My Incredible Hulk

JohnI felt the tingle, actually the sting, of a -30 degree Fahrenheit day in Calgary during the 1960’s. The winters of my childhood always seemed brazenly cold. Yet on that early December evening my brother John was about to create something I had not experienced before: Christmas magic.

Earlier that day he arrived home with a huge surprise. “It’s time our house shines with the twinkle of Christmas”, he gleefully shared.

In all my previous eleven Christmases it was always the neighbours, never the Dolan’s, whose homes glistened with Christmas lights.

My big brother John changed all that. He, single-handedly, changed the course of how I experienced Christmas. He showed me the possibility of magic and to date it is one of my single greatest beliefs: life can be magical.

John lived between the immense accomplishments of his older brother Rick and the almost celebrity status of his younger brother Jim. Yet from my vantage point, as one of the younger five kids, John always felt the gentlest.

He loomed larger than life. His nickname growing up was “The Hulk”. That perhaps would attest to how it was that he drove through a living room wall, in his kiddy car, as a young child.

I always sensed an innocence about him. Yet his attraction to the allure of his brothers Rick’s and Jim’s lives felt quite unsettling.

John consistently reached out to me. He loved that I was a Cub Scout. There were times he would help me iron my uniform scarf and he always made sure the badges and stars I earned were properly sewn onto my cub sweater.

He always struck me as a wise man and a thoughtful teacher. I made up a story that he was going to be a Catholic priest.

He invited me, every Saturday, to join a church group of young boys he was teaching basketball to. I loved that “the coach” was my big brother. Yet he made sure I worked as hard as the others.

With a significant number of years between us it wasn’t long before the connection to him dwindled. Occasionally, the most I’d hear of him was his rustling about in the back bedroom as he made his way home after a late night.

Much of the confusion and chaos of my childhood typically reared its ugly head between the hours of 2am and 5am. This particular bit of chaos would prove to be no different. I awakened to the screaming voice of my brother John. Layered on top of that was Mom’s voice attempting to sooth her distraught son.

I had never heard John cry. In all my memory, up until that moment, John never raised his voice. I became terrified because the purveyor of magic, in my life, was in deep pain.

Between what seemed to be an inability to breathe he screamed, “He’ll kill me. It was an accident. I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry.” He pounded the thin walls of our tiny wartime house with his powerful fists.

John had borrowed our oldest brother’s car, for the first time, and under the influence of alcohol had careened it into a neighbour’s fence and light post.

I remember thinking how Mom seemed to be more concerned for the car than for her sons feelings. All I wanted to do was hug him and tell him everything was going to be ok.

John’s energy seemed to change from that moment forward. I sensed losing him, but to what I didn’t know. 

I watched helplessly as he bounced from job to job, girlfriend to girlfriend and eventually failed marriage after failed marriage.

Yet when it mattered most he was there. When Rick went through what doctors said might be a surgery that could take his life, John was there. He was there when Mom went into and came out of surgery for cancer. When I came out, he was the first to tell me how brave I was. When Dad was drawing his last breaths, he stood there with me.

I craved a deeper connection with him. I wanted conversation not chit chat. I wanted a deeper understanding, perhaps even answers to why the Dolan’s were, collectively, in such pain.

All he ever said to belay my curiosity and deep concern was, “I couldn’t begin to share the atrocities we endured growing up. It’s way too painful.” It was from that final comment that silence flowed between us for most of our time together.

I like to credit John for the generosity that flows from my heart. He taught me how to give by witnessing his ability to share.

Like our Dad, John suffered the challenges of a weak heart. He would be slowed down significantly, in life, because of heart problems. With one of his rounds of physical challenges he gently said to me, “To think that at one point in my life they called me The Hulk.” My heart ached.

On the heels of additional health issues I asked him if there were any places he’d wished he visited as a boy. Without hesitation he enthusiastically quipped, “Disneyland!”

Within a few weeks I had John and a women friend of his booked on what he’d later tell me was the vacation of his lifetime.

JohnMickeyHe said, “Tommy, I now know why they call it the Magic Kingdom.” My thought was, the magic had simply been re-gifted from my heart to his.

John took his last breath in 2017.

His parting words to me when I saw him last, as he put his warm hands on either side of my face and gave me a gentle kiss, were, “Tommy, I love you.”

His gentle energy lingered as he quietly walked away. I took a breath and lovingly whispered, “Thank you for being my big brother.”

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My Big Sister

memorial-candle1We called her Mo (Maureen), she was my big sister and the creator of magic for me and my four other siblings while we were growing up. She wore the best matching outfits this little gay boy ever saw.

What was strange though was that none of us knew she was our sister or that we even had a big sister until some time during elementary school. That mystery was never addressed. What uncomfortably hung in the air was our father’s discomfort for the man she loved who happened to be twenty years her senior.

The story I made up was that Dad kicked Mo out of the house for having an older man as a boyfriend. I think she was forced out of the house when she was sixteen.

Gordon was her partner. For me he was a powerful father figure growing up and I loved that he called me Thomas, not Tom. I always thought he knew I was gay.

Maureen shared a lot of her vacation time shuttling Mom and us kids, with Gordon, around British Columbia. If it wasn’t for Mo, we never would have had any semblance of summer vacations. Endless summer road trips were always the norm.

Mom and Dad had six boys and four girls. The first child they had, Dorothy, died after just five days of life. Maureen was the eldest Dolan. I was very proud of my big sister.

Long, hot summer days would unfold with Maureen curling my Mom’s hair and both of them finishing at least a pack of cigarettes each and drinking six or eight cups of coffee.  As little kids we fought over who got to make them their cups of coffee and at times who would roll their cigarettes.

Their respective conversations focused mostly on complaining about the men they loved. I just thought that’s what Moms and daughters talked about.

Maureen felt like a princess to me. She had great hair, lovely skin, scarves made of what appeared to be silk and her shoes and purse always matched her outfit. I especially loved watching her apply the shiniest of nail polish to her fingers nails without ever leaving a streak. She was my gay superhero, perhaps even my Wonder Woman.

As an homage to Maureen, after coming out, I would paint my thumb nails with polish. After telling her how much I loved watching her paint her nails, she promised one day to do mine. Sadly, that never happened. 

Maureen bought the best Christmas presents. Better yet, she decorated them in a way that always had me think she was an artist. Our names were always spelled with candy.

The gifts, for all of us young Dolan’s, were usually the same. The best Christmas had all of us, at the same time, unwrap brand new ice skates. Her heart was as big as the holiday. 

She also knew I disliked gifts that I had to share. She gave me, from time to time, my own presents. The best gift was a baseball glove. As I unwrapped it she whispered, “You don’t have to share it with anyone.” She never shamed me for wanting things of my own. 

IMG_7312As I’ve remembered the life of my sister I could also feel, right along with the pain I endured growing up with an alcoholic father in a violent home, that she too felt sad, scared and alone. I wondered what she had witnessed or endured, in her life, that she could never bring the light of day to.

Like me, in an attempt to separate herself from the wackiness of the Dolan’s, she moved away from Calgary. She always said it was the saving grace of her relationship and her life.

Mom hated that Maureen was happy. She hated that Maureen had a life full of most everything Mom didn’t have. I always felt so uncomfortable listening to my Mom disparage my sister. How could it be that Mom was so jealous of her daughter?

Maureen, unlike her three brothers born to the pack of the older Dolan’s, always worked. She spent most of her working career in retail. First Kmart and then spending over 25 years and retiring from Woolco. I loved that she would give me her employee discount on anything I wanted to buy.

Gordon, whom she eventually married, would die of a massive heart attack. She always joked, as did he, that age never dented a degree of love that they shared. I believe Mo’s heart never really recovered from that loss.

We would spend at least an hour per week talking on the phone. My big sister loved to talk.

She adored me. She accepted me, unequivocally, when I came out to her. She loved my first partner and always joked that now she knew why I loved her matching outfits so much.

There came a time when I noticed, after hanging up the phone, Maureen calling back immediately. At first we joked about her redialing by mistake, but it became an all too common occurrence. There was no way she was willing to talk about what might be going on for her medically.

Other members of my family noticed the same dynamic. My Mom labelled her daughter, unceremoniously and with no compassion, crazy.

My heart broke. Maureen was not responding to any of my concerned questions. Eventually she would call back three or four times after our talks and launch into the same conversation all over again.

I was able to talk Maureen into allowing me to come for a visit. Upon arriving, at her home in Penticton, Maureen seemed fine. But after about twenty minutes she began to repeat the same conversation over and over again.

There was no evidence of Gordon in her home. No pictures, no memento’s, nothing. I was terrified for my sister. She insisted everything was alright or didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. There was nothing I could do.

Suddenly, my big sister didn’t seem so big anymore.

I pushed to support her until I pushed too hard, she disappeared. She no longer answered my calls.

According to her friend, whom I had a connection to, Maureen was seeing a doctor. Yet I still wasn’t able to get any details.

Upon sharing the news that Mom had died Maureen casually said that she wouldn’t be able to make the funeral because of a doctor’s appointment. She immediately hung up the phone. Within thirty seconds she called back and asked to speak with Mom.

I remember Maureen telling me that worrying about things in life was a waste of time, being concerned about things was a little more productive. I loved her wisdom. So I chose to be concerned.

On my birthday, in 2005, I received a voicemail from my brother John. He left this message for me to listen to, “Thomas, Maureen is dead.” Maureen was found unconscious in her condo and apparently had been that way for a number of days. 

She was physically strong, which is a classic Dolan trait. But after being admitted to the hospital it didn’t take her long to breathe her last breath.

John was her Executor and I sensed I would have little to do with her funeral, if there was even going to be one. In a moment of energetic connection to her I sensed I needed to go and say good-bye.

I was able to get to Penticton and with a skillful call to the funeral home I was able to convince the Funeral Director to allow me to visit Mo. I never found out the details of what took her life. 

As I approached the stretcher her body laid upon I was overwhelmed with a strong and vibrant sense of her spirit. Although I was naturally uncomfortable breathing into the reality that she would no longer take another breath, I was not scared.

Maureen2I listened to my heart and felt my sister touch my soul with a gentle whisper, “Be concerned no more, I’m ok.”  

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For Love or Touchdowns

JAD Truth loveFootball for me, as a younger person, was key in helping me believe I was loved. As long as I was scoring touchdowns, I thought people loved me.

My brother Rick was my mentor, both for life and, most certainly, for the game of football. He believed I was destined to follow in his footsteps and find a place on a Canadian Football League team.

All i really wanted was to be loved.

“We can promise to cover all your schooling costs if you choose to attend our University. We’d love to have you play with the X-Men here at St. Francis Xavier.” That promise was made in 1973 and confirmed a dream I had long held that it was possible to be awarded a football scholarship; something no Dolan had ever done.

Football brought me friends, adventure, commitment, dedication, devotion, risk, challenge, discipline, fantasy, notoriety, a sense of belonging, confidence, opportunity and love. It’s gifts, to me, were vast.

My bantam football year, 1972, was amazing. My brother Rick was the head coach and my other brother John helped out as an Assistant Coach. 

I was awarded “The Most Inspirational Player” for my team and received “Top Running Back” from the League. Again, it was the feeling of being loved by my big brothers and a host of other people that moved me the most. 

I left the Catholic high school most of my siblings attended and found myself at a Protestant school on the other side of Calgary. With no real connection to anyone, it was football that connected me to this new world.

“Aren’t you the catholic kid that played football with St. Francis? I’ve heard you’re an amazing player.” This was my first informal greeting I received shortly after arriving at my new school. I still remember, amidst the anxiety of those brand new surroundings, feeling loved because of football.

From high school I moved onto the next step, so I thought, in my growth of becoming a professional football player. This is when I began to feel afraid.

The laughter disappeared during practices. I’d hear coaches scream, “Rip their heads off!”, “Hurt them so they’ll remember who they played!”

It was language that was hard to hear; energy that was frightening. Most difficult for me was not being able to find anyone to share with that I was scared. 

Even though my brother was coaching this junior team as well, he too was suggesting that I was not being tough enough to the opposing players. I felt shamed.

This experience was nothing like my amazing years in high school. Add to that the heightened call to violence. Suddenly football was less attractive. My limited time with junior football was horrible. I quit the team.

I chose to return to high school for a fourth year and very much looked forward to playing another season. I knew love was there for me and no one ever wanted me to hurt anyone. I deeply missed this safe harbour.

There was a ruling, from the High School Athletic Association, that would not allow me to play my fourth year with my high school team because of the experience I gained in junior football. I was confused and devastated.

I was never able to tell my brother how terrified I was playing on that junior team. He stopped showing any interest in football as it related to me. The chasm between us deepened. 

The following year I headed to the University of Alberta.

What got me there was the attention I received from the Golden Bears Head Coach. I felt he really cared about me as he enticed me to attend the U of A. I can see now it was the feeling of love or my sense of what love was.

Boy, was I wrong.

When I got myself onto the practice field for the first time, I walked over to the Head Coach and respectfully said, “Proud to report to practice, Chief.” He glared at me and sharply shouted, “It’s Coach! And don’t ever tell me how you feel!” Embarrassed, shamed, feeling unloved and clearly wanting to bolt, I instead turned around and headed into practice.

I made the Golden Bears team of 1977. 

TKD UA

I remember wanting to ask my former high school coaches if feeling so afraid was a normal response to playing on a university football team. I never felt comfortable asking a question for which I thought I’d get laughed at. 

In time, the fear I was experiencing was overwhelming. I’d liken it to the effects connected to post traumatic stress disorder that I read about. The violence I experienced as a member of the U of A football team was even greater.

Sometime during that season I walked away from the team. I never talked to anyone about it. I returned to Calgary.

Being so unconscious, in my life at the time, I eventually returned to the game. This time it was with the University of Calgary. Perhaps being at home would allow me to feel loved.

Not only did that end up being untrue. The fear for the game steadily increased. I became a master at avoiding what I thought would hurt me during practice and also chose to use a separate locker room from the team so I could feel safer.

It amazes me that no one ever suspected the fear I held or how it was that no one ever asked me about it. For me, there was no way I’d ever let someone know how terrified I was.

In what became the last game I ever played in 1980, I sustained a pretty significant head injury. I believe it was classified as a third-grade concussion.

Although I didn’t get it at the time, the injury – my bump on the head – woke me up to the terror that the game I used to love was now causing me. I’d never play again.

After coming out I remember my dear friend Shelagh, one of the few to support me and a wife of one of my teammates, saying she always wondered why I would hang around with the football wives and not my teammates at the football parties. Clearly, it was my need to feel loved and safe.

The dreams I have today of playing football always create immense anxiety, fear and trauma for me. I’ve wondered how I could make them stop.

By telling this story and no longer feeling ashamed of sharing how scary football became for me, I am going to trust that my dreams will change.

I choose to make the generous assumption that I was doing the best I could at the time even though it might have been for either love or touchdowns.

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1967

dreambig“We live on welfare. How do you even think of a place called Hawaii?” That was my Mom’s reply when I shared that one day I’d love to live in Hawaii. I was in Grade 3. That’s when the dream began.

Canada turned 100 years old in 1967. I turned 9. I clearly had no idea of the road ahead, but a part of me fantasied about living in Hawaii.

I remember imagining all the trappings of Christmas without the snow. To an elementary school boy, growing up in freezing cold Calgary, it just didn’t seem to compute. But it didn’t stop the fantasy.

December was the start of repeatedly having to listen to my Father sing ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ from Bing Crosby’s White Christmas album. It might have been my siblings’ hell, but I loved it.

Yesterday, August 30th, 2016 marked my one year anniversary of living in Honolulu, Hawaii. The entire day was filled with gratitude, mostly to my husband, for the profound love and support of allowing me to be with him.

I spent much of the day remembering the innocence of the dream I held and what it must have taken for me to never let it go.

On many occasions and mostly from my family I heard this comment, “Who do you think you are dreaming of living in Hawaii?” It was a rhetorical question to which I always had an answer, but one that I’d never share.

As much as the fabric of dysfunction was woven into my early childhood experiences, specifically the impact of alcoholism, sexual abuse, violence, poverty and devastating secret keeping. A part of me would not let Hawaii go. I think it was my safe haven.

The dream wasn’t rooted in an intellectual or even a curiosity focused understanding of Hawaii, where it was, who were its people. No one encouraged me to explore it. If anything, many scoffed at me for having it at all and blatantly invited me to discard it.

Mom used to call her family her ‘tribe’. It was a description that never sat well with me.

Every Dolan had a well-defined function and position within the tribe and there was no straying from what you were supposed to do and who you were supposed to be.

Dolan’s don’t dream. If I dared to dream my story was that I would be kicked out of the tribe.

The Hawaiian Islands have gifted me with so much in my lifetime. The greatest of these gifts was the introduction of who I know today as my husband. We met on Maui seven years ago with a mere twenty minute conversation to bind us.

While on Maui a few years ago I turned to Adam and shared, “Of all the schemes I could conceive or dream of to get me to these islands, I never thought it would be love that would allow me to live here.”

As I basked in a playful, one year celebration of living here yesterday, which included a yummy veggie burger and an awesome chocolate shake, a few revelations touched my heart.

TKD MilkshakeMy family needed me to be the dreamer. They needed me to be the one to break the chain of life without dreams. They couldn’t themselves, therefore they could not be my cheerleaders. It was I who needed to be my own cheerleader.

1967 was the beginning of my dream towards Hawaii, yet more profoundly it was my journey towards knowing that regardless of the question, love is always the answer.

 

 

TKD Lighthouse walk

Loving my new backyard.

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Remembering

A number of years before my Mom passed away, she called and asked “If I was to gift you with something, what would you like?”

Mom and I had an agreement. It was very simple: the only gift I wanted was a lovely handwritten card and the latest photograph taken of her.

So her question that day was a little puzzling.

“I really want to make you something”, she went on to say. “Something that will remind you of me and the special connection we have.”

Mom had a history of giving me really tacky gifts, hence the agreement about a card and a photograph. Of course I never told her the real reason why I didn’t want any gifts.

So feeling a little surprised by her question and already sensing a decline in her health, I said “Surprise me.” She quickly quipped, “Thank you dear, what fun.”

Months later, on a trip to Calgary to visit, she excitedly met me in the hallway of her condo and said, “I have a surprise for you.” She grabbed my arm and hustled me into her home.

“Remember when I asked you if I could make you something?” to which I quickly replied, “I sure do.” I remember suddenly feeling a little nervous as I glanced at a neatly wrapped package on her kitchen table.

Mom loved to do “crafts”, meaning she excelled at piecing together bits and pieces of nearly any material and calling it art. She was immensely proud of her creations and there was never a time I didn’t praise her efforts. She spent hours, days, weeks and months on her “special projects”.

I pride myself on living light and free, with no true attachment to the few material things I have. In fact I have a rule: if something material comes into my life, I choose to let something go. It keeps me from accumulating stuff. The men I have loved in my life know this all too well, not only having heard my “hang on tightly, let go lightly” soliloquy but also knowing this had most assuredly applied to any gift they may have given me.

Decades ago, my Mom had gifted me a rather hideous brass dolphin with a dangling cut glass pendant. I made the mistake of telling her I had given it away. I quickly endured the shaming wrath of Dorothy Dolan when it came to letting her gifts go lightly. Hence the invention of the card and photo gift exchange.

With great excitement, Mom demanded that I open the gift.

It had been a long time since I had received a wrapped gift from Mom. I had gotten used to peeling open the envelope of a greeting card, reading words of love and seeing another wide eyed smile of my Mom.

As the wrapping paper pulled away from the box, I remembered a commitment I made to myself when it came to Mom’s gift giving, “Never judge a gift by the box.” I giggled as I remembered this mantra.

Mom loved scotch tape. It always took careful slicing skills, with one of her old butter knives, to make sure what ever lurked within the box came out in one piece. All I remember hearing Mom say was, “Be careful dear.”

When the hermetically sealed box was finally opened, the first thing I noticed was a pink coloured top hat. I felt Mom squeeze my arm as I slowly pulled out a ceramic clown.

Clown Princess 2Its nose and lips were painted red and in the spirit of Mom always making sure her hat and shoes matched, the shoes were also pink.

With a long history of receiving “special gifts”, I was aware of my first thoughts and über careful to make sure I didn’t use my out loud voice.

“I made it just for you. Think of it as one of the last gifts I’ll give you.” My heart sunk, my eyes welled up with tears. I was speechless.

With glee that I hadn’t felt from her in years, she implored excitedly, “I wrote a special message on the bottom. Turn it over.”

At first, because of my tears, it was a challenge to focus. But as I steadied my breath and quickly wiped my eyes, the inscription, written with a black Sharpie, came into focus. “To my Princess, love always, Mom.”

Clown Princess 1“It’s an early birthday present dear. I hope you like it.”

Mom raised 10 kids in a small one-bedroom house in northwest Calgary. When she sold the house it was knocked down and a children’s daycare was built on the property. The daycare seemed like a fitting tribute to her. So, when I felt moved to let this gift go, after Mom passed away, I chose to take it back to Calgary.

One of my siblings had planted a tree at the daycare as a sapling, and which now towered over it. Keeping in my mind and heart that I was only letting go of the object not the memory, I placed the clown against the tree. I imagined a small child the next morning discovering it and, in that moment, I felt my Mom squeeze my arm.

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