When the truth doesn’t hurt
July 19, 2012 | 11:00 am
(Updated: March 29, 2013 | 2:12 pm)
Sitting in Civic Center Park on July 3, I was particularly choked up and moved by the event: the symphony, the families, the fireworks, the massive crowd that came together for one of the few un-cancelled fireworks shows in Colorado. It’s hard not to get emotional about and reflect on my relationship with the U.S. in these moments, but this isn’t a column about politics. This is about my parents, who were then on their way home to North Carolina from their yearly three-month trip to Beirut as I sat watching the colorful explosions, feeling proud to be American.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized all the ways my parents are shining examples of survival and perseverance. As a child, I watched my entire family – both parents and two older sisters – go through the process of being naturalized as U.S. citizens. Being the only family member born in the U.S., I was an outsider witnessing this incredibly long trial, at an age too young to absorb what it all meant. Now, I’ve learned about the sacrifices and the lengths they went to ensure that we were safe and had opportunities, even if through it all, all I felt was disconnected.
Perhaps that disconnected feeling followed me around too long. After I turned 18 I moved three hours away from them, and that’s the closest I’ve lived to them since. The distance helped me tackle some necessary issues but avoid a slew of others. I had never felt close and open with them, something I admired in other families. I couldn’t just be myself without worrying about judgment, anger or falling short of expectations.
When I was growing up, my parents were conservative Republicans. They frequently made negative comments about those they thought were “strange.” What would they do if they knew their daughter didn’t just look different, but was different? It was inconceivable that I’d ever be able to tell them the truth – or so I thought.
So when I prepared to come out to them, I was sleepless and anxious, tied in knots, for months. I feared that the generational and cultural gap between us would rear its ugly head again. Not to mention that they had “disowned” me in the past for various reasons, ranging from discovering that I smoked cigarettes in college to when I moved to Denver against their will. Culturally, “disowning” is not that uncommon. I put the word in quotes because it never lasted longer than a year or two.
Middle Eastern families often have what my therapist once described as a “tribal mentality,” breaking down to “you’re either with us or against us.” Middle Eastern kids often fear their parents, while desperately needing their approval. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t still have those loyalties.
Before I wrote my coming out letter, I had no doubt that I’d be disowned. I was bracing for the familiar and feared kick of rejection. Some of my friends, concerned for my future, recommended I never tell my parents. Others told me that if I didn’t, my relationship with them would always be a lie – something I could no longer keep doing. So I did it: I wrote the letter. I sent it. I sat vomitous for days.
At the end of my letter, I said, “Please don’t respond right away. Take your time. Process it. I love you more than anything.”
The day my parents received my letter, my father called. I stared at my phone without answering, feeling a million miles away. He left a message, which I made my girlfriend check. It said that he completely understood, is absolutely fine, is happy for me, is proud of me, and loves me because I’m a good person. I broke into tears, called him back and had the closest moment I’ve ever had with my father.
My mother took longer to warm up, but did so with thoughtfulness. I was blown away by her love and support, too. She even bought my girlfriend a gift in Beirut. There are, of course, hiccups, but she is there, loving and supporting me every day. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
Apparently, while I had been doing my own growing up, I had completely underestimated their ability to do so. They’d evolved socially, politically, emotionally and spiritually, and I hadn’t even known. I’ve always considered them citizens of the world – they globetrot constantly – but I never considered the effect their experiences would have on their opinions of others. Of me.