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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

A Father-in-Law’s Embrace, Not a Moment Too Soon

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Ahmed Bendary
Ahmed Bendary is reporter at DDDNews a focus on health news.

We stood in the same living room my fiancée sat in as a child watching Saturday morning cartoons. It was the night before our wedding, and in front of our families, friends and her parents’ friends at the rehearsal dinner, her father pulled out a tiny, white piece of paper from his shirt pocket. The smile on his face told me he was both nervous and uncertain about the impending response from the crowd.

His only daughter was marrying a Black, gay woman. As he began to speak, I watched, my hands clasped and resting on the grape purple dress I had bought for the occasion. I held my breath, my skin shiny with sweat. What would he say?

Dinushka, my soon-to-be wife, and I stood on different sides of the room. We were scared to show our love around so many people, even though our wedding, held on Sept. 8, 2011 at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Stamford, Conn., was the next day. A year or so of planning had brought us here, to this moment, packed into her parents’ home. Getting this far did not come without struggles: We had many conversations with our families about our love, about why we wanted to get married and about our different cultures.

My mother, who had a lifelong addiction to drugs, died six months before I met Dinushka. My father was not among the family and in the room that evening. I did not invite him to our rehearsal dinner because he was physically and emotionally unavailable to me from birth. While my paternal grandmother made an effort to build a relationship over the years, something her son never did, I was raised by my maternal grandparents, who had conservative views about what marriage was in the eyes of God.

After they met Dinushka, though, they adjusted to our relationship because of who she was: a believer in God, empathetic and generous. By the time that they, along with some aunts and uncles, arrived at the rehearsal dinner, my family in attendance had reached a place of acceptance.

Dinushka was marrying outside her family’s norms, too. I was not the South Asian man they assumed she would wed one day, but the first woman she dated and the reason she came out to her family. I had baggage that I was still unpacking: abandonment issues because of my mother’s addiction and a father who was never there. I had no savings to speak of. In getting to know me, her family had asked difficult, uncomfortable questions: “Why isn’t your father more involved?” “Did your mom ever live with you?”

As I stood against the back of the leather sofa in her parents’ living room, my eyes darted from person to person. When my gaze finally landed on her father, I realized this night was just as important as our wedding day.

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“Dear family and friends, thank you for coming and celebrating the union of Dinushka and Nikkya,” he began. “We left Sri Lanka 27 years ago to provide our children a secure environment to grow up and greater opportunities to better their lives. We did our best within our means to give them the best of everything we could afford. We let them follow their dreams as we realized we could not live their lives.”

He went on to share what he knew about me. “Dinushka has been a kind, loving, caring and thoughtful child, and she has found an equally kind, loving, caring and thoughtful partner in Nikkya,” he said. Her father’s words suggested that he saw me, his daughter-in-law, the same way he saw his daughter.

My mouth opened slightly, in awe. My heart began to open, too, to a fact that my head knew all along: This was family, my family, our family. And despite the struggles they had gone through trying to understand us as a gay couple, Dinushka’s father and mother, like the grandparents I considered as my parents, could not deny our love.

In that moment, it was clear I was marrying into a family that cared about getting to know me, even if they didn’t know the parts of me that only Dinushka knew. The parts I was still getting to know after my mother died that, with her help, had slowly begun to heal. The feelings I’d carried with me my entire life of not being good enough. There, before her family in that living room, I was good enough. I was not perfect, but good enough was enough for me.

There was a stillness in the room as my future father-in-law continued. All eyes were on him. Some people began to cry. Some nodded in agreement. Some laughed at his jokes.

Aloud, for all to hear, Dinushka’s father spoke a truth that touched me so deeply. “Love has no barriers,” he said, “and it can break all traditions.” I tried to look into the faces of the people who would look at us walk down the aisle. What were they thinking? What were they feeling as he spoke? My eyes stopped on Dinushka. Listening to her father’s words, I knew that all he wanted was for her to be happy. If she were happy, then he would be, even if it meant she was marrying me.

Dinushka and I knew who we were getting in marrying one another. We knew that, as two women of color, our marriage would come with its fair share of challenges. We knew that along the way, we’d need to have each other’s backs. And we knew that we would need to call on the people in that room, and invite them into our marriage over the years to help us with growing pains.

That night, I learned that her family was willing to answer such a call, no matter if it came from me or their daughter, because they loved us much the same. Marriage is not just a commitment to a partner but to family, both the one that we are born into and the one that welcomes and accepts us with open arms.

As those in the room listened to her father’s final words, and as some tears fell from their faces, I inhaled all of the love and support in the air. “It is not easy to break traditions, and it requires courage to do so,” he said.

My belly expanded as I released a long breath, and with it, any shame I had about who I was, where I came from, and how that might affect my future with Dinushka. I knew that when we walked down the aisle the following day, it would be the next step in a journey taken with family who were willing to learn from one another, grow together and love us for who we are.

Nikkya Hargrove is a writer based in Connecticut. She writes about marriage, parenting and social justice issues, and is working on a memoir, “Mama: A Black, Queer Woman’s Journey To Motherhood,” to be published by Algonquin Books.

Ahmed Bendary
Ahmed Bendary is reporter at DDDNews a focus on health news.

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