Thursday, December 11, 2008

God is Odd

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

"sad news"

Just because the subject line of her e-mail was in lower-case did not mean it would be less tragic.

Ancient History Made Vivid by Our Contact

Her mother, in the end, liked me better than she did. Twenty-one years ago, both of us had earned a degree from the University of Michigan, both of us loved reading fiction and both of us were lesbians. I've written before, if not here, that that was the extent of what we had in common. And yet we were a couple for two years and nine months, and lived together for most of that time.

We met while she was earning a Masters in English and I was in my senior year of undergrad. Toward the end of our first date, I kissed her at every red light as she drove me back to my Ann Arbor co-op; I was ecstatic at meeting an appealing woman with a beautiful brain. She was happy, I guess, to find someone presentable to bring home.

Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land

She did bring me home for Thanksgiving our first year together...only then, I was just her friend from Connecticut, who didn't fly home for the holiday. We hopped into her unassuming little, red Renault hatch-back and headed toward Detroit.

Approaching her family's Great Gatsby/1920s Grosse Pointe mansion on the water, I told myself to act cool. There was a golden, glowing Christmas tree in the center window, above the front door, or at least that's my memory.

Suddenly, I was in a foreign country. Her grand, yet similarly petite, welcoming mother swept me into her home and I just smiled at the warm, elegant, tasteful, comfortable atmosphere that seemed like the inanimate version of her mom -- and which so differed from the over-crowded, art-stuffed, hectic '60s split-level, where I grew up.

Her daughter was my girlfriend and instantly, I needed to be comfortable with an entire upper-class, Midwestern family...which wasn't large. She had a mother, father and brother, who was just a year younger than she -- my age. Both of the kids had gone to Princeton undergrad and University Liggett School before that. Her brother went on to law school and passed the California Bar before opting to pursue a different career. He was golden, could do anything he wanted, and yet never acted entitled.

Four years prior to my even being able to imagine this significant visit, my father had died, and my mother was just about making do. I had had to work while I studied, needed scholarships, and had come from a home that had never featured a Christmas tree. (Maybe this was part of what my favorite high school teacher, Mr. McWilliams, was referring to when he told me I ought to go to the Midwest for college, rather than staying east, to "...expand your horizons." Certainly, being welcomed into my former girlfriend's family was a wholly new horizon.)

Encouraging Kindness

My former girlfriend's mother and father were instantly lovely to me....Of course, initially, she didn't tell them that we were a couple. Her brother had come out when they were in high school and she spent undergrad, like I did much of the time, trying to, "beat it." I was just barely beginning to be openly-lesbian myself, so it was all right by me. Of course, I think that if they hadn't yet figured us out explicitly, they could tell I was someone special to her, and that's how they treated me.

Her father was quiet by nature, but almost every time he spoke, he said something that made me laugh aloud. My dad had been funny, too. It was a pleasure to be made to laugh in their palace -- and by the king no less.

Royal Family, Royal Treatment

When we went to bed that night, I felt like I was dreaming before even closing my eyes. What an exquisite world. Who knew I had attracted royalty? She became beloved to me then for being so, so privileged, and yet so...regular.

Of course, her brain was extraordinary, but she couldn't help that. And so was her brother's. They were a fun pair, so close in age, unlike my relatively much older sisters and me. They were extra-close in their love of fiction, in their unusually excellent athleticism (varsity tennis, squash), in their love of their alma maters and of pop-culture, and through their attraction to their own gender.

My former girlfriend came out to her parents over Christmas, without me there, and only after leaving the dinner table in tears over some gay-baiting remark by a guest, if I remember the story correctly. She told me that her mother followed her up to her room then and asked, "Is there something you want to tell me?"

From then on, her parents were even lovelier to me, which I've never stopped marveling at, since they were the most deeply religious people I had ever met, other than the rabbis who were my teachers at the Modern Orthodox day school I attended, growing up.

It wasn't the long-suffering sort of hospitality either. They were genuinely loving and inclusive. Purely lovely. I guess they were *truly* religious. They celebrated my graduation with my family that spring.

My Debut

That's how I came out to my mother explicitly finally. And my sisters. I wrote all of them letters, stating that my girlfriend's parents and girlfriend were going to be included in my graduation party and that if they didn't accept my lesbianism, they shouldn't bother coming to my graduation. All of them came. How daring I was! I had spent most of my life, fearing their rejection of me if they knew, but being treated so well by anyone's family, I guess, had emboldened me.

My former girlfriend and I served as each other's debutante date in the scheme of our lives, I guess, and it was an essential, yet relatively temporary relationship. Almost three years after the graduation celebration, I knew it was over between us.

"Baghdad Cafe," a film all about the virtue of change, kept me company twice in a row while my former girlfriend was out playing Chicago recreational softball with the woman who has been her partner ever since our breakup, I believe. After listening to the lyrics on the movie's soundtrack, about "...being in a little cafe in the middle of nowhere," but which was in any case, "...someplace better than where you'd been," I knew that ultimately, change would be good, and that I could not avoid it any longer.

Within a few weeks, I had moved into an efficiency some blocks west of where we had lived together -- my "little cafe in the middle of nowhere." Then I bought a Siamese fighting fish in a tiny glass bowl for companionship and began my years of serial dating pre-Pat.

Bridging Ancient History to Current Events

My former girlfriend's mother seemed stricken by our breakup; she said to me: "But you can't just end a marriage," using the only frame of reference she had. As we had our final conversation by phone, I shook my head, so sorry that I'd have to lose my former girlfriend's family in the bargain.

For probably 15 years, my former girlfriend and I lost touch. When online social networking dawned, I found her again and made contact. She had done well. A few years ago, her book was published by an elite university press. She had become a professor at a giant university.

And my blog, and online professional profile told much of my story positively, too. All's well that ends well...except it isn't all ending well, unfortunately:

Her Note's Subject Line Read, "sad news"

This fall, my former girlfriend's father died of natural causes at 79; her parents had been married for 45 years. When I learned of their longevity in his obituary, I was jealous for my mother, who had lost my father when they were just 56. My jealousy was curtailed by the next announcement: Five weeks later, my former girlfriend's brother took his own life. No one had expected it, including his partner.

My former girlfriend's brother and I had not been in touch since the breakup and I simply thought of him sweetly every once in awhile. Weirdly, around the time of his death, I was hunting for him within LinkedIn and wasn't even sure why -- too common a name, unfortunately.

After his passing, I tried googling him and was regretful that I hadn't done so in the first place, as his profiles showed up right away. How gorgeous he was, even 20+ years later. What made someone end his or her own life? A chemical imbalance? Private pain that was impossible to express? An accident?

When I learned the news, I felt closer to my former girlfriend than I might have even felt during our relationship. With age came empathy; I had almost lost one of my sisters to breast cancer a few years ago -- she's cancer-free now, thank God -- and had dreaded the thought of being down a sibling. And this was her only sibling.

Some days later, it's her mother I wish I could comfort.

Maybe We Were Meant to Be Sisters Instead

I want to tell her mother that when my father died, the mother of a former best friend came to my father's shivah. I wrote her a note afterward, suggesting that since she had been like an extra mother to me when her daughter and I were friends from three to eight, it was almost as if I still had two parents left.

The offer I want to make to my former girlfriend's mother is this:

Let's agree to no obligation for either of us, but since you were like a loving parent to me in the early time of my being openly lesbian, I'd like to offer to be your child in addition to my mother's if you like; your son and I had the same major in college and both had the same profession for some years, both were around the same age. Again, no obligation, but the offer's open. That's what I'd like to say.

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