Family Matters ...... the death of a parent
My mother-in-law is ill . . . very ill. And my partner is facing difficult times.
As her mother struggles to hold on, it is difficult for us. Her mom lives out-of-town and so we must be separated for periods of time. The phone and e-mail are no substitutes for in-person support.
Times like this bring up all sorts of other problems too. There are doctors and hospital personnel who don't understand where I fit into the family. . . and later there will inevitably be ministers and funeral directors who will say that "this car is for family members only." I know this, because I have already experienced the death of my parents and in the midst of that grief, I was in no mood to explain to the world who "she" was-that person at my side offering me consolation and comfort.
There are really no "conventions" that one can follow during times of great celebration or at times of great sorrow. These times, when we want to be with our partners as the spouses we are, society often blocks us out.
In our case, we have been lucky that both our families know and accept the love we share. But beyond that family circle, things take some negotiation. For example, I had to explain to the cemetery curators why I would not be using the family burial plot for my own final resting place. They were quite puzzled, since I was unmarried and had no "accommodations." My father, who never knew why I had chosen the path I did but accepted me with unconditional love, had made arrangements for me, along with him and my mother. My brother, on the other hand, had his own burial plot with his wife ..... from whom he is now divorced and I can't imagine him ever wanting to share that resting place with her.
I also had to deal with the wakes and funerals of each of my parents. These are excruciating. Every family member examines you with a high powered microscope as you stand vigil. Relatives whom you haven't seen for years ask the usual uncomfortable questions, like "where is your husband?" or "do you have children?"
If you dare to present your partner, the two of you become the center of attention at the services instead of the offering of final respects. Your expressions of grief must somehow be tempered with control so that "no one will notice" that you are not straight. And there is always the old aunt who will figure out the relationship between you and "that woman who is not a family member." Then there will be hell to pay as she will make sure you overhear remarks about how ashamed your parent would be to know that you had the nerve to bring that "lesbian" with you to their funeral. Oh, and how that stings! One cannot turn to Aunt Pauline and say "buzz off" because that would embarrass your parent, not the existence of your partner whom they knew and loved like a member of the family.
But that's not what's going on here. The loss of a parent is not a private grief. In this culture, it is at least two days of public mourning, followed by too many condolences, followed by nothing. So for two days, you endure. But the endurance takes its toll.
If any of you have been in this situation, you know exactly what I mean. Like weddings, funerals are times when all your relatives .... even those most distant ...... get a chance to critique your life. If you are lucky, it will just be your job they attack. But most of us are not that lucky. Someone will ask a question that leads to another question, that leads to an insinuation, that leads to a discussion of your old bachelor uncle who died years ago and who that "stranger" was at his funeral.
Of course, you long ago figured out who that stranger had to be and the family skeleton has long since had company in that closet. But this is the 1990's .... the turn of the century ..... and we should not be dealing with secrets or gossip at the funeral of a parent ...... but we do.
I can only imagine what the conversation might have been at my own funeral, had I not had the foresight to plan with my partner for our own ideas about final resting places. The cousins and uncles, aunts and family friends would have all wondered why I had never married.... they would have all thought how sad my life must have been, and how lonely. They might even have offered some sad comments about my having no children to mourn for me at my grave-side.
Never would they understand that my life has been full and complete. That my love for the women who have shared my life has been more wonderful than I could have imagined. Never would they understand who that "woman" was who was grief-stricken at my funeral. But I will not give them the opportunity to wonder why many of those in attendance would be same sex couples. I will have the final say in my last wishes and my final rest will come without their curiosity.
When I am done on this earth, I will ask my partner to quietly announce MY death to our friends. I will ask her to cremate my body and to scatter MY ashes in places that I have loved. I have lived as a lesbian and I will die as a lesbian. And if perchance my partner or I cannot carry out our final wishes, I have left a will that says we are to be buried together. That's simply the way it is.
Death is something we must all face .... no one escapes the experience. But I wish to leave this world as I was when I lived in it. Dress me in my Levis and my denim shirt and place a rainbow flag on my casket. Remember me as a woman who loved strongly and well the women who passed through my life. MY nieces and nephew know that I am a lesbian, and I pray that they will have the courage to stand at my funeral and fondly remember all those times MY partner and I took them to the movies, or out the eat, or the time we attended their graduations, or their weddings. Or the Christmases when they gave us a "joint" gift.
They'd best remember, because I have tried through them to make a difference in my little corner of the world.
I imagine that the next few weeks will be hard for my partner and for myself. But no matter the outcome of her mother's struggle, we WILL be there for one another. It is what spouses do.