When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13: 11-13
I am not one to quote scripture. In fact, this passage is the first I’ve read all year, and it’s December 31st. Yet, the last line of this beautiful excerpt kept finding its way into my thoughts the past few months. Often read at weddings, these words resonate because they deal with the enduring power of love. And that’s what prompted me to recall them– a wedding.
The invitation arrived mid-September. Charles Trainer and Ray Giovine requested the honor of my presence at their wedding celebration. My oldest brother was getting married to the love of his life, the man he had fallen in love with over twenty years ago.
Immediately, I knew I was going. Even though it was across the country, even though it was only a few weeks away, even though I had not spoken to my brother in over a year, I was not going to miss this wedding.
For most of the time since Charlie left home, he and I have not been close. To the outside, this distance may have seemed a direct link to his being gay, but to me, and I think him as well, there was just too much space to fill the void left by our childhood. Growing up in such a large family, everyone seems determined to exert their individuality. There is a need to be heard through all the noise, a drive to be noticed in the fray. Finding oneself can prove difficult. Gaining approval and acceptance even more so. Imagine living your life with the knowledge that what you do and say, think and believe, will be dissected and interpreted by many–not just your parents, but your many siblings as well. Such pressure can drive one away.
When I was very young, I idolized my brother–I wanted his wavy hair, his sense of style, his good looks. I thought he was so cool. When I was in college. I could see him struggling to find himself. He was in a hurry to begin his life, a life that could not be lived in the smallness of a Pennsylvania suburb. That life led him first to New York City, and then to Los Angeles, where he has lived most of his adult years. Yet, when he left home, there was no clarification, no discussion, no closure.
If I were in charge of the world, my brother would have come out in his teens to an accepting, open-minded family. He would have felt empowered to embrace his future as a gay man; he would have been emboldened to teach others how to accept differences. In a world that celebrates the wonder of Cam and Mitchell as the couple next door on Modern Family, in a world where the kiss between Madonna and Brittany Speers now seems passe, it is hard to remember how far we’ve come in the way of same-sex relationships. Yet, it doesn’t take much to recall the fear, the ignorance, the animosity, the struggle that so many endured to be who they were born to be.
My sister Kristen and I boarded a plane on a Friday night at six o’clock and would spend less than 48 hours in L.A. But we traveled with the excitement of two people who had just won a trip from a local radio contest. When we arrived at LAX, Charlie met us at the gate. At fifty, he still has this boyish charm: the youthful bounce in his walk, an excitability in his voice. None of us could really believe we were here, at this point, and yet it was the moment we had all been waiting for these few decades.
My mother had arrived earlier in the day with my sister-in-law, Terry, and we made plans to meet the next morning. Charlie and Ray had already exchanged vows at the courthouse, in a private ceremony with just two of their closest friends as witnesses. The reception was to take place the following evening.
Saturday was spent driving around LA, hanging at The Grove, a trendy shopping complex, and trekking up to the HOLLYWOOD sign. This was fine, but none of us cared much for sightseeing that day–we were here for a wedding, and could not wait to celebrate with my brother and Ray.
On our way back to the hotel, we decided to stop by to see how the grooms were holding up. Now, my brother Charlie could teach Martha Stewart a thing or two. His talent rivals any on the HGTV circuit. He is a virtual MacGyver with some fabric and flowers. He and Ray are so well matched because Charlie is the host and Ray works behind the scenes. Charlie creates, Ray cleans up.
Indeed, Charlie created dozens of centerpieces for the wedding using thousands of flowers he purchased wholesale. He covered tables and chairs with fresh linens and burlap. He adorned trees and rooftops with light strings and candles. He transformed his beautiful backyard into the French countryside.
Seeing that the decorating had hit the eleventh hour, we all pitched in to help Char achieve his perfect vision. Charlie directed and we obliged. He was beyond appreciative, and we felt a sense of purpose as is the desire with family weddings.
A few hours later, we returned. The backyard was aglow in candlelight, the air sweet with the smell of peonies. Hundreds of people sipped champagne and noshed on pizzas fresh from an outside oven.
And as I moved around the spacious yard, I felt like I took on the role of witness. I did not know many people, although many made a fuss over Char’s family. But as a witness, I observed the beauty that surrounded me. Not just the flowers and twinkling lights, or the various photos and memorabilia that celebrated the life these two had already built together. Beyond all this, I observed the beauty of love.
I have been to countless weddings at this point in my life; I have seen many happy couples pledge to be together “til death do us part”. I even know the humbling, powerful nature of taking such a vow myself. Yet, here, at this wedding somewhere in West Hollywood, I felt a sense of love stronger than I have at most weddings I’ve attended. The love in that place was palpable, the energy kinetic.
I was equally moved and confused by this. Why would I feel more love here than at other such events? How could this event capture more of a sense of love? A physical, tangible sense of love?
The answer was quite clear. I felt the love in their yard, their house, more, because that love had to endure more to flourish. Think of a pearl that begins with a gritty grain of sand; a rose bush that stems from a gnarled, scarred root. This love had to struggle more to bloom. These two adults had to fight more to be united. And beyond Ray and Charlie, the love I felt emanated from the guests. Each of the people there bore witness to the power that love has, each person wished to join these two men in honoring their union as husband and life.
The love present that night multiplied and magnified a love that took root twenty-three odd years before. A love that some people in the world–many more people when it first took shape–said NO, it must not be, it cannot be. A love that answered back– year after year, in sickness, in health, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, til death–Oh, yes we can. We must. We will.
When I hugged my brother that night, I felt our years apart evaporate. The gap between the past and the future closed, and he and I were standing in the present–the here and now. It was as if I was truly embracing him for the first time. I looked around at the many adoring friends he had–friends who were now like family–and I felt lucky to be among them, to bear witness.
And so, as we begin a new year, filled with ongoing hopes, struggles, desires and fears, let me share a reminder with you that I more fully understand, thanks to my brother, Charlie, and his husband, Ray. Something I can see now with a sharper sense of clarity: the greatest of these is love. THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.