Saturday, 7 February 2015

Sad, sad days

I helped my friend Billy say goodbye to his partner, who died after a brief illness at the obscenely young age of 38. The funeral took place in his Mohawk Valley hometown of Herkimer near Utica in upstate New York. He came from a big Italian-American clan with innumerable kids, grandkids, nephews, food and drink everywhere, and a massive turnout at the six-hour visitation: 1000 people, which had to be a sizable percentage of the local population. The lost brother was a dancer and had performed as late as October, so there was a strong atmosphere of disbelief. I could only imagine how keenly the deceased yearned to get back to his joyful life, with his artistic pursuits in the city, his boyfriend of six years, and his adoring sisters and gregarious brothers waiting for him back in the familiar village where he knew every street and every backwoods hideaway where he’d gone drinking as a teenager. He had wanted to avoid the hospital and get home for the holidays this year. But for the usual unfathomable reasons, he didn’t get his wish.

Times certainly have changed around the presence of the same-sex partner, even in a conservative zone like our upstate. On the train heading north, I was party to a long conversation among other riders about how much they hate Governor Cuomo (for his gun safety law), their disdain for poor people (though many are skating on the edge themselves) and the usual litany of Fox News-inspired complaints. And yet no one would dream of disrespecting Billy, the bereaved boyfriend. The preacher caught himself in time on the verge of leaving out Billy’s place among the listing of heartbroken relatives and preached a sweet, thoughtful eulogy citing Psalms about dance as a celebration of God's bounty.

There was a slide show of highlights of his life, which was wonderful and touching and terribly painful to watch. At the wake at the local Elks Lodge, I circulated among the relatives and a few New York dancer friends who had come up, a couple of whom will now have to rethink their careers and find new collaborators. My job was unobtrusively to be around and available, listen when needed, and resist the temptation to say anything “helpful.”

I’m familiar with small-town America and come from it. It has a warm, welcoming aspect and an ignorant, bloody-minded side, too. At the train station in Utica, I expected to get a taxi to take me the 12 miles to Herkimer, but none were around, and the barbershop gave me a phone number to call for one. Turned out they were all booked, but then the guy who took the call was curt, rude and hung up on me in mid-sentence. The funeral would be over in 90 minutes, and I was stuck.

So I said, Piss on this town, I’m getting there on my own, found my way down to the highway intersection and stuck out my thumb just like in the old days. Granted it was about 12 degrees and windy, so this might have looked imprudent to some, but in less than 10 minutes a guy pulled over to pick me up who not only was from Herkimer himself, but was headed there and knew the family. He dropped me off at the door to the funeral home. I was confident people wouldn’t leave an unthreatening, 60-plus-year-old white guy standing by the road in that weather for long. And I was right.

It’s curious how often in my past deaths have intersected with shifts I am undergoing in my personal life to the point where some profound sadness emerges during the departing one’s final illness or at the funeral, and I feel almost embarrassed to be piggybacking on others’ grief when, as in this case, I have just the most glancing acquaintance with the deceased. But one reacts as one reacts, and it doesn’t have to make sense. Perhaps that’s another reason why it didn’t feel at all like a chore for me to make this trip—on the contrary, I was delighted to be of some small service for a grieving friend, and in addition, odd as it sounds, I felt I was saying goodbye—to something—for myself as well.

No comments: