My best friend and I are heterosexual men and we say to each other “I love you”

“I love you,” Doug said to me.

“I love you too,” I replied, before pressing the red hang-up buttons on our iPhones at the end of our weekly calls.

My wife gave me a funny look, which she did weekly, in the loving way we always ended our conversations. I suppose his wife did too.

Doug has been my best friend since 1980, when we played Little League baseball together in Providence, Rhode Island. His team, who wore yellow uniforms, were coached by a tough guy who would line up the boys before each match and knock their groins off with a bat to make sure they had their cups on.

My team, equipped in blue uniforms, was sponsored by a social club in the working class Fox Point section of the city. Our closing party was held in the smoky, dimly lit bar of our sponsors, where we sat at wooden tables to sip our sodas and pizza. A couple of regulars, parked in their usual seats, looked at us with confused smiles while breastfeeding their beers. Some of us would end up occupying the same bar stools when we were growing up. Some would not.

At the time, it was difficult to predict who would fall into which camp.

Doug and I met on the base paths, though we can not remember if he ran and I played first base or vice versa. Looking at us, it was not obvious that this was a friendship that would be deepened for decades.

Even at that age, he was tall, handsome, and had an easy time with people who attracted them. I was average tall, thin and smarter. He was a Red Sox fan while I followed my dad, who was a native of the Bronx, in rummaging through the Yankees. His family was Protestant; my Jews. He became a lawyer; me, a doctor.

However, our relationship with our fathers pulled us together as we both struggled to navigate them. My dad helped train my baseball team, and in an attempt to dismiss any accusation of favoritism, he went overboard proving that I would not receive any special treatment.

He drove to matches, the team baseball equipment packed loosely in the trunk of his Dodge Dart while I walked separately. When I knocked out, he threw his hat down in the dirt on the excavation floor, disgusted by my inadequacies. If I missed a roll to first base, he would not talk to me for several days.

Doug’s father, an owl-like history professor who spent most of his time in a home office from which we were forever banned, never attended a game. Sometimes he did not even notice Doug for several days.

One father for present, the other for absent. Doug and I turned to each other to understand these fathers – and to make sure we were not bad kids. When my father threw a tantrum at my weaknesses, I looked out over the field and met Doug’s calm brown eyes. Not your fault, they would say. I came to his fights to cheer on him.

“We loved each other, even then. But at that age, at the time and when we were growing up, we would never say it out loud.”

Siblings – and we each had one – are under pressure. Best friends you can choose. And we chose each other.

We loved each other, even then. But at that age, at the time and when we were growing up, we would never say it out loud.

As is the case with any long-term relationship, we had our ups and downs. In high school, Doug’s father finally noticed him, disliked what he saw, and Doug traveled to join his mother, who lived in Massachusetts. We lost touch until our first summer after starting college. Doug tracked me down to the restaurant where I worked, leaving me a note with his address and phone number – he was living with his sister at the time. We picked up again as if no time had passed. I still have the note.

Over the following years, we met each other’s girlfriends and went out to restaurants and movies as a couple. I excitedly told him I would propose and he did the same before his courtship. Then we called each other afterwards to review all the details of how it had gone. We arranged each other’s bachelorette parties, were engaged at each other’s weddings, and were visiting early to see each other’s first children.

However, we did not express our love until my wife and I divorced in 2004. Doug and his wife had divorced at the time after she stunned him one night by announcing that they were inherently incompatible and equally well could get it over with. For several months after their split, I talked to him daily and told him he was a good person, that he was lovable. Eventually he believed in me.

I also remember exactly the moment we said it. I had moved to a dingy apartment that I had furnished with a small kitchen table, two chairs, an old sofa, and a futon. Crushed, crushed over my own failure in marriage and at the thought of losing my young son, I sat on the bare floor of the bedroom and sobbed into the phone while Doug listened, reassured and reassured.

“I love you,” he said, emphasizing I. “I love you. “No matter what I thought about myself or what the rest of the world might say, Doug would always love me.

“I love you too,” I replied reassured by him, and as if we had been saying these words to each other for years.

This time, he called me every day for months until I could gather the pieces of myself again, the concluding signature of our conversations that is now firmly established.

“I kiss my boys and tell them how much I love them as much as I do my daughter.”

We both remarried, both with women, both happily, and acted as each other’s fiancés once again. Our families meet every year, despite the thousands of miles that separate us, and our children refer to the adults as uncles and aunts. We are not gay – even though we joke that if we were, we would choose each other as husbands.

Our wives also look at us funny when we say that.

There’s been a culture shift in the 40 years that have passed since Doug and I played Little League baseball with each other, and it’s not so strange today for two hetero men to express their feelings for each other as it once was. . But we recognize that our openness is still not the norm, so we try to model how we treat each other for our children, so hopefully that will be the norm for them. We say the words as they listen to our calls and I kiss my boys and tell them how much I love them as much as I do my daughter.

Over time, Doug and I developed our routine of weekly phone calls and texting. The topics of our tête-à-têtes range from how work goes to recent bike rides to occasional boyhood memories, but always decide on parenting.

I now attend my children’s sporting events and cheer on them from the sidelines. Doug coaches his daughter’s soccer team. Yet we worry about the relationships we have developed with our own children. I ask Doug for advice on how he would handle this week’s problem that has arisen in my family, and he does the same with me. I tell him how much I admire the father he has become; he repeats the compliment back.

And then we say to each other “I love you”, much more pleasant at saying the words out loud than when we were younger, and perhaps a little more comforted in the fathers we ourselves have become.

Mikkael A. Sekeres, MD, MS is Head of the Department of Hematology and Professor of Medicine at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami. He is a widely published essayist and author of “When the blood breaks: Life lessons from leukemia “ (MIT Press). Follow him on Twitter at @MikkaelSekeres.

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