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Barbara and Norman Hyett, who married in 1966, wanted to give their children advantages they never had. Sons Brian, left, and Eric stayed close to each other even after leaving their childhood home, backpacking through Europe in 1991.
Barbara and Norman Hyett, who married in 1966, wanted to give their children advantages they never had. Sons Brian, left, and Eric stayed close to each other even after leaving their childhood home, backpacking through Europe in 1991.
BEST MEN: PART TWO

One bond shatters, another strengthens

Second in a four-part series exploring the experiences of two brothers, one gay and one straight, celebrating their weddings this year.

As a tranquil spring glided toward summer, Barbara Hyett sat before a wooden desk in her Brookline home and took stock of her family, so recently tested by adolescent rebellion and sexual awakening. And of her marriage, now in its 25th year.

As Norman, her husband, puttered outside in the yard and painted the front porch green, she chronicled their life together in an essay of hope and candor.

"We held on," she wrote. "But our marriage strained at the burden of hard work. We had no extra money, no household help. We argued. We complained.

"One night, I remember how we glared at one another coldly in the hallway when suddenly something in the shadows made us look just a moment too long and we both began to cry. We cried and hugged all night and all of the next day, realizing how, in all that working, we had forgotten love.

"Three times we hardened our hearts to one another. Three times we discovered love again."

Somehow Norman and Barbara had kept their relationship airborne, barely. And June 1991 marked the couple's anniversary and a new chance: the start of life together without the comforting distraction of children.

Eric, their oldest son, who had stunned his parents two years before with news he was leaving Harvard and departing for Asia with his gay lover, had returned and graduated on time -- with honors.

The 20-year-old sat in Harvard's Memorial Church during commencement week ceremonies and listened as a minister told graduates that they would never make their parents prouder. And he believed it.

Brian Hyett, who was adjusting to his older brother's coming out, had also found surer footing. As the Brookline High School swim team captain accepted his diploma, he, too, was headed for the Ivy League. The 17-year-old would enroll at Cornell in the fall.

Barbara, in her essay, recalled the thrill she and Norman had shared raising two boys, but acknowledged that sustaining a sense of romance through it all had been hard.

"One night," she wrote, "Norman awoke me from sleep, whispering to me, 'Let's go all the way together.' And I knew what he meant."

Let's beat the odds.

As much as she loved her husband, Barbara's faithfulness had been tested, if only fleetingly. She recalled a question posed at the annual "marriage talk" she and Norman gave at Brookline High School, a forum in which teenagers could ask anything of a long-wedded couple.

"Since you've been married, has either of you ever loved someone else?" a teenager asked.

"Yes," Barbara replied.

"What did you do about it?"

"Nothing much," Barbara continued, in her account. "I felt it, reveled in it for a while, kept it to myself; then let it go."

Norman was at her side, silent.

Now, putting aside her writing, Barbara looked forward to a simple anniversary celebration with her husband.

They would drink champagne and eat strawberries. They would order flowers for their bedroom.

Barbara would wear her wedding gown, this time cut fashionably short.

"We don't need to renew our vows," Barbara wrote. "We've kept them."

Escape from New Jersey

Barbara Helfgott and Norman Hyett grew up within blocks of each other in Atlantic City, N.J., when their seaside hometown was known for its resort hotels, bathing beauties, and high-flying celebrities: the Rat Pack, the Beach Boys, the Beatles.

Slot machines and roulette wheels were still a distant development dream.

Barbara's father sold cigarettes to the oceanfront hotels for the Metropolitan Tobacco Co. and raised his family in a third-floor tenement apartment. The Atlantic Ocean shimmered in the near distance, just beyond her bedroom windows.

Her father died when she was 13, leaving Barbara to be raised by her mother, who ran a photo business, and her 22-year-old brother, Ira.

Norman's father, a remote figure who had emigrated from Russia, ran a string of barely break-even businesses -- a small hotel, a hot dog stand -- while also working as a waiter and maitre d'. Because he was frequently away, his mother often ran the home as a single parent.

Out of this upbringing, Barbara and Norman drew the most basic lessons about marriage and family. It was something you simply did at a certain age -- and figured out how afterward. Few in their circle puzzled over what marriage was. Or who it was, or wasn't, for.

There was a kind of freedom in that lack of self-consciousness. And, perhaps, a kind of blindness, too.

Barbara and Norman met in March 1960 at a high school dance. Barbara's curly blond hair was cut short in a bob, Norman's trim brown hair neatly combed. The two slender teens chuckled as they came to the same conclusion that the wrong girl had been crowned queen of the event. They danced all night and began a six-year courtship.

Norman talked to Barbara about his dreams of becoming a lobsterman. But Barbara wanted to escape the distressed neighborhoods of Atlantic City. She had visions of college and cosmopolitan living, and she urged Norman to think the same way.

Their courtship culminated in 1965 on his 23d birthday. Over mugs of hot chocolate at a Howard Johnson's in Coolidge Corner, near Barbara's Boston University dorm room, Norman asked her to marry him.

And she said yes, without quite knowing why.

"I was trying to figure out why I was here," Barbara would later write of their simple wedding at Atlantic City's Seaside Hotel. "I had wanted to be the bride I'd studied in magazines: hundreds of guests, baskets of roses. I hadn't wanted the ordinary, hadn't wanted to marry the boy-back-home. We had few enough illusions; we knew that making a wholly new life for ourselves would be a struggle. But the man I'd been dating on and off since high school stood smiling confidently at me from the wedding canopy and I was about to marry for love -- I was crazy about his hands, those blue eyes, how we could talk."

They set up housekeeping on the third floor of a Commonwealth Avenue apartment building in June 1966. Lyndon Johnson was in the Oval Office. Newspapers chronicled warfare in Vietnamese jungles and the American space race to the moon. Miniskirts and loud, wide ties were in vogue.

"We were lovers," Barbara wrote. "We were good friends. We had fun. And it was hard."

Within 10 months, the newlyweds moved into a green turn-of-the-century house in Brookline's Washington Square. And within four years, they were parents. If the couple's relationship would show strains over the years, they never quarreled about its emotional center: their children.

"My goal [was] to make it work as a father and to invent this family," Norman would later recall. "And it was invented. It didn't come about . . . Barbara and I both invented this family."

Norman worked as a guidance counselor in Newton and became a licensed psychologist in 1974. Barbara taught writing and literature at Lasell College and Boston University. As Barbara corrected freshman composition papers, her newborn dozed in his carriage by her desk.

Over the years, as the family grew, there was a heightened intensity to the pace they kept.

There were family piano singalongs, beach strolls, summer picnics, and family vacations to the New Jersey shore. They read the classics and quoted Thoreau. They turned off the TV and listened to each other. When the Hyetts traveled to Europe, it was an educational excursion complete with required reading.

"There was something really special when the four of us got together," Brian said.

But also something fragile.

A bond is forged

Long an unspoken aspect of family life, this edgy undercurrent became more obvious as Norman and Barbara learned that the family they had invented was more complex than they could have imagined. Something shifted, after Eric told his family that he was gay, after he abruptly left college and moved away, after Brian was left behind, feeling bereft.

The silences at home got longer, and louder.

When Eric returned from overseas, the two boys had a fierce confrontation on a family holiday in Wellfleet, and an even more impassioned reconciliation. From that moment, Norman reflected, the four Hyetts proceeded two by two.

"They became bonded together and knew that -- no matter what -- their love for each other would be stronger," Norman said. "And I think what had happened is that it became stronger than their love for us."

"They became the most important bond in the family," he said. "The focus of the family shifted at that moment."

Indeed, as Eric and Brian moved beyond the gravitational force of their boyhood home, they became more than brothers. They were each other's counselor and confessor. They became roommates. And best friends.

In the summer before Brian left for college in Ithaca, N.Y., he and Eric spent five weeks together, backpacking across Europe. They explored and bickered and exchanged funny stories. For Brian, it was the final breakthrough in his acceptance of his brother as gay.

"We shared a bed together on so many nights when we stayed in, like, one-bed motels," Brian said. "And I just remember thinking in the beginning of the trip before we left: Is this going to be weird now that he's [openly gay]? I know that's an awful thought, but I just didn't know what it meant. And it was just so wonderful just to -- I mean, he was my brother. The guy's my brother. Period. It was great."

As Brian dug into his studies at Cornell, Eric began building a career in high technology. By the winter of 1994, he was working for Microsoft and living in Seattle with his boyfriend, Marc, a law student.

One evening Brian called from upstate New York, and Eric immediately detected an urgent tone in his younger brother's voice.

Brian had joined one of Cornell's fraternities and found himself caught up in pledge season, the time when houses recruit new undergraduate members.

When one of those recruits revealed he was gay, his chance to become a member vanished, Brian told Eric. Most of the 50 members of the fraternity didn't want to live side-by-side with a gay guy.

How could he be part of an organization that would not accept his brother, Brian asked. But also, how could he leave a place where he had found so many friendships, where he was admired for his jazz piano playing and luck with the ladies, where he finally felt at home?

"What do I have to do?" Brian asked his brother.

Eric did not hesitate.

"What are you, kidding?" the 23-year-old replied, as both brothers recall it. "It didn't bother you when the fraternity wouldn't admit women, but it bothers you that they won't admit a gay guy?"

He told Brian to embrace the fraternity, if that's what he wanted, without worrying about political correctness. Eric was no political crusader himself; he had no such expectation of his little brother.

"You fight your battles," Eric said, to his brother's relief and astonishment. "I'll fight mine."

Closeness -- and distance

By the late summer of 1996, Brian and Eric were again sharing the same address.

Now young adults, they lived together in a two-bedroom apartment in a handsome, sandstone building on Massachusetts Avenue just down the street from Harvard Square.

Eric, now 26, had returned from Seattle to begin graduate work at MIT. Brian, now 22, was working as a researcher at Beth Israel Hospital, building his resume in the hope of attending medical school.

The brothers were both, for the moment, romantically unattached. Eric had broken up with Marc, and Brian had ended a relationship with the woman he had been seeing.

They ate meatloaf and sushi. They cooked for friends. They lived the lives of carefree bachelors. The sibling edge -- in age and attainment -- that used to set the tone between them now seemed gone.

"We just had so much laughter," Brian said. "I remember, maybe it was one of our first or second Saturday nights, and Eric came back from being out at gay bars. And I came back from being out with my buddies at a bunch of straight bars. And we were swapping notes like we were back in high school or something."

Brian, conceding a lack of fashion sense, thankfully took recommendations about his wardrobe from Eric and his gay friends. Eric sometimes joined Brian and friends from the old neighborhood for dinner and a drink.

Audio Audio: Brothers and roommates

And the brothers shared something else, too. They were growing increasingly worried about the state of their parents' marriage.

"I think both [Eric] and I knew that there were issues with my parents," Brian said. "And he and I would talk about them, but we would also talk around them sometimes. And we weren't really necessarily hitting the nail on the head yet. Because neither of us knew what we were looking for."

For the boys, the picture of their parents' marital problems would come into full focus only in retrospect. But some signs of simmering turmoil were hard to miss.

During the December holidays, the brothers joined their parents for a winter retreat to Sanibel Island, Fla. The tropical spot on the Gulf of Mexico had been an occasional vacation destination for the Hyetts over the years.

There was something soothing about the ritual and routine of the family at play.

But not now. Their parents were clearly growing distant.

They often traveled alone and were buried in their work. Empty nest syndrome? Perhaps it would pass. Chilly silence had often before given way to kisses and gift-giving.

But during the Florida vacation, Barbara and Norman often repaired to separate stretches of beach.

The boys spent time with each of them in turn.

Descent into darkness

Valentine's Day 1997 was a miserable Friday of freezing rain, drizzle, and dark skies. The gloomy forecast seemed, to Brian, a fitting barometer for his love life.

For the first time in four years, he was without a girlfriend on the holiday of hearts and flowers. And when a friend invited him to a party at a Back Bay racquet club, he threw on his favorite black wool overcoat and headed across the Charles River for the bash.

Brian, who would later write an account of the evening, said he and his friends played billiards, shared some drinks, and smoked a few cigarettes. Without a woman on his arm, he was feeling sorry for himself.

When a blond woman with chestnut eyes approached, she and Brian engaged in brief flirtation. "I'm looking for something real," he told her. But Brian saw no depth to the woman. She looked at her watch and drifted away.

Within a few hours Brian and a friend decided to leave. As they gathered their coats, someone suggested they move to an upper floor, where the party still rocked, Brian later recalled.

When they arrived on the third floor, someone opened a door and Brian entered a new space. It was, he said, a dark room with "very dim moonlight entering through a skylight high above."

He noticed a floor below. Later he would recall that someone -- it might even have been him -- asked: "How far down is it?"

"Three feet, come on down!" a voice replied.

Preparing himself for a short hop, Brian swung his legs over a railing and slid off the other side. His body hurtled through the air. The descent into darkness was impossibly long. Then his body crashed onto the hard surface of a racquetball court, and everything went black.

It was a drop of about 25 feet.

Soon the wail of an ambulance siren pierced the cold night air.

It was 3 a.m. when Eric returned to the apartment. A tiny red light flashed on his answering machine. His brother's bedroom door was shut, and Eric figured that maybe Brian was asleep.

When he pushed the machine's play button, his mother's voice was laced with urgency and concern. "Brian's had an accident," she said. "He's OK but very seriously injured. You need to come to the hospital."

Eric's heart raced and he wondered what "seriously" meant. Had Brian had a bad car accident? He raced out to Massachusetts Avenue and hailed a taxi.

When Eric entered Brian's room in Beth Israel Hospital's emergency ward, his brother lay on an examining table. His face was "bloated up and purple, like the size of watermelon." To Eric, he looked like "just a jumble of broken everything."

Medical records show that Brian suffered a broken jaw and facial fractures. Behind his bloody lips, several teeth were missing or damaged. He also broke his left kneecap and right arm.

Barbara was stroking Brian's hair, trying to suppress her tears. She had held him like this in this same hospital 23 years before -- in the maternity ward just after his birth.

"I'm here, baby. I'm here," she kept repeating.

Eric approached his younger brother and placed his hand on Brian's head.

"It is a cold hand," Brian would later write. "And the simplicity and the calm of it relieved me."

A few times, Eric and his parents held hands in a circle around Brian, imitating their beloved dinnertime ritual. Brian drifted in and out of consciousness. At least once, Brian overheard a testy exchange between his parents, though he couldn't make out the words. Eric also detected his parents' ill temper.

For the rest of the day, Feb. 15, 1997, Brian's mother, father, and brother took turns accompanying him to X-ray and tests. The early diagnosis offered hope: Brian had suffered no serious internal injuries; he would survive.

Around 9 p.m., after 36 sleepless hours, Norman and Eric headed home to rest. Barbara couldn't leave her son's side. She would stay and try to catch some sleep on a hospital couch.

Norman offered Eric a ride back to his Cambridge apartment. Drained, the two men barely spoke.

Finally, propelled perhaps by the day's events, Eric broke the silence with a question he had been afraid to pose directly before.

"Dad, how much longer are you going to stay with Mom?"

His father's focus never shifted from the road ahead.

"Not much longer," Norman replied.

Audio Audio: Brian's accident

An irretrievable breakdown

Norman, the school guidance counselor, had learned a lot from the children he worked with about the destructive power of divorce.

"For most students [divorce] is the single most important thing that's ever happened to them," Norman told a Globe correspondent in 1983. "In many ways, it's like a death -- the death of a family."

But, for now, death would have to wait. With his youngest son recuperating at home in Brookline, and his marriage frayed nearly to the breaking point, he and Barbara tried to shelve their troubles as husband and wife and worked fiercely together as father and mother.

Because Brian's mouth was wired shut, his mother used a blender to puree his meals. Tuna sandwiches were whipped into a dull liquid, which Barbara fed him through a syringe.

Because Brian was unable to walk, his father carried him like a toddler into the bathroom for an awkward shower.

"He turned on the water and I rested by the sink," Brian would later write in an account of his recovery. "Then he started to raise my shirt. Something caught one of the fingers on the bad arm and I screamed and he stopped.

"I looked at my father in rage, but saw such desperation in that face that I quickly caught myself. 'I'm sorry, Dad. This is so hard.' "

It was hard on Eric, too.

As spring approached, he worried about Brian but was barely able to bring himself to visit his boyhood home, where he knew that his parents' marriage was in its final act. So much of him was bound up in the family's rambunctious unity, he couldn't face what was coming. He had panic attacks, breaking into a sweat, his breath short. Within months, he gave up the apartment in Cambridge and moved to New York City. He had to get away.

Brian struggled toward recovery. He celebrated incremental improvements, and despaired as important mileposts passed, unfulfilled.

In mid-April, when the Medical College Admission Test -- the gateway to medical school -- was administered, Brian felt things slipping further away. He was unable to take the exam.

"Oh, my God," Brian recalled thinking. "I'm never getting there. I wanted to be a doctor. I've wanted to since I was 5. I used to trace the brain out of the encyclopedia when I was a little kid. I'm such a science geek. I should have worked harder in college."

Three months later, he returned to work with the help of a cane. He moved into an apartment of his own.

And then his family as he knew it fell apart.

In late spring, Barbara was awakened by a phone call. She was alone that morning; her husband had left early for work.

"Hello, is this Barbara?" the male caller asked, as she recalls it.

He said he was a doctor. And something more.

"I'm the husband of your husband's lover," he told her.

If Barbara had any doubts about the caller, they were quickly erased. He knew about Barbara's poetry workshops and her excursions through Europe. He knew all about her, her family, and her career.

When Barbara threw down the phone, her hands shook.

Barbara forced herself through the day, tearfully confiding in some friends. She wanted to talk to her husband face to face. In a dazed state, she met her teaching obligations for the day.

And that night, she confronted her husband of 31 years.

It was all true, Norman told her. He had been involved with another woman, but the relationship had ended.

Barbara was shattered. Her confident, sometimes regal, posture was badly dislodged.

She could not imagine life without Norman. They would get counseling, escape on a romantic getaway, work things out.

But there was no fixing it. Norman wanted out.

He would later speak of chronic marital unhappiness. The problems between him and Barbara, which he said began early in their marriage, could not be resolved.

"We fought back in high school. We fought all the way through things. We were constantly getting back together and breaking up. . . There was something intrinsically there that just wasn't going to be OK no matter what happened," he said.

With his boys both grown, he said he needed to develop himself in ways unavailable to him as husband and father.

"I couldn't forsake my own needs anymore," he said. "There was no way I could live it out for the sake of the boys. . . . It would have been the end of me."

Within a month of Norman's departure, Barbara filed for divorce. Her marriage, she declared, had suffered an irretrievable breakdown.

For two years, the ugly divorce played out in courtroom pleadings and letters from lawyers.

They argued about household possessions. They fenced about how to fairly distribute the emblems of their once happy family, the childhood photos of their boys.

As the fight dragged on, Barbara's weight plummeted. She struggled financially, worrying constantly that she might have to sell the family home. Friends signed up in shifts to provide her with an around-the-clock support network. And she leaned on it.

When the marriage was legally dissolved in April 1999, Barbara, 54, walked into a Dedham courthouse accompanied by several longtime friends. They, too, had felt close to Norman, and had admired him as a loving husband. They, too, felt betrayed, and wept.

"Barbara asked me to leave," Norman would say later, "and I would have left anyway."

Once determined to invent something perfect in a family, Norman and Barbara now became the mother and father of its spectacular collapse.

"The intensity of their anger toward each other was such that it overshadowed what had been the triumphs of our family," Eric said.

Love imploded, and took them all with it.

Barbara was living alone in the family home, surrounded by rooms full of memories. She needed them.

In the summer of 1997, Eric, Brian, and Barbara traveled to the south of France, where Barbara hosted poetry workshops in the mountain village of Montolieu.

They needed to get away from Boston, to get distance from the divorce. They took part in one of the poetry workshops, planned months before Norman left. But the attempt to lighten the mood failed. Eric, still deeply troubled, abruptly returned to the United States.

"We hit rock bottom," Brian said. "Each in our own way hit absolute rock bottom."

Even today, when they speak about that period, the unusually candid siblings agree to sketch it only in the most oblique terms, drawing tight a thick curtain of privacy.

"The struggle that came for me emotionally after my parents' divorce and after the accident was about three times worse than any of the events themselves -- if you can believe it," Brian said.

"It was a devastating time for me," he added later. "I felt then that my life was a mess."

One night Brian received back-to-back telephone calls from his mother and brother. The pain was too much, they told him. Darkness was closing in.

"It was to the point that their own lives were worthless to them," Brian recalled.

And then Brian's crisis crested, too. He reached out to Eric, finding him in London on business.

"I need you immediately," Brian told Eric. "Come home."

So Eric did.

And as they had done so often before, the brothers drew strength from each other.

On Father's Day in 1999, neither son was speaking to Norman. Neither knew if anything like their old, rich sense of family would ever return.

And so they decided to celebrate a family tie that they now considered more important.

Brother's Day, they called it.

Part 3: Sons and their lovers

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com. Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com.

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To comment on this series, e-mail the authors, Thomas Farragher and Patricia Wen, at farragher@globe.com and wen@globe.com.
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