I’m in the centre of a love-and-death sandwich these days, nurturing my young children while simultaneously supporting my parents who are now in their late 80s. The conversations I have with my father are not only about how we can extend the quantity of their lives, but also how we can inject some quality.
My mother has a degenerative brain disease called multiple system atrophy. Now mostly paralyzed, she spends her days watching movies and napping while my father spends his exercising, writing his memoir, growing an astonishingly elaborate garden and, most importantly, plotting new adventures. There will be no going gentle into this good night for him.
Dad firmly believes you only get one chance on this Earth, so you better do it right. But what is “right,” and is there really only one life? Because I’m over here in my late 40s feeling constantly reborn. I’ve been different versions of myself at different times — single, queer, married, divorced and a mom. If I were to appear as I am now in front of any previous iteration, I’d be in disbelief.
My general experience has been a cycle of endings and new beginnings born of the ashes — kind of like the fairytales I consumed as a child. A poor girl experiences a life of struggle and is transformed into a princess. Often, she is physically brought back to life in a complete resurrection. I interpreted from these tales that love ferries us from one life to another. Without love, there is no rebirth.
I first learned this when I closed the chapter on my childhood in the suburbs and moved to downtown Toronto. I worked day and night for a large-scale theatre company and found the work exhilarating, but my love life was DOA. That is, until I met the perfect person for me, conveniently located right at work. The only glitch: I was “straight,” and she was not.
This was the late 1990s, after Ellen DeGeneres’s announcement. The world was coming to understand that being gay wasn’t disastrous, but it was still far from accepting. I was worried about losing my job. I was nervous about explaining my proclivities to family and friends. My sex life suddenly felt very public. But here was a really incredible woman, bravely living her truth as a butch woman, asking me to go on a holiday. To accept her love, I knew I’d need to be equally brave and pivot my expectations for the life I had planned. I just wasn’t sure if I was strong enough.
I went to my sister-in-law Joyce Hunter for advice. She has a beautiful heart and a sharp wit. She is married to my eldest brother, Geoff, and they ran with a gaggle of gays, holding gorgeous parties at their home with guests who had names like “Cocktail Jimmy” and “Trixie.” It was a time of unabashedly brilliant rebirth for their gay friends who had survived the AIDS crisis and the trauma of sitting vigil at their loved ones’ bedsides, often turning their own homes into hospices when even medical staff refused to treat them. So these parties were epic.
In Joyce’s grand wisdom, she offered to buy me a plane ticket to join this woman and find out if this was my new life. Then she dragged me into the party to announce to the gays that I was part of their club. They baptized me with martinis, and I was reborn in love into this new life, which felt more authentic. The more I refined my life, the closer I seemed to get to myself.
Sixteen years later, I started yet another life when my marriage to that woman ended. And oh, the grief was seductive. I wanted to sink into the couch, mummify myself in blankets, roll a stone in front of my door and stay entombed forever. And I did let grief hold me hostage for far too long before I slowly rejoined the world. All while people around me faced life-and-death situations that seemed more important than my grief.
Geoff was diagnosed with stage 3C colon cancer. I remember going for Chinese food with him during this time, and we laughed at his darkly comic fortune cookie, which read, “Have fun, while you still can.” Thankfully, he survived and came out the other side with his humour intact and a deep understanding of what it is to be a patient. These two resources would help him in his family’s next health crisis.
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My beloved sister-in-law Joyce, who stood beside me during my coming out, died in 2020 during a massive heart attack. Her heart entirely stopped working; she flatlined. Geoff, with the power of his 30-year love for this woman, and a defibrillator, pulled her back from death — only for her to die and be brought back again in the ambulance. For a long time, she stood on the bridge between life and death. She was put into an assisted coma for her body to recover, and she was on life support for months.
Geoff took on the role of Prince Charming during her slumber. He did not leave her side and never wavered in his faith that she would return. The doctors said to expect some brain damage if she survived. Her heart would be broken forever, requiring a tiny internal defibrillator. Miraculously, like in the fairytales, she woke up. And she could talk. And walk. She remembered us. She got our names wrong, but she remembered us!
Love has ferried my brother and his wife into their “new normal.” It looks very different from any life they had before. Love has transported my father and mother as well. At first, Dad had been determined to prolong the status quo. He would carry Mom up the circular staircase to their bed, like an octogenarian newlywed. He is still her main caretaker, now just with a little extra help.
For me, I find that the more life changes I face, the quicker I surrender, pivot and accept the death of the time before — as long as I put love first. I love my children, so I am brave enough to forgive myself and my ex-wife for the end of our marriage. I love myself, so I am brave enough to say yes to new adventures, knowing that life ends and begins again and again and again and again.
Allyson McOuat is a writer in Toronto.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2022 issue with the title “Once more with love.”
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