The Outlier: In the Year of the Plague, Memories of Holidays Spent on One’s Own

I left my family home in Hicksville, New York, to go to college at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, in late August 1972. I packed everything I felt necessary for months away from home in two beige American Tourister suitcases that I had received as a graduation present and which each bore the oversize letters “KH” on the side in dark brown masking tape so I would recognize them on the baggage carousel when I arrived. I carried two items on the plane with me: a manual Smith-Corona typewriter in its own black carrying case and a 9-inch diagonal Panasonic black and white TV. While there may have been other siblings who came, I mostly recall that my dad and my youngest brother Jimmy were there to see me off as I boarded the TWA 727 for the non-stop flight to Omaha.

I would go back for Christmas that year, and I spent the summer of ’73 at my parents’ house, but I never went back for Thanksgiving throughout college or med school, and after that first year, I did not spend summers in Hicksville.

In essence, once I got on that TWA 727 at Kennedy Airport in 1972, Hicksville, NY, was no longer my home.

I had chosen to go to Creighton even though I had been accepted at the more prestigious Johns Hopkins University. When asked, I told people that the primary reason I chose Creighton was because they gave me a better financial aid package, which was true. The more private reason, though, was that I wanted to go far enough away from Long Island that I wouldn’t be expected to go home for weekends and all the big holidays. Baltimore, for me, was too close for comfort.

I’ve written on this Timeline before about my father and how, after a dramatic evening one Christmas vacation a couple of years later, our family improvised an intervention, and soon after he saved his life — and ours — by joining Alcoholics Anonymous where he maintained his sobriety for the rest of his life and finally became the loving spouse, parent, and grandparent he was always meant to be.

That transformation, however, was still a few years away as I settled into my window seat and looked for the faces of my family in the terminal windows. (In those days before security checks, people could see you off at the gate.) As we taxied away from the gate, I breathed a sigh of relief, but I also felt a terrible guilt. I had become the de facto oldest kid in our household when my older brother David had left to go to school in Pittsburgh in 1966 and had quickly gotten married and become a father, never to return. I was 11 then, and I had for years felt the great weight of making sure that my two younger brothers and my younger sister were going to be okay when I could not be sure that my parents were up to that responsibility. Nevertheless, somewhere, somehow, I realized that if I did not take care of myself, I was not going to be able to take care of anyone else.

And there was the other thing. The secret thing I had to work out for myself and that I knew I could not work out in my parents’ house in Hicksville.

I was pretty sure that I was a homosexual, and I was scared to death about that.

Being 17 and Catholic in 1972 and recognizing that I might be — that I was — physically attracted to people of the same sex was a pretty harrowing place to be. Sex, in general, for Catholics, was something best not discussed at all, and homosexuality was often called “the love that dare not speak its name.” If it was spoken about, it was as a grave sin and a perversion and a cause for damnation. Even though the Stonewall Uprising had taken place three years earlier and less than thirty miles from where I grew up, I had not heard about it. The only thing I had read about homosexuals was in a best-seller called, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)” by Dr. David Reuben. It was hailed as a frank and factual and generous look at love and sex. When the paperback came out in 1971, I went into the WaldenBooks at the Mid-Island Plaza mall and nonchalantly strolled to the back of the store. When I was sure no one was looking, I found a copy of the book and furtively looked in the index under homosexuality. From everything I’d read about this book, I was sure it would give me some solace that I was not really that depraved.

What I found were pronouncements that homosexuals were “trying to solve the problem with only half the pieces,” that “Many of the world’s greatest chefs have been homosexuals. Some of the country’s best restaurants are run by homosexuals. Some of the fattest people are homosexuals,” and above all, that I was emotionally stunted, was only interested in anonymous sex, and would never be able to have a true loving relationship.

I was trembling, and my heart was racing as I replaced the book on the shelf. I took a deep breath so that I could walk past the clerk and out of the store into the mall without collapsing. I knew then that I would not get what I needed at home, and I decided that, if I was going to find salvation, it would have to be elsewhere.

Creighton, a Catholic Jesuit university in Omaha, Nebraska, would seem to be an unlikely site for the kind of healing and self-acceptance I was craving. Yet it fit the bill in many unexpected ways. I found a more, for lack of a better term, holistic practice of my Catholic faith than I had ever experienced. And except for my weekly phone calls home on Sunday afternoons, I was also able to push the drama of home away for most of my time.

And for the first time, I was seen as an adult. Up until then, even as I grew, I spent time with people who had known me since I was 12 or 5 or even earlier. No matter how much I grew physically, mentally, emotionally, the present was overlaid with echoes of “little Kenny” of years past. And in fairness, I saw likewise the shadows of years past in my friends and siblings. Finally, away at college, I was being seen as a person of competence, intelligence, and maturity.

Over the next eight years of college and then medical school in Omaha, my visits to my family on Long Island became less frequent, and I began to develop — improvise, really — my own holiday traditions and observances.

My first Thanksgiving in Omaha in 1972 I spent by myself. I had bought a cheap corn popper. It was essentially a small pot with a heating element on the bottom which made it easy to use for boiling water, making soup, etc. On Thanksgiving, I made dinner in the popper from a Chef Boyardee Spaghetti Dinner for Two kit. I cooked the spaghetti in the popper and then used it to heat up the sauce from the can. It was pretty good, and I admit I did eat the entire Dinner for Two by myself. I called home. I went to Mass at St. John’s Church. Mostly, I read, and I wrote about what I had to be thankful for. I’m sure I have that journal somewhere because I never throw stuff out, but I’m sure I wrote about having my health and the ability to go to a nice college.

Over time in Omaha, I would sometimes spend Thanksgiving with professors or friends, one year making a lasagna dinner in the dorm (By then, I had upgraded to a two-burner hotplate with real pots and pans and a decent size toaster oven) for six people, but I have made the lasagna in advance and had frozen it in my amazingly powerful dorm fridge, and it took about two hours to thaw and eat the thing. Luckily, the drinking age in Nebraska at that time was 19, and I had laid in a few bottles of cheap wine to get us through.

I didn’t spend Thanksgiving with my family on Long Island again until I moved back to New York in 1980, first to do an internship at Nassau Hospital (now NYU Langone Hospital) in Mineola, NY, about 10 miles from Hicksville, and then my pediatric residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Even so, I was now living with my partner, Bob Corsico, whose family lived in Syosset, just a few miles from Hicksville, and so holidays, whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, usually involved a trip from the City on the Long Island Rail Road and then visits to both families before returning to our apartment in New York.

And of course, I was becoming a doctor, and one of the realities of the medical profession is that someone has to work on the holidays. When I moved to St. Louis, I must have worked the first 15 or so Christmases and lots of Thanksgivings. Meanwhile, my siblings all began to create their own holiday traditions as each of them married and had children.

So even when I was not working those holidays, I frequently did not actually go to visit my family back east even though I was always welcome. I needed to create my own traditions, and I have. These include celebrations of my Halloween birthday as a fundraiser to support an organization I care about, for the past few years, the Black Tulip Chorale. Christmas is about a party on the second Sunday in December to collect toys to be given out by Santa at the Griffin Center in East St. Louis, as well as Midnight Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church in East St. Louis celebrated by my friend and mentor of nearly fifty years, Father Joseph Brown, S.J.

Thanksgiving itself, though, has often been — either at home, at work, or as a travel day driving or flying to visit family — a day for contemplation, a day of quiet thinking and feeling rather than doing.

I am The Outlier in this family — the gay brother/uncle, single, without a biological family to bring along, located the furthest away geographically, and with arguably the most inflexible work schedule. Even so, I have almost always seen the entire Haller family during the winter as we gather on a holiday-adjacent date, say the Saturday after Thanksgiving or the Sunday after Christmas. And I have been so grateful that my siblings and their spouses and my nieces and nephews have tried so hard to work around my schedule as I have tried to make a commitment about my own travel at least four or five months in advance.

This year, of course, everything is different. The big parties are virtual, I’m not sure what’s happening with Midnight Mass, and I will not be traveling east any time in the foreseeable future. Still, I did get a professional zoom account at the beginning of all this, and I have hosted Hicksville Haller get-togethers on or near Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day, and I’ll be doing the same for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The irony is that, in a normal year, I would see these dear people once, maybe twice, in a year. This year it’s going to be closer to a half dozen. It may be virtual, but it is a reminder that what we want — what we need — to get through this is physical distancing, not social distancing.

Because we are social creatures as well as clever creatures, we can find all sorts of inventive ways to be in each other’s lives even when we cannot be in each other’s space. And because we humans have the ability to exist simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future, we can see the need to care for one another in this most difficult sacrifice of being away from one another for this one year. And we can anticipate how sweet it will be to be physically present with those we love in the years to come and to tell those not yet born of the sacrifices we made of being apart in The Plague Year of 2020 so we would all survive to one day all be together.

And I’ve told you all this because, the gift of being The Outlier is the knowledge that one can find wisdom in spending a holiday alone, one can be flexible and grow in strange and unique circumstances, one can find grace working to help others on a day when everyone else is off.

I was supposed to be off this Thanksgiving weekend, but I will be working for part of it because a colleague is positive for COVID, and we are all pitching in to cover.

And I am thankful for that.

Pediatrician, Educator, Singer, Writer, Advocate, Actor, Improviser. Views are my own, not those of any institution where I’m employed.

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