My first uncle died recently. My father is one of eight, the youngest, and my mother is one of four, the oldest. With mostly all of them married, it seems pretty fortunate that I made it to 30 years old before the first one passed away.
As we all get older I see a horizon full of funerals, all those aunties and uncles I grew up visiting on summer vacation and on Boxing Day, most of them kind and affectionate and accepting of me at all stages of my queer life. I feel like my uncle’s passing marks a new phase in my journey, one in which I will finally learn to know mortality as an old-age thing instead of the random tragic thing I thought it had to be. It will be a new phase in which I recognize the movement of generations through the universe and my place in line. It may be the time I finally find my place in my own family, my unique yet connected, holistic, necessary place.
When I walked into the church, I saw my uncle’s son, my cousin Ricky. We greeted each other without touching, as is normal for me, but there was a flicker of warmth like a physical touch. Ricky is my one-and-only out, queer cousin.
From my earliest memories of him — he’s about 20 years older than I am — I remember black capes and long hair, general glamour and drama of the variety most unknown to me as a child. We’ve seen each other very infrequently since then, and I have always maintained this vision of him.
Ricky’s hair is short now, in the tight, black — dark purple in his case — curls that are so characteristic of my Guyanese family. He was still in fabulous black, even at a funeral wearing pants with silver eyelets and laces down the side, shiny shoes, silver watch. He surprised me by telling me he reads my articles in Xtra. I didn’t even know he lived in Toronto.
“Well then you know my whole life story,” I said.
“I do,” he said. “I saw your name and thought that must be my cousin. And when you talk about Uncle David and Aunt Angela—”
For a second I felt a familiar uh oh as I recognized this new point at which my worlds were colliding.
“Yeah they never read it,” I said. “They have no idea. It’s my outlet.” I know he understood.
“It’s so nice to hear that you read my articles,” I said, and really meant it.
I realized in that moment that I actually want these worlds — my queer world and the world of my family — to collide, and that colliding might not mean total detonation.
One of the biggest themes of my past year — 10 months of work with a psychiatrist, medications, mindfulness meditation, new to-be friends — is the theme of fragmentation. I have been operating my life until now like a very tall filing cabinet. Open one drawer, close another, open, close, open, close.
If too many drawers are open at once the whole thing comes crashing down, papers everywhere, no sense of order. I think this metaphor works for a lot of queer people. The compartmentalizing that we put in place to cope with trauma, homophobia, and fear of rejection or disappointment can easily become a completely fragmented life.
For me, and probably for others, the external fragmentation — like not talking to your parents about your girlfriends, or not telling your friends you have a sister who died — becomes both physical and internal fragmentation too. I have separated myself from my own emotions and my own body, and am only just learning how to really, truly feel anything at all.
I left Ricky pretty quickly to find my parents, never sure how much to chat or look happy at a funeral. As we parted he said, “Us queers have to stick together, you know”, out loud, in the vestibule of St Rose of Lima church, and I loved that. We both laughed. I felt proud to be connected with him in that way, pleased it is a fact that I have very little coming out left to do, even in the context of my family. It’s more the coming into I am working on now.
The funeral was nice, a beautiful choir and the eulogy delivered by another of my many cousins, an English/drama teacher who destroyed any hope I had of not crying. Ricky’s dad and my dad were close. They must have talked at some point about their queer children, probably over Oscar Peterson and homemade pepper sauce. I wonder what they said.
My uncle was a tenor in the church choir, believed in god and as such in his dying, is going home instead of simply disappearing. I spent many years simply disappearing from my family because it clashed, seemingly, with my queer life. Pursuing, and personalizing, some notion of home, in life as well as in dying, seems like a much better option, for all of us.