Sex & relationships

Four (Same-Sex) Weddings and a Funeral

LawfullyWeddedLife

Settle down for a fantastic “long form” read for this week’s  Lawfully Wedded Life essay from regular Lesbian Family contributor Susan Goldberg. This piece first appeared in Lillith, was excerpted in Ms., and was included in the Lambda Literary Award-nominated anthology Here Come The Brides.  Do you have a story to tell about marriage, marriage equality, or the lack thereof? Submit yours here. We’ll be running the series through the SCOTUS marriage equality decision(s), expected late June 2013.

 

My girlfriend proposed—if you could call it a proposal—over the phone, long-distance, on a Sunday afternoon in October 2003. Cordless in hand, I was rooting through my fridge for something to eat when she said, “So, what do you think about getting married?”

I paused, the cold air from the refrigerator blowing in my face.

The previous summer, the Canadian province of Ontario had, finally, granted same-sex partners the right to wed, and all of a sudden “gay marriage” was the topic of every conversation, garnering its own special section of the editorial pages each day and forcing Canadian queers to consider the question: Will you or won’t you now that you can?

Not us, I had thought about me and Rachel. After all, we were good feminists. We both had master’s degrees in women’s studies, for God’s sake. We had been well schooled in marriage’s economic, not romantic, origins—in the idea that modern marriage is rooted in archaic notions of women as chattel. Not for us the need for state sanction, that piece of paper from City Hall. Not for us the capitulation to tradition.

And then she asked. And all of a sudden it was us. When I asked her why, Rachel simply said, “It felt like a good approximation of where our relationship was at the time.”

She had a point. Eight and a half years in and counting, there we were. We’d just spent the previous year rescuing the relationship from near ashes, sitting across from a skilled therapist as we learned to talk to each other all over again, to wipe clear that pane of murky glass that seemed to have grown up between us and distorted our images of each other. She’d finished her doctorate, had gotten a tenure-track job teaching at a northern Ontario university. I’d built up my freelance career. We were looking at houses up north; I planned to move from the apartment we had shared in Toronto to be with her in the fall. And we had booked the first flight for our sperm donor to fly in from Vancouver so we could begin the process of trying to have a baby.

“Um,” I said to Rachel, “okay.”

And that was that. We were getting hitched.

We didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks. At first Rachel didn’t want to tell anyone, ever. She wanted to elope, have a secret ceremony at City Hall and never mention it again. I think she was scared. If we said it out loud, if we told anyone, it would be real.

But we were also scared of my family’s influence. I come from a family big on big Jewish weddings—weddings of the white-dress variety, with dozens of attendants. Weddings that cost tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Weddings with DJs and klezmer bands, with first dances, with disposable cameras on the tables, with open bars and mashed-potato bars and (I swear) kosher hot dog carts wheeled in at midnight. Weddings preceded by a year’s worth of Friday night dinners in honor of the engaged couple. Did I mention my aunt owns a bridal store? We had lots of reasons to be afraid.

Slowly, though, we both warmed to the idea of a public ceremony—on our own terms. We began to plan our ideal wedding: outside in the summer, maybe on one of Lake Ontario’s islands. Fancy outfits. A big party with family and close friends. A string quartet. We’d find a way to afford it.

And then we told my parents. More precisely, on a Sunday evening in November, we invited ourselves over for dinner at their suburban Toronto home and told them about our baby plans.

“And there’s one more thing,” I said.

“There’s more?” my mother said, weakly. My father just grinned as he sat next to her on the family room couch, where she spent most of her time these days.

“There’s more,” I confirmed. “We’re getting married.”

What I thought was an afterthought became the main event.

“You’re getting married? When?” asked my mother. “Where? How?”

We began to outline our vision: summer, outside, family and close friends—

“Well,” she interrupted, “you’ll have to do it here. At our house.”

Rachel and I looked at each other. I was about to explain why we couldn’t possibly hold the wedding at my parents’ house when Rachel said, “That would be lovely.”

“What were you thinking?” I asked her in the car on the way home.

“Well,” she said, “it’s just that it’s your mom.

My mom. Who had reached out in dozens of small ways to my girlfriend over the years. Who had helped pave the way toward my father’s slow but eventually steadfast acceptance of both my relationship and my sexuality. Whose chicken soup Rachel—at the time a vegetarian—ate without hesitation. My mother, battling breast cancer, lying there on the couch.

And that was the end of our first wedding and the beginning of the second. By the next morning, my mother had notified all our relatives. I came home that evening to a half-dozen messages of mazel tov from scattered cousins, aunts, and uncles, all promising to be there for our “big day.” By Tuesday morning, my mother was in full swing, brainstorming caterers and flower arrangements, guest lists and officiants.

“Um,” I said, “I’m not sure we can afford all this.”

She paused. “Oh Susan,” she said, “we’d like to pay for it.”

It was a vast gesture of acceptance that I should have anticipated and hadn’t, and the fact that I hadn’t suggests that I was more caught up in doubts about the legitimacy of my own marriage than were my parents. For them, this wasn’t a “gay wedding.” It was their daughter’s wedding, and, damn it, they were going to do it up right.

So we set the date, June 13. We met with the caterer. We negotiated the guest list, capping the number of my parents’ friends to, in my mother’s opinion, an impossibly small amount that continually edged upward. We found a rabbi—possibly the only one in the city who would agree to perform both an interfaith (Rachel is a very-lapsed Catholic) and same-sex wedding. A secular humanist Jew, the rabbi’s only conditions were that the ceremony contain no reference to God and no sexism. We could live with that.

We booked the string quartet, asked my sister-in-law to do the flowers. I applied for our marriage license: The forms hadn’t yet been updated to reflect the new legislation, and so my name was entered under the heading “groom.” I wondered which of the two men in line ahead of me at the registrar’s office would be a bride. After much convincing on the part of family and friends, we even registered, spending a couple of giddy hours debating china patterns and testing the fine blades of luxurious German knives.

In the meantime, we bought a house up north. We flew our donor in for a second try, and then I flew to Vancouver for the third—which “took.” I was pregnant. My parents were over the moon. So was the rabbi.

Then my mother’s chemo failed.

 

Through all the planning, we had tried to ignore the question that hovered, unspoken, in the backs of our minds: Would she make it to June 13? Back in October, we had been optimistic. Yes, my mom was weak, but for the past three years, each successive round of chemotherapy, each new drug, had held the disease at bay. Over the past twenty years, she had survived, against astonishing odds, two previous bouts with cancer, one ovarian, one breast. We thought she was invincible. We were counting on her track record of almost miraculous resilience. Why would this occurrence—breast cancer, now metastasized—be any different? And yet it was. By April, she was vomiting up most of what she ate and had started spending nights as well as days on the couch, because the walk up the stairs was too hard. She found it increasingly difficult to breathe.

We all saw a third wedding coming, but we hesitated. Finally, my mother said out loud the words no one else had been able to say. She’d spent the night at the hospital in respiratory distress; the doctors had drained two liters of fluid from around her right lung, the one that didn’t have a catheter in it already. We had an appointment with the palliative care doctor the next morning.

“Susan,” she said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to June 13.”

“We’ll change the date,” I said. “We’ll do it sooner.” She nodded. My father just looked into his lap as he sat next to her on the couch. I didn’t cry until I phoned the rabbi to reschedule.

 

We settled on Mother’s Day, May 9, three weeks away. It was the closest we could fathom pulling everything together. It would be a truncated affair, just family and a few close friends at my parents’ house. No quartet. Our families changed their flights. We flew up north, signed the lawyers’ papers on the house, flew home, found rings and outfits at a local shopping mall, met with our midwife. We printed our ketubah (no God, no sexism) off the Internet; no time to commission anything custom. I had a pre-wedding pedicure, and then burst into tears when the polish smudged.

“All I want is for my toenails to look nice,” I wailed in the car on the way home. Rachel looked at me sideways. “Is it really your toes you’re upset about?”

Meanwhile, my mother deteriorated rapidly. She had moved from the couch to a hospital bed we’d set up in the family room, but she could no longer get comfortable. Even small efforts, such as going to the washroom, became overwhelming. My father spent hours trying to convince her to eat something, anything, but she wasn’t hungry, so her body wasted, wisps of chemo-thin hair framing her gaunt face. She had coughing fits that left her exhausted. Some combination of drugs and disease left her unfocused and anxious, confused or annoyed.

“I know I’m not making sense,” she told me.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to make sense.”

The night before the ceremony, we ordered in Thai for the immediate family members who had congregated. My mom napped in the family room while we ate quietly in the kitchen, unsure how to work her decline into the celebration, how to acknowledge such sorrow in the midst of what was supposed to be joy.

“I’m not sure I can go through with this,” I told Rachel at the door as she left to meet her mother at our downtown apartment. I was going to sleep at my parents’ home, on night duty.

The next morning, the tips of my mother’s fingers had turned dusky and I wasn’t able to rouse her. But her chest rose and fell, and so I called up denial, found the now-much-too-big clothes she wanted to wear and laid them out, to help her into later on. She died while I left the room to eat breakfast, while my father was at his computer, printing out his toast to the brides.

“Excuse me?” said the home-care worker. “Miss? I think that your mother is not breathing.”

I closed her eyes, rested my forehead against hers for a moment. We held the funeral the following day. My cousins, already assembled for the wedding, were pallbearers. The wedding caterer fed the hundreds of people who showed up at the house following the burial. Rachel and I exchanged rings privately, then sat shiva.

 

The fourth wedding was on June 13, in my parents’ backyard—a much smaller affair than we’d originally planned, just family and a few close friends. We served hors d’oeuvres and lunch. In the photos of the ceremony, we all look so sad under the chuppah. My father and brother are holding back tears, my sister-in-law wears dark glasses, and Rachel and I clutch each other’s hands while staring into each other’s eyes, biting our lips. At three months pregnant (with, as it turned out, a boy, who would be named for his Bubbe), I am barely showing.

When the time came to break the glass at the wedding—because, according to Jewish tradition, in each simcha we are always reminded of our sorrows—we couldn’t do it. We tried, but maybe there had been too much sorrow already. Our high heels simply pushed the glass deeper into the soft ground, where it stayed resolutely whole, unbroken, unbreakable.

 

Seven years and two children later, it’s still difficult for me to talk about my wedding. When I tell the story I get weepy. When I hear other people, queer or straight, talk about their own nuptials, I get jealous. On the outside I nod and smile, but on the inside I am consumed with longing for what could have been: the party, funny toasts, the quartet, the champagne, the joy. I fantasize about my mother standing up with us, reveling in family and food and friends.

And then I remind myself that there is no such thing as a perfect wedding, despite what the marketers would have us think. And I remind myself that my wedding(s), as vastly imperfect as they were, brought together family and friends from around the world. That, because of my queer, shotgun wedding, my mother’s siblings and nieces and nephews, as well as Rachel’s mother, got a chance to see and talk to her and say good-bye. I think about the day of her death and how we were already gathered at my parents’ house, and how we cried and talked and ultimately laughed about my mom. Her big talent had been bringing people together, and she had managed to do it one more time. All because her daughter was getting married. To another woman.

And that’s the thing about weddings: Done right, they bring together more than two people. They knit families and friends together, make us collectively stronger. And that’s why, for me at least, the issue of gay marriage resonates: The human rights it protects and enshrines extend beyond the two brides or two grooms to their parents, their siblings, their communities.

Has getting married changed anything for me and for Rachel? Hard to say. Our wedding was just one of a half-dozen major life events that took place within a six-month span: my mom’s death, obviously, but also the move to a new city, the transition from urban student renters to suburban professional homeowners, the baby. The combined stress of all of these (compounded by severe sleep deprivation) nearly drove us apart within the first year of our first son’s life; by the time our second son arrived, we’d mostly recovered.

On the ring finger of my left hand, under the gold wedding band that I picked out so hastily, I wear my mother’s diamond engagement ring. My sons like it when it catches the light and throws rainbows onto the walls. I twist the ring and tell my mother about her grandchildren, about how six-year old Rowan reads and reads, about how his little brother, Isaac, finally consented to his first “big boy” haircut, about our kitchen renovations, what we’re having for dinner. Both kids are fascinated by death at the moment; Rowan in particular asks us to tell him the story of my mother’s last day–in intimate detail– at regular intervals.

“And then what happened?” he asks. And where did she go?”

I explain about burial, about bodies returning to the earth, but my stubborn romantic streak whispers: She’s right here, inside us. He likes that I wear my mother’s ring—“To remember her. Because she died. Right, Mom?”

And Rowan likes, he tells us, that we are married.

“Why?” we ask him. “Why do you like it?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just good.”

 

[FEATURED PHOTO: SARAH AND DAVID GASSON]

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5 Comments

  1. This post should come with a warning label. I was no prepared to explain to my toddler why Mama was crying while making dinner. Even if your mother wasn’t there for the wedding, she was for the planning, for your love, and foverever in your hearts.

    • Thank you, Clare. I feel like she’s still here in some way, and that she lives on again every time someone reads this. hope they were “good” tears.

  2. Gorgeous, thank you. I am so glad to know this piece has found multiple homes and audiences. It is such a beautiful reflection on love, loss, family, and devotion.

  3. That’s it: “a beautiful reflection on love, loss, family, and devotion” indeed. Thank you for sharing it with folks here, Susan.

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