Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Choral Conductor By John F. Furth

When a respected conductor dies, his son and his son's gay partner discover that behind his socially prim exterior lay surprising secrets; by John F. Furth.

The congregation rose in unison as the organist at the Church of the Holy Trinity on East 88th Street played the introduction to "A Mighty Fortress is our God". The church - a gentle reddish-brown stone building that held the memories of a more considered time in the history of New York - was full to capacity. And suddenly the quiet of the church exploded with the sound produced by 800 professional, semi-professional and amateur singers. It was of such force that it filled the space like a tidal wave.

It was Hensley Lewis's memorial service and those in attendance had come to honor him for his contributions to the musical life of New York City.

I was considered a member of Hensley's family through my domestic partner relationship with his son Tim, and sat in the first pew along with Mary, Hensley's wife, Ashley, his daughter, and Tim. The unexpected power of the moment, so contrary to the repose and stillness I had often associated with this building, opened emotional wounds that had not had time to heal. Tim started sobbing uncontrollably and lost his balance, oblivious to everything but a grief he barely understood. I grabbed him so he wouldn't fall but the majesty of the music moved me in ways I had not expected and was not prepared for - my throat started to constrict making it almost impossible to sing the final verses. But true to form, the two Lewis women stood their ground firmly, practically daring the torrents to knock them down and yet I knew they too were struggling with the same pain and confusion Tim and I were dealing with so pathetically.

On that warm Sunday morning in September of 2005, pedestrians on the sidewalk stopped for a moment to listen to the massive chords rolling through the open doors of the church and mingling with the wind gently ruffling the trees along East 88th Street. If ever there was a sound to honor God and his handiwork, they thought, it would have been this wall of heavenly noise.



In addition to having been the organist and choir master for this church, Hensley Lewis - born and raised in Savanah, Georgia and a resident of New York since he had moved here with Mary to study in the late 1950's - was also the conductor of the Waverly Choral Society. Like the church on East 88th Street, The Waverly Choral Society was a throw-back to the 19th century not only in terms of its archaic-sounding name but also in terms of the music the group performed and the aging white folk who made up most of the chorus who no doubt would have fit in just fine with the choristers of 125 years earlier.

Hensley had gone to Peru with members of the Board of the Waverly Choral Society two months prior to his death to look for concert venues for their next tour. When the plane landed, the president of the Board got out of his seat, tapped Hensley on the shoulder but Hensley couldn't stand up. He was gasping for breath and was rushed to a hospital in Lima. Unfortunately, the situation didn't improve - probably because they had caught the problem (ostensibly pneumonia) too late and hadn't provided any oxygen until Hensley arrived at the hospital. He was finally returned to NYC via medivac and taken to a hospital near his home in northern New Jersey. At the time Tim and I had just celebrated our 14th year as an openly gay couple.

Hensley was loved by many people for his charisma, social abilities, musical talent and intelligence. He was tall and athletic and by the time he was approaching 70 - the final year of his life - he tended to let his hair grow longer as a sort of lion's mane. He was a powerful and quintessential southern paterfamilias, polite with a quick but occasionally nasty wit. As a prominent conductor and organist he also had his affectations - he wore a beret in the winter and he always reminded me to be gentle when I greeted him with a handshake. In those days I had a very business-like firm grip and Hensley was concerned I might be too rough on the tools that provided him and Mary their livelihood: his hands.

Mary and Hensley had quickly accepted me into their inner circle when Tim first introduced to them. As a couple they were articulate, gracious and loved a good laugh. We shared many interests, including opera, good food (primarily French, Italian and southern American) and travel (always places in northern Europe) and they were well-informed on those and a variety of other topics.

But I soon discovered the Lewis family was also preoccupied with relatively minor but damning critiques of each other's shortcomings and failures. More often than not these were spoken behind the offender's back but they could also be served up in a very direct and brutal manner. Of course, you could say this is common trait with families around the world; it's part of the human condition. Indeed, my own family can be very tough with each other as well. But the Lewises' negative and sometimes malicious comments seemed to be produced on more of a regular basis than I had ever experienced with my own extended family or other families I knew well. It was particularly true for Tim, Mary and Ashley who often described Hensley as quixotic and difficult. "Stubborn", "overly critical" and "self-involved" were other words I had heard over the years. In hindsight, however, I don't remember Hensley ever saying anything negative to me about the rest of his family and he was always charming and considerate in my presence.

Certainly the Lewises were an artistically sensitive household that insisted on extracting the best from each other, but the high degree of criticism also spoke volumes about what I perceived as deep insecurities and fears. But they were also very social people who knew better than to air these familial gripes publically. No, they preferred to appear publically as witty and sophisticated, often peppering their conversation with well-chosen but not necessarily flattering remarks about people they knew a lot about but didn't actually know personally, especially famous musicians and singers Mary and Hensley didn't think particularly highly of.

Unfortunately, practical career advice was not one of their strengths either. When Tim expressed his desire to be an architect, the response of his parents was that he should find something less uncertain. He was a fine 'cellist so they decided he should be a musician. Tim took his parents' recommendation and worked towards becoming a musician, not thinking that perhaps his parents had suggested this career because it was the only thing they actually knew anything about and not because it was such a sure path to wealth, happiness and success.

I suppose growing up in such an atmosphere prompted Tim to hide anything about himself he thought was unpleasant, bad or weak, fearful of the critique he might be subject to. He had little interest in finance and by the fifth year of our relationship had racked up a considerable amount of tax liabilities when he simply didn't file his returns for several years. It was about the same time that I discovered certain sexual proclivities of his verging on the perverse. I have a wild sexual side myself and it was less the nature of those desires that shocked me and more Tim's discomfort sharing them with me, going as far as to actually hide his sex toys and leather gear from me.

Like his mother and sister, Tim complained often and vehemently to me about his immediate family. The stories generally revolved around how unsupportive his parents were of him and his sister - in a household of such heightened sensitivities, harsh or misunderstood comments can be as debilitating and harmful as the violence perpetrated in other less cultured families. The portrait Tim painted of Ashley, for example, was of a physically beautiful woman who dated rock musicians when she was a teenager and then got married, raising and home schooling four children in New Hampshire - all good things in his book. That he considered her often unhinged, unresponsive to Tim's attempts at maintaining a meaningful sister-brother relationship and bulimic were not so positive.

I should mention here that before I met Tim I had burned through several relationships with very sweet guys but for one reason or another they just weren't "the one". I'm the first to admit I've left quite a bit of emotional scorched earth in my wake and had never been one to show great compassion when dumping a guy who wasn't doing it for me anymore.

But Tim was different. He was and still is very handsome and I fell in love with him immediately, deciding on the spot that he was to be my life partner, which he still is to this day 21 years later. I wanted to be closer to him emotionally and psychologically than I had been with my previous boyfriends and worked hard to soften my edges and be as good a boyfriend as I could be. And yet Tim kept putting up protective and secretive walls. My initial impulse to break through them with confrontations and my usual darts meant to pierce his emotional barriers but that just made the walls thicker. I realized that I had to be less of a bull in a china shop and learned to observe and listen for hints to the inner Tim.

Tim believed that something disturbing had occurred between Ashley and his father when she was about seven years old and it convinced Ashley that her father hated her. Tim couldn't put his finger on what that event might have been and quite honestly he didn't give it that much thought. Tim just thought his father was highly critical and not open to deep relationships with his progeny - probably not much different than most fathers of the 60's and 70's in most of the United States. After some intensive soul searching Tim had least found the fortitude to request that Hensley hug him when they met and this positive habit continued until Hensley's death. I have to admit I to this day have not achieved the same with my own father.

But in the summer of 2005 Hensley's long hospitalization drew the rest of the family closer together and Ashley would often leave her husband and kids in New Hampshire to be with her father at his bedside where Mary also kept long vigils. There were abundant and heartfelt tears and towards the end Ashley made peace with her father for the all the supposed wrongs he had perpetrated on her.

I went with Tim to the hospital to see his father three or four times. I'm never comfortable in hospitals - probably because I've been fortunate enough to have a relatively robust group of friends and family who don't often go the hospital so that it is still a strange and mysterious place for me. From the minute I enter a modern hospital I know that that behind every door, life and death struggles are occurring which often involve blood, bodily fluids and the occasional scream and/or moan. The proximity to people I don't know who are often barely surviving and often unconscious to the squalid, messy and putrid conditions they are dealing with contrasts so sharply with all the whiteness and shiny surfaced machinery.

So it was no wonder that it was hard for me to experience Hensley so frail and disoriented in such an intimate and anti-septic smelling setting. He was often asleep attached to multiple machines with an oxygen mask on which meant those of us in the room had to find something to talk about. There are two kinds of conversations you have in those situations - either completely light and meaningless or so detailed about the events leading up to and during the hospitalization as to be mind-numbing and/or just plain gross.

I was thankful for Hensley's rare moments of lucidity since he and I had the same aversion to small talk and inevitably we'd find our way back to the topics that interested both of us.

But Hensley also proved to be a difficult patient and railed against everything that held him captive in his hospital bed - the oxygen mask, the IVs, the heart monitoring machine and the numerous nurses and doctors who would show up day and night at his bedside.

Sometimes he asked whoever was in earshot where he was. Tim said his father's disorientation was because he was high from the oxygen and medication and didn't know what was going on half the time. At one point Hensley thought he saw pigs dancing on the walls and ceiling until Tim explained that he didn't have his glasses on.

More than once when I was present Hensley would start wrestling with the oxygen mask strapped to his face.

"This is completely useless. Get it off me!" He screamed as he struggled to pull the oxygen mask off but the strings kept getting stuck on his ears.

Before he could successfully throw the mask on the ground, Tim, his mother and I rushed to the bed while calling for help.

"I don't need this thing and I don't need those incompetent doctors either!" he raged.

Eventually Hensley would calm down and let the nurse put the oxygen mask back on.

"That's so typical of him," Mary said as Hensley drifted off to sleep.



Although she was a trained opera singer, Mary had supported Hensley in his march up the ladder of the NYC classical music world, putting aside any personal ambitions she might have had other than those for her family. Hensley was fully committed to a career in music and had been top of his class at conservatory. Although he had not majored in conducting at school - his instrument was the piano - he had learned enough over the years to be an effective and well-loved leader of the Choral Society. He had a Grammy sitting on his fireplace mantel for a recording he conducted in the 70's.

Hensley had a fine ear for opera singers and the Choral Society often offered the next rising star an opportunity for a Carnegie Hall debut at one of the four concerts they held there every season. The annual performance of Handel's Messiah the Monday before Christmas was fixed firmly in our schedules. Tim and I would sit with Mary in box number 61 in the First Tier overlooking the crowds. There would also be two or three of Mary's and Hensley's guests with us in the box, semi-luminaries of New York City's classical music scene - wives of famous dead baritones who ran voice competitions named after their husbands, over-the-hill sopranos making one last ditch effort at a career in NYC and dandy-ish former executives of the Metropolitan Opera bemoaning the decline of musical culture in the United States.

Members of the Board of the Choral Society would surround us in the other boxes and Mary would whisper some gossipy bit of information to Tim and me. "See that man over there? He's the President of So-and-so Bank; very rich. You'd think he'd shell out for a dinner every now and then, but no, that man doesn't offer to pay for anything when we go out!" Or "Oh that woman, never could sing and never will be able sing. She should have stayed a secretary," she would say under her breath before leaning over the partition to shake hands, kiss and greet one or the other of the group surrounding us.

Tim never enjoyed these concerts. When he was younger he would often play in the orchestra as a 'cellist and had few fond memories of the experience. Tim would complain about his father's lack of musicality and the general awfulness of the performance during the intermission far enough away from his mother so she wouldn't hear. Although I am by no means a fan of "The Messiah", I always enjoyed the grandeur of those evenings with his mother and her guests in the box even if the music occurring on stage often bored me.

Over time Tim and I got into the routine of spending Christmas Eve with his mother and father before going to see my family in Maryland.

Mary is an excellent cook and she specializes in the southern cuisine she and her husband had grown up with and loved - textured hams, roasted potatoes scented with rosemary and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, sweet and rich pecan pies. Hensley fancied himself a connoisseur of fine wines on a budget and he would bring out the best he had in Bordeaux wines. Gifts would be exchanged and we would sit down to the feast, finding many things to laugh at while critically analyzing the current opera and concert season.

Hensley's love and knowledge of classical music - especially opera - equaled or surpassed mine. I always had a great time discussing these sorts of things with Hensley while Tim and his mother prepared dinner in the kitchen. Though usually somewhat formal with me, Hensley would noticeably relax during these conversations and enjoy them as much as I did.

"I have something you should listen to," Hensley announced one Christmas Eve as he pulled out a cassette from the side credenza. "These are live recordings of famous and not-so-famous opera singers completely wiping out in performance. It's hysterical."

First there was the enormously gifted - and enormously built - Montserrat Caballe flubbing the climatic high C in "O Patria Mia" in Aida followed by a very audible "Oh shit!"

Hensley rewound it two or three times because we laughed so hard and wanted to hear it again. Then he moved on to the next one.

"Oh God, this is a pathetic tenor forcing his way through every aria he shouldn't be singing. I can't believe he sent this tape to the agents. I would have died of embarrassment." Indeed, this poor fellow sounded more like a sheep bleating than an opera singer and had to resort to falsetto for the high notes. More pathetic than funny.

Nicolai Gedda, one of the great tenors of the second half of the 20th century cracked at the end of "La Donna Mobile". A soprano who I had never heard of slowly but surely began sagging under the strain of a long aria and the pitch began to sink until she finally gave up.



The opening hymn at Hensley's memorial service that had so devastated me and Tim eventually came to an end. It took both of us to come back to our surroundings, focus and be present to the rest of the ceremony. There were readings and more hymns and then Ashley and Tim delivered the eulogies. Ashley offered a heartfelt if somewhat cryptic story of coming to peace with her father. Tim, on the other hand, was confused by the emotions he was feeling and overcome with his fear of public speaking. He was a nervous wreck and wound his way through a few minutes of half-sentences before he sat down. I honestly could make no sense of what he had just said in front of 800 people but squeezed his hand and told him it was well-spoken.

When the service was over we went downstairs to the choir room for the reception. It was a windowless space with linoleum tiles and the occasional shoddy rug on the floor, wood paneling on the walls and racks for the choristers' robes. Folding tables had been covered with white paper table clothes and were heavy with lemonade, ginger ale, coffee, sandwiches, salads, cookies and the all-pervasive pies - brought by the attendees of the service.

We stood by Mary's side for several minutes and worked our way through the more aggressive well-wishers who wanted to give their condolences and vigorously shake our hands. Eventually we moved away to say hello to those on the side-lines.

Tim introduced me to Uncle Hubert, the brother Hensley had been closest to. Uncle Hubert was tall like Hensley, with excellent social graces and a touch of sadness in his still handsome face. Uncle Hubert had brought along his wife Ann, a plumpish but compact woman with vivacious, kind eyes and a healthy but intelligible southern accent, and their daughter, Carol. Hubert and Ann had met in high-school and had married shortly after graduation. Carol looked to be about Tim's age but had contracted multiple sclerosis as a child. She was confined to a wheelchair so that she had rarely left her parent's home. She seemed to have trouble following a conversation and I couldn't tell if it was part of her illness or just a willful need to be at the center of attention.

Aunt Ann began, "Tim, we suffered a great loss with the passing of your father, didn't we, Hubert?"

"Yes, we did!" Carol said very loudly before turning to her father to ask him to get her a coke to drink.

"It was a terrible loss. Carol, I will get you a drink," Hubert said heading off to the drinks table.

"He was a wonderful man, Hensley was. I brought along some pictures of him and the boys from when they were children. Hubert keeps them in a box in his closet." Aunt Ann pulled several black and white photos from her purse.

"I wanna see too, Momma," exclaimed Carol.

"You will, darling, you will." She showed Tim and me one of five or six young people in marching band clothes. "I love this picture. These were Hensley's friends from the band: Emily Sue, crazy Kathy - we called her crazy Kathy on account of a car accident when she was 15; she never was the same again - Ford, Prentiss... Of course, they have no pianos in a marching band so your father was the major domo, so well-dressed in that uniform of his, leading the musicians as they walked. He was a conductor even back then."

You could see how slender Hensley was and how upright he stood. He already had the intelligent eyes I remembered so well before they became confused and clouded with sickness.

Hubert returned with the glass of coke for Carol.

"Hubert's and Hensley's mother loved music." Aunt Ann turned to me, "Ethan, you might not know this but she was very religious and built eight Methodist churches in South Carolina and Georgia - all during the Great Depression. She recognized how important music was to bringing people together to worship."

"But Hensley was the only one who had the interest or talent to pursue it," Hubert added. "He was the baby of the family and the one with the more artistic temperament."

Ann chuckled, "I tell ya though, your grandmother put the fear of God into her children and made sure they understood how important principles are. She was a force to be reckoned with."

"I guess she would have had to have been if she raised a family AND built eight churches," I added.

"She was always supportive of Hensley's desires to be a musician and taught him about discipline. That's what made him so great. All that discipline to practice and what have you," Aunt Ann said.

Carol, not hearing most of the conversation asked, "Who's great?"

"Your Uncle Hensley, sweetheart. He was a great man and musician." Aunt Ann continued. "Now Hubert here has the same discipline and determination, only he became an engineer. Right, darling?" She stroked Hubert's arm. "Daddy here never had much patience for practicing music, he preferred athletics."

Tim was anxious that we make the rounds of everyone. He gently grabbed my arm to move me away. "We'll be back in a little but there are some more people we should talk to."

Aunt Ann stuck out her hand to say good-bye to me, "So good to meet you Ethan. Tim, you're looking good. I got lots more pictures so hurry back so I can show 'em to ya."

Uncle Hubert shook our hands as well with silent a nod of his head.

"Sorry," Tim whispered into my ear. "But Aunt Ann can go on for days talking. I just thought it would be better to get away early so we weren't trapped there the whole afternoon."

I was thirsty and it didn't seem like Tim actually had any specific direction he was going in so I told him I wanted to get some water. He headed off to a group of people talking to his mother.

Ashley arrived at the refreshment table almost exactly at the same time I did. Even as part of a family that was physically handsome, Ashley was a knock-out - tall, blond, thin and athletic. Although she had never completed college, Ashley was intellectually fast, but her insecurities made her shaky and nervous. In the years that Tim and I had been together I had only met Ashley three or four times which was maybe once less than Tim, although he occasionally talked with her on the phone.

She edged over to me as she poured herself a diet coke. "I'm so relieved the ceremony is over. I'm never comfortable with these family things." She turned around to look at the group. "Dad certainly could draw a crowd. Do you know any of these people?"

"A few but most of them are in the choruses Hensley conducted. So I guess the answer is no." I said.

"Lucky you." Looking over the rim of her glass as she sipped her diet coke, Ashley surveyed the scene of predominantly older white men and women milling about.

"That was a beautiful eulogy you gave," I said, trying to draw her into conversation. I knew if anyone would help me gain access to more insights about the gifted but guarded Lewis family she was it, especially without anyone else present.

"Thank you," she paused as if debating whether to cross over into darker waters.

Finally she continued. "I can honestly say I'm at peace with my father. We both forgave each other - he knew he should have been a better father to me but he was tortured about what I saw him doing in the basement..." She trailed off and looked distractedly around the room.

"Do you think Tim has made peace with Hensley?" I ventured, being careful not to scare her off by taking the conversation somewhere she didn't want it to go. Although I was very interested in what might have happened in the basement, I wasn't sure I wanted to go there either while sipping diet cokes in the choir room of a Protestant church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

"I don't really know how urgent it was for Tim to come to terms with Dad at the end but I knew I had to," she said before leaning in and declaring very softly in a conspiratorial tone of voice, "Tim also has secrets. He lies a lot."

This was not merely a passing comment or a slip of the tongue. Ashley had said this very deliberately. While I was a little surprised by the comment and had indeed witnessed Tim's playing fast and loose with reality, I knew it wasn't the time or place to go into that sort of discussion. I also did not want it to get back to Tim that in some way I had been gossiping about him with Ashley behind his back, so I simply replied: "He's a little inscrutable sometimes. I worry that Tim buries his head in the sand when there are things he doesn't want to confront."

"He's like all the men in our family - full of secrets. Lots of buried stuff," she said dryly.

Just I was about to ask for more details, Tim came over as if he instinctively knew the conversation wasn't the kind he wanted Ashley and me to have.

"How're you holding up, Tim?" Ashley turned to him. In spite of what she had just shared with me, she instinctively touched his shoulder as a gesture of solace.

"I'm doing ok. Lots of sadness. I'm sorry Hank and the kids couldn't make it," Tim said.

"It would have been a logistical nightmare and I needed to be here for mom and not distracted by a husband and four screaming children."

The photographer the church had hired to take pictures appeared and after posing for some pictures, Ashley moved on.

"She didn't go on about making peace with Dad, did she?" Tim asked once she was out of earshot.

"She said she knows why your father was so terrible to her but was able to come to terms with him in the end."

"Well, Ashley's crazy. First of all, she is bulimic. Second, she can be a royal bitch with no feelings for anyone but herself. And third, she talks about having walked in on Dad having sex with another man in the basement when she was seven years old and thinks that's why he was so awful to her. He was awful to all of us. It's all in her head. I'm glad she didn't bring it up. It would have been very disrespectful."

I had had two glasses of wine by this point and was feeling courageous enough to poke around just a little more without intending to be mean or inappropriate. "She said you have a lot of secrets and tell lies."

"Yeah, well, I could say the same thing about her," was Tim's retort.

I didn't know enough to say otherwise and continued socializing until it was time for pictures with the family. As we were walking to pick up the car Tim turned to me and said, "Thank you for being there for me."



In the months after the service Tim spent as much time as possible with his mother who was learning to deal with her loneliness after Hensley's death. She also needed help going through Hensley's things, deciding what to keep, what to throw away and what to give to friends. Because Hensley and I were of similar build I received a few very nice pieces of clothing. A classical musician of regional but not international or even national fame doesn't make a lot of money but Hensley had a sense of style and somehow managed to indulge that in choice pieces, mostly cashmere jackets and leather coats.

One day in early 2006 Tim went to help his mother clean out Hensley's things she didn't want to keep. She was putting his books and other knick-knacks into a box to be taken to the Salvation Army and handed Tim Hensley's digital camera.

"Can you check to see if there are any pictures on the chip of any interest we might want? I don't need the camera so I'll just take it to the Salvation Army too."

Tim flipped the camera around looking for the power switch, turned it on and a picture popped up in the viewer of Ashley and the kids; then Ashley's garden; then one of Mary and the kids. Tim recognized these as pictures that must have been taken a few years earlier on a trip his parents had taken to see Ashley and her family.

Tim asked his mother if she was ok with him deleting these pictures. He didn't know if she wanted to save them or not. She told him to go ahead and delete away.

Tim then put in the next chip and at that moment a completely different picture came up on the viewer. What he saw he was unprepared for psychologically or emotionally - compromising pictures of his father naked and having sex with another man. There were several pictures he would describe later as "the money shot."

Mary must have realized what was happening and rushed in. "Oh my God, I just remembered what kind of pictures might be on that chip."

Tim immediately deleted all the pictures. "I can't believe what I just saw. Did you know about this?"

"Give me the camera," Mary demanded.

Tim practically threw it to her. "I don't want it and I don't want to see those pictures. What is going on?"

His mother turned off the camera and put it in the bag she was holding. "This is not how I wanted you to find out about your father."

"What, that he was gay?" Tim didn't know if he was more freaked out by the pictures he had just seen or that for all those years he had no clue that any of this was going on. "How long had Dad been doing this?"

"Pretty much our entire married life."

Tim thought for a moment. "What about the issues with Ashley?"

"She had things she needed to get clean with her father about before he died," Mary began but she didn't need to say much more as the lights were starting to go off in Tim's head. "She walked in on Dad having sex in the basement when she was seven."

"Oh my God, so she isn't crazy! That really did happen."

"Ashley felt Hensley never forgave her for that. She connected any unloving or mean comment he made to her back to that moment."

In the past when his sister or mother said things about his father which seemed odd or illogical Tim would sometimes wonder if he indeed was being left out of some secret. But Tim never really thought about his father having a secret gay life and even if he had, he certainly would never have had the courage to talk about it with anyone. But now Hensley's secret was out and Tim's first thoughts were that he couldn't believe how weak his father had been, staying in this charade of a marriage. Hensley had always made such show of being principled and yet right there in front of him was the evidence of his lies.

"I just can't believe all this was going on and nobody talked with me about this," Tim said.

"Well, it's not like there was ever an optimal time to sit you down and tell you about this," Mary continued. "You think Ashley and I were so thrilled to know this was going on?"

"You mean the two of you even discussed this?"

Mary could only sigh. Where could she begin to tell the story? How much do you tell your gay son about a father who had hidden he was gay from him?

"Before you were born Hensley served in the army. As far as I can tell this all started when he came back to New York. I knew what was going on and I was furious at him for bringing his buddies home to have sex with. He used the basement and that's when Ashley walked in on him by mistake."

The big secret was out and as they both started to calm down, Mary explained why she had put up with the situation for so long. She had loved Hensley, their children, grandchildren, the life they had built together and the career Hensley created with all its attendant social benefits. Hensley and she had been compatible temperamentally, and besides which, what was a middle-aged lady like her to do if she were divorced, especially when she and Hensley were inextricably linked as a couple in all their friends' minds?

Finally there was just one more piece of information she felt compelled to share with her son. "He had one friend in particular he was very close to. I don't know if you knew him but he was involved with the choir at church. His name was Ralph Smith," she began.

"I've heard the name," Tim said.

"Well, they spent a lot of time together. He was obsessed with electronics and gave your father all sorts of gadgets. That camera was a present too."

At this moment Mary's voice became unsteady as she held back tears. "And you know what the most fucked up thing about all of this is? Ralph died two days after Hensley."



Tim came home that evening and he told me about the conversation he had with his mother. I tried to concentrate on what he was saying but like his eulogy from several months earlier, Tim was struggling with the experience and finding it hard to put together comprehensible sentences. And yet here I was once again being made aware of another Lewis secret shoved so far out of sight that it had taken on mythic proportions, and when it finally popped out it was strange, disorienting, sad and, truth be told, a little pathetic

At some point I had to cut Tim off so I could get some clarity. "I just need to ask this question and please take this only as a question. I'm not making you or your family wrong and I'm not trying to be mean. But don't you think it's odd that in this day and age you as an openly gay man knew nothing about your gay father until it was too late?"

As I feared, Tim became defensive and pushed back. "He was my father! I mean you just don't think about - let alone tell other people - those sort of things... when he's your father."

A few seconds passed while I imagined what a conversation with Hensley would have been like if I had wanted to talk with him about my relationship with his son. Yeah, it would have been weird, very weird in fact. And I had to admit that talking with Hensley about our sexuality, or worse sharing some stories of sexual adventure would have been virtually impossible for me. Gross was the only word I could think of and a tacky word at that.

I quickly put those thoughts out of my head and continued on higher, safer ground. "God, it was such a missed opportunity to have shared something important and meaningful between you and your father. I mean my father has actually done a lot of really idiotic and messed up things with his life. But to his credit, he doesn't try hiding much of it and it certainly makes for lively discussion between my brothers and our mother."

"Yeah well, your family has no boundaries and nobody wants to hear about the rampant craziness of your parents' marriage."

"Like the walls of silence your family puts up are working so well for you. At least we're honest and committed to working through our issues," I said.

I had obviously only added fuel to the fire, and rather consciously at that. Tim turned away from me to go into the living room. "I'm not having this conversation with you now. I have a lot to think about and try to work out."

I ran after him. "I really don't want to play the old ostrich-head-in-the-sand-game anymore with you. I want to discuss this."

Tim turned around and stared at me with the beautiful blue eyes I had fallen in love with twelve years earlier, saying very calmly and matter-of-factly: "And what if I don't want to talk about it?"

I wasn't about to back down. "I just wish sometimes you would take more responsibility for your life, our life, even if your parents didn't seem to want to do that for themselves."

"Contrary to what you think, my parents knew what was going on and arranged themselves accordingly. They may not have been always happy but they played by what the rules were back then and knew how to keep it discrete. I'm not about to let everything hang out the way you do," Tim said. "Discretion is a virtue."

"Except when Tim Lewis says he's being discrete it means he's just covering something up," I said.

"Just leave me alone for a while. Don't make me sorry I told you. I need some time to digest all this."

"Sure, sure, digest away! I'm not entirely sure what there is to digest, but go ahead. Do whatever you have to do." I said, purposefully exaggerating my exasperation. Throwing darts to see what I could hit, hoping for anything that I could wrestle with to get a handle on what was going on inside of Tim at that moment.

But I knew this was the end of the discussion - at least for that evening. Tim had meanwhile focused his attention to something else. I can't remember what it was but probably he wanted to check his email or get a bite to eat or maybe he was just tired and wanted to relax.

Even though Tim is not and will never be a soul-searching neurotic talker like me, we've eventually gotten to a place that we can occasionally discuss his father. But it has to be on Tim's terms - carefully and without much digging around for deeper truths. Thankfully, however, he and I have found other ways to be more honest with one another. Our relationship has gotten stronger, Tim's real estate business is going much better and he is far more self-assured in all aspects of his life. I love him more than anyone else in my life and I know he feels that way about me even if he verbalizes it less than I do.

Tim has also transformed the relationship with his mother and sister into something warmer, deeper and more trusting. He realizes that had Hensley been happier it might have trickled down to his family. I like to think that Hensley was thankful that his son was able to build the kind of life with a man he loved that Hensley might have yearned for all these years.

Sometimes I think about Ralph Smith, the only other man I knew of who also loved a Lewis man. I have raised the subject several times with Tim but he says he has never discussed Ralph with his mother beyond the startling revelation years ago. I would have liked to have known more about him.

Tim and I still visit Mary every Christmas Eve and he still sits in the kitchen talking with her while she's cooking. I usually stay in the living room reading or looking at the pictures of Hensley that have not been moved since he died - Hensley accompanying a famous opera singer, Hensley posing with his baton, Hensley conducting in Carnegie Hall.

Once I tried to find the recording of the opera singers' bloopers that had made us laugh years earlier. I looked everywhere in the credenza in the living room where Hensley had kept the cassette. It was empty. Even the books and pieces of music I had once seen there were gone.

Eventually Tim will emerge from the kitchen, finishing a conversation with his mother while setting the table for dinner. Then his mother brings out roasted potatoes, salad, a pot roast or pork tenderloin with her famous pecan pie as dessert and we sit down to dinner.

5 comments:

  1. A real emotional roller coaster, it charts the truth in the premise that things are never what they seem. The complex dynamics in the relationship between Ethan and Tim were beautifully shown, against the backdrop of their social and familial worlds. The juxtaposition of Hensley's life options with Tim's was moving and invoked the appalling oppression that gay people have experienced, and still do in some communities. A very worthwhile read, thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. A really well-written, engrossing short story handling a delicate issue realistically and honestly. One could empathise with every character and their insecurities. I look forward to reading more of your stories, John.
    Beryl.

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  3. i found this a very fine piece of writing, i can´t really add to what Ceinwen and Beryl have said and with which i fully agree, but the story also brought to life for me a certain New York world and its inhabitants.
    First class!

    Mike McC

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  4. Fantastic piece. It makes we want to look into what my dad was up to the entire time he was married to my mom.

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