Wednesday, August 27, 2014
The Old Man Down the Block
When Chris and I lived in Victoria, an old man lived down the block from us. Most often, we saw him walk past our townhouse, probably up from Mayfair Mall, a short distance away. For a long time, I didn't know where he lived until I was walking down the street one day and saw him leave a decrepit-looking house. In all the time we lived in the neighborhood, I never saw the lawn mowed there, the drapes open, or a light on. Yet, there the old man was, by himself, trudging from the back of the house to the front, going about his business.
Do you do this? Do you make up stories about people you see? Do you look at them and imagine what their lives are like: who they are, what they do day-to-day, what their houses look like inside–that sort of thing? I do it all the time, and seeing this old man got me thinking.
See, I'm convinced he knew Chris and I are gay couple. How could he not? Sometimes, when he passed by our townhouse, I was alone, working in the small front yard, walking out the door, whatever I happened to be doing. Maybe he would have been able to tell, just from looking at me, that I'm gay. But, often, he'd pass by when Chris and I were doing something, like planting a tree, or watering our garden, or sitting on the front porch (a rare occasion in Victoria, since the wind is cool and incessant, even in the summer). And he'd always look at us and smile, like he was interested in what we were doing. Every time I looked into his eyes, I believe I saw a spark of recognition–that he knew about Chris and me, what we are, and he understood.
Not only that, but I also thought he might be envious. In the life I imagined for him, he never married. Rather, he was gay himself, coming from a generation or more before me (assuming what I've read of a generation being twenty-five years is correct), when being gay was not only tougher than it was for me, but when it wasn't spoken of, when it was kept hidden, when, in fact, it was still illegal in Canada, because that was the case until 1969.
Back then, by my calculation, the old man would have been in his early 30s. Who knows what he could tell me today about what it was like to be gay then? Who knows how difficult it was for him to meet other young gay men like himself, how the stigma of being gay was so severe that he had to keep to himself, remain isolated for decades, not even imagining the possibility of finding someone, falling in love, and building a life together?
When I looked at that old man, I saw envy in his eyes. But I also saw regret. Regret for how he was forced to feel about himself because of society's attitude toward homosexuality. Regret for making connecting with other men like him so difficult. Regret even for never experiencing love fully, for never being able to give of himself completely to another man.
Sometimes, when the old man passed by and smiled at me, I smiled back at him. I felt so sorry for what I imagined his life story to be. For how things were back then, particularly in relation to how they are now, when, despite the challenges Chris and I still encounter from time to time, circumstances are so much better for us than they were for him.
And I hope my smile conveyed to him that I understood his situation, and I wished things could have been different for him all those years ago. I hope it conveyed that the life and love Chis and I share is not only a victory for us, but a victory for him too, and all the other men of his generation and before, whose lives were forced to take a different course because of nothing more than their sexual orientation, and their need to love and be loved by someone of the same gender.
I hope every time he saw us together in our front yard, he felt our implied thank-you for all the risks, large and small, he took over his lifetime, to help us, collectively, get to where we are today. So that Chris and I can be openly gay, share a house, a life, a love, and be more ourselves than most gay men ever got to be in the past. We owe a huge debt to those who came before us, who pushed the boundaries, who, in a sense, helped set us free.
To the old man down the block, this one's for you.