Grief first came to me in the fall of 1987. It wasn’t my own. I watched it from afar as my great-aunt Maxine pulled the blankets from her bed and carried them to the laundry room; her head buried in their scent from days—maybe weeks—worth of wear. Her husband had died suddenly that morning. A heart attack they said. It took him out right after breakfast.
Maxine rolled all of the blankets in one big wad and stuffed them into the washer. “Damnit! Damnit!” She kicked at the bottom of the machine and slammed the lid shut. She lay the top half of her body across the washer and hugged the sides as she cried and screamed. Screamed and cried. A cycle of repetition. I watched from the doorway as she reluctantly let go.
I’ve experienced my own grief on multiple occasions since that November evening. It never gets easier. Two days ago I experienced it again. We said goodbye to our Sammy, that gnarly-toothed Lhasa Apso who never left my side. And now, he’s not here. I’ve closed my eyes for minutes at a time and have thought I could feel him nestled between my legs, but I’ve opened my eyes and he’s gone. Then the wind rattled the storm door this morning and I thought it was the tags on his collar clinking together like they used to do when he jumped from the floor to the couch. Eventually, these feelings and sounds will fade away.
I’ve sat here on the couch, in my pajamas, for two days. I want to let go, to move on, but I can’t. My thumb scrolls all of my newsfeeds up and down, down and up. Half the time I’m not even paying attention to what goes by. Once in a while, a funny video will catch my eye and I start to laugh only to have it slapped away by this aching pain in the pit of my stomach.
Tomorrow our housekeeper will come. She texted Cory to make sure it was still okay. “Is it?” he asked me. I nodded. Although I’m not ready for the last remnants of Sammy to be washed away, I know that I can’t go on like this forever.
I’ll shower today and will make it to the gym. I’ll kick the side of the weights as I scream “Damnit! Damnit!” and reluctantly let go.
Wafts of patchouli tickled my senses. Flames of tea candles danced in wind that had crept through a large, curtain-less window where the sun cast its beams across the tiled floor. I sat on a cold metal chair, my arms stretched out across a card table, taking deep breathes and trying to remember how I ended up here in the first place.
A psychic, about ten years younger than me with a short, platinum blonde pixie cut and light blue eyes that allowed anyone in, took both of my wrists and squeezed. “Clear your mind,” she said. “I need to feel your energy.”
I closed my eyes and pursed my lips to keep the giggles that bubbled in my throat at bay as she recited some prayer about Saint Jerome and inviting his presence to surround us. Saint Jerome, after all, was a noted “homosexual,” so I couldn’t help but think, Mhmm . . . I see what you’re doing here, Miss Psychic Lady. I cleared my throat to cover up the laughter that had made its way to the front of my mouth, and I shifted in my seat to sit up straighter. The psychic tightened her grip. “No, you’re a writer and a scholar, just like our Saint Jerome.”
A tingle rushed up my forearms and into my shoulders. I lifted my elbows from the table and pulled back to let go, but she kept her hands tautly positioned. She told me about my life. Things that she couldn’t have possibly known. About the time when I was a kid and in the dead of winter I jumped from a diving board into my aunt’s pool, the cover sinking into the water from the weight of my body. Twisting and turning. The blues and the blacks and the grays of underwater life. I couldn’t breathe yet I didn’t fight. I let the cover wrap around me and sink until the sound of a bomb going off shook me loose and pulled me to safety. “It’s kind of how you live your life,” she said. “You jump in feet first and aren’t afraid of the sinking or the saving.”
I nodded and gave a half smile. She went on to explain that I have five protectors around me, and two of them are family. One has been there since birth, and the other, “A woman,” she said, “has only been with you the past few years. You call her ‘Big,’ yes? Do you know who I’m talking about?”
I furrowed my brow and shook my head in disbelief. We called my grandma, my mom’s mom, “Big Mom.” The psychic smiled and asked me if I had any questions for her.
“Is she proud of me?”
“Very much so,” she said.
“Does she always see me? You know, like during private times?”
“Oh, no,” she laughed. “The dead, they don’t hang around for the mundane. Only when you need them.”
I slid her a twenty and a ten across the table and thanked her. She gave me her card that had a Skype handle in place of a phone number. It read: Available any time. I smirked and put the card in my pocket.
I left skeptical, curious, feeling duped but also feeling like someone had just looked into my soul. I hadn’t gone to seek anything in specific. I went because a friend had invited me along for her reading. I was just hanging out for fun and decided on a whim to get my palms read as well.
The truth was, I had felt Big Mom around me since the moment she died in 2009. I hadn’t told the psychic any of this, though.
I was in the room with her when she took her last breath. I had never seen anyone die before. I pictured it being some dramatic event where there would be gasping for air, eyes wide open, and arms stretched toward the ceiling fighting to stay, or searching through the air for a passage to the next life.
But it wasn’t any of those things. It was quiet. She made eye contact with me before she went. She stared beyond my shoulder as the room grew colder. “She’s dying,” my aunt said. “The room always goes cold when people die.” Big Mom’s eyes got a gloss over them and she stopped blinking. The heart monitor went flat and broke the silence in the room. The nurse turned it off. “I can give you all a moment if you’d like,” he said. We nodded.
The first time I felt her presence was about a year after she died. I woke up in the middle of the night with my throat tight, feeling like someone was choking me. It was sleep paralysis, something I’ve had since childhood, and it’s not uncommon to get the feeling of being smothered or held down during these episodes—even seeing shadowy figures in the room (it’s scary AF if you’ve never experienced it . . . Google it). But instead of an unknown “presence” holding me down I could smell her . . . the way her house always smelled: strong coffee percolating, cornbread baking, stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air. Pall Mall unfiltered. And as fast as it came, it was gone and I was awake.
I told a friend later that day what I had experienced and he said I was crazy. And I know it sounds crazy, but she kept coming back. Not every day; more like every few months. And never in the “flesh,” always in my dreams. We sit together in the living room of her old farmhouse in Springport and we don’t say anything. We just sit, but I always wake feeling comforted.
The last ten years of her life, I wasn’t around much. I think I visited her once. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I saw her at least twice a year at Thanksgiving and Christmas; but I never called or stopped by. She always reminded me of this, too, when I’d see her at the holidays. Her wig half twisted, shaking her head in disbelief for how bad of a grandson I’d turned out to be.
But I couldn’t forgive her, and so I chose not to visit.
When I came out of the closet in college and she learned who I was, she straight up told me she didn’t approve of my “lifestyle.” She told me she still loved me, but she couldn’t accept that part of me. And when I started bringing Cory around before we were married, she said she liked “my friend” but was quick to remind me that she always hoped I’d end up with a nice girl. I invited her to our wedding; she didn’t come.
When my mom called to say she was dying and that I should go to the hospital to say goodbye, I almost didn’t go because I didn’t believe it. Big Mom was the world’s biggest hypochondriac. My whole life she was suffering from this ailment or that condition, so it was hard to distinguish when she was really sick and when she wasn’t. But this particular time she was truly sick and she wouldn’t go back home.
When I was a kid, in that living room in Springport, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a famous actor or maybe a flight attendant. “No,” she said. “You’re going to be a writer and do radio.” Writer? Radio? I thought.
Funny how some things turn out.
I don’t know if I believe that psychic or not, but after my dreams I always think about what she said . . . about Big Mom being assigned to me as my protector for the rest of my life. I wonder if it’s because we didn’t reconcile, and this is her way of telling me she is really proud and okay with who I am and who I love. Or maybe it’s my subconscious wanting it to be so.
At any rate, she visited me again last night, so this morning I opened my laptop and made this my sloppy attempt of telling her that I forgive her. I don’t mind her haunting my dreams, but I want her to know, whatever form she is in or wherever she exists, that I don’t hate her. I did and do love her.
Love can and does transcend all boundaries and planes.
Partnerships come in all forms, both transactional and transformational. The deepest of these involve a connection and understanding of each other’s stories . . . our likes, our fears, our dreams. In the words of Harper Lee, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Kelsey and I have worked tirelessly over the last six years to develop this type of experience for our storytellers, writers, and actors who have been involved in over 75 different Facing Projects across the country. During this time, we’ve gotten to know each other quite well in our partnership as founders of the organization but also as close friends. And even though we thought we knew everything about each other, even more was revealed this past spring when Kelsey sat down with me to write my story for this Saturday’s Facing LGBTQ+ Pride book launch and theatrical event. This is the first time I’ve told my story in a Facing Project, and it was the first time Kelsey ever interviewed me.
As Kelsey mentioned in a blog post about our collaboration, “. . . I thought I knew a lot of his story, thoughts and feelings, but . . . (I learned when we first met) He was worried that I, like so many people in so many places, would devalue him because of who he loved.”
It was tough to tell Kelsey what my feelings were the day we met, but it opened his eyes to the worry I have any time I meet someone new. And I’m lucky . . . I have a strong support network (and, okay, I’ll admit it, a lot of confidence that can sometimes make me look like an asshole). But imagine those who don’t have anyone to turn to . . . those who, like 43% of homeless youth, were thrown out of their homes for who they love. These are stories so many Americans don’t know about or don’t understand. Here in Muncie we had 23 writers sit down with 23 storytellers from the LGBTQ+ and ally community, and these stories, including mine, will live on as a resource for Muncie (and beyond). They will help you understand our likes, our fears, our dreams. They’ll help you see us as regular old people and as extraordinary people. Just like many of you.
Kelsey and I are no doubt even closer after this experience. Thank you, Mr. Timmerman, for being my partner in so many ways and for becoming the biggest ally I know.
To get a copy of the Facing LGBTQ+ Pride book and to see the theatrical performance on June 30th, reserve your seat online at give.classy.org/facingpride.