April 2018

Sunday, February 14, 2016

She’s a Miracle

Where there is great love, there are always miracles.
--Willa Cather

My teacher Theo leads our memoir writing class each Tuesday night until 9:30. That’s way past my bedtime, but I’m never sleepy during class, and I’m always wound up when I get into bed with Ann, who shakes herself from sleep in a style reminiscent of the mummies in The Halloween classic Night of the Living Dead. This is a weekly turn of roles, where she is sound asleep first: since surgery I have needed twelve hours of sleep a night (plus a three-hour nap in the afternoon), and I get started on a good night’s sleep as soon as I can, so often Ann’s joining me after I’ve already slept a bit. 

Because I worked in high schools for 27 years, first as a teacher and then as a literacy specialist, I attend to pedagogy and can be critical of my instructors. In the beginning, though, Theo’s name humbled me. I looked up translations, and my favorite is from the Urban Dictionary: “theo means god in greek; theos are usually gods themselves, or at least semi-gods. their powers are unlimited. the charm, the strength and the intelligence are their first assets in the day-to-day life.” Of course, the no-caps to begin sentences are the writer’s, t love’s, stylistic choice. I especially love her usage example:
"i'm gonna mess with theo"
"you shouldn't"

I’m not messin’ with Theo. Nor with the other students in the class, at least four of whom (we learned last week), graduated from fancy schools: two from MIT, one from Yale, another from Brown. (I didn’t mention that I had graduated from Davidson, where Stephen Curry played basketball: it seemed like bragging.) In this class, there will be no degree, and there are no grades. We just want to learn: the perfect scenario.

During class, Theo often guides us through the exploration of a concept by explicating a section from a memoir we’ve read. She also gives us writing prompts. Because I’m taking the class to get help revising my memoir, I usually use the prompts to work on something for my book, but one of this week’s exercises raised a theme I’ve been exploring throughout my adult life, so I just wrote without thinking about how I might use the writing for my book or this blog. In my responses, I’ve borrowed from previous things I’ve written and added to them. I continued the writing, and want to share it with Ann as my—unconventional, as always—Valentine’s Day gift.  Thanks for being my witness (kind of like reading Dante’s The Inferno for people who aren’t Beatrice…kind of.)

Prompt One: What was the story the world you grew up in told you that you should become? (By “world”! mean your environment, including your parents or whoever raised you, and the society, class, and culture in which you grew up. What was the message you got from them of who you should be?)

As a freckle-faced, auburn-haired tomboy growing up on a suburban cul-de-sac in North Carolina, my parents and I had an unspoken plan: I would be a good student and a decent athlete; for college, I would go to my father’s alma mater; I would become a doctor or a lawyer; and I would marry a well-pedigreed doctor or lawyer.

My husband and I would raise our 2.5 children on a suburban cul-de-sac, and these children would be honorable Southern Baptists, like their parents, their grandparents, and their great-grandparents before them. The children would love our golden retriever. They would be good students and decent athletes. They would attend colleges of their choice. They would be doctors and lawyers and would marry doctors and lawyers. Like Shakespeare’s MacBeth, my husband and I would look into a mirror and see the future: for MacBeth, Banquo’s decendants; for us, an infinite line of Southern Baptist doctors and lawyers, children and golden retrievers.

Though I did attend my father’s alma mater, when I was in college, my father and I both began to notice that I might not live this life. When Dad called one night, I was upset and told him that my boyfriend and I had been fighting about marriage. “What about?” he wanted to know.

“About getting married.”

“What’s there to argue about?”

“He wants to and I don’t.”

Dad paused like he does before he’s going to utter what Sister Jen called a “lecturous” proclamation. “Well Mary,” he said in his deepest baritone, “Sometimes in relationships we have to compromise.”

I was aghast. “Not about marriage!” This may have been my first moment of knowing that I would need to craft my own life, that though my father was well-intentioned, he would not be able to direct my life in a way that was true to who I was. After all, neither of us really knew who I was yet. So far, I was a child trying to live up to my parents’ vision of who I should be.

My well-meaning parents wanted me to marry this boyfriend. He was a great guy, kind and smart and funny, and his financial and respectability prospects looked good. I believed that, following our family’s plan from my childhood, I should marry him. I just couldn’t. Though my mind could see that he was an ideal match, my gut wrenched whenever I thought of marrying him. He wanted to be a senator, and I knew that he would probably live a more traditional life than I wanted. I suspected that we would make one another miserable, maybe bitter. And there was something beyond what I could name that just wouldn’t let me marry him. I don’t think it occurred to my conscious self that I was lesbian. So after years of breaking up and getting back together, we finally went our separate ways (though he was the one who finally had the courage to call it quits for real.) I felt relieved that we had parted ways and also terrified that I had missed my life’s calling.

Prompt two: What was the story of who you should become that you told yourself?

Though I now believed that my marriage needed to be on my own terms, I believed still that in order for me and my parents to be happy, I needed to find a suitable boy to marry. In my twenties, I married a man, a pediatrician like my father, and seemed to be on destiny’s path, but something was always amiss. At the breakfast before the wedding, I went down a buffet line, selecting scrambled eggs, grits, and sausage for my wedding breakfast. As I piled the eggs, more gooey than my ideal, onto my china, I began to sob. I did not know why I was crying, but I could not stop. My body trembled uncontrollably, and I sounded like a wild animal as I gulped for air. I tried to quiet myself when my mom’s friend said a lovely prayer for nuptial happiness, but I could not.

My husband-to-be said to a couple of bridesmaids standing by me, “You take care of this.” They did. I was trembling as I sobbed, so one helped me to my seat while another finished piling the morning’s food onto my plate and served me at my seat. I sobbed throughout the meal. After breakfast, my family took me home, and my sister tucked me into bed. I no longer sobbed, but I was exhausted and weak and slept until time to get ready for the wedding.

My husband and I never talked about these tears. After the wedding, we began our marriage by moving to the furthest corner of the contiguous United States from the place of my birth. We were bold. We left the South and moved to Seattle. This was a new place to begin a new life. I loved Seattle immediately, its liberal politics and mountains and waters, but I felt that something in me was lonely and dying.

After a journalism internship and getting a public school teaching certificate, I got a job in a suburban town east of Seattle. I joined a carpool of three other women driving between Seattle and this town, and the four of us spent over an hour in the car together each day as we drove to and from work. Our friendships deepened quickly. With this group, I tasted my first latte and received references for my first therapist. I cried each morning as I got in the car at 6:25, already grieving my dying marriage.

At home, I played and replayed Paul Simon’s “Graceland”:
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart.
Everybody sees you're blown apart.
Everybody feels the wind blow.

As my marriage failed, my vision of a future like my mother’s blurred. I would not be like my mother: I would not be a wife to a husband. I was becoming an adult. I was becoming myself. And this becoming was both painful and joyous.

Prompt two: What is the story life has told you of who you are?

I did not at first realize that I was falling in love with Ann, one of my carpool friends. She is a woman, after all, and twenty years my senior. I found it odd that I constantly felt compelled to tap her, or kick the bottom of her shoe as she walked, or jump out and holler in order to scare her as she rounded a blind corner. “Why do I do that?” I ask her. “I don’t hit my other friends.” I felt like an adolescent boy who doesn’t yet know how to flirt with a girl.

We were sitting on the brown couch in her home when I asked her this, and she said to me, “Sometimes when you’re a lesbian, you fall in love with your friends.” When I think of it now, I’m not sure if she was saying that she was in love or I was, but I knew at the time I was in trouble. I said a bad word and ran to my bicycle and rode hard home.

This brain tumor journey has not been my most difficult adventure. Coming out as a lesbian was harder. I have written about this coming out recently in this blog, but I’m copying it here in the unlikely case that you missed it:

I came out as a lesbian to myself when I was thirty years old and at the end of an unhappy marriage. It was a horrible time for me, much more difficult than my brain tumors. I had spent my whole life trying to please my parents, thinking their ways would lead to a fulfilling life, so coming out to myself challenged that idea and let me know that I hadn’t even let myself know who I was.

When I came out to some of my local friends, one who was already out as a lesbian responded, “Congratulations.” I thought the response to something that was making me so miserable was an odd one, (but now I think it’s the right one.)

In my journal during those first years, I wrote about the emotional pain of my divorce and coming out:

I was torn apart—or felt like it. I lost a significant amount of weight (30 pounds?) quickly—and not because I wasn’t eating but because my body was literally eating away at itself with the adrenaline of grief and anxiety. I slept little, had to limit my exercise (yoga twice a day, bicycling twice a day) because I knew that too much exercise was unhealthy.
I could hardly function at my sister’s wedding—seeing her go into a life that I had imagined for myself—and seeing clearly that it was right for her and had never been right for me.
I felt small and angry that I was being asked to be invisible when I felt I had been invisible for so long.
I felt like I was being punished but not sure what I had done wrong—married when I was gay? (but I didn’t know…), come out? (but that was the truth), not come out before? (but I didn’t know…), … let the world see my pain? (but how not to do that…). So what did I do wrong? Was I just born wrong?...
I feel like I’m holding my breath for something to happen, some enlightenment, some luck that will help me create my own meaning. But how do I get there? I just do not know. And I am so tired of the ache, like my lower ribs are being pulled together, my stomach and throat and chest taut.
And then there’s the everyday pain here in the fallen Eden…Oh God. Remind me that all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude.
“Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions. Decisions make us.” –Jose Saramago, All the Names, p. 29

Did I make these decisions, or did they make me? I suppose we look as best and as honestly as we can at the options and the likely way they will make us—and then at some point we make a decision, and that decision seldom makes us in the way we envisioned. And that’s just how it is….
I’m so tired. Ooff. Air out of a tire. Body as a heavy sack. Head like the clapper in a bell.
I wonder how much of my life I’m avoiding depression or weariness or being a disappointment and how much of my life I’m living joyfully. I think it’s time to live joyfully, not dutifully.
Sometimes I feel like I’m fading, turning invisible, see-through, like I need to concentrate to maintain my presence, my self. Where am I disappearing to?
“Pessimism is cowardice.” –Dubois
“There are no answers. Only choices.” –Solaris
If sadness could talk, what would it say? “I’m here because I’m always here, and I’m as old as time. I flow like a river, or rock like an old woman knitting in a chair, but whatever you do or feel I flow on. I rock on. I am the pain of human suffering, caused by human cruelty or the whims of weather and tide. I am a part of what it means to be.” … What does it mean to live—not die—by this river of sadness—to pitch a tent and notice the beauty.... What does it mean to come to peace with this sadness?
I have things to learn that will make this miserable journey worthwhile.

I came out to my family because truth and integrity are values we share, and I knew I wanted to have real relationships with them, which I couldn’t do if I were hiding who I was. When I came out, I wrote letters to my family one day, mailing them all at the same time. I didn’t want them to share their first reactions with me, so I figured letters would give them time to react in my presence when they were ready to.

Mom called immediately, saying she would always love me, and Dad wasn’t ready to talk to me yet. Mom came to visit soon thereafter and met Ann, who is still my partner (now wife, according to the state) twenty years later. My siblings also responded immediately, communicating love and support: a letter from my brother and an envelope from my sister with news reports of all the celebrities (like Ellen DeGeneres) coming out at the time. On the outside of the envelope was a brief note: “You’re in.”

Dad and I wrote letters back and forth for a year and a half but didn’t really talk, except for me to ask to speak to Mom when he answered the phone. (This was before caller identification.) The letters were generally angry and aired all of the grievances of my life. Though the communication was hard, it was honest and it kept us in relationship.

After my original letters to the family, the four of them and my brother’s best friend Ken went out for dinner. Ken told me that they avoided talking about me until Sister Jen started talking about African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement, code for talking about me. Mom said that she didn’t think Sister Jen was talking about the Civil Rights Movement, and they talked about me. I don’t know what they said, but Ken said there was lots of gnashing of teeth, and everyone but him cried. Apparently the wait staff was perplexed about what to do.

Neither Mom nor Dad wanted me to come out to my grandmothers, but both grandmothers let me know in Southern code that they understood the situation and loved me, perhaps even approved with more enthusiasm than my parents could understand.

After a year and a half, Dad and I started talking again.

I can’t remember what happened for a while. Maybe I went home without Ann for holidays or maybe I didn’t go home. As time progressed, my parents went out to dinner with Little Brother Matt, who told them that if they were going to have a relationship with me, they were going to have to invite Ann into their lives.

For years after that, Ann was welcomed to family events: weddings, holidays, and beach trips. My parents were courteous and welcoming, but it was clear that Ann was still an outsider, someone who had caused me to slip from my destiny.

Prompt Three: What is the story life has told you of who you are?

When I was diagnosed with my first brain tumor thirteen years later, I believe my reaction grew from having lived through the very difficult time of coming out. On that day, I wrote in my journal:

Today I learned I have a brain tumor…. The odd thing is that the primary emotion I’ve felt in response has been the great sense of how lucky I am: lucky to love and be loved by Ann, to have a warm comfortable home and health insurance, lucky to have loving friends and family, to have a job I love with students who are so charming and interesting, colleagues who are so dedicated and fun…lucky to get to see flowers bloom and to eat chocolate chip milkshakes.

It wasn’t until I had brain surgery when I was 43, and my parents saw Ann and me together as I recovered in the hospital, that my parents finally saw how real and loving Ann’s and my relationship is. Ann is now a genuine part of the family, and I believe the whole family loves her and sees her as one of us.

This was probably the greatest gift of my brain tumors. (Yes, there are others.)

Ann and I had talked about marrying before my brain surgery, but I couldn’t bear the thought that my parents might not come or see how genuine the marriage would be. After brain surgery, however, I had a visceral sense of my own mortality and of needing to claim my life as my own. Besides, I now believed that my parents understood our love. Ann and I planned a ceremony.

Family and friends flew to Seattle for what was in some ways a traditional ceremony. A dinner followed Friday night’s rehearsal. Out of town friends and family joined us for breakfast and a pool party Saturday morning.

Saturday at 5 pm, Ann and I went to the church. Our nephews, dressed in colorful khaki slacks, escorted guests to the pews. We walk down the aisle as music plays. Our minister conducted the ceremony and gave a talk about love.

Our young nieces Lucie and Gretchen were flower girls, and our older niece Isabella read from First Corinthians: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Ann and I exchanged rings and vows. The minister directed our community to support our relationship. Ann and I kissed. We took a lot of photos, and went to a reception to eat and dance. We exchanged the first bites of the four-tiered cake.

In some ways, our wedding was traditional. In other ways, of course, it wasn’t. No father walked us down the aisle. There were neither bridesmaids nor grooms. The minister did not invite anyone to speak up if they disapproved. We were both women.

At our rehearsal dinner, Lucie asked repeatedly, “Auntie Mary, who ARE all these people?” Each time, the question was more emphatic. I finally responded in a way that satisfied her: “They're our friends.” She seemed dismayed: “You mean they're all here for you?” I was thankful that she and all my nieces and nephews saw that gay couples, like straight couples, can have a community of support.
This was a night we celebrated so many gifts that Ann and I are grateful for: one another, our families and friends, our faith and community.

Our siblings toasted our love, and Little Brother Matt and Ann’s brother Gene both get choked up during their toasts. They hugged, one of my favorite moments of the night.
Ann and I danced the first dance to Exile’s “She’s a Miracle.” Everyone watched as we swung in slow motion.  Ann held me tight, and the music played:

She’s a miracle, a sight to see.
Ohhhh, the way she touches m!
Way down deep, in my soul,
Something’s got ahold, and it won’t let goooh.
If I stumble, if I fall,
She’s waiting right there to catch me.
Ohh, she’s a miracle, a miracle to me!

We had practiced for hours in our kitchen, so I didn’t stumble and I didn’t fall. We danced amid reminders of our Northwest home: totems, a carved canoe, a sunset over the sound. We danced amid reminders of how much we were loved and how much we loved one another.

Thirty years after the break up with my college boyfriend, my life is much different than it would have been had my college love and I married or had I remained committed to my husband. I am thankful that, despite my doubts, my first love and I didn’t marry. It’s taken one marriage to and divorce from another suitable boy, coming out, another marriage to the woman I love, two brain tumors, disabilities, hearing loss, a car wreck, the loss of my career, and so forth to fully embrace the life I choose to live, a life that has been my own and not the shadow of my parents’ lives.

On this Valentine’s Day, as every day, I celebrate again the miracle of Ann in my life.


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