Pictures in the hall

My uncle Brian was always this myth of a character. He passed when I was less than a year old but I grew up hearing stories about this outgoing musician who threw lavish parties at his home in Hillcrest. Sophisticated adults would stay up all hours drinking cocktails, singing, and playing instruments. I heard about his glass staircase and the fact that they had to use a helicopter to fly in his grand piano because they couldn’t make it down the driveway to his home in the canyon. What I didn’t hear about, until I was 18 years old, was that he was gay and died from AIDS.

It wasn’t until my paternal grandma passed my senior year of high school that I learned about my uncle Brian. My grandma had been ill for several years and we were all mostly relieved that she was no longer in pain. My older cousin flew in from Oregon and was staying at our house. The night after her wake we were all hanging out the living room having a few drinks and sharing stories. That’s when someone mentioned my uncle’s partner. They started going on and on about the two and all their friends. I sat in silence, confused. How could my uncle be gay? The only picture of him we have lives in our hallway and is of him and a woman. I always assumed that was his girlfriend or wife. I believe the story my parents told me when I was little was that he died of “a type of cancer.” The words “gay” or “AIDS” had never been mentioned around his name.

I was especially hurt because I’d spent my entire life being compared to him. “You’re so creative like your Uncle Brian.” “He’d be so proud to have you as his niece.” “Your Uncle Brian would just adore you.” This suddenly took on a new meaning. You see, I’d identified as bi-sexual since I was probably in 6th grade. I knew from a fairly young age that I didn’t discriminate my crushes based on “boys” or “girls.” If someone was cute and nice, I thought they were cute and nice. Growing up in the 90s though, I was distinctly aware of how society felt about same sex relationships, and I thought I was already “different” enough so I kept it to myself. Now I’m being told that someone I’d idolized and wished with all my heart I could have known… was gay.

This created this deep hole in my stomach that ached for understanding. Why did my parents lie to me about how he died? Why did they keep his partner a secret from me? They’re Blue Democrats through and through, so why would they be ashamed of something like this? I thought they were supposed to be open and compassionate. I wondered how my life would have been different if I’d grown up knowing he was gay. Would I have been more open with my sexuality? Would I have dated more women than just the handful I have in my life? Would I have been a braver person? I’ve never “come out” to my parents and I only discussed it with my sister after my divorce. My friends from high school and college all know but most the friends I’ve made as an “adult” don’t even know this part of my identify. I spent the next ten years grappling with these questions and finding little comfort.

Last year, I approached my dad and told him I wanted to find out more about my uncle. Who were his friends? Where did he hang out? Was his partner still alive? I live and work in Hillcrest, surely I must pass people on the streets or in the grocery store who knew my uncle. Sadly, my dad didn’t offer much help. “It was a long time ago… I was older than him… I really don’t remember any details... ask your aunt, she’ll know.” My aunt in an alcoholic with undiagnosed manic depression; she’s no help at all. I find myself back at zero with unanswered questions.

It makes me reflect on my relationship with my sister and my nephew. I’m fortunate that my sister and I are close. As adults she has become my best friend and I really work to maintain a strong relationship with my nephew, even though he’s only two and a half. I couldn’t stand the thought of him growing up without me in his life, asking “tell me about my aunt” or “what is she like?” I don’t want him to have to fill in the blanks of his memories with who he hopes I’d be and how our relationship could have helped him in times of sadness, fear, or joy. I want him to know me for who I am, the good and the bad, and to see me as a whole person.

I had him stay the night at my place for the first time just after Christmas. He cried when I drove away with him from my parent’s house to take him to mine. I get that he’s never stayed with me before and it’s scary, but I hope it’s the start of years of sleepovers, movies, and trips to the park. I hope we go to the museums, the movies, and to lunch together. And I hope that he grows up knowing that his auntie is so very proud of him and will be there whenever he needs me. While my uncle Brian might be a fairy tale in my imagination, I do believe that’s the type of relationship I would have had with him. If I never find out another thing about him, he’ll still be my hero.