Turning the Lights On

By

Honor her for all her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

– Proverbs 31:31 NIV

When my momma finally comes home, she sinks into the couch and kicks up the footrest. Mak and I—six and three and hardly higher than the cushions—rush to unlace her combat boots. Heavy as they are, we lean with our entire bodies away from her, pulling until the boots give. We fall back onto the carpet in fits of giggles, each of us holding a newly freed boot while our momma wiggles her socked toes at us. Every afternoon is the same: We hear her heavy steps on the back porch, and as soon as she steps inside, we are there, hopping in place while she sheds her uniform. Momma, I wonder if you remember the day this ritual stopped. The day you walked through the back door, and we weren’t there to meet you.

 

When a particularly strong storm shuts the power off in my childhood home, the following quiet settles quick and absolute. No phone or laptop screens light my and my family’s faces: Candles glow in the kitchen and living room while we save batteries for potential emergencies. My parents sit like a portrait. My sisters sleep in their rooms to kill time. If the clouds give way for the sun, I find whatever pocket of window light I can to read books under.

I grew up in these folds of silence, learned when to tip toe around it, when to wait for its end, when to surrender, and when to dance into the middle of the living room and scatter the quiet under the loveseat, the entertainment set, the popped-out footrest. I know silence when it simmers—when it stutters or slinks or stretches out like a blanket in the chill of winter. I learned how to bow my head and close my eyes in the between rows of silent pews, how to Be still and know that I am God. My hands can detect which silences ring hot and which ones act as a soft brush of skin: the ability to sit with someone else and just be.

The silence of our power outages is a kind of silence that settles soft in a room, in a mouth, in a body that is tired. When my sisters and I are young, the long interludes of darkness scare us. You say, Soldier up. I imagine lacing up combat boots all my own, but I don’t yet know how to tie my shoes.

Through the windows I can see a neighbor’s tobacco fields on the other side of our pond. Sometimes they grow soybeans or sweet potatoes, but when I try to picture the land in different seasons, I only see cotton like the fields behind Papa’s house. At my back, a silent living room, but I know you are there, finding peace in this moment before the world starts up again.

I am five years old, back beside the couch, and you are there, footrest popped, combat boots laying where Mak and I dropped them. The television is on, and I hear the word on a show I no longer remember in a context I no longer recall. It shifts the room.

I ask, Momma, what’s gay mean? and am met by a stone quiet that crackles the air, a silence I swallow whole and make part of myself. I don’t know what I’m asking, but I am ashamed.

When I receive no answer, I call the only other girl my age in my neighborhood and we meet up in the middle of our cul-de-sac, per tradition, before running to crouch by the rough brick side of my house—the side without windows. I ask again, What’s gay mean? and she is a little unsure of her voice giving life to the words: It’s when boys like boys instead of girls.

At five years old, an incomplete definition of the word gay is whispered in my ear as a secret. I don’t quite know what this taught me, but even years after Pastor’s hellfire sermons, I am still unlearning.

 

Hard Southern parents birth Southern children who want to be better, do better. Those Southern children have Mak, then me, then Josie and Emily. The four of us benefit from the resolve of those Southern children to always tell their children that they are loved. You loved me, Momma, love me still. I am not unaware.

And yet: Soldier up.

How to tell a military mother there should be no such thing. How to tell a military mother that Dad cannot soldier up through the depression that buries him after his father dies, that Emily cannot soldier up when everything that has hurt her in this world makes her want to leave it, that I cannot soldier up when I slice my hand open in my kindergarten art class—I’m bleeding, Momma, don’t you see the blood?

 

Five, six, seven, twenty-three years old: no matter my age, I am never awake in time to see you lace your boots in the morning before you leave for work.

Momma, you don’t have to soldier up either. Settle in. Let me take your shoes off.

 

“Was I the last to know?” is the only question you ask, stilted and holding so much back, the way I learned.

My first thought is: Momma, this isn’t about you.

My second thought, still: I love you.

But I don’t voice them, and now, at twenty-four, the thoughts continue to circle. This isn’t about you. I love you. This isn’t about you. I love you. 

 

I love you, but then: be better, do better. I feel guilt in the not good enough I carry alongside the not bad enough. I have it easy, after all. I am not hated, disowned—not shamed enough to leave without a word. Yet there is something cheap about being loved in spite of. Something sharp in the way unacceptance can sit between the ribs where all the love’s supposed to go. You give me this dichotomy to sit with, as if I do not have enough: queer and godly, gay and straight, a community on either side waiting for me to just pick one already. As if these work the same way you taught me Jesus saves; as if this is my choice.

 

On a recent trip home, you ask if I’m seeing anyone, and I avoid letting you in by saying I don’t have time. This is true: My friends and I have a running joke about my emotional unavailability. I cannot give into things that don’t have long-term payout. I don’t want in the moment. I want as long as I’m alive. You and I talk about this instead of what you mean to ask. Or rather, what I don’t let you ask. We spar between the subtext of our silences. You say, at twenty-three, I still have a lot of time to figure everything out.

Two weeks later, I plan to go to Pride events scheduled in my city. When the time comes, I cancel last-minute and cannot admit why. I am not usually concerned with the fear of missing out—such an easy thing to soldier up and soldier through, for me—but this time, I scroll past a picture of my roommates with Pride flags painted on their cheeks and think, You’ve missed something here. The next picture is B hugging her new girlfriend whose face breaks open from how wide her smile is and I think, You’ve missed something important. As the first to come out in our friend group, I watch each person who once came to me with timid questions now raise rainbows overhead and I think, This joy is meant for you, too.

But the truth is, Momma, I find it difficult to claim this pride at the risk of losing yours.

 

When coastal North Carolina is under the threat of yet another hurricane, I don’t take my chances. I evacuate, retreat to the relative safety of our small town. I go home.

A book titled Gay Girl, Good God is sitting on Dad’s side table in the living room. I hold it up to my sister while she does her homework, laugh and scoff, “Can you believe this?” and she smiles that I know, seriously smile, just a little sad as it fades. I take a picture of the book cover to share in a group chat.

“Is that a conversion book or an I can be gay and Christian at the same time book?”

“The first one,” I respond. Though I don’t truly know the details, I know my father, and I know the God he went into Ministry for.

“Oh hell,” my friends write, “I’m so sorry.”

To be more accurate, Gay Girl, Good God is about a former lesbian’s journey back to wholeness through Jesus. The book argues that Christians who suffer from same-sex attraction do not have to hide this feeling, this pull. Rather, we should simply avoid giving into the act, the way Christians must do with any other sin against God. I put the book back down and brush it off. Although misplaced, Dad is putting in effort. Something I still cannot see from you, Momma.

Except I can’t brush it off.

I think about putting a magazine over the book. I think about throwing the book away or picking it up and screaming at the both of you. I think about dying. I think about leaving home a day earlier than planned, hurricane be damned. I think about dying.

Instead, I go to bed early and do not go back to Wilmington the next evening, though I want to. I stay, and when you ask me to come sit with you, I do. I curl into your side, the way I did at five years old, and find I still fit the same at twenty-three.

 

 

You are one of the only women in our state to be promoted to Sergeant Major. You hold the promotion ceremony in Raeford despite the snow so your parents can attend. At one point during the ceremony, your immediate family stands in a line next to you. I am tasked with removing the pin of your old rank; it still sits in the bottom of the bag I used that day. As both a pastor and your husband, Dad steps forward to lead everyone in prayer. When he chokes up halfway through, I sense my sisters’ throats tightening along with my own—we do not have to speak, do not have to raise our bowed heads and look at one another to know that we are holding back tears of our own. When Dad finally manages through to his Amen, the room applauds, and I stand soldier-straight in my pride for you.

 

Some days, I want to shut out all the light and noise—a power outage all my own. I want to cut off my ears and live in what I find after. Let myself sink into that Southern silence I was raised on and forget the word resurface. Other days, I call until you pick up the phone just to hear your voice. Do you know you sound like Grandma when the words finally come through on the other side of the static? When I need the specific hug only you possess, you give them freely. Growing up, I never knew what it was to need. When my college professor calls you to Wilmington in the spring, says I’m lying unresponsive in my bed and won’t speak to anyone, says that while the earth is coming back to life, your daughter wants to die, you and Dad drop your lives to save mine. Momma, I am not unaware.

 

When I tell you I like women for the first time, I do so through a lengthy text. In the text I write, “I’m not gonna pick up any calls after this.”

I write, “I’m not gonna ask for forgiveness.”

I write, “I hope you still love me.”

The assumptions piss you off—they hurt, dig into your weak points, and you never did know what to do with pain or loss except mold it into anger. You are beyond offense at the idea that I could question the truth of your love, you Southern child of a hard Southern man, you trying so hard to do better, be better—you loved me, love me still. I am not unaware. But you taught me how to soldier up, so here are my walls, Momma. Here’s my armor, my war cry. Do you remember how I sounded the day I was born? The power cut out in the maternity ward almost as soon as you arrived, but nothing could stop you, stop me: not the darkness of the hour or the darkness of the room. Do you remember how I sounded that day, when you first held my body in your arms rather than the pit of you? I am crying still.

***

Rumpus original art by Teresa M. Beatty.

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). – Ed.


Tyler Anne Whichard is a queer Southern writer from North Carolina. She is an MFA fiction candidate at UNC Wilmington where she has interned for Lookout Books and read for Ecotone. Among others, her work appears in Hobart, Blue Earth Review, and Memoir Mixtapes. She is currently working on a novel based on her lived experience growing up queer and Christian in the American Bible Belt. More from this author →