"She keeps me warm... she keeps me warm...," the notes grow higher and sweeter.
I grab the carton of eggs from the refrigerator and keep going. My ten-year old daughter joins me, “I can’t change… even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love, my love, my love…”
It was one of the best songs we heard this summer. The only one they really listened to on the radio when it played a few times on our long drive home after visiting Washington, DC. They didn’t attempt to sing along and neither did I. We just listened -- a first from two children whose mother was once a singer.
My son walks into the kitchen and starts to hum the melody with us.
“Love is patient, love is kind,” I sing. “Love is patient, love is kind,” my daughter mimics. “I’m not crying on Sundays. I’m not crying on Sundays… I’m not crying on Sundays,” all three of us singing in unison while I scramble up eggs on Monday, the first day back to school.
My daughter is in fifth grade now. My son just turned seven, a “second grader” this year. He can read well at seven, and sometimes I’ll see him sounding out the words on the tabloid magazine covers in the checkout line at the grocery store, absorbing all the pictures and the headlines as he chooses a pack of sugar-free gum. Some of the most memorable this summer, “Paris Jackson tries to commit suicide, takes pills and cuts her wrists.” “Glee star, Cory Montieth, found dead in hotel room.”
So, when is the right time to talk to your children about subjects that they are inevitably going to read about or hear at school? And how do you approach a fifth grader about important issues when her little brother has the ears of a fox? Do you separate them? Then, during alone time with the older one, you breach the subject? Or is it better to discuss it as a family? But should you wait until they ask you about it? Is the “best” time to talk to your kids before or after the fact? After they’ve heard the word “faggot” from one of their friends who uses it against another boy who cries easily? Do you wait until after they’ve stood there in silence and uncertainty, not knowing what to do or say next, watching that boy run away and hide in the bathroom until he pretends to be sick so he can go home early and contemplate how he’s going to tie a noose around his neck? Should we sit back and let pop music and celebrity do the job for us? Those last two questions scare me enough to make a decision.
They sit down on their stools at the counter and I realize today is as good a day as any.
“So, do you guys know what the song ‘Same Love’ is about?”
“It’s about someone’s childhood?” my daughter says, the question mark in her voice still hanging in the air.
“Yes, that’s partly true,” I say. “It is about someone’s childhood, and it’s about equal rights. It’s also about discrimination against people for being who they are. It’s about the rights of gay people who want to be married, just like me and Papa.”
I see my son’s eyebrows go up and his eyes are listening now, too. It’s the first time I’ve said the word "gay" out loud to him. My daughter asked me what the word meant in the car the first time she heard “Same Love” on the radio. It was just the two of us that day. So, as I was changing lanes, I told her very matter of factly, “Gay means happy, and it also describes someone who falls in love with a person who is the same gender, like our friends Jon and Mark in New York.”
“Mom… What’s discrimination?” my son asks between bites, and I look him straight in his intelligent brown eyes and begin.
“It means treating someone unfairly, calling them bad names, or taking away their rights just because their skin is a different color or because they love someone who is the same gender, like Jon and Mark.”
My daughter speaks up, “Mom, one time on America’s Got Talent, a man was singing opera and he said say that his family didn’t want anything to do with him anymore because he was gay. The only person that was there to hear him sing at his audition was his boyfriend. He could sing opera really, really good.”
“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!“ they sing in their best operatic voices, remembering a scene from Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie they just saw for the first time. Their mother had told them it was the other best ‘movie of the summer’ when Despicable Me II was sold out.
My son goes back to eating his breakfast quietly and doesn’t say another word, something that rarely happens unless it involves popcorn or ice cream. I realize that last week’s Time magazine is sitting there on the counter next to my son's plate. The cover has a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it and it reads, “Founding Father.” My son saw me read the issue cover to cover last week, and he heard me talk about it afterwards with his dad. He heard me say that it was the 50th anniversary of the "March on Washington." He heard me tell my husband, a Brazilian, that this was the very first peaceful march of its kind during the civil rights movement and that Martin Luther King’s speech changed people’s attitudes about equality for black people, not just in the United States but all over the world… and new laws were passed because of it.
I had shown my son last week the picture in Time of all the people standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in the exact same spot where he and his sister stood this summer. I showed him that famous black and white picture and I asked him how many people he thought were there that day, August 28, 1963. He guessed 200,000. “Oh my goodness! You are so close,” I told him, “There were 200,500 people there that day. Just look at all those people. They all stood up and changed the world.”
I look over at the clock and realize it’s almost time to leave for school. On the first day back to school, let’s be early, I say, and they go gather up their backpacks.
“Mom, am I black?” he says.
“Black?” I answer, laughing. “What?”
“Look how dark my skin is now.”
“Honey, that’s because your tan… from being in the sun so much this summer.”
“But, look how dark I am.”
“I know, but that’s because you’re Italian and Brazilian.”
“No I’m not! I’m black, Mom.”
“Okay.” I decide to let him be who he wants to be today. This is a day for firsts, even for a 'second' grader.
“Hey, you know the rapper that wrote ‘Same Love,’ Macklemore?”
“Yeah,” he says, stopping to look back at me.
“Well, he’s not black and he’s not gay, but he is the first rap musician to stand up for gay people’s rights, and that’s why he wrote a song about it. So, guess what that makes him?”
“Brazilian?” he answers.
“Maybe… ” I say, smiling, trying very hard not to laugh. Then I start again, “It also makes him a hero and a fantastic human being.”
He turns around and puts his new backpack on and runs out to the car to join his big sister. I have no idea if he’s gotten anything I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes trying to explain. He seems completely oblivious. Or is he? Well, I tell myself, at least he heard about it from me… at least they both heard it from me, first.
My wish came true just after midnight in lucky Room 7 ten years ago today. That's when I saw you "put out your hand,'' exactly as the song you were named after predicted.
And here I sit, a decade later, wanting to tell you all over again about the night you were born.
I don't even think I pushed. It was more of a giggle. The doctor said, "Anyone know a good joke? Because if you laugh you'll get to meet your son -- he is that close!" And then your strong, enormous hand appeared.
Alonzo declared that he must reach to Heaven, for Heaven. The song's prophecy fulfilled, my dreams fulfilled. My son had arrived safely. I was almost forty-three.
When I was scanning through all the lists of popular boys' names while I was pregnant, I found nothing that spoke to me or sang to me the way "Alonzo" did. Your Papa, however, found many Italian names he loved. His favorite, as you know, was "Umberto." But, all I could see was a big, hairy baby wearing a gold medallion around his furry neck and chest. I was convinced you'd come out of the womb saying things like, "How you doin'?" or "Ya got any leftover veal parmigian, Ma?" My sweet, sea prince with feet of sand and clay couldn't possibly be a man named Umberto.
Papa and I put it up for a vote. To every unlucky person we happened upon in those last few months before you arrived, we asked, "Which name do you like better, 'Umberto' or 'Alonzo?'" But if anyone chose Umberto, I'd say, "Yes, but who would you want your son or daughter to fall in love with?" It was clear. Not one person wanted poor Umberto in their family, let alone watch him become their son-in-law.
I couldn't have been more than seventeen the first time I tried to sing your song. Al Jarreau was my vocal hero. I judged the quality of my voice by the songs he wrote and sang, the most incredibly difficult note locked inside the "zoh" of your name. I could never hit the note quite right when I sang along with Al, but I had such fun working on the note and the melody, imagining the story of mysterious "Alonzo" as he emerged from the water the way I saw him in the lyrics. I thought to myself, maybe when I'm a grown woman -- maybe then my voice will be ready, more mature, and I'll finally reach that note. Someday, I'll sing "Alonzo" as good as Al Jarreau and my dream will come true.
Guess what? I still can't, not by a mile -- but my dream did come true, and now, as a "grown" woman, a mother, I sing and speak your name with more pride and more joy than any other boy's name on the planet.
Welcome, Alonzo. So, good to see you. Welcome, Alonzo. My Señor. My Belinki. My courageous, kind-hearted, hilarious son -- who, at ten years of age, has more integrity in his little finger than I have in my whole hand. You are a precious gift to us and the world, born from the deep blue sea on the 7th day, just after midnight, who will also make, one fine day, one terrific son-in-law. (Eat your heart out, Umberto.)