Dear People of Maine:
This summer I wrote about taking my family to Maine for a vacation. I wrote of the deep love I feel for that stretch of Southern Maine from Oqunquit to Falmouth that holds the memories of my childhood and teenage years in every mile. I wrote about long days on the beach chasing waves, searching for sand dollars, and grappling with the ghosts of family who haunted me at every turn. I wrote about the satisfaction of sharing stories of skee-ball prowess at Old Orchard with my brother and illicit bar crawls through Portland with my sister. I wrote of the quiet emptiness that came of gathering at my parent’s gravesite and the need to connect with my home state and its people in places as pedestrian as the local Hannaford or cultured as the Portland Museum of Art. During our days and nights on Higgins Beach we blended seamlessly with every other family there. Why shouldn’t we? We, after all, were just another family trying to keep the beach umbrella from blowing away and wondering if 10am was too early to open the big bag of sour cream and onion potato chips. The fact that my family had two moms instead of a mom and a dad never turned anyone’s head. And really, why should it have? In fact the house we rented for that glorious week belonged to an old friend from high school and her wife. Clearly this was a welcoming community in a welcoming state.
As we drove down Route One that August Saturday on our way home, crammed into my jeep Liberty, tanned, with our stash of Len Libby Chocolate jammed near the air conditioning vents so it wouldn’t melt, I felt a tug at my heart as I realized that as much as I’ve come to feel at home in the rocky individualistic landscape of New Hampshire, Maine would always be the home that welcomed me back again and again.
Until last Tuesday.
Last spring when Maine Governor John Baldacci gave his stamp of approval to legislation allowing gays and lesbians to marry I rejoiced. The momentum of that act carried forward to June when New Hampshire Governor John Lynch signed marriage equality into law as well. Kelly and I talked about how great it was to have the option to either get married here in the state we both call home or perhaps to entertain ideas of a seaside wedding in Ogunquit, our favorite quick jaunt destination. During those days it never occurred to me that the people of Maine would vote to approve a referendum grounded in hatred, discrimination, and injustice and take away the right that had been granted. When I woke Wednesday morning to the news of the previous days voting on Referendum One I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. To quote the character I’m playing in a show right now “how selfish and how cruel.” Selfish to feel that one has the audacious right to vote on whether another human being can marry the person she loves and cruel to exercise that vote with such callous disregard for the people and families it will affect.
This week had been hard on many fronts. Liza was sick and out of school for two days which necessitated the tried and true “working mom of a sick kid” juggling act. Two shows at the theater I work at had me driving back to work as soon as Kelly got home from her job as a nurse to relieve me at home. A long frustrating search for a costume for my show had left me as usual hating the oversized and oddly-shaped body I inhabit and envying the young slender women who had a world of costumes to choose from. By Saturday tempers were flaring at home as the stir-craziness of the sick house set in. My peri-menopausal hormones in full swing I snapped at Liza for her attitude and petulance and burst into tears when Kelly made a joke about my costume hunt. When I returned from the theater that evening, I was greeted by a scene that made me cry for completely different reasons. Kelly informed me she and Liza had shared many long talks, folded laundry together, made and ate dinner together (Liza set and cleared the table), researched astrology and family trees on the internet, and that during that time Kelly had gently asked Liza to “give mommy a break now and then.” The house of turmoil I had left was clean and calm. I apologized for my tears and outburst and they shared the knowing look of two people who had decided the third was lovably crazy and told me it was ok. As we turned in for the night I reflected on how blessed I was to have my girls.
This family scene could have been replayed thousands of times over in homes all across the country. The fact that the players were two women and a child rather than a man, woman, and child bears no consequence. This is my family, yes but at the end of the day it is just a family like any other — one full of hugs and hurts and tears and misunderstandings and game nights and grocery store runs and school chorus concerts and holiday traditions and vacation trips to the beaches of Maine.
So to the people of Maine I ask what is so threatening about this family picture? The ugly prospect of joint newspaper subscriptions and arguments over which way to hang the toilet paper? The repulsive thought of Kelly and I discussing who took the garbage out last? The terrifying concept of us being able to make medical decisions for each other without carrying around a lawyers briefcase full of legal documents? The horrifying idea that there would be two moms from one family volunteering at the pizza table at the school fundraiser? The disgusting image of our holiday Christmas cards? We are your neighbors, your brothers, your sisters, your mothers and fathers and your friends. We are next to you in church and in front of you at the movies. We cheer our kids on the soccer field and dance recital stages. We complain about our tax burden with you and gather in the morning to relive the best moments of the Super Bowl or the American Idol finale. We care for our elderly parents and struggle to make ends meet in difficult times. And in these difficult times we want what you want – to build a life and a legacy with the person we love.
And finally, dear People of Maine, let me reassure you that if a vote comes my way asking me if I feel it is ‘right’ for heterosexuals to marry each other or if I feel it is a threat to my way of life, I will remember this week and the way I felt and I will not turn my back on you as you have on me. I will stand up for equality for everyone. Because it’s the right thing to do.
In one of the (to my mind) unfortunate consequences of the social media revolution we are often besieged with poems and quotes from friends and acquaintances waxing rhapsodic about the place of friendship in our lives. “Friends come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime” is a popular forward along with all sorts of instructions about how many friends to send it on to and then of course the obligatory way to count whether you have enough friends in each category. Then there are the occasional ‘your friend sent you a friendship flower!” messages on Facebook, or the gifts of “Friends are Forever!” flair for your virtual corkboard.
It will probably come to as a surprise to some that I ignore those. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. But in these the waning months of the 43rd year of my life I have a hard time taking that kind of stuff seriously. Friendships can not be nourished with a cheesy email or a virtual pink flower. My friends occupy a cherished place in my life and I take the care and feeding of those relationships seriously. But every time I get another quaint forward instructing me to ‘send this to 10 amazing friends” my thoughts and my heart go to one place: the friends I am missing, the absent friends and the empty spaces they have left behind. I don’t mean friends who live some distance away from me — things like Facebook and iChat have rendered distance all but meaningless and I often connect with them daily. No, I’m speaking of the friends who still occupy prime real estate in my heart but not in my life: friends who have died… and friends who have left me.
The first category is of course inevitable. Part of living is accepting that people die, even your friends. Friends like Mark, the talented dancer who used to charm me with his Janet Jackson imitations over the dining hall tables at Holy Cross, and whose versions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” will stay with me forever. The memory of Mark, whose future seemed so bright, and who died of AIDS in the early 90s before any of us who eventually came out of the closet were even close to doing so, remains frozne in time in the photos of our college heyday. There is Sue, the gifted and slightly nutty director who pushed me to new creative breakthroughs and who lost her battle with her demons, leaving a hole in many lives in the NH theater community. Or Kim, whose red hair and endless legs turned every head in the room, who had the ability to encourage even the shyest, heaviest woman that she could be a powerful strong dancer in her jazzercise classes, and whose battle with a rare cancer was fought with astonishing grace and inimitable style. And then there is Dani. Dani, who I think of every day and every time “Rubberband Man” comes on my iPod. Dani, whose pictures populate my home and office, who encouraged me to be true to who I really was, whose sly humor and beautiful smile made every dinner party, coffee shop gathering, or impromptu get-together special. Dani taught us all the value of a life well lived and, as importantly, that there is such a thing as a good death, a peaceful passing surrounded by friends, the color purple, music, and poetry.
I grieve the loss of these friends and their place in my world. But the friends who haunt me more are those still living, still close by, still in my heart, yet parted from me because of who I am. In college I was blessed with two amazing friends I met the first week of freshman year. We took classes together, studied together, worked on shows together, sang together, partied together. We spent time in each others homes and grew close to each others families. While one of us moved to far off places two of us remained within an hour of each other for the next two decades. We were maids of honor and bridesmaids, godmothers and honorary aunts. As we grew into women with young marriages we spent time in our new apartments, took bike rides and beach trips, drank gallons of wine and planned our futures. We went through each others pregnancies together, pushed our babies through shopping malls on hot summer days just for the free air conditioning, commiserated over tantrums and potty training and the outrageous proliferation of shiny plastic toys in our house. When we were fortunate enough for all three of us to be together we’d gather for wine or coffee while our kids played and reminisce about all that we had gone through together. They were the sisters of my heart and we joked about how while two of us together was wonderful, the three of us together always felt complete.
Then my marriage ended and I came out of the closet. (That very cut and dried declarative sentence hints at a story best told in stages perhaps at another time) Telling people about this change in my life was terrifying and as any gay person knows you don’t come out just once you come out over and over again. The prospect of having that conversation with my closest friends was daunting but I remained confident they would love me unconditionally even though they may not understand. For the most part that is what happened, my friends listened, they hugged, they asked questions, and in the end I like to think our friendships were stronger. For the most part.
I had haltingly, fumblingly tried to tell one of my friends what I was struggling with in that last painful year of my marriage. One night I opened an email from her that pulled the rug out from under me. She told me in no uncertain terms she could never “approve” of this “lifestyle” I had “chosen” that she had even struggled with the fact that some of our best friends had already made that journey out of the closet and wondered what that said about her that she had ‘all these gay friends.’ She concluded by saying everything would be fine as long as I didn’t talk about it anymore and didn’t go “waving any rainbow flags in her face.” This was six years ago and writing those words now still makes me cry. How could she not see I was who I had always been? How could she not see I was finally trying to be all that I was supposed to be? How could she say these things? She eventually apologized – but only for ‘drinking wine and writing emails late at night.’ A few months later, we tried to get together again with our girls as we had for so many years but something had changed. Conversation didn’t flow freely, I couldn’t talk to her about anything real anymore. We watched the kids play at the children’s museum and parted awkwardly. I haven’t seen her since. She lives twenty minutes away from me, has a daughter the exact age as mine, writes beautifully, and shares a past with me that I treasure, but now lives a life I can no longer share. We exchanged Christmas cards for a while but even those stopped eventually. Briefly, after the loss of her father (oh how I adored her parents) and my mom, sympathies and platitudes were exchanged. But for all purposes she is gone. My other friend, the third part of this trio never opened the door for these conversations. I tried a few times to talk over email about my new life, about Kelly, about how happy I am. I tried to talk about how much I missed our other friend. To do so guaranteed there would be no return email. She briefly appeared on Facebook where so many of our college crew enjoy near daily exchanges and a few ‘real life’ reunions. I let myself get my hopes up that this would bring her back to us. It didn’t. She just as quickly disappeared.
I live a life so full, so rich, so blessed with friends from all corners of the globe that I tell myself this shouldn’t matter anymore. That six years later I should be used to a life without them. But the truth is that as much as I grieve the loss of my friends who died too young I grieve the loss of these sisters of my heart who left me. I miss them. I wonder if they’ll read this and see themselves in it. I wonder if they’ll ever come back to me.
So you see why cutesy cyber flowers and balloons irritate me, for they are easy ways out of truly nourishing the friendships that feed our lives. If there are friends in your life you’ve let slip away, go now and find them. If there are wounds that need to heal, if there are rifts that need to mend, go now and fix them. And if you have a friend in need, a friend in pain, a friend who needs help that maybe you can’t understand, go now and listen to them. If you’re too far to connect, write them – an email, a letter, send a card – but please no forwards and no flair. Let them know they matter. I wish I could.