I met Edel when we were still so young – kids, really. We had clicked and caught fire almost immediately, and heaven help anything or anybody in our path. She was my first love, the love of my life.
I remember the first time I visited her family home. It seemed so alien to me, so very different to my own. A beautiful house on landscaped gardens filled with tasteful furniture, family portraits and Catholic pictures. From the very beginning I admired this beautiful family haven where there were very clearly two loving parents providing shelter and comfort for their children.
I soon met Peter and marvelled at his gentle spirit and kind manner. Over time, the house became familiar to me and again I was struck by how ‘normal’ it all seemed. When I met Anne, I could FEEL her tension and apprehension, but I now know she was a mother trying to protect her family. It was only a short time since two of her children shook her world to its core.
The truth is I never felt comfortable there. I felt I was chaos in a peaceful serene setting, intruding in this calm and measured life that Peter and Anne had made for themselves.
In writing this, I got to think about how chaotic Edel must have felt in that home. This is no reflection on the welcome I was given. It was always very warm, but I could see Peter struggle with what was going on. He liked me, he chatted and laughed with me, and I know that he adored Edel. But I saw the conflict in him in small moments between banter and chats; a faraway, thoughtful look, perhaps trying to make sense of this situation, perhaps trying to tally it with his own beliefs and his ideas of how family life should be. I can’t speak for him, but I sensed that careful contemplation from him.
Edel confided that in this home she always felt like a misfit, and after she came out, a disappointment. As her feelings of disconnection grew, so, too, it seemed, grew the distance between Edel and her mother Anne. I think Edel felt that she had broken her father’s heart, but at the time could feel only resentment from her mother.
Edel often spoke of her feelings of estrangement from her family. She felt at times that they had nothing in common with one another, nothing to say to one another since her ‘secret’ was told. It saddened me to think of this beautiful family scattered and disjointed.
Patience is something we all exercise when dealing with family at some time or another, and I believe that, just as in any family, the problem was not knowing how to communicate properly, to honestly talk to each other and be vulnerable with each other.
I secretly wished Edel could sometimes just say, “I’m afraid of all this. I don’t know all the answers and I need a little guidance and reassurance”, instead of being such a hard nut. I secretly wished I could have whispered to Anne, “You have the most beautiful girl in the world as your daughter. Nothing has changed, she’s still your baby and she still needs a cuddle”. And I wanted to reassure Peter that I respected him, his values, his beliefs and that I meant him no harm.
I am, to my abhorrence, a people-pleaser. I’m getting a little less pathetic as I age, but it’s still there in my core. I don’t like to rock the proverbial boat, I follow rules, I avoid conflict at all costs and against all my logic and reasoning, I like to conform. In this spirit, feeble and weak as it is, I implored Edel to be kinder with her parents – to respect how difficult it was for them.
Poor Edel, she had so many of her own emotions with which to deal, so many thoughts to process, and I was asking her to be mindful of those of her parents, too. It’s something I feel bad about now.
I met Anne many years later as a ‘grown-up’ – she regularly met a friend of hers for lunch in a restaurant at which I worked. We had not seen one another in a very long time, and were now interacting on a totally different level.
I was in a straight relationship at the time, had matured and been manicured, and it was very clear that this made Anne much more comfortable around me. She seemed to approve. The people-pleaser in me was thrilled!
In this newfound easiness between us, I toyed with the idea of asking her all about how she felt back then when Martin and Edel came out, when I invaded her home, when after I had gone and butch lesbians and fabulous gay men became part of her world. Did she have any regrets? Would she change anything now looking back?
The coward in me prevailed. To this day I haven’t sat and had a truthful, open conversation with Anne.
Edel adored Therese as her older sister, was grateful for her kindness and understanding. I often felt a small pity for Therese, who, in her own way, must have felt put out or even left out. Edel always spoke of Martin fondly and with real affection. He had paved the way for her in some respects. I know that Edel felt that she had an ally in the family, someone who was like her. I think it made it a little easier for her to deal with the disappointment she felt from her parents.
I remember one night Edel, Martin and I went out in Dublin to a gay club, had a dance and plenty of laughs – overall a great night. What struck me was how cheerful and uninhibited Martin was. He had always seemed so formal when I met him at the family home, quite a world away from this warm, laughing, happy young man.
The real tragedy for this family turned out to be cancer; first Peter, then Edel. I often wonder if they somehow look back on those times, ‘the coming-out era’, as carefree and easy in comparison. I wonder if they all found a new perspective in light of cancer and its catastrophic shadow. This is not to belittle the magnitude of coming out – it is, of course, a life-changing event.
Gay is not the end of the world. Death is the end of the world. Until then, we have the chance to shift things, make changes, adjust, fight, accept, love, learn, understand, communicate – all the things that we as human beings are born to do. It is a challenge, for some it is a confrontation, when one member of a family comes out.
For Peter and Anne, after two of their children came out, I’m sure it seemed impossible, and yet life went on. For Therese, Martin and Edel, it was family life and all the reality, frustration, laughter and madness that that entails.
This book is only part of the story of a very ordinary family – a loving relationship between two good people that developed into a family of loving people. It is not a fairytale. Why do we all still strive for a fairytale?
Too often, people make instant and sweeping generalisations and judgments when they hear the word gay. I do not identify as gay. I do not identify as straight. My sexuality has always been very fluid and transient to me – I like what I like. I’ve never really thought of it as something that defines me; it’s a private thing I feel no real need to share with others. This will anger some members of the gay community as I do nothing for their cause being non-committal and oh so vanilla, but I, too, have my place in the grand scheme of things.
Long ago and far away, a tiny little lady bowled me over. Absolutely floored me with her wit, charm and soulful eyes and I was smitten – like never before, and never again. Time passed with the ebb and flow of her presence in my life, but her pull was always there – calling me, inspiring me, challenging me and consoling me. When she died, when she was senselessly taken from us, I thought I, too, might die. Bereft and set adrift in emptiness, I tried in vain to conjure that pull again, to hear her voice in my head, to feel something, anything that would reassure me she has not left me.
Isn’t this grief? Isn’t this love and loss and human anguish? Gay, straight or other, can’t we all identify with that?