My Grandmother’s Dementia Turned Me Straight

And letting that happen was the right thing to do.

A grandchild visiting their grandparent in the nursing home.
“She could barely keep our names straight, let alone go through me coming out all over again.”
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“Grandma, I like men.”

“William, you are who you are, but I don’t ever need to know about your sex life.”

I was relieved, to be honest. No grandson wants to talk about sex with his grandparents, and all any gay grandson wants is to be accepted by his grandparents and not have to talk about sex. My grandmother, Rosemary, was a plain-faced and no-nonsense woman—devoutly Catholic with the kindness and generosity to back it up. I could not imagine my life without my role model, so this was a victory! Throughout the rest of college and my move to New York, my grandmother remained in blissful ignorance of any gay sex that I was having (I was not) and continued to love me unconditionally—$20 bills on holidays, a surplus of stale Hershey’s kisses, and rambling voicemails. Rosemary and I had, by all means, cleared the hurdle that was my sexuality.

During those years, however, my grandmother was dealt a bad hand—dementia. When I visited her a few weeks after my move to the city, she asked me when I was graduating: “Two months ago, grandma.” She became insistent on memorizing small details of my life. I lived on 135th street, I was working on Billions, Billions (on Showtime and not HBO), and my laundry cost $2.25. Over time, Rosemary lost her grip on these details, but she had the basics down. What I didn’t expect was for her to lean over in the assisted living center one day, attempting a wink, to mischievously ask, “So William, how are the girls in New York?” I thought we had a deal: no talk of my sex life.

“Don’t you think it’s best if you just let it be, William?” my parents advised when I next saw them. I got to flit in and out of my grandmother’s fading memory when it was convenient for me, but they had to live with her every day as she fought with the nurses, fell out of bed, and refused to eat. My grandmother’s health had been declining for more than a year, and they were tired. She could barely keep our names straight, let alone go through me coming out all over again.

Around this time, I started to date (let’s use a fake name) Adam Rippon, who was sweet, knew how to cook, loved my friends, and had a banging body. We met on a TV set in the summer, and Grease taught me that my grandmother’s generation LIVES for summer flings. “Any girlfriends yet?” Rosemary inquired during my next visit. I didn’t even blink: “I’ve been seeing this girl Laura for the past month. We met on a TV set working at a country club … ” This shit wrote itself—I was basically in Grease Friggin’ 3.

In spite of my dishonesty, can we all be honest and agree that one of the best things about having a significant other is telling people that you have a significant other? Adam Rippon was my first real relationship, so I wanted everyone in my life to know that I was off the market and happy about it. The gender was a minor detail! “Laura” was a flight attendant doubling as a stand-in, spending some days on sets and others jet-setting across the country. When I went over to her place in Brooklyn, “Laura” cooked, and I cleaned. If we made it another few months, “Laura” and I were going to Paris. (One of my personal favorite things about “Laura” was her huge dick, but I kept that one to myself.)

What was Rosemary’s opinion of “Laura”? SHE LOVED HER. When a person whom you have loved your entire life is fading before your eyes, you grasp onto anything that can hold together the threads of your relationship. Were these specific threads woven by dishonesty? Technically, yes, but it came from a place of love and a need to have something—anything—that was a constant between my visits. I’m satisfied now that pretending to have a girlfriend was the right thing to do for my grandmother, even though I was making a charade of my first serious relationship with a man.

A couple months into the age of “Laura,” my birthday fell on the Saturday of Halloween. I was out for the night with my friends and Adam Rippon, dressed up as the cutest Lucy Ricardo that you’ve ever laid eyes on. That’s when I got the call. My father is a man of very few words, and fewer phone calls, so when I picked up the phone at 10 p.m., I knew what had happened.

My father delivered the bad news as I stood outside a lively Italian restaurant, knees knocking under a flimsy apron and skintight leggings as my feet trembled in ballet flats. I looked like I was straight out of a movie, a tear rolling through my eyeliner as I literally clutched my pearls. I’m not sure what my grandmother would have thought of my drag ensemble, but maybe if she had seen me all dolled up, she would have known a little bit more about who her grandson had become.

Sometimes I worry that my grandmother’s final memories of me were corrupted by my lie. My grandmother didn’t know who I was during her last few years, and I didn’t really know her as she lost control of her own cognizant mind. When I saw her body in the casket at the funeral, her hair was curled up and her makeup and lipstick were expertly traced across her face to the point that I didn’t even recognize the woman who had held me as a baby. The woman who had slipped me $20 bills and stale Hershey’s kisses was gone, replaced by some stranger in a casket. Maybe her disguise inspired me, as I expertly talked about my girlfriend “Laura” to her elderly friends at the wake.

What I will always have are her rambling voicemails, where she still sounds like the woman whom I remember. My grandmother would close every message with a genuine, “I love you, William, God bless you.” I don’t believe in God or heaven, but she did. In my grandmother’s faith, her death simply meant that she was passing on to a better place from which she could look down on me as a guardian. This would mean that my grandmother saw my messy New Year’s Eve breakup with Adam Rippon a few months after her death, and then watched me fall for and have my heart broken by another boy the following year. If love can transcend the boundary from faith to agnosticism, or a man can love a man the same way a man and a woman can, then maybe we never lost track of each other in those final years after all.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.