I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mortality lately. I’m 52 years old. I’m fortunate that I have always looked young for my age, but the years are starting to show—the lines deepening, the waist expanding, the hairline disappearing. My father died of dementia twenty years ago. My mother (at the age of eighty) recently underwent triple bypass surgery. So, with every chest pain, with every forgotten name or appointment, I wonder how much time I have before the arteries harden and choke off my heart, or before the brain decays to mush and I’m peeing on myself in a forgotten corner of some nursing home.
To understand my journey over the past ten years, you need to understand why I’ve always looked so young for my age. I was born with a rare endocrine condition called Kallmann Syndrome. There’s not enough room in this essay to discuss this in detail, but the end-result was that I did not undergo puberty until I started hormone treatment in my twenties. How do you navigate the tricky waters of sexuality, how do you know you’re gay, without societal cues or role models (no Internet back then, No Brokeback Mountain or even Will and Grace), and without the internal biological drives that might compel behavior despite denial or lack of self-awareness? Short, slight-of build, physically immature, and shy, I was bullied and ostracized in high school for being gay, but the accusations just left me confused. Did my classmates know something I didn’t? I wasn’t attracted to men; I wasn’t attracted to anyone at that time. I had no internal, biological signals to guide me.
When I first met my ex-wife in 1989 (I was twenty-four), only a year or so after starting testosterone treatment, I was the physical equivalent of a randy thirteen-year-old, ready for sex without understanding what I really needed or wanted. I was ill prepared for a relationship; I was a decade behind my peers in dating experience, and I had grown up in a dysfunctional home where feelings were barely acknowledged and never discussed. But I loved her, we were best friends, and we eventually married. As you might expect, we had a difficult marriage, for all sorts of reasons. After five years, we agreed to separate.
I moved from New Jersey to Chicago in 1999. The move was shattering, apocalyptic. My marriage had fallen apart, and I now was alone in a new city where I had no family or friends. I lingered for five years in despair, probably the darkest years of my life. But, it was only after our separation, after my exile in Chicago (we had no children or money; the logistics were simple), that I finally began to explore and understand my sexuality. It was a terrifying and liberating process. I now understand that I needed to reach that place of despair; I needed to fracture so that I could rebuild my life into something that was sustainable and fulfilling.
Ten years ago, I was sitting in Grand Central Station with my ex-wife, determined to tell her I was gay. I had already come out to friends and family. I had tried to tell her on several previous visits but could not find the courage. We sat in the lower level, sipping coffee. Panic was rising in my chest. I feared, yet again, I would not be able to tell her. I was catching the train to White Plains to visit my family, and I only had a half hour left. Finally, I blurted it out. “I’m gay.” The initial look of shock on her face was devastating. How could she have known? I hadn’t even known. And then, like some brilliantly timed slapstick comedy, all the fire alarms sounded throughout the station and we were forced to evacuate. We hurried out and found a coffee shop. We talked awhile. She was sweet, supportive, and understanding. We remain friends to this day.
I’m a bit scared to share this essay online. I’ve always been an intensely introverted and private person. Although I live as an openly gay man, there are only three people in my life with whom I have ever discussed my medical history. However, all the good things that have happened to me in the past ten years have been the result of my finding the courage to share myself with others. I see now that my journey over the past ten years has been a journey toward intimacy. I am just beginning to learn to trust in vulnerability. In the past ten years, I have found good friends and a loving partner. I graduated from an MFA in Writing program last year. But I’m worried that I won’t have enough time to finish the work that I have just started. I want more time to write. I want more time to live as the person I am still becoming, a person with the courage to be open, loving, and honest in this cruel, generous, beautiful, terrifying life. I’m not that person quite yet—but with enough time, I might be.
Jerome Lane is a physician and writer in Chicago. He received his MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016.
Jerome wants you to consider donating to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, or the local food bank of your choice. Visit www.chicagosfoodbank.org.