Two brothers, two weddings, one family
They were exceptionally close brothers, roommates, best friends. And, this year, the Hyett brothers of Brookline both planned to marry. A gay wedding in May, a traditional wedding this month -- a remarkable two-paned window into what marriage is, isn't, and can perhaps be. More than they could have imagined, theirs is a story of marriage in Massachusetts in 2004. -- First of four parts.
He is intense, polite, and handsome. She is earnest, poised, and attractive.
If storybook couples still exist in this digital age, Brian Hyett and Amy Lowenthal are one of them.
He'll be a doctor. She'll teach school. Their dreams are of healthy children, a home in the suburbs. Of lives lived happily . . . you know the rest.
And as 2003 faded into 2004, the couple was ready for their marquee roles as bride and groom.
They booked a hotel ballroom overlooking the Charles River. They set up a website that told their love story.
They mailed out refrigerator magnets that instructed friends: "Save the Date!"
August 29 was going to be special. Circle it in red.
Then history intervened.
In early February, the justices of Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court issued a terse message to the state Senate: There will be no half measures. Gay couples must be allowed to marry beginning May 17.
At his home 3,000 miles away, in Laguna Beach, Calif., Eric Hyett made his move.
Brian's only brother and best man, Eric, called to say that he, too, would marry.
In mid-May. To his partner, Joshua Glazer.
"Hey, we're getting married," Eric told his younger brother. On the other end of the line, Brian Hyett sat on the bed in his Brighton apartment, suspended somewhere between shock and disbelief.
Eric had guessed that his brother would greet his news without elation. And he was right.
"Does it have to be before our wedding?" Brian curtly asked.
Yes, the older brother insisted, he had to move now. The legal opening might close as swiftly as it had appeared.
"That's great," Brian snapped. "Congratulations."
Brian had dreamed that his wedding would be the day some joy and unity returned to a family that had for years known little of either. Eric, he felt, had violated a societal boundary staked out by his engagement to Amy. It was a matter of respect, of basic courtesy.
And maybe something more.
For many years, Brian had moved in the wake of his brother, whom he loved dearly but who often seemed a lap ahead -- in school, in life, in his parents' eyes. So much that had been work for Brian had come naturally to Eric.
And now, Eric had abruptly made it clear that he would, once again, come in first.
"God, can't this just be a time for me?" Brian wondered.
Eric's reply was full of bullet points and fury.
He had met Josh first. They had considered a civil union but held out for marriage. The same society that would serenade Amy and Brian as they marched down the wedding aisle had erected barrier after barrier in front of Eric and Josh.
To Eric, Brian was being selfish. He accused his younger brother of abandoning him on the gay issue -- a charge that stung.
They had been best friends, roommates, unusually close. Growing up in Brookline, they had an unspoken pact to stand united in the face of family turmoil. With rare exceptions, they had done just that.
But now a raw nerve had been jangled.
They called themselves the "Flying Hyetts" -- Norman and Barbara Hyett and their two special boys. Theirs was a family that seemed to do everything with energy, a family that treated aspiring to the remarkable as a given, a family with a gift for good times together. And for conflict. And for holding onto love in spite of conflict.
A happy family. An unhappy family. Like all others, and also unlike any.
And this spring they faced something not just remarkable but until now impossible: two marriages, one gay, one straight, in the same season. It would prove to be a test of who they are, and were, and hoped to be -- and of the power, allure, and fragility of marriage itself.
All the Hyetts' history, for good and ill, would be wrapped up in the uncertain passage to those "I do's." Their experience would show, in a way no legal ruling could, how complex is the bond the court decided could no longer be denied to gays in this state.
On one level, considering some of the painful times the brothers had lived through together, it seems remarkable that they would want marriage at all. But somehow, through it all, Brian and Eric had distilled something precious from the family life they knew as boys.
There was a commitment, a purity, a genuine joy about so much of it.
It was what they had cherished, what they wanted to share with someone they loved.
And this year, unexpectedly, it was an option for them both.
They were born in Beth Israel Hospital three and a half years apart. In the baby book Barbara and Norman Hyett kept for their sons, they used the same words to describe Eric's birth in 1970 and Brian's in 1973.
"So beautiful," they wrote of their infant boys. "Perfect."
Eric recalls that when he first saw his newborn brother, cradled in his mother's lap as she rode in a hospital wheelchair, he wasn't so sure.
How would things change with a sibling on the scene? Eric, at 3, had already secured his place in the family as an overachieving toddler; he spoke in full sentences before his first birthday.
Baby Brian was placed in a cradle in the living room. Within weeks, Eric decided to test his new brother's wits. He swayed the cradle faster and faster. Brian offered no cry of complaint.
Little brother, it seemed, was up for the ride.
This is actually a good thing, Eric remembers thinking.
And, as the baby brothers grew into boyhood, it was.
Audio: Eric remembers Brian's birth
They often slept in the same room, and when they didn't, the brothers giggled and whispered goodnight to each other over yellow plastic telephones wired directly into their bedrooms. They jockeyed with each other for a seat at the family piano. They carried their dinner on red plastic trays from the kitchen to the dining room, where the family ate most evenings by candlelight.
The family held hands and discussed the events of the day. Something special happened when the four of them were together. And the boys knew it.
When 8-year-old Eric froze during his performance at a school magic show, 5-year-old Brian -- who had carefully watched while his brother had practiced -- marched on stage unprompted to finish the trick. The audience loved it.
"Brian is born to communicate," Barbara once wrote, as her little boys' personalities began to take shape. "Eric to know."
The "Flying Hyetts" moniker was meant to convey the family's frenetic pace and soaring ambitions.
Barbara and Norman Hyett grew up poor in Atlantic City, N.J. The high school sweethearts were determined to invent a new family of their own. And they poured themselves into their parental roles, preparing a bright palette and a broad canvas on which their sons could sketch their lives.
Barbara taught literature classes at Lasell College in Newton. She was a poet who wore her emotions on her sleeve -- passionate, direct, bold. Flashing her hazel eyes and long blond curls, she delighted in her work and in her family, and she showed it.
When she was angry, it was also no secret. But punishment was not a preferred prescription for misbehavior. The family tried to talk things through.
Norman, dark-haired and lanky, worked as a guidance counselor at Newton South High School. He moonlighted as a psychologist, seeing clients in an office in their Washington Square home as the boys played quietly in nearby rooms. They sometimes served as their father's secretary -- polite and reassuring as they took calls from clients and promised to have their dad call back.
He was a hands-on, playful father who indulged his sons in their hobbies and pursuits. With feminism in full flower, he was also fully his wife's helpmate.
As disciplinarian, Norman was more inscrutable. Never a shouter, he expressed his dissatisfaction by putting on a glum visage that rarely failed to sting his sons.
Both parents wanted more for their boys than had been given to them.
Norman was determined that his sons would never accuse him of being unapproachable, in the way his own father was. He changed their diapers, warmed their bottles, and, as they grew, made sure they had the most skillful piano teacher and found their way into the most challenging classrooms.
And the boys never took their parents' efforts and affection for granted. On birthdays and holidays, they sent sweet and elaborately illustrated notes of appreciation and love.
"I love you beyond the greatest concerto, the longest symphony, the greatest chord," Eric, then a preteen, inscribed in a birthday note to his father. "You are a single perfect note -- not on a piano but one in infinity."
"You sure did my brother and me a favor a few years back when you made that crazy decision to go for it: Become a mom!" Brian wrote in a Mother's Day card to Barbara. "You are (I've said it before and I'll say it again) my heroine."
Barbara adored her husband, loved being married, and reveled in her family. When Ms. magazine conducted a study of men who supported the women's movement, she wrote its editors to call their attention to Norman.
"He and I have been married for nine years during which time we have both worked and we have both shared the household responsibilities -- no schedule, nor contract. . . . Norman has not called attention to his role as real father and caretaker. . . . He has helped make it possible for this 'unsung' feminist to do her thing."
As devoted as the parents were to the children, the bond between the boys was tighter still.
Eric, who skipped the third grade, tinkered easily with crude first-generation computers. His brilliance was a family totem that forced Brian to remind himself that he, too, had strengths.
Athletic and artistic, Brian was also fascinated with science, tracking weather forecasts and tracing encyclopedia renderings of the brain.
On early Saturday mornings, while their parents slept, the boys enjoyed "hors d'oeuvres" of rolled-up cheese and olives secured by toothpicks. On Saturday afternoons they watched "Fat Albert" and "Soul Train" on television.
But the Hyetts' TV was dark on weekdays. When the Boston Phoenix did a story about television-averse families in the summer of 1983, the Hyetts were the featured family, gathered, in the photograph, around their gleaming baby grand piano.
Nine-year-old Brian told the reporter that his schoolmates "watch so much TV that when they grow up, some of their whole lives are going to be ruined."
"I don't know, Brian," Eric, 13, told his brother. "I have seen kids that watch hours and hours of TV. And I don't think they're that messed up."
An act of rebellion
As a teenager, there was a certain hyperkinetic energy to Eric Hyett. As he walked through Coolidge Corner and Washington Square with friends and schoolmates, he fairly bounced, strutting jauntily on the balls of his feet.
His intelligence conveyed confidence, not arrogance. And he possessed a disarming charm that made him the center of a tight group of friends.
The same boy who was sailing through the Driscoll School with little effort was capable of cracking up classmates by faking an early-morning seizure, splaying himself across an instructor's desk. Even his teacher had to smile at the star student's prank.
But at 14, he began to chafe against the regimen and high expectations at home, where his mother would correct her sons' thank-you notes and where a portrait of piano titan Arthur Rubinstein loomed over Eric's shoulder as he practiced his scales. The message was omnipresent: Be the best.
The model student had had enough.
He was responsible. He got straight A's. He always did what he was told.
"You guys have got to get off my back," he told his mother.
As he prepared to deliver his personal declaration of independence, he took Brian into his confidence.
On an early-spring day in 1984, Eric walked down the hall to Brian's room and plunked himself down on his bed.
"I'm going to tell you something, but if you tell Mom and Dad, I'm going to rip Timmy's head off," Eric said. Timmy was Brian's well-worn, stuffed panda bear, a constant companion.
This was Eric's plan: When he came home from school the next day he would be wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his hair would be dyed, his ears pierced.
"I'm going to be a punk, pretty much," he remembers saying.
For Brian, it was the fiercest test yet of fraternal loyalty. Eric's rebellion was sure to cause family tumult. His younger brother's first impulse was to tell his mother and father. But within minutes, he appeared in Eric's bedroom.
"I'm with you," Brian told Eric, obeying their unspoken brotherly code.
When Eric walked home the following day, Brian was waiting upstairs, peeking from behind his bedroom curtains. Eric's hair was not just orange. It was day-glo orange. Brian sat back and waited for the fireworks.
Barbara screamed and stormed out of the house. Norman angrily told Eric he looked ridiculous. Brian smiled broadly.
At home, the stunt had provoked the over-the-top response Eric expected -- and wanted.
At Brookline High School, where Eric was enrolled in an alternative education program called School within a School, teacher Abigail Erdmann wondered whether the drastic cosmetic makeover didn't signal a deeper struggle. But she let it go.
At school, Erdmann marveled at Eric's polished dissection of Shakespearean works, his ability to help classmates through the Greek classics, and a simple suggestion he had when Erdmann's class began hosting speakers to discuss the challenges of marriage and alternative families.
"My parents are happily married," Eric told his English teacher. "Would you be interested in having them come in and talk about their alternative lifestyle?"
When Barbara and Norman arrived at Brookline High School in the spring of their son's junior year, Eric and his classmates sat before them on couches that were symbols of the alternative curriculum. The Hyetts talked about their poor upbringing, their high school courtship, and the critical need to preserve the spark of romance.
"What do you do to keep your marriage alive?" they remember one student asking.
"Go to hotels," Barbara said.
The message, delivered without crudeness, was not lost on the nodding students.
Norman told the teenagers that he still considered Barbara his girlfriend. He said he liked to spoil her. They talked of the importance of spontaneity. Their marriage talk, which would become a Brookline High School staple, seemed both romantic and real.
It was a powerful performance.
But as he sat there in his fourth-floor classroom, Eric already knew that his parents' love life would not serve as a template for his own.
At age 12, he had stumbled across his father's Playboy magazine. As he thumbed through the glossy photographs of bosomy women, he knew these colorful, air-brushed images were something that should interest a man.
Later, when he saw a picture of a naked man in Penthouse, he thought: This is something I'm really interested in.
As a sophomore, he spent time as an exchange student in Paris and Normandy, where he had dated French schoolgirls -- all the while longing for the French boys down at the beach.
And at age 15, for the first time, he had sex with another boy, a schoolmate at Brookline High.
A turning point
"Eric is extraordinary. He has the heart of the '60s, the daring of the '80s, and the mind of a genius. . . . He is a wise man in a boy's body."
Abby Erdmann's college recommendation for Eric Hyett was as glowing as its subject was successful.
In September 1987, Eric moved out of his family home in Brookline and across the Charles River to Harvard.
At last, he felt free.
But for Brian, Eric's departure marked a turning point.
The mealtime ritual of candlelit conversation largely stopped. Dinner moved to the kitchen. The newly condensed family of three ate at a breakfast nook table and bench. As he sat on the inside, tucked between his mother and the kitchen wall, Brian sometimes felt like there was no way out.
As Eric enjoyed the newfound freedom of campus life, Brian, an emotional and introspective teen, felt unable to outrun his parents' expectations.
Little things rankled him. His mother, the exuberant poet, would quote Pablo Picasso's mother: "If you become a soldier, you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll end up as the pope."
No one can live up to that standard, Brian thought. He was convinced his parents found him less interesting than his brother. In a sense, he felt, they had let him go.
With Eric's ebullient presence gone, it was as if the stage lights had dimmed. Brian sensed the tension level at home rising -- the sore moments and long silences. And he began to look for ways to release it.
He rode the trolley to Park Street and boarded a Red Line train for Harvard. If Eric was steering clear of home, Brian wanted to sample some of that freedom. And Eric's roommates made him feel welcome.
They greeted him warmly as he walked into the room. They gave him a key. There was beer in the refrigerator. As the college crowd headed off to an art film in Harvard Square, Brian would sometimes tag along, thinking: How cool is this?
And there were other forms of escape.
With little confidence in his academic mettle, he began spending Friday nights at "the pit," a magnet for skinheads and gutter punks outside the MBTA station in Harvard Square.
Brian didn't dye his hair day-glo orange.
Instead, he guzzled beer, sneaked into smoky jazz clubs, and began to experience life on the edge.
One night, a boy with spiked hair named "Cookie" showed up in the pit. His face was bloody. His knees were cut. Brian wondered if he'd been struck by a train. But Cookie was cool. He sipped beer and talked about the "rush" of his body-bruising experience.
"I shouldn't be here," Brian remembered thinking. He was, he told himself, a good Jewish kid from Brookline. He should be at Ron Weiner's house, shooting hoops, not with these lost souls.
But, in those early high school years, he was one of them.
As Brian searched for firmer footing, Eric was confronting an inner struggle of a different kind at Harvard.
He was gay and at peace with it. But those closest to him -- his family and dearest friends -- didn't know. And that bothered him.
He wasn't sure whether his parents had said it aloud or merely implied it, but Eric remembered receiving this clear message as a teen: Please don't end up going to jail. Don't use drugs. Oh, and please don't be gay.
It seemed a strange plea coming from his parents, unabashed liberals, a couple who counted many gays and lesbians among their friends.
Eric had met Alex at Harvard. And the two young men had fallen in love. But the thrill of their relationship felt muted because it was still a secret. The college sophomore decided to visit a therapist.
The therapist told him he had a crucial decision to make, that it was up to him: If he kept having sex with men, he would end up gay.
The analysis set Eric back on his heels. It was so ham-fisted, so unsophisticated, so outrageous.
"As though I had a choice!" he remembers thinking. He began to tell his friends.
And during a stretch of gloomy, frigid days in January of 1989, he prepared to tell his family, too.
He invited his parents to meet him one weekend morning at a venerable institution on Harvard Square -- the Wursthaus, famed for its German sausage and vast selection of international beers.
Eric walked in and approached a booth, sliding in across the table from his poker-faced parents.
After a few pleasantries, he came to the point.
He planned to leave school for an indefinite period of time, he told them. "I'm leaving for Tokyo in two weeks, with Alex, who is my lover."
The rat-a-tat announcement was steeped in anger, frustration, and hurt.
There was a stunned silence. And then a cascade of emotions.
For Eric, it was a matter of expectations. He believed he had done his best -- as a son, a sibling, a student.
What else could they want from him, he wondered.
For Barbara, the news landed with tectonic force.
"What are you talking about?" she remembers asking. "Are you going away forever? Is this it?"
She had set aside baby clothes for Eric's children. She had clear visions of his Radcliffe wife. Now she scrambled to adjust to her family's radically altered reality.
Norman's first impulse was more practical. He told Eric he was free to go, but without the family's financial support. "I said, 'You have four years to finish college. This is not a five-year deal because Brian's coming up. I can't afford it.' "
Yet, within moments, Eric heard parental promises of support. We still love you, they promised. This doesn't affect anything, they said.
But to Eric, it seemed a rote reaction, right out of a parenting manual. And, as he left, he simmered still.
When his parents returned home, Brian knew something profound had occurred. But Norman and Barbara kept the news from him. Eric called and asked Brian over for a visit. Eric's tone on the telephone was grave, and -- considering the funereal mood at home -- his brother suspected the worst. Cancer? What?
As Brian walked into Eric's Kirkland House quarters, Eric's roommates walked out. And Brian's heart raced.
"Get to it," Brian told Eric.
Eric told Brian about his sexual relationship with Alex.
"Wow," Brian said. "God."
And then he told his brother, the man he understood better than anyone: "I know."
Somehow the news felt true to his innate sense of who his brother was.
The brothers hugged.
Brian was hardly devastated. But as he headed back to Brookline, a 45-minute ride on the T, his mind was awash and conflicted. What does this mean for Eric, for me, for the family? If Eric's gay, could I be gay?
But before he could process any of it, Eric was half a world away.
Dispatches from him came in the form of scratchy telephone conversations and air-mail letters written on pale-blue onion-skin paper.
"What I am feeling is that you two are so afraid of me that you overlook my attempts to love you," Eric wrote from Japan to his father in May 1989. "Please hear that I am reaching out to you. That I am not acting out of duty but out of real feelings. . . . I mean, did you ever think about why I told you about Alex? I didn't have to. But I did have to. I need you to love me for who I am."
Eric's relationship with Alex dissolved almost as soon as the couple arrived in Japan. But he reveled in his exotic adventure nonetheless. He lived in a boarding house alongside British models and Filipino prostitutes, and taught English to Japanese children.
It was thrilling. In many ways, he believed, his life had just begun.
Meanwhile, Brian was at home with parents who seemed to him fiercely focused on their first-born. Not on him.
Eric's transcontinental flight touched down at Logan International Airport in mid-August of 1989. After eight months away, he walked into his Brookline house bearing gifts from Asia and a wallet full of Japanese currency.
He radiated a new sense of confidence. The anger that had sizzled at the Wursthaus had evaporated.
Eric was returning to Harvard and planned to graduate on time. He finally believed his parents when they told him that his sexual orientation could never deplete their deep love for him.
Brian, however, was another matter. He was giving his older brother the cold shoulder. If Eric used his time away to figure things out, to make peace with himself and his parents, Brian hadn't had that luxury.
And, increasingly, he grew annoyed at his brother's rediscovered air of breezy self-assurance.
August meant vacation time for the Hyetts, and as they packed the cars for the annual trip to Wellfleet, Brian continued to give Eric the silent treatment.
On rainy days the family visited the quaint art galleries of downtown Wellfleet. On sunny days they staked out a sliver of sand on Newcomb Hollow Beach.
Most nights, they listened to classical music and engaged in their favorite card game, hearts.
On Aug. 16, 1989, Brian was especially irritable. The 15-year-old snapped at his mother as she asked him to set the table for dinner.
Norman talked about easing his workload to make more time for himself. He also offered the boys an impromptu astronomy lesson -- the newspapers, he said, were reporting that a lunar eclipse would occur that very night.
Eric then discussed the books he was reading. Barbara turned to Brian and asked if he had managed to read a book all summer. What followed was an exchange they all recall vividly, and which Brian later recorded in a college essay.
"Eric seems to have read enough for the two of us," Brian replied.
It would be a long, tense night.
"Eric this and Eric that," Brian thought, according to his account of the evening. "It's not like I exist or anything! Whatever."
When the card game began, things only worsened. Brian was losing and losing badly.
Eric seemed satisfied. Barbara was enjoying herself. When Brian saw a smile escape from the corner of his father's mouth, he erupted.
"I'm sick of this!" he screamed. The card-game defeat didn't matter, except as a wrenching metaphor: He felt he had been neglected by his parents and abandoned by his brother.
"Why are you being such a sore loser?" Eric asked.
"Oh, the king has spoken," Brian replied.
"You can be angry at the whole world if you want to, but you can't be angry with me for nothing," Eric said.
"No, I'm not angry with the whole world, just with some of its older brothers," Brian replied.
Eric stormed out. Norman attempted to referee. Barbara asked Brian: "How long are you going to punish us?"
Brian's eyes brimmed with tears. When his brother returned, Brian set on him again.
"You left me alone with Mom and Dad going crazy. . . . You left me to become a real [expletive], didn't you? . . . Thanks for going halfway across the world with your main man."
And then he hurled an epithet that cut coldly through the warm Cape Cod evening.
For a moment, the cottage grew quiet.
Eric heard in Brian's voice none of the hate the word conventionally conveys. He heard the depth of his younger brother's anger, a hurt he was only beginning to appreciate.
Within moments, both brothers were in tears. And then Barbara and Norman were, too.
The Hyetts reaffirmed their love for one another on a night that had, strangely and suddenly, grown preternaturally dark.
"We've had quite a night," Barbara said. "You two certainly had a lot to say to each other."
"But thank God they said it," Norman added.
It was just about midnight. They all stepped outside and onto a wooden deck, holding hands and looking skyward above the scrub-pine tree line.
As they stood there, the shining edge of the moon reemerged from total eclipse.