Death / Gay

Remembering my Gay Uncle at my Grandma’s Funeral

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Thinking About Bill, Dead of AIDS
Miller Williams

We did not know the first thing about
how blood surrenders to even the smallest threat
when old allergies turn inside out,

the body rescinding all its normal orders
to all defenders of flesh, betraying the head,
pulling its guards back from all its borders.

Thinking of friends afraid to shake your hand,
we think of your hand shaking, your mouth set,
your eyes drained of any reprimand.

Loving, we kissed you, partly to persuade
both you and us, seeing what eyes had said,
that we were loving and were not afraid.

If we had had more, we would have given more.
As it was we stood next to your bed,
stopping, though, to set our smiles at the door.

Not because we were less sure at the last.
Only because, not knowing anything yet,
we didn’t know what look would hurt you least.

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I was sitting in my college English class when I learned of my Uncle’s passing. I sat through the rest of the class, with my poetry book open, and flipped through to various poems, barely able to concentrate. It wasn’t like my uncle and I were super close. He was my dad’s brother, in his sixties, and from the side of the family that was more reserved and hard to get to know. His skinny frame held a pot belly, and he wore those thin old man shirts, smoked cigarettes, and had a gravelly voice that was often raised as he “dicussed” religion or politics or other adult things that I didn’t understand, with my dad, after holiday meals. And, in that poetry class, I came across the poem “Thinking About Bill, Dead of AIDS,” and almost lost it, because my Uncle’s name was Bill. And he died of AIDS.

Well, nobody dies of AIDS, or so they say. Complications related to the HIV virus. Pneumonia. Whatever it was, related to AIDS, related to why my dad hates gays and cigarettes. Bringers of death to his family. First his dad, from lung cancer related to smoking, and now his eldest brother, dead of AIDS pneumonia, made complicated by years of smoking.

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It’s interesting how funerals seem to domino the death emotions. My grandma was lying in her open casket, and I thought she looked beautiful, more beautiful in death than I ever saw her in life. Maybe it was the makeup that made her peaceful, or maybe it was the fact that she had survived for 48 years without her husband and she was finally ‘at peace.” But it was disconcerting to have my 3 year old run down the length of the church aisle, yelling “Buppa!” and jumping in to his arms, then turning to look, pointed his little finger and said, “who’s that?” in the sweetest little toddler voice.

Woefully unprepared myself, for open casket, or to say “that’s Buppa’s mommy. Buppa is sad because she died. Which means she won’t come back anymore.” He’s at just the right age for that answer to make absolutely no sense to him. A) she was laying right there in front of him, so why was Buppa sad again? and B) she looked like she was sleeping, and sleeping isn’t scary, and will my explanation make sleep scarier than it already is? And C) why was the casket open again? Hadn’t my mom told me it was a closed casket funeral?

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It was the same church my uncle’s funeral had been held in. This time the family sat up front, rather than cloistered behind the proscenium off to the side, to “shield grieving family,” from what exactly, I’m not sure. During that service, I was the only one who stood up, behind the curtain, and talked about my uncle. Shared my thoughts. I thought he deserved as much.

Though all I had to say is that, when I was in 4th grade, he asked me what I liked to read. And every year after that, on Christmas, he got me the newest book in the set. Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels. We shared that in common. And despite his being a mystery to me, he saw me, a child, as a person. Took an interest and never forgot that I loved those books. I was sad when he died, in a way I couldn’t explain, because I don’t feel like I actually knew him, at all.

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After my grandma’s funeral, I poked around some old boxes of letters and photos that were being stored in my old bedroom. Pictures of my uncle as a teenager and young man. And the discomfort with heteronormativity is written all over his face. A young man, who served in the army, and loved a man named Lino afterward. I knew what AIDS was when I was young, as my parents explained that “Uncle Bill is dying of a disease called AIDS,” and his partner Lino was present all through my childhood. But present in a whitewashed way, always introduced as his ‘business partner,’ which was also true. But it was also clear that they loved each other. And that was forbidden. So much so, that, in my recollection, Lino was not acknowledged at the funeral, despite having domestically partnered with this man, for 25 years, knowing the entire time that he had contracted HIV from a previous relationship.

The pictures, a sort of amused “am I seriously on this date?” to downright “I hate this,” were splashed about his face. And it made me sad for my uncle, who was never fully accepted in the family. Maybe I connected to him because we both were ‘different.’ Maybe I understood something at the very essence of his soul that was not able to be voiced in the great clamoring of Christian rhetoric.

bill 1

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Lino committed suicide a few years after my Uncle Bill died. I had seen him, randomly, a year or so before he died, in the mall in Union Gap. While not a typically affectionate person, I ran up to him and said, “Lino! How are you?!” I don’t know if that encounter was worth anything to him, since I’m almost positive that upon my uncle’s death, he was booted from any contact with my family, his in-laws.

And in post-funeral trolling, I found his memorial page, with history edited again, by saying “He was also preceded in death by his special friend and business partner, Bill…” as if my uncle Bill was an afterthought. In the business of life, they were partners through and through. And it’s sad that they didn’t live just a few more years to see the mass acceptance of their person hood acknowledged. Not that it matters as much, when what we want, at the end of the day, is for unconditional love and support for our very being and for those we love as our own, family.

*********************************************************************************************************************************************

I cried more than I thought I would. We didn’t drop the casket. My dad sang an acapella version of “What a Wonderful World,” with the lyrics changed to tell the story of his mom. It brought up memories. It brought up unfinished emotional business. May we do better, be better, by the next funeral.

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