06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Defining Marriage

When I was a child, I used to play around in my grandmother's backyard. Swaths of light came through the trees at odd angles and I liked to look up at that light and follow it to what I thought was its end, which was the base of a beech tree. I loved that tree because it was very old and very tall and very soft, silky even, and standing beside it gave me the feeling, even at such a young age, of standing beside time immemorial.

Of course, I was too young then to think about metaphor or symbolism, but I was not immune to the visceral power of age and wisdom, which can roar at you like a great river. This is where the light ends, I thought. Or rather, this is where the light means to shine -- an illuminator, a clue to the secret of transcendence and immortality, the meaning of life. And so on the tree, as if the tree really were a sage, was a message. It read, "SJ + JL, forever," around which was a crude heart clearly drawn by the hand of a young male romantic. I marveled at this declaration, and marveled at it even further when my grandmother told me it would be there forever, for all of eternity, one person's love for another.

I have not seen the beech tree in many years and never learned whose initials were scrawled on the trunk, but lately I find myself constantly going back to that place, in my mind, where the light means to shine. I suppose I go there because of my friends Jeffrey and Glenn, and because, lately, I've been an occasional reader of W.H Auden. All three of these men are gay, the last of which is a dead poet who, through multiple revisions -- a struggle to express the most essential line of his life's work -- wrote, "We must love one another or die." The other two men, Jeffrey and Glenn, have lived the last seven years as if they must love one another or die.

A while back, I was at Glenn's apartment, drinking coffee. He, like me, is a writer, and, for no good reason, the words had not been coming to him lately. He was feeling rather depressed over this, as any artist or craftsman feels depressed when they call on their muse and get no response, living in a state of minor existential dread, wondering, like all of us have wondered, whether the muse was gone for good, and, if so, what his life would mean if it was. His computer sat open and blank on the coffee table. Lately, instead of partaking in what he thought was becoming an increasingly futile task, he had taken to cleaning the apartment, and on this day, he had worked the kitchen's surface into an impeccable sheen, finishing just before I arrived. I tried to lift his spirits but could not and Glenn, sporadically glancing at the white screen and quickly turning away, looked as if he were viewing some terrible premonition.

We sat that way for an hour or so, until Jeffrey walked through the door. He hung up his coat in the hallway closet and strode into the living room. He asked Glenn how the day had gone, his tone carefully considered, sympathetic. Glenn, eyes demurred, shook his head. He told Jeffrey, as a way of implying his defeat, that he'd cleaned the kitchen. Jeffrey, to my surprise, did not say anything in response. Instead, he walked out of the room, leaving behind what I thought was a heavy silence. Such silences, because I always feel compelled to talk too much, tend to unnerve me. I am not good at consoling someone and often confuse consoling with filling up space. Powerlessness, particularly in relation to the woman I love, makes me anxious. So, sitting next to Glenn, in a vicarious way, I became anxious; I cleared my throat and prepared to fill up space.

Then Jeffrey returned.

He placed a hand on Glenn's shoulder. There was something velvety about the touch. "Glenn," he said, in that carefully considered tone. "The kitchen looks wonderful."

Such a moment, as if to suggest nothing beyond itself, only it suggested everything beyond itself.

Jeffrey's tiny utterance was jarringly, almost disturbingly, genuine. We've all been told, perhaps by mother, father, husband or wife, that we, even at our worst, will be loved no matter what. Whether or not we wholly believe such packaged sentiments is another story entirely. (I mean, come on, have you seen me at my worst?) Even when our intentions are purest, there is often a divide between what we mean and what we say. In Jeffrey's voice, however, I heard the rare absence of that divide. And though Glenn was not instantly cured -- that would've rendered the experience tawdry -- he knew that, in the end, whether or not he wrote another word was besides the point; the worth of his life would be measured otherwise.

I am unsure how often one gets to witness such things, such tenderness at the edge of the abyss, such small moments that contain all the glory and mysticism and magic in the world. Yes, you can connect with another, and that connection, nothing to do with religion or God, bespeaks the unspeakable. I have kept this picture with me ever since and often wished, in an effort to express the ineffable, I could give it to the woman I love and say, "This, here, is exactly how I feel about you." And I wonder, if we live in a country where we struggle to define marriage, how we could not so obviously define it this way? Something that endures and transcends time, like two names scratched out on a beech tree -- a legacy left behind for future generations, a lesson in how to live and how to love.