A few weeks ago, I attended two funerals: my Uncle Jim's, and my mother's cousin's. I was never very good at following the branches of family trees, so I also called him Cousin Jack.
Jim passed away after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer's that kept him in supervised care since 2005. He spent his last week in hospice. He died with my mother by his side. Jack died in the living room of the home he made with his wife Ruth and son and daughter, after being diagnosed with liver cancer a swift and terrible 6 weeks ago.
Amidst the sorrow of seeing my 85 year-old mother say goodbye to her 80 year-old "baby brother," I attended two viewings, and watched these two funerals, two funerals that struck me with their difference. The difference made my mother oddly apologetic. "You saw the elegant, now you will see the humble," she said after we left Jack's funeral, before burying my Uncle the next day.
Jack, a younger 65 to my uncle's 80, had still been very active, well connected in his community, and married to a woman with seven siblings, all living near where they grew up. His viewing took place over three days, to accommodate the almost 500 people paying their respects, and the church was filled more than any given Sunday.
My uncle was buried in the company of a handful of my mother's long-time friends. I was pressed into service as a last-minute pallbearer, a task shared with a funeral home employee and two cemetery workers. A casket is remarkably heavy.
There was nothing wrong, at all, with my uncle's funeral. The priest was wonderful, spent quality time with my mom, delivered a lovely eulogy. The people at the funeral home were attentive, understanding, personable, and made my uncle "look good." We cried, we laughed, we remembered. I met people whose names I had only ever seen on Christmas card envelopes, and was reminded that my family reached a bit wider than it sometimes seemed. It was, given the circumstances, all good. But it was a decidedly smaller gathering than Cousin Jack's.
My boyfriend insists the difference had more to do the two men's ages, and with how the men spent their last years. My Uncle, he said, would have had more mourners there had he not been in a care facility so long, losing touch with friends from past jobs, and had my mother not lived in Miami, my uncle in New Jersey (said as fact, without blame). But I think something else contributed.
My Uncle was a bachelor. Or more appropriately, a "Bachelor." He grew up with this, and many other euphemisms for being gay, in the time of rumor and Things Unspoken. During the days I spent with my mother before and after the funerals, I heard comments from her about Jim's younger life, and the way it was dealt with. "I told my parents to get a third plot. I told them he would never marry," she said, as we drove into the same cemetery where their parents are also buried. We drove past that "old section" to the green tent and astro-turf covering the newly upturned earth where my Uncle would be laid to rest, her parents never heeding my mother's advice.
My mother was always tremendously supportive of my uncle, and of me, when the subject did come up. She broke off an engagement when the guy, angered at something my mother did or didn't do, basically outed my uncle to his parents. My mother also stood up to my own dad when he threatened to pull my college money after his suspicions of my orientation were confirmed. But the reality is she, and my uncle and my father, were all products of a pre-Will and Grace generation where being gay was a secret, hidden, disguised and covered up with stories and excuses, winks and whispers. Gay men had "friends" but they rarely brought them to Sunday dinners. They had lives, but very rarely shared the details.
There was never much (any?) discussion of Jim's social life past his work at the pharmacy, or later, in various positions at a department store, jobs in which he took great pride and met a lot of people. Before that, he dropped out of high school because, as my mother tells it, "He did not get along with the coach. Jim wasn't very athletic, you know." I didn't know but I could have guessed. I was never very, um, athletic, either.
Early on when discussing with Mom my sexual orientation and what I expected of my gay life, I made the serious mistake of saying I hoped I never ended up "like Uncle Jim." An indignant look crossed her face, and I stumbled to clarify. "You know," I stammered, "all alone. Without ever talking about anyone." The silence after that was more awkward than when we had just discussed AIDS and "motorcycle bars." (For real.) Before I found a community, I related a lot to that fear of being "like Uncle Jim." Every now and then, I still do.
Uncle Jim had been drafted into the military, and served in Stuttgart. "He didn't speak to any of us the entire summer before he left. He was soooo mad," my Mom said. I suspect it was not ire but terror (sort of the same terror I reacted with, the summer before high school gym class... with showers.). Oddly, he loved the military... and spoke fondly of his time in peacetime Germany, a time he documented in a photo album and with stories of proudly shined shoes and driving jeeps for generals. "He wasn't in 'the service,'" my dad (a veteran of war-time WWII, during action in the Philippines) would semi-sneer whenever the subject came up. But my uncle did serve. But, no doubt, behind a bit of secrecy, and without full disclosure.
He was, or appeared to be a happy man, but as my mother said, "He was a loner."
I don't make a direct connection between my uncle's gay life and the simplicity of his send off. But, watching the many mourners at Jack's, it did occur to me that how we live, or how a time allows us to live our lives does indeed shape what happens over the years. The bulk of my Uncle's adult life was spent making excuses, deleting truths, choosing between revealing things or hiding them, or just staying home to avoid the decisions. I would imagine that becomes a pattern, then a habit, then it just is.
Cousin Jack shared his wedding, the birth of his two children, proudly, and along the way, his circle got bigger. Christmas cards from Ruth over the years to my mother talked of family trips, births, grandchildren, parties.
What would my Uncle's life been like had he been given some of those same options... to come home from a date and talk to his mom, or even his father, about it? What if there had been no issue with his publicly declaring his love for a partner? Who might have been at his bedside had a "friend" from the past been given a name and a comfortable place at the Thanksgiving table through the years? What if bringing a "friend" to a family dinner was not a political statement, a moment of confrontation? What if it just was?
I would be remiss, and a hypocrite, to blame society alone for why my Uncle spent time by himself. I have lived in New York, just a river away from New Brunswick where he lived since 1995, and rarely made the trip (and never unless my Mom was visiting, or until last week, when he lay in a hospice bed). So I share the burden. I should have done better, I should have known better. I cannot make demands of society if, as both gay man and relative, I failed him, too.
I do not write any of this to garner pity for my uncle. He loved his life the best he knew how, and despite the terrible theft of memory and dignity that is Alzheimer's, his final years, days and minutes were spent as peacefully as the circumstances allowed, in beautiful facilities full of exceptional, compassionate caregivers. His big sister loved and cared for him, up until the very end.
I just write it to bring some perspective on why marriage, and a life out in the open, with the support and dialogue of friends and family is so important, and how it shapes a life, and the end of it, all along the way.
For anyone who thinks acceptance of gays doesn't make any difference in the way their life unfolds, I feel the need to disagree. For anyone who thinks the issue of gay marriage is just about the moment of the "I do," I humbly suggest otherwise. The ability to join a partner, publicly, with, and amid a happy gathering of loved ones is a part of the journey of life. Who has any right to deny that of another?
Who knows if my Uncle considered marriage, or ever got that close to that kind of relationship. He never felt comfortable to even discuss the possibility with his big sister.
Of course, saying "'Til death do us part" does not make it so... there is no guarantee that a public decree of a marriage insures a partner at the side of a deathbed. And luckily, even though marriage is not universally recognized or protected, changes to hospital visitation rights have changed things for the better when the end is near.
But I'd like to think that acceptance of gays, and the continued journey towards more of it, gives many more men (and women) the chance to celebrate their lives every step of the way. Even at the very end.
I hope that by making things more open, more acceptable for young gay men and woman, more of their fate will be held in their own hands, more of their story will be written by their own acts, and loves. Maybe then we do not have to reserve a funeral plot alongside their mothers and fathers automatically, that they may find peace among many, many friends, and alongside a partner they built a life with.