I don’t know what I was thinking.
No, that’s a lie. I do know. I was thinking that I was unlovable, and that no one else would ever want to marry me. So I married my college boyfriend.
But you know, thinking back on it now, I’m not sure he ever actually proposed. It was just an unspoken thing. He would graduate from law school, and we would get married. That’s how these things worked.
He wasn’t particularly handsome. And the sex wasn’t particularly interesting. But we were best friends and never fought, and that sounded like a good basis for a marriage. I knew what I was thinking, but I didn’t know what he was thinking.
A couple years into the marriage, I started to understand. A good friend from college called to talk to my husband. I was in the room, and heard the conversation from my husband’s end. Our friend was career Air Force, with a high security clearance. He was going to be taking a polygraph, and was going to be asked about a sexual relationship he had in college. A relationship with another man in the 1970s was rarely talked about, and for a military man in the Reagan years, it was likely career-ending. My husband told him to tell the truth, and that was the end of the conversation.
A few months later, the conversation with our friend came up. I said something about having always assumed he was gay, and that it must be hard to deal with in the Air Force. And then I listened to my husband backpedal in a spectacular way. No, our friend wasn’t gay at all. The conversation had been about his having known someone in his dorm who was gay. The Air Force was concerned that he was a security risk because he had lived in the same building as a gay student. Really? That’s not the conversation I heard.
You know that phrase, “out of the blue”? That’s how it was. One moment I knew everything that was true, and not true, and real, and the next, out of the blue, I knew our friend had called to tell my husband that he was going to be named during the polygraph test. Things that I had chosen to overlook suddenly made sense. My husband was gay, and I was stupid, or naïve, or some other name I chose to call myself.
I did the only logical thing. I never said a word about it. We were best friends, and loved to spend time together. I overlooked unexplained behavior and spending. He worked hard and supported me when my business was slow. We loved each other in our way, and I decided that would be good enough. No one else would ever love me, and what we had was working, so why would I leave?
But of course it wasn’t working. It just looked that way from the outside. And after a weekend trip with a friend, I decided to ask for a divorce. Before I could say anything, my husband was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. I was told that he would die within three or four months. As much as I wanted to run away, get out of the marriage, not have to deal with cancer, I couldn’t. He was my husband, and we loved each other the best way we could, and you don’t walk out when someone is dying of cancer.
So I never mentioned divorce. I stayed and cared for him night and day for four months. He rarely slept, which meant I rarely slept. He couldn’t swallow, and hated the smell of food, so I would often go days without eating. His body wasted away to nothing, and his bodily functions didn’t always function as expected. I took it all in stride, and just handled it. That’s what you do when your husband is dying. You forgive the past and do your best in the present. It’s the best way to have a future without regrets.
He passed away at the age of forty-three, two weeks after our eighteenth anniversary. His lover came to the funeral, and the look on his face broke my heart. We were three good people who hadn’t been able to live the lives we should have had, because of the way we saw ourselves, and what society expected of us. But I know that all three of us loved the best way we knew how, and that counts for a lot. by Karen Jackson
Karen’s story demonstrates the pain of many straight spouses, whether they choose to stay in their relationship or separate. Low self-esteem is evident in her self-talk: I’m unlovable, No one else will want me. I was stupid, or naïve. She settled for marriage based on friendship and called it good enough. She overlooked unexplained behavior and unusual spending, and her outer life became a façade, an unspoken lie. All these patterns are common in mixed-orientation relationships.
Karen’s husband’s cancer diagnosis changed her mind about separation and she showed selfless understanding and compassion. The key was this recognition: We loved each other the best we could. Karen demonstrated her own basic goodness and willingness to look clearly at reality as she unflinchingly cared for her husband until he died. You forgive the past and do your best in the present. It’s the best way to have a future without regrets.
Every gay-straight relationship has its unique challenges, though most are less dramatic than Karen’s. But her account is a lesson in mature judgment and the ability to stay present in the moment, even under duress. Her history of grief is a poignant illustration of the vow “till death do us part."