Pride Through Repetition

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I have come out to my grandmother over 25 times.

The first time was the most terrifying. My 83-year-old grandparents and I sat together in a small recording studio as I interviewed them about their life together, wanting to save their voices to listen back to after they were no longer here with us.

During the last two minutes of the hour we’d booked, I surprised myself by coming out to them. My grandfather responded indirectly with, “we know you will have a good life.” My grandmother, with silence. I assumed then that would forever be our shared experience of my moment of honesty, her quiet sealed on tape, my voice shaking with shame as we closed out the conversation.

Instead, in the four years since that day, I have been given that moment back over and over, each time slightly different. Each time, another chance. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and does not remember these conversations. Instead, she continues to ask me questions about current boyfriends and future husbands.

Despite the widespread idea of a coming out story as a singular moment of revelation, a monolithic event, the reality is that sharing a marginalized identity often takes both time and repetition. By the time I was 12 years old, I knew I was queer but stayed silent, fearing rejection from my community and friends if I were to share the truth. In my rural farming town, the hallways of my middle school swam with slurs. The identity I ached to claim was considered dirty, disgraceful.

I was 20 by the time my season of coming out truly began, months where most conversations started with my secret and a silent plea for acceptance. Even when I did begin to tell loved ones, friends and family about my sexuality, I continued to find excuses to avoid coming out to my politically liberal but socially conservative grandparents. When I finally did tell them that day in the recording studio, I was 24, and out to everyone except them. At the time, I was not aware of how far my grandmother’s dementia had already progressed, nor prepared for how rapidly it would continue to do so.

Only two years later, as my grandmother dressed for our walk in the quiet frozen fields of a Vermont winter, she had started to question who I was. This day, she knew me as her granddaughter, and we reveled in it together. We walked with our arms brushing, not quite touching, the sound of our feet on frosted grass the only break in the hush between us. Her dog, a large lab, rambled ahead. His fading white muzzle matched the dusting of new snow.

We traced the length of the field as I waited for the question I knew would come. “So,” she said, “do you have a boyfriend?”

Sometimes I’d just say no and leave it at that. Prompting responses from her that both amused and saddened me.

“Well, you’re a beautiful girl,” she said once, “one day you’ll come around a corner and there he’ll be, waiting for you.” Although the idea of suddenly coming upon a man waiting for me on the street did not sound appealing to me, I understood where she was coming from. Her love for my grandfather continues to astound and humble me. Regardless of the genders involved, they have a relationship worth learning from.

In the years that had passed since that day in the recording studio, I’d graduated from college, moved across the country, and met the woman who would become my fiancée. While my grandmother sank further into her illness, my shame around my queerness slowly molted into a quiet pride. My partner had been welcomed by the majority of my family, my grandfather’s continued discomfort an outlier based more in generational confusion than judgment.

My grandmother, however, continues to ask me about my future and my relationships or lack thereof with increasing anxiety. Some things she remembers almost obsessively. Water the plants. Feed the dog. The location of her husband within the house at any given moment. Others drift across her awareness with heartbreaking brevity. My brothers, grown and tall when in her sight, remain rambunctious young boys when not physically present. “When are we going home?” she’d asked my father, her son, sitting in the living room of her own house.

Loving someone with dementia often makes every interaction feel like a way of saying goodbye, aware that the next time you see them, they will be one small fraction further away. My desire for my grandmother to know that I have found the type of love I have always wanted, a love I hope mimics my grandparents’ both in longevity and intensity, is rooted in her slow fade away from us. A way of saying, here I am, celebrated and in love, remember me like this.

Every time I have told her about my queerness, my partner, or anything around my sexuality, it has slipped away within moments. And yet, she keeps asking. And I keep answering. We circle around the topic with deliberate care, handing it back and forth, not getting anywhere, but still moving. There is a scratch on the record of our story together, the sharp rub of a pebble between sock and shoe, something that she can’t quite reach but knows is there.

And so, we take walks. When I’m home, I visit her and make her tea and sit with her. I tell her stories she forgets by the time I leave. The last time I was home we walked the icy fields again. In the frigid air, the late winter slowly shifting toward the chill of early spring, she asks, just as I knew she would. A slight variation this time, but still the same.

“So,” she does not look at me, careful to keep an eye on her footing, a scrap of her sharp awareness that has yet to leave, “is there a man in your life? Someone special?”

“I have a very special person in my life,” I tell her, watching her perk up with interest, “she’s a woman though, my partner. We are engaged. She’s amazing.”

My grandmother does not say anything for a moment, and I think, as I often do the moment after I tell her: Perhaps this is the time she rejects me. Maybe this will be the moment where I am no longer welcome. Shame, a resilient beast, flushes my cheeks and stiffens my shoulders. She glances off toward her old dog waiting patiently ahead of us.

“Hm,” she offers, “OK.” Her response is one I often get from her, one step before the processing, one moment before whatever might come next, should she be lucid enough to continue. “Perhaps you can meet her one day,” I say. She and my partner have met many times. Each time, starting the process over anew.

“I’d like that, I think,” her answer pauses us into silence, our one precious glorious moment shared, and then gone. The time before she asks again almost visible, like the footprints we track back across on our way home.

After spending so many years living in shame about the way I love, years in which each time I told someone, my heart would race and I would be unable to meet their eyes, my grandmother’s lack of memory around my queerness has given me an unexpected gift. I wish, of course, I could have told her when she was lucid enough to remember.

I am aware that as her Alzheimer’s progresses, we will lose much more of her. In that, I am grateful each time we walk together, her 87-year-old body next to mine, to hold the same conversation between us. Each time I tell her, and she does not reject me, each time she welcomes me as fully as she knows how to, I add one more block to building my self-acceptance.

All of the times I lied to friends and family, all of the times I wasn’t brave enough to be honest about the way I love replaced with an opportunity to choose, over and over, to be proud.

Caroline Catlin is a writer and photographer who is working on a memoir.