A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, January 27, 2014


My dear friend Chris died Friday at 4:02 pm. I think it’s weird that we have an exact time.

Chris had struggled with increasingly difficult effects of Type 2 diabetes over the years, and she spent a fair amount of time in hospitals and clinics over the last few months as her body continued a downward spiral. I will write to you more about her when some time has passed, but for now her death has stirred some thoughts about eternity that I want to explore with you.

Friday evening some of our friends who loved Chris came to our home to play 1960s music from Malvina Reynolds, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and so forth. During one break in the singing, one of my friends said, “I can’t believe Chris is gone.”

It was silent for a moment, and then I said what I felt to be true, “This probably sounds corny, but I think Chris is with us.”

I'll try explaining what I meant about her still being here, both for you and for me. The truth is that I don't even know exactly what I mean. I just know that it's true.

Maybe I mean a lot of things. For one thing, her spirit has become part of my spirit. My heart and my life are different than they would have been without her. I don't mean just the memory of her. I mean that she is part of who I am.

She and I read poetry and wrote together. Writing, like music, has life and eternity to it. So she is alive in her words and in mine.

And…and this is the hardest part for me to explain without sounding like a weirdo or Pollyanna, but I believe that there's some elemental part of us that's eternal…not that necessarily maintains our personalities, but a great energy that I think of as God, an energy from which we come and to which we return. Once in our writing group, Chris invited us to write about what's in the middle of a black hole. Maybe that.

I do not mean by this reflection that Chris was otherworldly. She was absolutely of this world. One thing that I kept hearing friends and family say about Chris as she lay dying was how amazingly present she had always been. This was a gift. When I heard The Indigo Girls’ “History of Us” today, I thought of her:

So we must love while these moments are still called today,
Take part in the pain of this passion play,
Stretching our youth as we must, until we are ashes to dust,
Until time makes history of us.

So in one sense time has made history of us, or at least of Chris. I am glad that we loved while we could. But I also think she’s still with me. I think it was her presence in the present that makes me so clear that she is still here, in the eternal now.

I don't know if that provides any more clarity about what I mean. I still do and do not know exactly what I mean.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Surpriise, Surprise!

This weekend, Ann and I participated in our first--and probably our last--flash mob. We followed directions from our friend Ally (aka Lovie), and snuck on the 10:40 ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island with 40 other chatty folks in yellow shirts while Pea and Lovie, their kids, and their dog Sunshine drove on in their car.

Our group in yellow went to the top floor of the ferry, as directed, and hid from Pea on the top floor in the very front of the ferry. One woman asked if we were a tour group and was excited to learn that, no, we were part of a flash mob and would participate as part of a wedding proposal. 

When Lovie had manipulated Pea onto the deck, we snuck around the side and when the boom box started playing, we emptied onto the deck in front of Pea and Lovie, the kids, and Sunshine, and various unsuspecting strangers:

Oh, her eyes, her eyes
Make the stars look like they're not shinin'
Her hair, her hair
Falls perfectly without her trying
She's so beautiful
And I tell her everyday

Ann placed a lawn chair in the middle of the dancers for me to sit in and hold up my yellow sign: "Girl, You're Amazing!" 

I heard Pea laugh and then cry as people in her life streamed into view: people from Seattle and Bainbridge Island and Boston and Colorado… and at last her brother and his family from New Mexico. 

The music played and the choreographed dance went on, with talented Annabelle leading the way: 

When I see your face (face face...)
There's not a thing that I would change
'Cause you're amazing (amazing)
Just the way you are (are)
And when you smile (smile smile...)
The whole world stops and stares for a while
'Cause girl you're amazing (amazing)
Just the way you are (are)

Her lips, her lips
I could kiss them all day if she'd let me
Her laugh, her laugh
She hates but I think it's so sexy
She's so beautiful
And I tell her everyday

Oh you know, you know, you know
I'd never ask you to change
If perfect's what you're searching for
Then just stay the same
So don't even bother asking if you look okay
You know I'll say

At this point, Lovie and the kids joined in. Sunshine jumped around a little, but mostly looked confused: 

When I see your face (face face...)
There's not a thing that I would change
'Cause you're amazing (amazing)
Just the way you are (are)
And when you smile (smile smile...)
The whole world stops and stares for a while
'Cause girl you're amazing (amazing)
Just the way you are (are)

The way you are
The way you are
Girl you're amazing (amazing)
Just the way you are (are)


Then Lovie got on one knee and the younger dancer surrounded her, throwing flower petals while Lovie revealed signs of the end of the poem "The Truelove" by David Whyte, a poem  that means a lot to Pea and her: 

you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know belongs in yours. 

As Lovie revealed one line at a time, one of the strangers in the audience, moved her hands from her side, to one another, to her face and to her heart.

Pea cried.

I held a sign with "Yes Yes Yes," instructions for Pam's response and lines from the end of another lovely poem, this one by Kaylin Haught:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic

and she said yes

I asked her if it was okay to be short

and she said it sure is

I asked her if I could wear nail polish 
not wear nail polish

and she said honey

she calls me that sometimes

she said you can do just exactly
 what you want to

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don't paragraph 
my letters

Sweetcakes God said

who knows where she picked that up

what I'm telling you is

Yes Yes Yes

As Lovie slipped a giant zarconia ring onto Pea's finger, Pea nodded Yes Yes Yes.

My friend Kathy asked me, "Is that a real diamond? Because it's huge, and I need to know if I need to pretend I like it for the rest of my life."

Then we went to lunch before riding the ferry back to our ordinary lives, which had become a little more extraordinary for having been part of this event.

As I started to tell my parents this story last night, Dad said, "You told us about this last week."

No. This was a marriage proposal. Last weekend we went to a surprise wedding. Yep. Wedding.

We gathered in our church sanctuary, the choir in the loft and all of us in the dark shushing one another as we awaited Steve and Aaron's arrival.  Our minister, Karla, sat in her robe on at the front and spoke into the darkness: "Well," she said, "This is a first."

Finally, Steve and Aaron entered the narthex, and we watched their silhouettes as Steve knelt on one knee and held Aaron's hand. We watched Aaron nod Yes Yes Yes, and then someone threw the doors open and the lights on, and we all yelled, "Surprise!" 

Our choir director played "Linus and Lucy" as the couple came down the aisle, a flower girl casting petals in front of them as they proceeded.

Aaron, generally more shy than his husband Steve, nodded with surprise at each guest and then his mouth dropped open, and he hugged his cousins from Texas and Steve's brothers from elsewhere who were waiting at the front of the church. (Aaron's mother had hoped to come, but due to his sister's ill health, his mom needed to stay in Texas.)

Everyone clapped, and Karla prepared to start the ceremony, but Steve held up a finger: "Just a minute," he said, and he fiddled with his iPad. 

"Oh brother," I thought, he's going to record it from the front. Then Steve said, "Hi, Mama Franco," and showed Aaron's Mom, who was on Skype, the scene. We all waved as the screen pointed our way.

The ceremony began somewhat traditionally, following the program of blessings and Biblical readings. 

Then Steve interrupted the order, took a music stand from the side, and began to sing, "I've Been Changed for Good" from the musical Wicked. (I know it's something of a stereotype to have a song from a musical in a gay men's wedding, but I'm not making this up.)

I've heard it said

That people come into our lives for a reason

Bringing something we must learn

And we are led

To those who help us most to grow

If we let them

And we help them in return

Well, I don't know if I believe that's true

But I know I'm who I am today

Because I know you…

Then the choir sang, "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," and we loved seeing our friend Diana in the choir again, her partner Katie on our pew, and their daughter Bailey growing up and in the choir, too. 

Karla pronounced Aaron and Steve married (for the third time: like many gay couples, they've been celebrating in progressive ways--starting in Massachusetts), and we clapped and laughed and cried as they recessed. 

When Ann and I had our ceremony in 2009, I didn't want to call it a "wedding" because marriage wasn't yet legal and this was therefore a sacred service but not one that would convey civil rights. I also didn't want to take on the word or the meaning of heterosexual marriages because I felt that our relationship and our love were different--not less good and maybe just a little bit better (I'm just being honest here)--than a heterosexual wedding with all of history's baggage. 

When we participated in a "mass wedding" last February and received our wedding certificate, this was a legal event, so I called that a wedding. Maybe I feared that in taking on the trappings of heterosexual weddings, those of us who were gay would lose some of our culture.

I needn't have worried. Gay folks are, of course, creating our own traditions within this tradition of privilege. We are funny and loving and--like our heterosexual brothers and sisters'--our love is sacred. And a lot of fun.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


As my partner Ann and I walked in the door from delivering open house invitations to our new neighbors, the phone was ringing. I answered it.

"Hi. I'm Annabella. I’m your neighbor. I drink beer."

I responded, “Great! We’ll have beer. We look forward to meeting you!”

As if she thought I might not have understood, she said, “Not the hard stuff. Not wine. Beer.” I started to say something friendly and reassuring, but the line went dead. She just hung up, so I knew the phone call was over.

Annabella calls herself “colored” and I’m white. She was born in 1920 and grew up in New Orleans. I was born in 1964 and grew up in Raleigh. Annabella grew up in a poor family, while my parents were a doctor and a nurse. She didn’t graduate from high school. I have two advanced degrees. I grew up Southern Baptist, and she grew up Catholic. Annabella loved her husband, Brad, and I love my partner, Ann. Our lives have been very different in many ways, and we have been good friends since that phone call 18 years ago.

Both Annabella and I have slowed down over the years. Annabella’s “practically 94”, and her knee bothers her. She doesn’t hear well, and sometimes loses her hearing aids, so I have to shout to be heard. Sometimes she gets confused about the day. I’m almost 50 and have had two brain tumors over the last seven years. I have low vision, fatigue and balance struggles as a result of the tumors, neurosurgery and radiation.

We attend the Silver Sneakers class at the YMCA with other exercisers, who are mostly in their seventies and eighties. I am the youngest member of the class, and she is among the oldest. She is the best dressed, with matching shoes, hat, gloves, and scarf. Last Halloween, I dressed up as Annabella, wearing a gold hat with black polka dots (she had left it at our house after dinner one night), cute black and white sneakers, teal and black striped socks (a Christmas gift from her), and large rimmed purple glasses. I’m not sure that the other members of the class noticed that I was dressed as Annabella, but many told me how nice I looked.

In class, we sit in chairs, tap our toes and lift our weights to music. (Everyone whistles and sings along with “Everyone knows it’s Windy….”) For coordination, we throw rubber balls in the air and clap once before catching them again. In another exercise, our right feet circle clockwise while we snap in a counter-clockwise motion. The coordination is challenging, so we laugh.

Annabella always thanks me for introducing her to this class, and she thanks Ann for driving. Annabella says, “It’s important to say thank you and you’re welcome. ‘Don’t mention it’ or ‘No problem’—what is that?”

On warm, sunny days when Ann can’t take us to class, we walk on the path around the park down the street. I struggle going downhill, and she struggles uphill, so we’re slow. We rest on benches at the halfway mark and cheer for kids on tricycles.
As we sit, Annabella shares stories from her past. She was raised by her mother, who was "one hundred percent Cherokee Indian" and was quick with a switch, and her father, an African-American man who carried the family name of slave owners who owned his grandparents.

Young Annabella and her eight siblings did what they had to do to raise money. For a while, they raised alligators for a wealthy family. They’d feed the ‘gators by reaching way down into their throats, but the ‘gators never bit them. Annabella says that they knew where their next meal was coming from. She says, “We were poor, but we had fun. People would say to Mama, ‘Those are some beautiful kids!’ and Mama would say, ‘And they all got the same pa.’”

Just before the start of the Second World War when Annabella was nineteen, her fiancĂ©, Brad, sent $13 for her to make the train trip from New Orleans to Seattle, where he was living. However, Annabella’s mother used the money to pay the rent: $14 a month. Brad sent another $13, and again her mother used the money for the rent. The next time, he sent a train ticket (smart guy), and Annabella finally took the train to Seattle.

Annabella was beautiful, with long dark hair and a shapely figure. She liked to dress well. Brad found Annabella a place to live with other ladies. When he took her to her new home, several men sitting in the foyer threw silver dollars in the air, wagering on Annabella. Brad told her, “Get your things. We’re moving you out of here. This place is for prostitutes.” She asked, “What’s a prostitute?”

Soon after Annabella arrived in Seattle, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and she became a riveter at Boeing. She'll still show you her muscle. She says that when mechanics needed someone strong, they'd call for "the Indian."

As we continue our journey around the park, we look forward to eating at Annabella’s favorite restaurant. The staff knows her, and she knows what to order: “that teepee thing” (chicken satay salad). The staff also knows that she likes her Bud Light with tomato juice.

At dinner she tells Ann and me about a time when a Boeing machinist who wasn't paying attention came so close to her head with his drill that he cut a part down the middle of her hair. She was not injured, but she was mad. Being a Catholic doesn’t restrict her from cursing a blue streak, which she did under the circumstances and repeats now. Other diners look over to make sure everything is okay. They smile when they see that it’s Annabella. Everyone here knows her name.

Another time when the three of us are at dinner, Annabella is upset about a good friend with Alzheimer’s. “She didn’t know her butt from a shotgun,” Annabella says, shaking her head. Her eyes tear a moment, but then she grins and lets go with a cannon-ball burst of laughter. Annabella reflects on her advancing age and says, “The Lord takes care of fools and mules. And I’m no fool.” When we have all gotten our beers, Annabella makes a toast: "Here's to those of us who are left."

Annabella’s not a complainer, but when she does have a gripe, she'll share it, quoting her mom: "If it's not one thing, it's two." Annabella says that young people have educated smarts, but old women have wits, and she points to her temple. Yes, Annabella has wits.

At the end of dinner, she says, “I’m going to live another ten years, and I’m going to LIVE. I’ve had a good life. When I go, you can say, ‘That was a semi-good woman.’”  She adds, “I don’t want to die in my sleep. I want to moan. I want to reminisce.”

When Annabella learns that we celebrate Advent in our Methodist Church, she is surprised. “Oh!” she says. “Your church is a facsimile of ours!” She’s been a Catholic all her life, and she never misses mass, but she has supported Ann and me as a lesbian couple since we met her. When I ask about her support in spite of Catholic doctrine, she points to her temple again. She says, “I have my own mind.”

My disposition, like Annabella’s, is mostly sunny, but sometimes worries about the future cloud my day, or my heart aches with the losses I’ve experienced with my tumors. At these times, I feel old before my time, but Annabella keeps me rooted in the present, reminding me of how joyful it is to live. She keeps me young.

My life is richer because Annabella is my neighbor and my friend. I feel more loved in this world because she loves me. My life is fuller because she is in it. And our health challenges—her age and my limitations because of brain tumors—remind us both not to take one another or this time in our world for granted. We are slow and we have our struggles, but mostly we are grateful, to one another, to the people we love, to a beautiful world, and to a God who loves us.