Monthly Archives: April 2021

Bill’s Aunt Mame, R.I.P.

I will miss her terribly. 

Aunt Mame, my deceased partner Bill’s favourite aunt, died today of a cancer that was detected a few months ago and progressed rapidly. I send my deepest condolences to her family and close friends who cared for her with such love.    

Aunt Mame babysat Bill as a child and they were close all his life. She was supportive of Bill when he came out and she embraced me when Bill and I became a couple. She and I developed an especially deep connection after Bill’s sudden death in 2009, two weeks after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. She loved “August Farewell”, the memoir I wrote about Bill, and she shared it with her friends. She told me that she was proud of us and wanted others to be introduced to this story of a loving gay couple. As recently as two weeks ago, she lent her copy of “August Farewell” to the palliative care nurse looking after her; hearing Aunt Mame talk about Bill and me, the nurse expressed interest in reading it.  

Aunt Mame and I stayed in regular touch with each other through the years. She was always interested in hearing about my travels, enjoyed the photos I sent her, and was keen to learn about interesting people I was meeting through my TSO involvement. We would chat about what was going on in each other’s lives, the fun stuff and the difficult stuff. We found it delightful that we shared the same birthdate of July 7th. 

In 2014 on the day I was given an Honorary Doctorate by Victoria College, University of Toronto, I hired a car and driver to bring Aunt Mame from her home in Sutton to Toronto for the Convocation ceremony. She was thrilled to be there and I was thrilled to have her with me. We both wished Bill could have been present and we both knew he was. The pic below is from that day. 

Years ago, I gave Aunt Mame a bronzed set of Bill’s baby shoes as a memento of him. She was touched by the gift and told me, “I loved my Billy so much. I’ll have these buried with me.” During our final phone conversation, she told me that those arrangements were in place. 

She had been in hospital but, as she wished, she was able to spend some of her final days in her own home with in-home palliative care before being transferred to a hospice. We had in-home palliative care for Bill too when he was dying and I can still picture Aunt Mame’s visit. Here is what I wrote  about it in “August Farewell”:

* * *

Friday, August 14, 2009

Bill’s aunt Marion, one of his father’s sisters, comes down from Sutton for a visit this afternoon, driven into Toronto by a friend more accustomed to city traffic than she. Mame, as Bill affectionately called her over the years, sent a letter earlier this week:

My heart is just aching over your diagnosis. I am so sorry. The only comfort I have is your relationship with God. You have never doubted his love for you or that he walks with you at all times…

Mame arrives with a bouquet of roses and a card addressed to both Bill and me for our anniversary coming up next week. She is the only family member to acknowledge it. 

I try to wake Bill and tell him that Aunt Mame is here to visit him. She leans over the rail of the hospital bed set up in our living room and kisses his forehead. With the pain and the morphine, he’s been going in and out of consciousness the last few days. But he opens his eyes, looks directly at her, and seems to smile. She sits by the bed holding his hand, reminiscing about years gone by, thanking him for his concern for her over the years, and laughing about their many phone conversations.

Blinking back tears from her eyes, she turns to me. “You know my friends were so impressed that Billy used to call me all the way from Mexico when you boys were down there in February each year. And last October, when there was all the publicity about the economic crisis, he phoned and told me not to worry, everything would work out all right. He even asked me if I needed any financial assistance, which I didn’t, of course, because of my pension. My best friend was so jealous because she said that her own son didn’t show as much concern about her as my nephew showed me.” 

Turning back to Bill she says, “Well, little Billy, I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. I can tell you are tired. Just remember that I love you so much and I’ll be praying for you.”

I’m grateful that she’s family. To me as well as to Bill.

* * *

The past few months and especially these final weeks have been very difficult for Aunt Mame and for us who love her so much. The diagnosis was terminal and the day by day journey toward that end has been inexorable. But she was often our comforter. On occasion when she found herself still alive, she would joke, “Oh, I see I missed the bus again.” She told me in our final phone conversation, “I want you to listen closely, David. You need to know that I am at peace and not afraid of dying.” 

That was an almost identical role as her nephew Bill played twelve years earlier when he was consoling his distraught partner, family, and friends telling us, “I know you’re upset and worried for me but everything is going to be okay. The pain will be over. I’m going soon. I just ask one thing of you. Be kind, to yourselves and each other.”

Aunt Mame was a beautiful, vivacious, and caring woman. She has been such a blessing in my life. I will miss her terribly.

* * *

Aunt Mame and I had so many conversations over the years, some in person but many more by phone and email. A few samples of her messages to me:

  • February 19, 2011: “I was in bed reading the last of August Farewell and I was in tears.  Your’s and Bill’s story is so very beautiful.  You had everything – together.  What happiness you found with each other.  That’s really kind of rare.  You knew Bill’s every need and want, sick or well.  What a blessing you were to each other.”
  • April 12, 2012: ”I am very, very happy that we are still in each other’s lives.  Love Aunt Mame”
  • April 4, 2014: “Dear David.  I am still sitting here completely stunned.  What a beautiful gesture arranging for me to come to your honorary degree Convocation.  I am overwhelmed. I have never had anyone treat me with such kindness before.  You are one of a kind, David.   No wonder Bill loved you for so many years.  Love Aunt Mame”
  • August 17, 2015: “Happy Anniversary and thanks for the photos. Obsess all you want, David.   With wonderful memories that you shared with Bill, it would be very sad to let them just grow old and fade into the past.  I know that I am very prejudiced, but I think you do everything right.  Enjoy your past!!  Lots of love, Aunt Mame”
  • December 30, 2018: “I am so sorry that you are having this heart problem.   You are young and healthy and it is better to have the open-heart surgery now, rather than wait until you are older and, perhaps, not as healthy as you are right now. Please take care. My heart will be with you on your surgery date. Love, Aunt Mame.”
  • January 23, 2021: “Dear David. I am sincerely sorry about your loss of your brother Jim.  You have really known a lot of sorrow in your life.  Your heart must be broken.  Take care of yourself, and stay well. Love, Aunt Mame”
  • February 13, 2021: “It’s  a wonderful feeling going back over the past through our pictures.  Thank you, David, for sending these. They’re beautiful. I hope you are well, and keeping safe.   Love,  Aunt Mame”

Pics:- Aunt Mame and I celebrating together in 2014 on the day I was given an Honorary Doctorate by Victoria College, University of Toronto. – the last pic I have of Bill and me together taken in about 2005 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

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Robert Jones Jr.’s “The Prophets” – Horrific Story, Exquisite Story-Telling

Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel “The Prophets” is one of the best books that I have read. It is not a perfect piece of writing. But, for me, it is a masterful piece of writing for a simple reason. It speaks to me. 

I could name many excellent books that I have read but where “The Prophets” leaps ahead of many of them in my estimation is the profound degree to which it drew me in personally at many levels – artistic, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and perhaps most of all, spiritual. I became engaged with the story and the writing so profoundly because, I think, it spoke to four issues that are in the forefront of my consciousness these days, specifically: 

  • Memory and the future; 
  • grief and suffering; 
  • the capacity for same-sex love in hostile environments; and 
  • a spiritual dimension to life that transcends time and our physical existence while simultaneously being grounded immanently, intrinsically, inherently in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. 

So, my reaction to “The Prophets” is intensely personal and subjective. I’m responding to it through my current obsessions. 

Before exploring these four themes, let me comment on the writing style. I‘m sure it’s not to everyone’s tastes but it sure is to mine. Robert Jones Jr. writes with such a poetic, lyrical, and metaphorical style, it’s as if I’m listening to symphonic music throughout the entire reading process, music of many genres (some quite foreign to me) and of many varying intensities, rhythms, and techniques from quietly melodic to raucously cacophonous. Many of the chapters are instrumental solos, some are rapturous duets, a number are exquisite chamber ensembles, and a few are full-blown orchestral explosions. 

One of the ways in which this musical writing style manifests itself is the way that Jones seamlessly interweaves three levels of narrative: a description of the action; the characters’ emotional and psychological reactions; and a meta level that draws in connections from distant pasts and from spiritual dimensions beyond our traditional western rationalist understandings. Almost every paragraph Jones writes in “The Prophets” draws on all three components in such an organic manner that we experience it as a whole, unaware of these distinct levels until we step out of the narrative for a moment.  

Now to my themes.

  • Memory and the future:
    • In the chapter entitled “Maggie,” Jones writes: The pounding in her chest subsided and she scratched her cheek to stop from weeping. Was it memory or prophesy? She couldn’t tell. Sometimes, there was no difference. She held on to herself regardless and put past and future things as far away as they would let her – as though that mattered. Visions had the keys to the cage and would let themselves out whenever they pleased. This condition had to be lived with. There was no other way. (pg. 37)
    • This speaks to me because of my life experience over the past twenty years of the deaths of so many family members. I feel a calling, from wence I don’t understand, to preserve my memories of the lives of these deceased loved ones and of my relationships with them. But the memories are not just cognitive mementos to be pasted in a scrapbook of sorts. They have an on-going presence in my life. I interact with the memories, the painful and the joyful and the in-between. They have a lived reality in my life today. And there are patterns emerging out of this “blood memory” (to adopt a word that Jones uses) that colour not just the present but seem to extend into the future, scoping out possibilities yet unrealized, anticipating the unanticipatable. “The Prophets” in a wholly different context put into words for me what I experience as the on-going reality in my life of these loved ones who no longer exist in functioning corporeal bodies and who, I feel, will somehow continue to interact with me into an unknown future. 
  • grief and suffering –   so many examples in “The Prophets”:
    • the scars lined them the same way bark lined trees. But those weren’t the worst ones. The ones you couldn’t see: those were the ones that streaked the mind, squeezed the spirit, and left you standing outside in the rain, naked as at birth, demanding that the drops stop touching you. (pg. 60);
    • when Kossii in the bowels of the slave ship discovers that his lover and newly married bridegroom Elewa was dead: and the words couldn’t leave his lips. Stuck in the crevices of his mouth and tying his tongue. He wanted to scream, but a lump lodged itself in his throat and the air couldn’t flow. He coughed until the tears, finally, from somewhere, somehow, ran and the saliva too, leaked, and his face pulled itself into foolishness … ‘Disaster’, he thought. ‘A pure, plain, disaster.’ Not only because of what he had already lost but also because of what he would have to lose. (pg. 245-6)
    • I marvel at Jones’s capacity to describe in excruciating detail not only the physical realities of torture, pain, and suffering but also the psychological and emotional components that are often hidden from view.
  • the capacity for same-sex love in hostile environments:
    • Samuel and Isaiah were drawn to each other from the first moments when the child Isaiah, having been torn from his parents at a slave auction, arrives at the planation with a wagon load of other new slaves and Samuel, having been there already for a while, offers him water; (pg. 13)
    • And that connection grew: Isaiah watched as Samuel’s untrusting eyes fully embraced him. He saw himself there, in the gaze of the deepest shade of brown he had seen outside of dreams, warm and enjoyed. He opened his own eyes a bit more, inviting Samuel in so that he could feel the warmth was waiting for him, too. (pg. 18)
    • And in the last chapter entitled “Isaiah”:… the tip of Samuel’s trembling tongue on the edge of Isaiah’s impatient nipple. That was the thing to make the heads roll back and the face worship sky. That was the thing to unfurl itself, a delicate bloom holding on to the dew like joy. That was the thing to cause the many waters to rush toward the calm and therefore to harbour. Yes. That was the thing. (pg. 361)
    • And others could see it too, even their betrayer Amos: “…it was well known that Samuel and Isaiah inspired everything around them to dance: some old folk, the children, flies, the tips of tall grass … Amos covered his eyes because Isaiah and Samuel were bright and coated in a shining the likes of which he had never seen. A shame that he would have to be the one to smash it.” (pg. 76)  
    • Some may find Jones’s descriptions of the magic love emanating between Samuel and Isaiah to be too romantically depicted, using “romantic” here in its literary pejorative sense. But I don’t. I relish this writing. In part because I’ve experienced that “shining” in the past in contexts that sought to negate our love. And in part because I long to experience it again.  
  • a spiritual dimension to life that transcends time and our physical existence while simultaneously being grounded immanently, intrinsically, inherently in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. 
    • I don’t know what I believe about life after death. “Believe” is the wrong term to use here. We don’t and can’t know in an empirical sense what follows death and so there’s nothing that we can say that we believe in in the same way that in these pandemic days we can say that “we believe in the science.” Figuring out what we think or feel about life after death is more a matter of faith. And my faith is in a pretty confused state these days. But I’m finding that that confusion is actually quite a fertile place to be and I’m enjoying it. The reason that I’m so immersed in these reflections is, in part, because of the writing that I’m doing called “A Tapestry of Dyings” where I’m chronicling and reflecting upon my journeys with seven family members as they’ve died. 
    • This kind of territory is the very ground that “The Prophets” traverses, at least as I read it:
      • As the spirits address the reader in “Judges”, the first chapter:
        • Forgive our laughter.
        • You thought you were the living and we were the dead.
        • Haha. (pg. 2)
      • Maggie to Samuel in the chapter called “Samuel”:
        • Maggie pointed outside, and Samuel saw a shadow flash.
        • “Uh huh, You seen it, too. I can tell by your eyes,” she said. “That mean you got it.”
        • Samuel was still looking outside but the shadow had already passed. “Got what?”
        • “The favor. It something that get passed down. Sometimes skips a generation, but you got it somehow…what I saying is there be a whole better place for you and Isaiah, maybe not somewhere, but sometime. Whether that particular time is in front or behind, I ain’t got no power to tell.” (pg. 302-3)
    • “The Prophets” is replete with instances where the characters, specifically the Black characters, are aware of further realities beyond their physical enslavement and encounter mystical personalities, signs, manifestations other than those tangibly around them. Some of them recognize this spiritual dimension to life and embrace it. Some of them try to fight it. The white characters, in Jones’s telling, are oblivious to it and, I think, for good reason. The white characters think that they are in control and exert that control on everything and everyone around them. They don’t realize that there is so much more going on around them than they’re aware of.
    • I have a sense that there is so much more going on around me than I am aware of. A spiritual dimension or dimensions beyond the physical. And I’ve gotten glimpses of that most intensely at the moments of death that I’ve witnessed. 
      • The light grew brighter and brighter and Samuel screamed.
      • “KAYODE!”
      • The tiny bits of light that were once Samuel, maybe still Samuel, swirled upward, into the night, with no regard for who or what they were leaving behind, blinking, twinkling. (pg. 368-9)

  So be it. 

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