For months I had been telling my wife, Wendy, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to be married. It seemed, at the time, the only way I could hold off telling the truth of what was really going on for me.
She and I sat quiet on that Saturday morning in March of 1988 in Calgary; it was the blare of a telephone ring that shattered the silence. As I picked up the phone, my Aunt, the most devoutly Catholic woman I have ever known, sharply asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about Rick?” I can still feel the crush of my knees as I fell to the floor.
Within an hour, and accompanied by my dearest friends, I was taken by the funeral home staff to a desperately quiet room. At the front of it lay the body of my eldest brother Rick. He was draped in a white sheet. “Is this your brother, Ricky Bruce Dolan?” quizzed the Funeral Director.
Rick would be the second of ten children, which Dorothy and James (our parents) brought into the world, to die. None of us were around for Mom and Dad’s first, Dorothy, to pass on after surviving only five days. Plus, it was the 1930’s.
Rick was the most accomplished of the Dolan Tribe; that’s the name Mom used to describe her children. He was Calgary’s football star and shone brightest in most athletic endeavours he chose. He was a brother, uncle, nephew, father and firefighter. He also had a secret.
Rick and I, although best of friends, seemed to embroil ourselves in this pretence of who could be the most perfect in the family. Each of us knew exactly what it was that made the chase of perfection so elusive. Yet, it seemed, no one else did.
Rick was alcoholic and I was gay; those were our secrets. The family, like most dysfunctional families particularly with alcoholism, did everything it could to make sure no one knew Rick’s secret. If I had named Rick’s, he might have named mine. With such shame for my gay self, there was no way I’d whisper a word.
I listened to Rick tell me one day; without naming what he was talking about, he said, “You have no idea what it is like to yearn for something you can never have.” I sensed it was alcohol he spoke about. I did know the yearning. Mine was the love of a boy.
When I went to the rooming house where Rick died, after getting the key from the Police, to clear out his things I was stunned to find drafts of a letter he had partially completed to his two sons.
Rick had asked Wendy and I to come visit him at a halfway house just before Christmas in 1987. He shared with me that he had been trying to write to his sons. He simply wanted to communicate how sorry he was for not raising them and to tell them part of his truth about who he was. He did not want to keep the secret from his boys anymore. It would be the last time I saw him.
So here were drafts, practice letters, which I thought he had never finished. My story was that he got really close to sharing a part of himself he hid for so long, but didn’t quite make it. The letters were never completed and never sent, so I thought.
My tale about not wanting to be married intensified after Rick’s death. I wasn’t sure why, but it did. It was so unfair of me, but it was the only thing I thought I could do. It was clear; my secret was still safe, yet one Dolan was dead.
As I grieved the loss of my brother and attempted to make sense of how close he got to finding joy in life, I suddenly wondered about those letters. I remembered him telling me, “I’m going to practice writing them and perhaps one day I’ll mail them.” I had learned not to listen to the promises of an alcoholic. Yet something stirred inside me.
Unbeknownst to me, I was seeking some relief from the torture of pretending to extend the cover up of being married to a woman, and being gay. So one day I found myself calling Rick’s first wife and before I could ask, she said, “The boys received the letter from Rick, just days before you told us he had died.”
When the forensic report came back detailing the levels of every substance in Rick’s body, the one ingredient missing was alcohol. Rick died sober. I was so proud of him.
Rick died finding joy in telling his sons how sorry he was for not raising them and that he was challenged by alcohol. Rick, it seemed, chose joy and told the truth.
It was overwhelming to learn of these additional details and allow their meaning to seep into my heart. What began as a whisper in my head, that perhaps I could come out by telling my truth to the world, was quickly moving to a commitment in my heart.
My big brother told his truth. He did what was the most difficult thing he could ever think of doing. He found joy in his life I thought he’d missed.
I received Rick’s gift. He inspired me to choose joy. To tell my truth. In August of 1988 I sat with Wendy to tell her I was gay. Thank you, Rick. I love you.