to worry. After having been made to wait for them, within the first twenty minutes of our “togetherness,” the young men in my family were already off on their homophobic, ignorant comments that have nothing to do with me and yet everything to do with me.

I used to think there was a serious disconnect for them between gay men and Shawna and I. After all, it’s only gay men that obviously terrify them so much. But during the part of their conversation that I was apparently lucky to have missed, the oldest of my two younger brothers said something after which he declared, “I probably shouldn’t say that, because somebody will find it offensive.”

So, now I know they do know.

The thing is, though, the things they say aren’t offensive. They are ignorant. They are bigoted. They are disrespectful. They are hurtful. They do not offend me, they hurt me, and I don’t know why I should be expected to keep returning to a place that is a constant source of pain.

On Christmas, I finally told my mom I stopped coming when I started leaving suicidal. I didn’t want to have that conversation again, especially not that day, but it got pushed to that place and it came out in one of those dramatic revelations that people who’ve had their share of them wish only ever happened in fiction.

My mom said she hoped one day I wouldn’t feel that way. She didn’t say anything they might do to make me feel differently.

Mike didn’t go home for his father’s funeral. As far as I could tell, nobody asked Mike why he didn’t go home. They just thought he should have and called him Dirt.

I don’t know why Mike didn’t go either. I don’t know Mike anymore. I don’t know any of them.

I do know, however, that those of us who like to roam don’t always want to roam as far or as long as we do. Some of us simply look back and realize our homes are no longer where we left them. When that happens, all we can do is keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other, hoping one day we’ll stumble upon a new one.

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