My best friend and I are straight married men, and we say to each other “I love you”
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“I love you,” Doug told me.
“I love you too,” I replied before pressing the red hang-up buttons on our iPhones at the end of our weekly call.
My wife gave me a funny look, like she does every week, at the loving way we always ended our conversations. I suspect his wife did too.
Doug has been my best friend since 1980 when we played Little League baseball together in Providence, Rhode Island. His team, who wore yellow uniforms, were coached by a rude guy who lined up the boys before every game and hit their groin with a bat to make sure they wore their cups.
My team, dressed in blue uniforms, was sponsored by a social club in the popular Fox Point neighborhood. Our end of season party took place in our sponsors’ smoky, dimly lit bar, where we sat at chipped wooden tables to consume our sodas and pizzas. A couple of regulars, parked in their usual places, watched us with amused smiles as they tended to their beers. Some of us would end up occupying those same bar stools as we grow older. Some would not.
At the time, it was difficult to predict who would fall on which side.
Doug and I met on the base paths, although we couldn’t remember if he was running and I was playing on first base or the other way around. Looking at us, it wasn’t clear that this was a friendship that would deepen for decades to come.
Even at that age, he was tall, handsome, and had an ease with people who attracted them. I was of average height, skinny and quite smart. He was a Red Sox fan, while I followed my Bronx native in support of the Yankees. His family was Protestant; mine Jewish. He became a lawyer; me, a doctor.
Our relationships with our fathers brought us closer, however, as we both struggled to navigate them. My dad helped coach my baseball team and, in an effort to dismiss any accusations of favoritism, went too far in proving that I would not receive any special treatment.
He drove to games, the team’s baseball gear stowed loose in the trunk of his Dodge Dart, while I walked apart. When I knocked, he threw his hat into the dirt on the floor of the canoe, disgusted with my shortcomings. If I missed a shot on first base, he wouldn’t talk to me for days.
Doug’s father, an owl history teacher who spent most of his time in a home office from which we were eternally banished, never attended a game. Sometimes he didn’t even notice Doug for days.
One father too present, the other too absent. Doug and I turned to each other to make sense of these dads and to make sure we weren’t bad kids. When my dad was having a temper tantrum over my batting weaknesses, I looked across the field and met Doug’s calm brown eyes. Not your fault they would say. I came to his matches to cheer him on.
“We loved each other, even then. But at this age, at that time and where we grew up, we would never say it out loud. “
Brothers and sisters – and we each had one – are imposed on us. You choose the best friends. And we chose each other.
We loved each other, even then. But at this age, at that time and where we grew up, you would never say it out loud.
As with any long-term relationship, we’ve had some ups and downs. In high school, Doug’s father finally noticed, didn’t like what he saw, and Doug left to join his mother, who lived in Massachusetts. We lost sight of each other until our first summer after starting college. Doug met me at the restaurant where I worked and left me a note with his address and phone number so he was staying with his sister. We resumed as if the time had not passed. I still have the note.
Over the next few years, we met our girlfriends and went to a restaurant and a movie theater as a couple. I enthusiastically told him that I was going to propose, and he did the same before his proposal. Then, after the fact, we called each other to review every detail of how it had gone. We had our bachelor parties, were groomsmen at our weddings, and were the first visitors to see each other’s first children.
We didn’t express our love, however, until my wife and I went our separate ways in 2004. Doug and his wife then divorced after she knocked him out one night by telling him that they were inherently incompatible and that they might as well be done with. For months after their separation, I spoke to him daily and told him that he was a good person, that he was lovely. Finally, he believed me.
I also remember the exact moment we said it. I had moved to a shabby apartment that I had furnished with a small kitchen table, two chairs, an old couch, and a futon. Broken, devastated by my own failed marriage and the thought of losing my young son, I sat on the bare bedroom floor sobbing on the phone as Doug listened, soothed and calmed.
“I love you,” he said, pointing out the I. “I I love you. ”No matter what I thought of myself, or what the rest of the world might say, Doug would always love me.
“I love you too,” I replied, reassured by him, and as if we had been saying these words to each other for years.
This time he called me every day for months until I could put the pieces of myself together, the closing signature of our conversations now firmly established.
“I kiss my boys and tell them how much I love them as much as my daughter.”
We both got married again, both wives, both happy, and used groomsmen for each other again. Our families come together every year, despite the thousands of miles that separate us, and our children call adults uncles and aunts. We are not gay, although we joke that if we were we would choose each other as husbands.
Our women look at us weird when we say that too.
A cultural shift has taken place in the 40 years since Doug and I played Little League baseball with each other, and it’s not so strange today that two straight men are voicing their feelings. feelings for each other as before. However, we recognize that our openness is still not the norm, so we try to model how we treat each other for our children, so hopefully that will be the norm for them. We say the words as they listen to our calls, and I hug my boys and tell them how much I love them as much as my daughter.
Over time, Doug and I developed our routine of weekly phone calls and a lot of texting in between. The topics of our one-on-one sessions range from how work is done and recent bike rides to occasional childhood memories, but always content with parenting.
I now attend my children’s sporting events and cheer them on from the sidelines. Doug coaches his daughter’s football team. Yet we are concerned about the relationships we have developed with our own children. I ask Doug for advice on how he would handle the week’s problem that has arisen in my family, and he does the same with me. I tell him how much I admire the father he has become; it echoes the compliment in return.
And then we say to each other “I love you”, much more comfortable saying the words out loud than when we were younger, and perhaps a little more comforted in the dads than we ourselves have become. .
Mikkael A. Sekeres, MD, MS is Head of the Division of Hematology and Professor of Medicine at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami. He is a widely published essayist and the author of “When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons From Leukemia” (The MIT Press). Follow him on Twitter at @MikkaelSekeres.
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