Warning: the below discusses, among other things, death and funerals.
Last Monday I got an email from my mother telling me that she & Dad were off to Death Valley for their annual “get Dad away from the cold” trip. (Dad says he doesn’t have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Pretty sure he’s wrong.)
Three emails into the chain, she tells me my cousin Marilyn has passed away.
Marilyn was my mother’s older cousin (as I track the family tree, I think she was my grandmother’s brother’s daughter), 78 years old, and it turns out she’d been in intensive care for 8 months.
She was also the woman who taught me horseback riding and something of one of my queer icons growing up, long before I actually realized I was bisexual.
I started horseback riding because our Girl Scout leader was horse-mad & her daughter, my nemesis from elementary through middle school (same church, same Girl Scout troop, same school…), got to ride, so I wanted to ride.
I remember Marilyn telling me at one point that I’d moved from wanting to ride out of spite to actually wanting to ride.
I remember really liking riding, the way it felt like flying, the way that it was perfect movement.
I also remember falling off. (ow).
I remember Marilyn making me get back on the horse.
It really is a thing; that next lesson was hard.
Almost all of my memories of Marilyn are horse-based. I do remember showing her a poem I’d written – one I sort of cringe at now, because it was very very teenage, but Marilyn was one of my biggest fans.
I went to her funeral, because I wanted to hug her partner, Joyce, and I wanted to say goodbye. I’m sad I didn’t get to see her in the hospital. I’m working out a plan to get more information from my family more quickly when relatives are in a bad way.
It was hard… At first, there was nobody there from our branch of the family. I recognized 3 people and knew 5, and of those, one recognized me. There was a lot of describing myself by first my mom and then my grandmother to get far enough back in the tree that someone had some idea.
Joyce… didn’t remember me. She’s in her 80’s; horseback riding was 20+ years ago and I was one of many, many kids who did horseback riding and/or 4H with them. That I was Marilyn’s cousin might have made me special in my head, but probably not in anyone else’s.
It hurt a little, but I understand it at the same time.
I have never been so happy to see my aunt and uncle, because then I had someone to talk to who knew who I was. But it was weird, being around family, being around people I knew – some of them – and being a stranger.
I am not good with being a stranger.
Two things struck me from the funeral: first, Marilyn was described as Joyce’s friend and confidante. I looked up the obituary; she was a long-time-friend there, too. That doesn’t match my memory or family discussions on the matter, but I don’t think I ever had family assumption confirmed. We just, you know, knew. So maybe we were wrong – or maybe an 80+ year old woman, losing her partner of more than 40 years, wasn’t ready for this to be the moment she outed herself.
I can accept that, you know? It was just a little hard, because, as I said, they were something of my queer icons, growing up in a time when people just… weren’t.
(well, obviously, they were, but they weren’t out about it.)
The other thing was the comments on how many people Marilyn helped, how many kids she taught, how much she was part of the local 4H community in 3 counties.
I have been leaning towards “be excellent to each other!” as a sort of life goal which, while it lacks nuance and does have the problem of leading me to ask lots of questions like “what exactly is being excellent?” also is a pretty good yes/no sort of metric. (What would the more excellent action be in this circumstance? How could I be most excellent to someone here?).
Listening to the stories about Marilyn, that renews my urges to be more excellent to other people.
How can I make other people’s lives better the way that Marilyn made my life better?
How can I be an icon for my cousins, for people around me, the way she did for me?
I don’t have an answer, mind you, but it’s a bright thought to take from a dark moment.