We were in elementary school, first grade. My friend, Travis (I’ve changed names), was the kid everyone picked on. He was a tall, glasses-wearing, brainy, shy kid. He was also my next door neighbor. There was a tennis court between our houses, and we often did silly things like jump around the court singing commercial jingles. (“They’re putting pink elephants in new Crispy Critters…”) During recess one day, several mischievous boys found a way to use multiple jumping ropes to tie Travis to a tree. He didn’t cry, but his helpless eyes met mine as the recess bell sounded. We were being summoned back to our classroom. I was torn. The rules said I was supposed to go to class–we got in trouble if we didn’t obey the bell. But there was Travis, bound to a tree. Could I leave him? I walked backwards towards the school, then shouted, “I’m sorry. The bell. Sorry.” I faced forward and ran back to class.
Of course, Travis was quickly rescued by the teacher, and those responsible for bullying him were reprimanded. Nonetheless, the image of me leaving my friend haunted me–especially later in my life.
In our late teens, Travis and I dated for awhile, he went on a mission, and after his mission, we dated some more. Many assumed we’d marry. One of my roommates told him, however, that he could “do better.” So (wise boy!) he dumped me. I entered a disastrous marriage, and emerged divorced and emotionally wrecked. Travis and I resumed our friendship (it was platonic now), and he helped me through the emotional ruins I then had to negotiate. My ex (who had himself been damaged by abuse) had told me that nobody could possibly love me. I was simply not lovable. On the phone, I tearfully repeated those words to Travis, and heard his voice break. “Margaret,” he said, “that’s not true. Don’t you ever believe that. I love you. I love you.” This was not the prelude to a marriage proposal. The week before, Travis had told me he was gay.
The year was 1983, and my first concern when Travis came out was that he would get AIDS. He assured me he was being careful. As my life stabilized, I became less concerned about AIDS and more concerned for his soul. I wanted him to abandon what I considered merely a bad decision. He told me that he had known he was “different” from the time he was seven, but I rejected that. Surely, homosexuality was merely a proclivity and could be set aside through repentance. I wrote him a long letter, begging him to come back to the faith, to get married and have children. I opened with the line, “I don’t know what it’s like to be a homosexual.” He read whole thing to a friend, and reported the friend’s words back to me: “She should’ve stopped there.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that his friend was right. I was in no position to judge. But by this time, my long friendship with Travis was gone. My notes to him went unanswered. We lived our separate lives for twenty-plus years, and only recently met again, when his father died.
I was nervous about going to the funeral. Would Travis bitterly remind me of how harshly I had judged him? Of how much I had presumed? Would he give me one look and turn away?
No, as soon as he saw me, he broke into a large, familiar smile, embraced me, and told me I was beautiful. At an appropriate time, we sat and talked. I apologized for being less a friend to him than he had been to me. He said I shouldn’t dwell on it. The friendship was quickly, sweetly restored.
The image of him bound to that tree, the image of me walking away with an apology but no remedy still hits me hard, however. By not standing up for him then, I contributed to his abandonment and pain. That won’t happen again.
Lest this blogpost turn into a talk about homosexuality, let me state that this is about friendship and love, not sexual orientation. It is a long overdue acknowledgment of how Travis helped me heal of my own emotional pain, and a call for me (at the very least) to do better now than I did then.