Jacob’s New Home. True Love. Seven Years for Leah. Seven Years for Rachel. Children for Power. Children for Revenge. Children for Love.
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.
Genesis 29:16-17 (NIV, emphasis mine)
Barnegat Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey
These are the facts. Henry developed some sort of infection on his head and face – the exact diagnosis was vague. And the prognosis wasn’t much better: who knew when it would go away, who knew if it was infectious, and since this was Jersey in the 60’s, there was no way the teacher was letting him come into that school. She made it clear: traditional schooling would be an infeasible option for Henry this year. The infection developed near the end of summer, so they could just defer his enrollment and do the whole fifth grade thing a year later – but that meant a year of pre-adolescent idleness. Or they could homeschool him – but both parents worked to make ends meet. They went in to the school principal to come up with a creative solution, one that didn’t involve missing an entire year of school or sacrificing half their family income. The principal recommended hiring a tutor, and he had just the guy: a formidable young man in his early 30s – intelligent, excited, and diligent. They agreed to this option with an appropriate amount of reluctance; they just had not planned Henry’s year to unfold this way. The tutor started his sessions early that autumn and met with Henry every day for a period of six months.
Something sinister happened that year between Henry and his tutor – we know that much for sure. And it seemed to be, or rather, the consensus reached by his family was that whatever evil occurred between the two of them resonated throughout his life with the most negative of consequences.
I first met Henry at my Pop-pop’s funeral. He wore a kitschy powder blue suit two sizes too big. He was gaunt and dark and donned a large gold ring from his pinky, an artifact from his senior high school with the jewel missing. I turned to my Aunt Leisa with a puzzled face, and she whispered in my ear, That’s Henry. My confusion continued. He’s your other Aunt.
No, Henry wasn’t a transgendered woman, and frankly, that thought would have never crossed my pubescent mind. I knew she meant, He’s your gay Uncle Henry. Why do you think you’ve never heard of him? He stood up on the pulpit, his clothes hanging off of him loosely like a puppy’s collar, and announced that he had a poem to read, written by his lifelong partner and lover Luke. I could hear the sound of all the eyes in the room collectively roll. He unfolded a printed sheet from his pocket and read a clearly plagiarized poem in the vein of “Oh Captain! My Captain!” He finished without fanfare and returned to his seat. I saw him only a handful of times after that – he lived across the country after all and rarely came through town. And no one liked his partner Luke. He was a huge part of the problem – an enabler in the most classic sense.
Henry died a decade later from complications stemming from chain smoking and drug abuse. The doctor explained it by saying that Henry simply wore his heart out much quicker than the rest of us. His addiction to painkillers had slowly chipped away at his insides, and his tobacco use had developed into COPD. Simply: His organs had nothing left to give. He called my father from his deathbed. Henry said that he wasn’t ready to die – this just wasn’t the life he had planned for himself. There was no funeral. We all came to the collective consensus that his life was a tragedy and worthy of deep reflection. Where did things go wrong? How could it have possibly turned out this way?
Simple answers often feel the best. Cause and effect. A trajectory. The family settled on this narrative:
Uncle Henry developed his condition at a young age. The family hired a tutor.
The tutor sexually abused Henry – systematic, cruel, and consistent – for half a year.
Because of this trauma, Henry turned to homosexuality.
Homosexuality led to Luke. Luke led to drugs.
Homosexuality led to isolation. It led to alienation. It eventually led to madness.
Luke encouraged the homosexuality, and thus, Luke encouraged the isolation, alienation, and madness.
His family said no more drugs, no more isolation, no more Luke.
Henry said no.
And then so on until… the ending.
That was his sad, sad story, at least to the majority of the family. Henry’s parents never acknowledged the abuse, and while others – including my father – intuited this storyline, no one ever really talked about it. It was just the story. No need to talk. This was it.
The early Bible thrives on the concept of simplistic narrative, and Jacob’s early life gives a prime example of it. Jacob finds a woman he loves in Rachel. Rachel is defined by a single simple word; she is beautiful. Her father says that in exchange for seven years of labor, Jacob can marry his daughter. But trickery! After seven years, Rachel’s father gives Jacob his less attractive daughter Leah to marry. Leah is ugly. And so begins the one-upmanship. Leah and Rachel fight for the affection of Jacob. Rachel is barren while Leah is fertile, and so Leah looks to catch Jacob’s eye with children. When she can no longer conceive, she gives Jacob her maidservant to sleep with in order to continue her line. Rachel counters with her maidservant, to give her line. A classic duel over affections. Who will win out? Everyone wins, because eventually, the children that pile up between the four wives will end up being the fathers to the twelve tribes of Israel.
I do not mean to mock or even draw criticism to the narrative presented here. If the Bible attempted to present its vast history taking into account every nuance of humanity, then its girth would make it impenetrable. However, the attractiveness of the simple nature of these narratives remains potent. Leah, Rachel, and the whole gang here act like one-note characters in a melodrama. Their cause-and-effect motivations elicit strong reactions and clear lessons but fail to come across in sympathetic or realistic ways. I am intended to relate to these people on the broadest of levels, so that I can glean the lesson quickly and completely. And this method of storytelling is effective. The whims of man will end up fitting into God’s ultimate plan. There. That’s a lesson I picked from that story, and there are many more available if I glance at the tale from different angles.
It is dangerous to apply this simplistic approach to our real world interactions. It risks the reduction of an entire life to a sole action or trait. Does any single word accurately describe your entire persona? Are you merely gay, hefty, jealous, or kind? You would be a boring individual if that were the case.
And so to reduce my Uncle Henry’s life to a simple list of actions and reactions feels horribly inadequate – not only for its complete mischaracterization of homosexuality but also for its obviously missing details. All we have are sparse facts, and we are left to connect the pieces ourselves. And for a family entrenched in conservative thinking, the simplest and most sweeping explanation ended up winning out. No room for nuance. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had made their judgment. Something horrible happened to Henry, and we all saw how it ended. This is what homosexuals do. They abuse children and make more homosexuals. They do drugs and wallow in hatred. And then they die from their own malice. Henry did not choose what happened to him, but he made a lot of dumb choices thereafter.
But this narrative did not sit well with my father. After my Pop-pop’s funeral, he took my brother and me for some Jersey-style pizza: thin, soggy, plain. I asked about Uncle Henry, what he was like, growing up and today.
He told me his older brother was the funniest person he knew – always a jokester. Henry used to whisper in his ear at night that the moon was hungry and wanted to eat him. They could spend hours on the Long Beach Island shores, particularly in the winter, walking to and from Barnegat Lighthouse. They paid their dollar and walked all the way up the winding staircase to the top and looked out into the endless ocean. Henry liked heights. He liked roller coasters, too, and the two often made trips to the local theme park, that was before Six Flags bought it up and made it all corporate. He always stood up for his brothers. He was the toughest guy in school. A big kid smacked my father one day, and Henry found him and broke his nose. Three weeks later, the big kid drowned during the school picnic. There was no connection, but Henry felt responsible. The accident haunted him. He considered himself a devout Christian and often quoted the Bible. He said God would see him through. He was discharged from the Navy after a mental breakdown. He had chronic back pain. He struggled with addiction. He never held down a job. He lived off government support. He lived in a trailer. He called my father once a week. He could go on for hours. He was always invited to come stay with us. He only said yes to that once. His body withered. It failed him. He called my father on his deathbed. He begged not yet not yet not yet. He died with Luke by his side, while my father sped down I-95 to get there in time. My father was told by the hospital that he could keep the remains. He gave them to Luke. Luke called my father once a week. He would go on for hours. My father thanked him, from the bottom of his heart, for staying with Henry when the other members of his family abandoned him – when their parents abandoned him – when their characterizations of him were horribly inadequate – when they summed him up with only one word. My father cried on the phone. They spoke every week for a year. Then, one evening, Luke called my father, got the voicemail, left a message, said goodbye, took a bottle of painkillers, and drifted away. My father sped down I-95, but it was too late. He delivered Luke’s ashes to his family. He took my Uncle Henry’s ashes. He drove up I-95 straight to Jersey, to Long Beach Island, to Barnegat Lighthouse. It was winter. My father climbed the spiral staircase and let his brother go.
I cannot believe in the concept of simple. My father taught me better than that.