The In-between: Coming Out with Alzheimer’s

8/1/2018

Lorien and Grandpa

My lawyer aunt came out to me when I was fourteen years old. We were standing together in the upstairs bedroom where I was currently staying, and which I had always assumed belonged to the nice young woman named Rene. At the time my lawyer aunt, Rene, my other aunt (the naked aunt), and my naked aunt’s (then) husband were all living together. In response to this assumption, my lawyer aunt smiled and told me no, that she and Rene were partners, and both slept together in the room down the hall. After a flash of anxiety that I now understand was rooted in my own then-closeted bisexuality, I concluded that I liked Rene, my entire California family seemed incredibly happy, and that however it worked, this happiness was something that I wanted very badly for myself.

Once I got over the initial shock of learning my lawyer aunt’s sexuality, I then found myself most surprised by my grandfather’s acceptance of it. Grandpa had always been a very warm and loving man, but he was also a bit on the conservative side, and had generally seemed to embrace traditional notions surrounding gender roles and sexuality. As a result, I was surprised to hear him explain to me that being queer was just the way that some people were born, and that besides that, how and whom we as individuals love “wasn’t anyone else’s damn business anyway.”

That being said, I also got the sense that he always assumed I was straight. Of course, this was due in large part to the general expectations and social norms surrounding sexuality, as well as the fact that until my mid-thirties I hadn’t fully embraced myself as bi. However, he also likely presumed I was straight because by the time I was a young adult I had earned the reputation for being boy crazy. As such, I don’t think anyone, especially my grandfather, really gave much thought to (let alone questioned) my sexuality, other than to hope I didn’t get myself pregnant or sex trafficked before I finished college.

Unfortunately, by the time I moved in, Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s had already progressed well past the stage where he and I could have a meaningful conversation about the intricacies of my attractions. In his plaque-filled mind, everything had become frozen in time, such that new information never really made sense or stuck around for more than five or ten minutes. To him, my naked aunt would always be married to Jay, my lawyer aunt was perpetually the beautiful young athlete who happened to be gay, and I would forever be his twenty-something year-old boy-chasing granddaughter, no matter how many times I told him otherwise. As such, when he and I sit down for dinner together in the evenings, he usually ends up teasing me about some fictitious boyfriend of mine (“poor man!”), and then half-jokingly inquiring as to when my brother and I are getting married (“—not to each other”).

On one hand, I really enjoy these exchanges. Not only do I get the joy of watching him laugh so hard his eyes water every time I respond to these frequent inquiries with my well-rehearsed wit, but I also get to experience the loving and protective behavior of a male parental figure that I never really had with my father growing up. When I mention to Grandpa that I’m not eating dinner at home because I have a date, for example, he feigns dramatic surprise and then tells me quite sincerely that if the young man ever gives me any trouble I should just bring him by the house so that Grandpa can “set him straight.” Even though I know that nowadays he is mostly all bark and no bite, I still revel in the mental image of Grandpa making some poor guy drop down and give him twenty push-ups just because he had been late picking me up or hadn’t pulled out my chair at dinner. Sure, the modern, independent, grown woman part of me was awash in eye rolls, but the fragile little daddy’s girl greedily hungered for more.

At the same time, however, I have also found these exchanges with Grandpa to be somewhat limiting. Even though I know his brain can’t really hold onto any new information at this point, I still often feel like I am hiding a part of myself. Firstly, despite the fact that my dating interests have been primarily centered on men, his jokes about my boyfriend and assumptions about my romantic life have pushed me to once again weigh the costs and benefits of coming out. Even if he does grasp the concept of bisexuality, is it really a conversation I want to have with him every time we speak? Particularly given that my romantic relationships have, thus far, always been with men, does it really matter that he recognizes this part of me?

Similarly, I have also chosen to forgo discussing my adventures into polyamory. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see Grandpa truly understanding the concept of dating and loving more than one person at a time, and I really don’t feel like explaining myself over and over again. In this case, it helps that he never remembers meeting any of my partners anyway, so I can enjoy a strange sort of freedom in knowing that I will never have to defend or justify myself. However, particularly because the rest of my family and friends are all aware of my foray into ethical non-monogamy, I once again feel a layer of self-imposed invisibility in our relationship.

Honestly, I have no idea whether my decision not to have these conversations with Grandpa is the right one. Despite his rather conservative views on gender roles and sexuality, he has chosen to accept and embrace both of his daughters, regardless of their sexuality or how much clothing they tend to wear around the house. Perhaps it is equally possible that he would accept me. However, since his disease has set in, all of us have become frozen in time, and any attempt to correct or update our story has only come at the cost of considerable effort. As a result, for now, at least, I choose instead to simply enjoy this time with my grandfather, even though to do so I continue to keep a part of myself from the light.

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Lorien Hunter
Lorien Hunter is a writer, researcher and aspiring world traveler who currently lives in San Jose, California. In 2017, she earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Southern California, where she examined digital media, popular culture and marginalized communities. Today, she is a regular contributing writer at Bi.org, where her weekly column, The In-between, centers on her experiences as a biracial bi woman finding comfort and belonging in the spaces between worlds.