My cousin Joell passed away on Saturday morning.
It was quite unexpected. She was only 45. My dad had to repeat himself multiple times on the phone before my ears would even accept the news. My heart is still having trouble understanding how it could possibly be real. I had to be the one to call and tell my sister about it. After I hung up, I spent several hours wondering if I had heard my father wrong and just told Lindsay some terrible lie. Oddly, it didn’t truly sink in until after signing in to Facebook later in the day and seeing Joell’s wall, plastered with RIP’s and “you’re in my prayers” postings from dozens of people. That’s when I realized it was true; I was never going to see her again.
Jo was the sort of person who was very good at letting those she loved know she loved them. She frequently made it a point to tell my sister and I that we were beautiful and smart and talented…and whatever other encouraging thoughts struck her in any given moment. She was also very supportive of our life choices and goals. From her Facebook wall the past few days, I have learned she was that same brand of loving and supportive with nearly everyone she knew. She is also an organ donor, so she will continue to spread her loving kindness, even posthumously.
I wasn’t always the most outwardly reciprocal person; not because I didn’t love her back or anything, but precisely because I did. She would message me to let me know her daughter missed me; I would promise to visit “soon”. She would post something on my Facebook wall that would make me laugh or smile; I wouldn’t even bother to take the extra second to “like” it because I assumed she intuitively knew I did. In other words, I took her for granted. It never occurred to me to think one day she wouldn’t be around. (I’m assuming I don’t need to pause and explain the underlying lesson here, people.)
The last time I saw her in person, I got to say good-bye and give her a hug, so I am thankful for that. But there is one thing in particular I am kicking myself for never saying to her while she was alive. I am going to say it now. Better late than never, I suppose.
In order to do that, I need to tell you (those of you who didn’t know her, anyway) that she was gay. She was a lot of other things too, of course, but she was also openly, happily gay. She was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with her soulmate before she left us. I feel terrible for her partner, Shannon, and the pain she must be suffering right now, but I am so happy the two of them at least had a couple of years together. Some people don’t even get that much.
I don’t remember Jo ever having any big coming out speech to me or my family. At holidays when we were younger, she would always bring lady friends with her, but whatever their relationship actually was would remain unspoken on all sides. Whether or not Jo had to have a specific coming out conversation with her parents, I am not completely sure. It seems highly unlikely, though. She always just seemed to lived her life, and we all silently accepted her sexuality as part of who she was. That’s sort of how my dad’s side of the family operates, in general. They’re a very “don’t ask/don’t tell” sort of bunch. They are all loving and supportive people; it’s just not in their nature to over-share. Sometimes I wonder how my sister and I came from the same bloodline as them, as we tend to be open books when given the opportunity.
Talking to my dad after Jo’s passing, he said he remembers when he was younger, that she and him were very close. They would play football together (if that gives you any sort of indication of the tomboy she was, even as a child). My dad said, “Every day. I played with her every single day.” Then Joell went off to college, and her and my dad were never really close, ever again. They loved each other, sure. They stayed semi-involved in one another’s lives. But it wasn’t the same. My dad says he fully knows it was a little bit due to ‘the gay thing’. “She just left and stayed away,” is how he put it. Not that he and his brothers would have ever shunned her (again, they are a very family-centric group), but it did cause a minor, unspoken wall between them. Whether it was because my dad and his brothers hadn’t fully sorted their opinions on homosexuality back then (I think my dad is still actively sorting through his own feelings, even now), or if it was because Joell was afraid she would disappoint, she subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) kept a safe distance. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Either way, from my vantage point, it seems like such a silly and wasteful reason to grow apart from someone you care about. And though it was only in hindsight that my dad processed these thoughts, he seemed pretty regretful. “How sad,” he said, after a few moments of silence.
We all grew up attending The Freewill Baptist Church. By “we”, I mean my dad, my uncles, my sister and I, and all of my cousins, including Joell. Why on earth the church put the name “Freewill” in it’s title is beyond me. They should have called it The “Everything you want to do in this life will lead you to an eternity of hell fire and brimstone” Baptist Church. None of us go there anymore, including my grandparents, who literally still live next door to it. Anyway, I spent the first 18 years of my life sitting through a bunch of bullshit lessons taught to me by one of the most ungodly men I’ve ever known. All this man talked about was hate. He hated gays, he hated Muslims, he hated feminists, he hated liberals, he hated atheists and he even hated other Christian denominations. Even the other Baptists! The good that came out of it was I got to spend quality time with my cousins and my grandparents, and we did learn some nice parables about ethical living from the more loving Christians in the congregation. We got a lot of confusing mixed signals, though. All the misleading and (this is my blog, so I can make this determination here) flat out wrong information we were taught about God V. Homosexuality was directly contradictory to what I was experiencing through knowing a real life gay person. Joell, simply by being herself, was one of the first influences on my life to help me know that the whole “gays are evil” argument was absolute rubbish. And also, her gentle presence taught me to begin to question things I was taught by authority figures. I’m certain I would have come around myself eventually anyway, especially with my own developing libido, but she was a greatly influential person on my young mind. Especially because I was able to put together that if Pastor Ron was wrong about homosexuality, he could be wrong about a whole host of other things, too.
It’s taken years to reverse some of the damage from the sermons that were drummed into me in that church. I know Joell sat through some of those same lectures, and I wonder how long it took her to feel comfortable with herself after she stopped going. Or maybe she just never was as sensitive to it all as I was (I am notoriously sensitive. To everything. Always.). Either way, I thank her for giving my sister and I a living, breathing example of how ‘gay’ isn’t synonymous with ‘bad person’. And I thank her for being one of the first small stones on my path of learning to think for myself.
It has only been in the last few years that I have been comfortable with my own sexuality. And although I am open about it on a ‘need to know’ basis, it is one of the very few areas of my life that I remain somewhat guarded about. Some of this is because I don’t particularly think it is anyone’s business, unless they plan on having sex with me or talking about sex with me. But a bigger part is, I definitely don’t want to disappoint anyone who loves me and doesn’t understand why I can’t fit into their preconceived notion of who I am (And honestly, for some people that is Straight Haley and for others it is Gay Haley). But, like it or not, my sexuality falls somewhere smack dab in the middle of the Kinsey scale; I just don’t look at gender as a determining factor in an attraction to a person any more than I look eye color or hair color. I either have chemistry with someone or I don’t. This seems totally normal and rational to me; but I am very well aware that many people (gay and straight) are not okay with it. Mostly, because they don’t understand it. I have a lot of friends who want me to be straight, because I make sense in their world as a straight woman. I have other friends who have an easier time thinking of me as gay. Whatever. I don’t really ever feel the need to correct them, as I don’t have a better answer for what I am. I am both those things and neither of those things. I hate the term bisexual. It implies “two”, as if I have some sexually carnivorous appetite and wouldn’t be happy with either a man or woman, without having one of both. The honest truth is, it is very rare that I am truly attracted to anyone of either sex, but when I am- they have been everything from a petite little pixie to a lumberjack of a man to a bubbly, blonde bombshell to a man in makeup. There’s no real rhyme or reason; it’s just chemistry (and sometimes, timing).
Anyway, I go back and forth about how “openly” to express this part of my life. The truth is, with the exception of my grandparents, everyone who is important to me either knows already from discussing it with me first hand, or has been given an ample amount of opportunity to be clued in and just rather not acknowledge it (my dad is one of the latter, for instance). I am fine living like this most days. I wouldn’t even really know how to go about “coming out of the closet”, because for me it would be like, “Um. I like girls. And I like boys. But only sometimes. Only when they’re not all being stupid. Mostly I just like being by myself.”
I can’t imagine that being very effective or climatic.
I’ve generally decided that I’ll just live my life and whatever happens, happens. If I fall in love with a woman and I want to her to meet my grandparents, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Usually that seems like the best plan, as long as I am no longer shutting off my own romantic options because I am terrified of how other people will take it. As long as I am living as the truest version of myself possible, then it doesn’t really matter how many people “know”.
But other times I think about impressionable young minds watching me and learning from me and being effected by me, even when I’m not paying attention. And those are the times I think I would want to come out; to make it easier for someone else down the line, to save them the years of self-destruction and self-loathing and guilt I put myself through because of the lies I heard from that church and my mom’s side of the family. I don’t know if I will ever do that. I might do well enough with just not being ashamed of who I am, and being honest if someone cares enough to ask. That’s pretty much what Jo did, and it was still enough to influence my life. I guess the overall moral here is “To thine own self be true,” and the rest will work itself out.
So, to make a long story short: I am grateful to Jo for her positive influence on me. Her life meant something to my life. Not just because she was kind and loved me. But because she loved herself, too.
And now, life goes on, I guess. The cycle continues. I walk outside, and see my front lawn looks the same as it always has…but I will never again hear her voice. I laugh with my grandpa about his fascination with social media….but I’ll never smell her perfume. I will hit the publish button on this blog and it will immediately be sent to her email address…but she won’t ever get to read it.
I can worry about my self-image and my eating habits next week. Right now, I am simply grateful to be alive. I am grateful for Joell.
And I am grateful for you, too.
But why dontcha get outta here and tell someone you love how much you care about them? While you still can.
Rest in peace, JoJo. I love you to the moon and back.
Joell Gange. 1/15/68- 2/16/13