My friend Ben Nakamura has known he was gay since 7th grade.
He came out early on, but he put off telling his parents.
“There were always times when my mom would ask me, ‘So when are you going to get married?’” Ben recalled. “When are you going to have kids? Do you have a girlfriend yet?”
Instead of answering, he would change the subject.
Ben had planned to tell his parents in college, but then his mom’s health took a bad turn. She developed a brain aneurysm, went blind for six months, had heart trouble and needed pacemaker. It just wasn’t the right time.
“It was getting to be ridiculous,” Ben said. “I was in my 30s at this point, and I just wasn't that kind of person.”
Finally, one New Year’s, he was at his parents’ house, hanging with his mom in the kitchen. She asked him again, “Junior, when are you going to get married?”
"You know what?" he thought, "I’m just going to tell her.”
This was years before gay marriage was legal in Washington state, and Ben replied, “Mom, I’m never going to get married because I’m gay.”
She laughed. “Ha, ha! You’re not gay!”
“And I'm like, ‘Mom, I'm gay.’”
They argued a little, and she seemed disappointed. But Ben was relieved. Coming out to his parents felt like an accomplishment. After that, Ben’s dad was mostly accepting, but his mom didn’t touch the issue.
Ben didn’t mind. He figured she was processing.
A year and a half later, his sister got engaged. At the crowded engagement party, his mom turned to him and said, “When are you going to get married?”
He thought she was joking.
"Come on, Mom, you know I'm not going to get married,’” he said.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"Mom, I'm gay," he said. "You know this.’”
She looked confused.
“You’re gay?” she asked.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, she does not remember,’” Ben said. “She’d had some short term memory issues, but I was like, ‘There’s just no way she can't remember this about me.’”
He felt some of that old shame – and shock that he had to go through it again.
At the next New Year, Ben and his family were at a Buddhist temple where they go every year to chant their resolutions.
“It’s this whole group of probably 500 people or so chanting over and over,” he said. “My mom, just sitting there, is like, ‘When are you going to get married?’
“I was like, ‘Oh no. Not right now.’"
But she persisted. "You just need to find the right girl," she said. "I'm going to chant for you.’”
(Ben chanted for his mother to understand.)
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That night, Ben, his sister and dad hatched a plan to get his mom to remember. Every night before going to bed, his dad would tell his mom, “Junior is gay.”
“Which we thought was really funny,” Ben said. “We didn't know if he would do it or not, and we were imagining my mom and my dad, laying there in their bed, saying goodnight and, ‘Junior is gay.’”
But Ben’s mom kept asking. She would ask over breakfast, then bring it up again in the afternoon.
He could tell when it was coming. Birthday parties for grandkids were a trigger. He could see the look in her eye. She would look at him, then the kids.
“We're making it through the birthday cake, and – there she goes, there she goes! – ‘When are you going to get married?’”
Ben believed it may be an emotional block.
“There's a part of her that just doesn't really want to believe it. Even though she sees me as a happy person every day, she thinks I probably can't be happy unless I’m married to a woman,” he said.
The routine had grown tiresome.
“It’s run the gamut of frustration to anger to sadness to just being a hilarious story that I would tell,” Ben said. “Now I’m just tired of talking about it. Now it's like, ‘Mom, come on. At this point you have to know. It's been 10 times, or it's been 15 times that we have this conversation, and I know you must know.’”
Sometimes, when the timing was particularly awkward, he would agree with his mom, telling her that he planned to marry and have a baby.
Some time ago, I went grocery shopping with Ben and his mom. They joked around a lot, and she leaned on his arm as she walked.
Sitting in the car afterward, Ben mentioned his sister's pregnancy. We both looked at his mom and waited. We knew he was setting her up. Without missing a beat, she turned to him and said she wanted him to get married.
Ben is my friend, and I've heard him imitate his mom saying this dozens of times at parties, but watching it happen was sad.
He patiently explained while his mom shook her head. After a while she cried a little. She stared out the window away from him. He slapped her on the leg.
Ben’s mom: "Why are you hitting me?"
Ben’s mom: "You want to make me cry. Just be back to normal."
Ben: "It is – it's my normal."
Ben’s mom: "That's not normal."
Ben: "Well, everyone has their own normal mom. It's not the same, but you always told me to be proud of our differences. You know it's not like I'm choosing. There's no way that anyone would choose this. You know that. To choose to not have your parents want to accept you? Why would you choose that? There's no reason, right? All right?"
Ben leaned over and kissed his mom on the cheek. She laughed, gave him a smile and the subject was closed.
That shopping trip was about nine years ago. Since then, Ben has fallen in love with a man named Paul. They have dinner every week with Ben’s mom.
“My mom really cares for him as well, thinks he’s a great guy. Hug and kiss every time they see each other,” Ben said.
“We just did a birthday party for Ben – 47!” Paul tells Ben’s mom.
She replies, “Mama mia, 47. For me, he’s always 15 years old.”
Ben’s father died a few years ago, and his mom is slower than she used to be.
But looking at Paul sitting at the table, laughing and joking with her, it's as though this is what has crumbled her memory block. Having Paul around is a friendly reminder that her son is gay.
She finally gets it.
“She would still say, ‘You need to find a wife,’” Ben said. “And I’d say, 'Mom, I have Paul.' That was the first couple years. But just recently – I would say in the last year or two – it turned from when are you going to get married to when are you going to give me a mago? When are you going to give me a grandchild? A baby?”