Friday, July 8, 2011

A Promise Unkept

One of the things I did yesterday, my 81ast birthday, was to celebrate by having lunch with a dear friend who helps to bridge the losses in my life. Between the bean and barley soup and the salad estiva Dolores and I caught up on each other’s lives and relived tender memories of her brother, Bill, and his lifelong partner Dean. Though not genetically related, Bill and Dean were like brothers to Lee and I. Most birthdays were spent in their loving company. Like us if they were living they would be celebrating that the Defense of Marriage Act is finally being challenged by higher courts as unconstitutional. How fair is it that neither Dean nor I could claim our spouses social security? Some things in life are not fair but this is one injustice I hope to see changed perhaps even in my lifetime.

After Bill’s sudden death from brain cancer leaving us all in despair, Dean decided to relocate to the state of Ohio, where his family lived. Distraught over the loss of Bill, Dean’s Parkinson’s disease was progressing rapidly and in Ohio his two sisters would care for him. It turned out to be a bad call, for as much as his sisters loved him and cared for him in his last year of life they fought like bull and torreador in a ring with each other. Then there was the religion thing. Growing up gay in rural America in the thirties had to be agony for any kid, let alone a quiet, sensitive one like Dean.

I’ve never been to Ohio but Dean’s childhood was peppered with rejection, guilt, torment, and revival meetings. He reported that by age 16 he had been saved eleven times. It never worked, of course. He was emancipated from the arms of the Southern Baptists by a stint in the Navy, producing masculine looking tattoos from a drunken binge in Japan and a commitment to living a life as a hair dresser in the more gay friendly Bay Area, which he did the rest of his life until Bill’s death.

The last thing he said to me before he left to drive across country with his brother was “Bonnie, promise me you won’t let the Southern Baptists get me.” This is the story of how I failed in that promise.

Now I’ve never even been to a Baptist church, and I suppose the name of any other evangelical religion could be substituted, but once in Ohio the local minister, at the sisters’ urging I’m sure, was relentless in converting this sinner. Dean would call me often, urging me to visit, complaining how lonely he was for any gay contact, making jokes about the minister. When he had his new bedroom painted purple it comforted him a bit. I never found the time to visit, a regret on my part.

As he was dying in an Ohio VA hospital, the sisters kept loving vigil. Dean was in a coma and I couldn’t speak with him.

I intuited the sisters would be calling the chaplain to save their beloved unrepentant brother. Remembering my promise to Dean that I would protect him from this, I called the hospital and spoke at length to a chaplain, explaining my promise and Dean’s wishes. A long silence followed. Finally I asked the religion of the chaplain. “Southern Baptist” he said. My next inquiry: ”Are there any chaplains in the hospital who aren’t Southern Baptists?” Long silence. Finally the chaplain said, “Miss Crosse, what can I do for you? You sound upset. Shall I pray for you?”

I tried to hang up the receiver softly, but I think my rage was not totally held in check. I comforted myself that Dean was unconscious and could not know what was going on. I probably checked the freezer for Chunky Monkey.

As I shared this story with Dolores yesterday, my rage is gone, and I feel only gratitude for Bill and Dean’s love and caring in my life. How could I be so blessed?

As the Minnesotans say, it could be worse.

I love the picture of Bill and Dean shown above because to me it captures their love for each other and their tenderness as human beings.

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