He Never Knew

He Never Knew

Clint Liles

I had not spoken to my uncle since I was nine years old. My mother would not tell me much about him other than the lifestyle he chose was not compatible with the Bible’s teachings. She once recalled the moment my uncle came out to my family, my grandfather promptly grabbed his King James Version Bible and flipped it to Leviticus 4:13. Forcing my uncle to read it aloud in front of his mother, five brothers, and six sisters. I can remember the exact moment I received news of his death and the internal isolation I felt as I mourned his loss. I related to my uncle as we each had to overcome a deep-rooted secret in the same way Sarty does in William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’. The isolation and internal struggle Sarty feels between remaining loyal to his family or the honesty he must share is much like the struggle I faced upon the news of my uncle’s death. 

I grew up devoutly Southern Baptist, my parents always joked I was a drugged-up child… drugged-up to the altar that was. From the time I was let out from the hospital as a baby I was in church every time the doors were open. I remember one time when I was six years old these little old ladies would joke my childhood best friend and I would get married. They’d have us hold hands and walk through the church together as a cute little joke. My best friend would laugh and slightly blush, but I left feeling confused of the moment. I did not feel good afterwards, in fact I felt dirty from the whole experience. It was in that moment I realized something was different about me and that I was not attracted to girls in the same way many boys are. However, I knew this was incompatible with church doctrine and only those who were destined for hell chose such a lifestyle. I knew my uncle was gay, but my parents always told me he chose that life and he would have to answer for it. For that reason, I never spoke much to him, and decided it be best to internalize the feelings of affection I had for boys. 

On Valentine’s Day in 2015 my parents decided they wanted to have a small family get away to Asheville, North Carolina. So, on that chilly Sunday morning we all packed into my dad’s Honda Ridgeline and headed for the mountains to enjoy the day together. We got to the Dillard’s outlet at about 10 o’clock in the morning, I got out of my dad’s truck, stretched my legs, and took in a large breath of fresh air. I never particularly liked Valentine’s Day, to me it only forced couples to hardly go out of their way and get flowers for their significant other while reminding all those who were single just how alone they were. However, I felt this day had the potential to be different, I was at least with my family, so I wasn’t sitting around all alone. As I mindlessly breezed through the seemingly endless clothing aisles my dad slowly approached me and whispered in my right ear, “your uncle Fritz, he’s dead… he committed suicide about an hour ago at his apartment in Dallas.” I froze as I felt my body go numb. My body felt too heavy for my legs to handle as my dad’s voice suddenly seemed to grow evermore distant. I felt like I was floating on thin air as a cold breeze of isolation swept over me. My uncle never knew I was gay too. 

Thereafter my family decided it be best we instead go home and try to recoup from the shocking news. The car ride was excruciatingly quiet aside from my mom’s sobbing. We all blamed ourselves in some way as we knew it was the chronic loneliness that killed him. But they could not know the isolation and blame I had placed on myself. Had my uncle known he was not alone could that have been enough to save him? 

For two years after, I contemplated what I could have done different. What I could have said or not said to my uncle that would have helped him. The selfishness I felt for never coming out to him plagued my heart. As my family moved on from the incident, I continued to question myself and internalize the guilt buried deep within me. I attempted to move on from the grief I felt but like the family in ‘Barn Burning’ attempts to ignore the damaged rug, my guilt “still hung there” (Faulkner 203). Going through life became a battle for me as I attempted to ignore the deep rooted pain I felt within myself and the blame I cast on myself for my uncle’s death. The pain and guilt I felt best described by Sarty as a “long and fading smear” in my heart (Faulkner 202). I could not shake the deep pain and regret I felt for never reaching out to him, or simply letting him know he was not alone. 

However, I began to think on a new foot and what my uncle would have wanted had he been alive. I knew he would’ve wanted me to live authentically and reach out to someone. I also knew I did not want to end up in the dark place he ended up in and wanted to continue the vibrant legacy he had left. Like Sarty, I decided to let go of the secret I pent up for so long and live the life I deserved to live. Though my uncle’s death was a tragedy, it brought about new life as I came out to my close friends and family. As I continued to open up to my family about who I was I felt liberation from the chains of hiding my authentic character. Each time I took a deep breath and revealed my truth, I felt a warm joy wash over me. In the same way Sarty recalls, “there would be sun” I felt hope and warmth as I was finally free to open up about my sexuality. And just as Sarty, “did not look back” I did not either as I embraced who I truly was (Faulkner 209). Soon after, I reached out to my uncle’s husband and allowed myself to heal as we celebrated the life Fritz lived and the contribution he made in my life. 

My loving family not only healed from the tragedy of my uncle’s death but also grew from it realizing what they could have done to support him as well. As a result, my family supports me and my significant other as they play an active role in each of our lives. I still occasionally reach out to my uncle in Dallas as we recall on the life Fritz lived and joke about what Fritz would have done had he known I was gay too. Though my uncle never knew it, he played a key role in pushing me to come out and accept myself as a member of the LGBT community and reminded me in all things there is hope.

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