by Keith Hoffman
Saul and I were rushing to leave for our trip to see my family in Indiana and Ohio.
We had planned to get out the door by 4pm on Tuesday after he was done teaching for the day and it was now 4:17.
In the next day and a half we were going to travel 725 miles from Saul’s driveway through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana finally and ultimately arriving at my brother Paul’s doorstep.
This battle of getting out the door on time was one Saul and I seemed to constantly wage as I was certain he was going to be the one to make us terribly late and then somehow he would cleverly turn the tables and suddenly be waiting for me. It was one of the most frustrating things in our relationship and paradoxically one of the things I would miss terribly if god forbid he weren’t in my life.
We had been to visit my family before but this time was different for three reasons:
1) It was the heart of summer instead of the dead of winter so there was much less chance of being caught in a blizzard;
2) We were driving 13 hours instead of flying a mere two hours;
3) Saul was coming home as my fiancé.
Saul had asked me marry him 3 ½ weeks earlier on July 9th at 4:30 i the afternoon. I had told him shortly after we started dating that he had to do the asking when the time came. These kinds of things can be confusing and up for grabs in the new gay marriage world so I decided early on to take the bull by the horns and not put myself in a position to be rejected.
Still I was surprised that Friday when I came home from a long day of work capped off by a sweaty subway ride to have Saul announce he wanted to tell me something.
I immediately assumed this was something bad.
“It’s something good,” he assured me knowing how my mind works.
“I have to pee,” I replied buying myself time .
What could this something good be? I wondered. Was he going to take that job he was offered teaching English in China for a year ? Was that what the mother f@#*ker considered something good??
Before I was barely zipped up Saul got on one knee in the middle of kitchen.
“What are you doing?!?!” I demanded with alarm.
“I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you….” He began. “Will you marry me?”
“What are you doing?!” I asked again which I’m sure made him wonder if he really wanted to tie himself to someone so dense that they couldn’t understand a simple question.
“Well?” he continued as he pulled two rings out of a box–one for each of us.
“Uh…okay.” I answered. It didn’t seem like the time to make waves. It was best to give this crazy person what he was demanding.
“But you can’t post this on Facebook yet!” I added firmly.
It wasn’t that I was against Saul in any way. I was simply not a big fan of change… or commitment for that matter. And this felt like a lot of both. I needed time to adjust before it became the world’s business.
Saul later told me he picked this time to ask me because we were scheduled to go skydiving the next day and he wanted me to know how he felt about me in case one of us died.
And to answer your next question–No he did not ask that I make him beneficiary on my life insurance policy.
(This is not an actual picture of us skydiving but rather a clock we bought to commemorate our big leap)
By the time we were finally on our way to my brother’s I had a bit more time to try on this fiancé role. It still felt rather tight– not like those outfits with elastic bands I was much more fond of. But I was getting used to people asking when we were getting married (we don’t yet) or where (Paris? New York? New Hope, PA?) and was warming up to this idea of being committed…totally committed to one person. As I sloshed this idea around in my brain I began to notice that the frequency of my urges to open the door of my fast moving Mini Cooper and leap to my escape on the highway was starting to diminish ever so slightly.
Saul had met some of my family when we had visited the previous winter but a blizzard had kept us snowbound at my sister-in-law Minette’s most of the time so this trip was going to help fill in the missing branches of the family tree and help him understand my genetic insanity at a deeper level.
Visiting my family was a complicated and complex affair that took extensive planning. They didn’t gather in one place to make it easy for me like my friend Mark’s family. His family gets together every Christmas and even dresses according to a theme. A Very Star Wars Christmas where they were attired in different space outfits, A Very Ye Ol’ English Christmas where they donned the wardrobes of Kings and Fools. I believe one year they did A Very Jewish Christmas where they went to Miami and ate Chinese but I may be making that up. “Are there no black sheep in your family who refuse to dress in a theme?” I once asked incredulously. Or as another friend said as she looked at his holiday photos. “It’s a lot of hard work being in your family.”
My family was hard work but in a different way. Most of us had played the role of black sheep or fool at one time or other—often overlapping. We are nice people but a sensitive lot who as Saul has pointed out, can hold grievances over small slights for decades. Because of that we were barely ever all in one room together and certainly not wearing themed costumes. We did make exceptions for funerals about gathering in one place but it seemed tacky to ask people dress up in costume for such occasions.
THE MEMORIAL FOR UNCLE DANNY WILL BE HELD AT SHCLESSINGER FUNERAL HOME MONDAY AT 7AM. PLEASE COME AS YOUR FAVORITE ANGELA LANSBURY CHARACTER
By 11pm of the first day of my trip home with Saul I began to notice giraffes flying alongside my Mini and realized it might be time to stop driving for the day. We got off at the next exit in the town of Shanksville near the end of the Pennsylvania turnpike.
As we settled in for the night in a nondescript stucco-walled Quality Inn, Saul sat on the brown and orange bedspread reading from a brochure.
“Flight 93 crashed nearby. We should go to the memorial tomorrow since we are in town.”
Absolutely not! I wanted to say but remembered reading somewhere that a good partner is kind and receptive.
“When does it open?” I asked pretending to be considering the idea.
“Tomorrow at 10am”
“We have eight hours to go on this trip. Shouldn’t we just get on the road and get to my brother’s?” I asked as if I really meant it as a question.
“Sure…I just thought since we were here…” Saul trailed off with what I thought I detected was a hint of disappointment.
I suddenly felt like a mouse teetering on the edge of a glue trap. Was I allowed to say no? After all he was doing a huge thing by coming out to see my family. Did I owe him the honor of doing something he wanted? And was I horrible person for not wanting to see this memorial? I was sad for everyone who died on the plane but we still had a lot of miles ahead of us. The two of us missing dinner at my brother’s tomorrow wasn’t going to bring them back.
But this was a selfish thought and I was not a selfish person.
I took a deep cleansing calm breath before I spoke.
“You really want to see some monument that you didn’t even know existed until two minutes ago?? And now you are going to make me feel guilty even though I am only seeing my family for a very short time because we are scheduling around your work schedule?”
For some reason Saul didn’t hear this as open-hearted and generous as I meant it to be and we somehow spiraled into a heated debate.
Since I was too exhausted to storm out and abandon him in Shanksville, we stuck to our rule of never going to bed angry. Still as I drifted off to sleep worrying about bedbugs nestling in the folds of my underwear, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could marry a man who illogically wanted to visit 911 memorials without any type of decent warning.
The next day went much more smoothly. We hit the road early (no we did not go to the memorial but I have learned not to describe that as saying “I won”). And I was reminded by lunch about the important things Saul and I had in common once we were finally in Ohio. We both understood the priority of finding the very first Skyline Chili on the route.
Our first hurdle once we arrived at my brother’s house was Rose. Rose was the puppy I adopted in New York and raised until she was one year old. Rose was wonderful and sweet and loved to play with my older dog Sasha. Sasha enjoyed playing with Rose too, but she also every so often enjoyed attacking and trying to kill Rose without the slightest provocation.
Sasha had a very rough childhood. We met the day I opened my front door of the little house I rented in the neighborhood of Sivlerlake in Los Angeles. She was standing there staring up at me beat-up, exhausted and in heat. I related to her at that time in my life so I gave her the benefit of the doubt and eventually invited her in to live with me and my two cats. She was a wonderful dog except for this issue she seemed to have against puppies. And living in a small New York apartment is hard enough without breaking up a fight between two large muscular dogs at a moment’s notice. Sasha didn’t care if I was eating, entertaining, watching Dancing With the Stars or sleeping. I had to always be on the alert to run and wedge myself between the dogs holding them apart literally risking my life and limb in the process.
This went on for an entire year until I finally called my brother weeping.
“I can’t take this anymore,” I sobbed.
Paul was known to take in strays ever since he was a child.
He was also known to be a sucker for his little brother’s tears.
“Alright I will take her…” he replied.
That following Christmas I did the same drive I was now doing with Saul , but that time I was driving with one dog in the front seat and one in the back feeding them tranquilizers and praying to God that a fight wouldn’t break out between them.
So far this current ride was less stressful.
“Is Rose getting better with strangers?” I asked Paul on the phone on our way there.
“Yes, the only people she still has trouble with are men with beards. She HATES men with beards.”
Not surprisingly the first meeting between them did not go particularly well.
Rose barked and barked and barked at Saul. Besides the scary beard, it probably didn’t help matters that he most likely smelled alarmingly like Sasha who loved nothing better than to drape herself next to him.
Eventually Rose allowed Saul to pet her for a moment…but then she would bark and bark and bark some more.
This went on for hours and although Saul was wounded emotionally, he stuck with her and never gave up.
Finally Rose stopped barking—that is until Saul left the room to use the bathroom and returned a few moments later.
BARK…BARK…BARK…BARK…BARK… BEARDED STRANGER DANGER! BEARDED STRANGER DANGER!
It was just as if she had never seen him before.
Saul patiently kept forgiving her and petting her and letting her bark at him until the third day when he finally made a friend.
Well, at least until he used the bathroom again.
These charm skills of Saul’s were put to the test the very next day when we left Paul’s home to meet my cousins, aunts, nieces, nephews, aunts who were really cousins uncles who were really brothers–probably at least fifty relatives and suspected relatives in all. They are all wonderfully quirky people who I love dearly but I’ve also had an entire lifetime to get to know them. Saul on the other hand had one day to get up to speed. I watched him be the object of several inquisitions, navigate around some dicey politics, play a game of toss with complicated, constantly changing and seemingly pointless rules with some of my grandnieces, and remember what secrets needed to be kept from whom.
He handled it all with grace and aplomb.
(Saul and some of my suspected relatives)
Finally at the end of that long day, a few of us ended up at Minette’s to spend our last night in town. We were leaving early in the morning and wanted to spend time where we had so many fond snowbound memories.
One of my brothers stopped by. He is closest to my age and the person most genetically related to me who is still alive on this earth.
He doesn’t talk a lot–at least not to me or most of the immediate family. He is a lawyer and from what I hear from friends will try to out debate any judge who disagrees with him to the point of being disbarred. I don’t know why he has a hard time communicating with those of us closest to him but I know he loves me and I love him. I have come to accept the fact that he always makes sure to see me when I’m in town and will then do nothing more than exchange a polite yet awkward hello with me.
Saul, like many others, is fascinated by this dynamic. He watched my brother and I exchange nothing more than obligatory hellos during our last visit and I now saw him incredulously observing the same routine all over again.
As Minette and I chatted in one corner of her backyard patio I noticed out of the corner of my eye Saul standing up and walking towards where my brother was sitting looking at his phone. I stopped in mid-sentence.
“So how did you decide to become a lawyer in your late 40’s?” Saul casually asked him. “I’m thinking of starting a new career myself”
My brother looked as uncomfortable as a cat after you’ve dressed it in a raincoat.
I thought about igniting myself on fire to distract everyone from this terrifying awkwardness but was too fascinated to move. It was like watching a lion about to eat a foolish fat British tourist who stupidly stepped out of her car on a safari with a ham sandwich in her hand. You know you should do something but the danger felt exhilarating.
“Don’t come to me for advice,” my brother answered a bit dismissively his eyes darting nervously from his phone to the intruder next to him. “I don’t want to be responsible for messing up your life.”
“You’re not going to mess up my life,” Saul responded kindly. “I just want to know how you did it. I’m able to make my own decisions.
I’m pretty sure my mouth was literally hanging open. Usually a person with good sense retreated long before this but Saul held his ground in unchartered territory.
And to my shock and amazement the two of them began having an actual conversation. I couldn’t hear what they were saying without trying to crawl up and hide under their chairs (which would be quite embarrassing if discovered) but I saw them actually talking and even maybe smiling a little bit? It was getting dark and I didn’t have a flashlight but I don’t think it was my imagination.
Later in the evening as a few more members of my family joined us, we started talking about my sister Julie. Even though her passing was almost seven years ago it is still and perhaps always will be a tender and painful family wound.
It seemed that since my sister was gone the rest of my family only saw each other when I was home, so these group discussions were extremely rare.
I often lamented to Saul that he would never get to meet my sister and no amount of photos or stories could encapsulate how special she truly was. And tonight he saw some of the rest of us grapple with this same issue–how we each had brought new people into our lives and dealt the painful frustration that they will never know Julie.
“She was the leader of our group…”
“She could really piss you off…”
“Oh my god she was so funny…”
“She adored those kids…”
“She got really drunk at the concert and got her head stuck in that fence…”
These were just snippets of a complex and lovely woman who Saul would never know.
But he did at the very least see that night that she was dearly loved by all of us. As my brother said, “She didn’t become special when she died. She was special when she was alive and we all knew it then.”
When he said he was worried people would forget about her, Saul immediately assured him, “‘Keith talks about her all the time. He even has a section of his block on his way home every night that is his special meeting place to say hi to her.” (I don’t’ care if it sounds crazy. I do.)
As the night grew later and more sentimental, my brother expressed how he consoles himself knowing that he really tried to take charge and make the best decisions for Julie at the hospital that last week of her life. And Saul assured him again, “That is what Keith always tells me you did.”
“Thank you,” my brother replied. “Thank you for not taking that away from me.”
And I saw in that moment the healing Saul was bringing to my family.
And I realized that Saul was becoming part of my family…
And that my family was making room for him.
And that is when I knew that this was what I was saying yes to—not some romantic version of being engaged that I saw on the movies and You Tube (thank you Saul for knowing me well enough to know not to organize a flash mob at Home Depot when you popped the question).
I was saying yes t his man who was able to engage with a dog who judged him harshly by his appearances; who engaged with my family from youngest to oldest and from quietest to loudest— and who was asking to engage with me as together we faced each day of life sometimes filled with crushing blows and defeats but also new and fun adventures (except for that damn memorial).
And as we embarked on our long journey home I knew that by saying yes to Saul I was saying yes to me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KEITH HOFFMAN DOES NOT YET KNOW THE TIME OR PLACE OF HIS WEDDING.
UPDATE: Just as I was finishing this blog I spent a day with Saul and his sister and her family on the beach in Fire Island and lost my ring in the ocean. (FYI: It is futile to look for a ring lost in the ocean.) Luckily Saul and I vowed early on that if one of us lost our rings, it didn’t mean anything bad and it simply was a chance to recommit. So I bought another ring and we recommitted in front of Bank of America on 7th Avenue and 39th Street on September 1st at 3:30 pm with these words:
When you gave me a ring we committed to taking a big leap into the unknown.
And now this ring replaces one lost in in the unknown.
This ring is a reminder that with every loss is renewal
And with every ending…a beginning.
Now I ask will you stick with me…
and stick with you…
and stick with us…
As we continue to explore the mystery of life together?
(He said maybe!)