I always pondered the idea of love and what it looked like: How would I know if I truly felt it? Would I ever find it in the first place? And, if so, what did that love even look like? Yet, at 15 years old, the questions I had found myself mulling over almost every night quickly took a turn in a new direction.

Instead of the innocuous ruminating on the prospect of what love would hold, I deliberated: Can love be selective? Is it love when we choose to only accept a part of someone while disregarding the whole? Or is love unconditional — bound by no stipulation or circumstance? This newfound suspicion of love erupted from something I had never second-guessed before. It wasn’t from the progression of a relationship or even the fawning over a crush. In fact, it wasn’t romantic at all. It came from a form of love that is inherent, marked upon us before the day we are even born — or so I thought.

In the face of my own uncertainty — coupled with a phone left open and my inability to lie with any conviction — I had “come out” to my parents. Erasing the narrative they had written for me, I had transformed from their sensitive yet “normal” boy to their vulnerable, gay son. While it took some time for my parents to adjust to this new “reality,” they eventually came to one simple conclusion: I was their son. And that meant a love that was unconditional.

However, this understanding of what being family means was not a universally-held belief. For some, in fact, it didn’t mean this at all. Aunts. Cousins. People I had spent weekends and holidays with. People that shared my blood. They couldn’t — or didn’t want to — accept me for all of who I was. I heard varying explanations, some stinging more than the others. “A sickness.” “It was for attention.” “An immoral choice.” But, there was one phrase in particular uttered by everyone that had accompanied each of these diagnoses — words that stung the most. “But we still love him.”

So, there I found myself, my face warm with frustration, offsetting the cold chill that lingered in the winter air, asking myself a question I didn’t want to know the answer to: Can someone only love a part of you? “Maybe,” I told myself half-heartedly. Love came in all different forms, after all, and maybe this was just another version of that seemingly undefinable four-letter word.

That biting winter drew to a close, and the coming spring months began to thaw its lingering chill. Each day, I began to warm to the idea of this new aspect of my identity and what embracing it could entail. Eventually, that waiting worked. More and more, I became comfortable with who I was. No longer did I view my future as something devastated — fractured by the reality of my sexuality. Rather, I simply viewed it with a new lens: a life filled with possibilities different than previously conceived, but still possibilities nonetheless

Then, I met Eric. We went out for ice cream. I treated him to a meal at our local diner. He surprised me with tickets to a movie (one that I had already seen, but I kept that part to myself). It didn’t matter. We were dating, and that was something I had imagined could only come to fruition within the private quarters of my mind. Our relationship grew quickly — faster than I had anticipated. With each passing day, I opened up about things tucked away so deeply that I had almost forgotten they still remained: the confusion, the shame, the acceptance. Our mangled skin shed with each breath of understanding. With it came a new shell built from shared experience and new questions that extended beyond the visceral: “Who can we share this with?” “When can we tell our friends?” And most importantly: “Can we introduce each other to our families?”

My mind began to race. “I know there are holidays coming up, and this way we could share them together,” he remarked. I thought about what my relationship meant — how I could show them the person who had such a profound impact on my path toward self-acceptance. I could finally bridge the gap between these two significant pieces of my life. However, the grin marked on my face began to sink as the reality that I had dug away began to break the surface.

“I would love to, but we can’t,” I conceded. The gaping divide between my two worlds began to grow even further. The prospect of bringing someone home to my family had been discussed before with great enthusiasm. It had been met with an excitement that knew no reservations. “How could we not want to meet the person who makes you happy?” I knew those words, however, came with a condition. Yet, the assurance that I was loved began to reverberate in my mind. Maybe, I thought, those words still rung true.

A solemn discussion with my parents quickly dispelled this fleeting hope. They had affirmed that I would always have a place to go see my family, but that Eric, regrettably, would probably not receive the same warm welcome from our relatives. I understood their convictions — the way they were raised, what they were taught. But the affirmation of their love for me could not escape my mind. I experienced what love had brought — the way it shaped my own father and his own perspective. It was that understanding that left a part of me in despair. I grappled with how my family could turn away someone whose words of clarity and acceptance had become ingrained as a part of my being.

That night, the air felt especially cold. With the lights off, I nestled into bed as my mind began to drift to questions I did not want to face. The darkness of the room was interrupted by a single light. I glanced over to see my phone displaying a new message. “They still love you,” it read. It was from my father.

Maybe he was right. Maybe there was a love there. But that love was for someone who did not exist. I could not leave Eric — and all that he had meant to me — at the door. It went beyond the refusal to acknowledge him. Eric was a part of my life that I had grappled with for so long. Those nights of hurting had forged the understanding that I had to accept every part of me to reach the love in myself that I needed to go on each day. To claim a love in only one of these parts was like ignoring a deep red stain of wine on your favorite shirt. No matter how many times you wash it to a shade that is light enough for you to ignore, it is still there. While my family tried to focus on anything but the stain that they could not erase, I chose to simply embrace the new colors.

A greater clarity set in my mind. Finally, I let the question in that I had tried so exhaustively to ignore. Can someone only love a part of you? In that now-illuminated room, I had my answer.

Alex Kubie can be reached at akubie@umich.edu.

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