A Death in the Family
I’m a couple of days late on my informal schedule for posting a new column. Typically I would have written on Sunday, but my sister-in-law (spouse’s sister) passed away Saturday evening and the last few days were, as one might expect, complex. Also, the experience provided some texture to the post I’d intended to write anyway.
Coincidentally, another sister-in-law (brother’s wife) died not quite two weeks previously, and it was that death, and the subsequent behavior of that part of my family, that had already been on my mind. But let me provide you with a bit of backstory. I have been publicly transitioned for almost seven years now. I had seen or spoken to my brother only one time (in the wake of a grave injury I had suffered) over that span of time. I gather, from the rude and hateful behavior of his son and daughter that all of them consider me an embarrassment and a disgrace to the family, as does my father. My mother’s side of the family hasn’t behaved that way at all. Meanwhile, my in-laws generally fall under, in my spouse’s words, “don’t agree with what I’m doing” (as if it were an action and not a condition) which reflects her view as well. But how they allow that disagreement to affect their behavior varies, from “you have to live your life as you see fit” to complete rejection.
Both of the deceased had been ill for a long time. My brother’s wife afflicted with a rare condition, my wife’s sister felled by breast cancer. The coincidental timing has given me much to think about. In the former case, being aware of their low opinion of me I had assumed I might not be welcome but the possibility existed that my mother might need a ride to the service if she felt like going. So I sent a message to my brother’s son-in-law (my only direct source of contact) asking whether I’d be completely unwelcome, even in that circumstance. His reply was kindly worded but, when the message was boiled down to it’s essential meaning, it was “you guessed it.” As close as one could get, while being somewhat civil, to saying “you’re not welcome.”
By contrast, because my wife has a (frankly undeserved in some cases) emotional investment in her family members, we put up with the hostile ones in order to keep in close contact with her sister throughout her decline. But we live further away than any other of her close family, so the visits were on the order of weekly, not daily. Others, frankly self-important types who like to be congratulated on their attentiveness, hovered over her for weeks. On a recent visit, a visitor who was unknown to me ask my wife about who I was, and her other sister (not the sick one) said “That’s her it, whatever.” My wife, no fan of my transition but also not cruel, ask her politely to not call me “it” to which that sister replied by storming out of the room declaring loudly “I’ll be back when it leaves.” while both her sisters were in tears over the conflict. That’s the sort of attitude a few of them have, but I digress slightly with that anecdote.
In any case, there was some edginess about how things would go over the few days after her death. Would their be more confrontation, more unnecessary drama? All the funeral related activities were held at a small, rural Southern Baptist church (actually, the one in which we were married) and it’s fair to say that of all the people I crossed paths with over the last two days, over 95% would have preferred that I not be on the property. Over the course of two days, no one said a negative word directly to me (other than the predictable pattern of deadnaming me), even when I used the (single occupancy) ladies room. However, for the most part almost none of them spoke to me at all. It’s a microcosm of my entire pre-transition life, in some ways. Show people your reality, and they stigmatize and shun you. Put on the mask and pretend to be what they want to see and they will interact with you – but not the real you.
I’m mulling now, and likely will be for some time, is it ultimately better to be tolerated but shunned, or simply disinvited entirely? Be among people who don’t take you seriously, don’t respect your name or your identity, don’t consider the impact of things like how your name appears in the obituary or the pronouns they use? Or to simply be excluded altogether? And what do these attitudes imply for the day when it is me who has deceased? Will anyone recognize my chosen name? Will anyone respect my identity? Already I’m having to consider how I can pre-arrange things to take away some of the opportunities to disrespect me in death. Such is the world we live in. May it get better.
Photo by: Scary Side of Earth