A month ago, my life partner, Stan Thornburg, passed away. It was not a good death--in fact, I am not convinced (as most people seem to be) that it happened in a way that was simply to be expected. I am convinced that his suffering, particularly during the last four years, and mine as I attempted to ease his, was much more traumatic and profound than it needed to be.
This post is for people who care about me and want to know how to be helpful to me. It might also be for people who loved Stan and want to know more about what he cared about.
Most people who know me knew something about Stan--but most of you, even those who know me well, did not understand completely what we meant to each other. Our relationship was hidden, for complicated reasons.
What you need to know is this. When we met thirty years ago, it was love at first sight. Not romantic love--neither of us was open to that, given our other commitments--but an immediate sense of connection and a strong desire to know each other. That turned into eleven years when we were each other's special friend. The five years that we lived in the same city, we met for breakfast weekly, watched movies together with friends, found lots of opportunities to be in groups together. The six years that we lived apart we wrote letters, and spent whole days together in Portland and Ann Arbor during occasional visits. Our deep conversations were something we both counted on; we saved up our best stuff for each other because that was where it found a home.
Nineteen years ago, when my marriage was ending, I went through a period of profound spiritual awakening. I was spending a lot of time in contemplative prayer and feeling deeply connected to the divine. During that time, I read a book--"Will and Spirit," by Gerald May--that helped Stan and me to find words to identify what we had come to mean to each other. We both knew that despite our circumstances, the love between us was more profound than most people ever experience. That was simply true.
We both knew that, under different circumstances, the love between us would be the best basis for marriage that either of us could imagine. And we both wanted that.
But though my marriage was ending, Stan did not feel that he could end his. His children were a big part of the reason. The other was his ministry. Stan loved being a minister and was the best minister I have ever known. He loved people more intentionally and selflessly than anyone I have ever met. He had the ability to be a helpful presence to a broad array of people, including people at their very worst or their most needy. And he was gifted with prophetic insight that helped people and organizations become unstuck, even though this frequently got him in trouble. Stan never stopped worrying that if he ended his marriage, all the careful work that he had done in the church would be lost.
I never agreed with him on this. We had countless conversations about it. But it was his choice to make. My choice, ultimately, was to follow what it meant to love this man. I chose to love him in the ways that were open to me, though I never stopped wanting circumstances to be different.
I was not Stan's mistress. We did not have an affair. I was his partner, and he was mine. For all the things that were denied to us, we were more connected than most married couples. We talked about everything. He helped me with my struggles dealing with my family of origin. I made deep commitments to both his children. We influenced each other's thinking about the church's place in the world, and about nurturing God at work in people both inside and outside the church, and about how the church's treatment of LGBTQ people needed to change. I pastored youth in his last two churches. He listened to my insecurities about my work and nurtured my desire to inspire people who are marginalized. We talked through his sermon preparation and I edited his writing. I talked through my own speeches and articles with him. I planned worship services with him. He taught me how to perform weddings. We watched and talked about movies and he loved reading my reviews.
We knew people inside the church community would find our relationship threatening so we made sure that it never endangered anyone. That cost us dearly. And still, every few years someone would raise concerns about our relationship and he would be called to account for it. (Sometimes I would too, though even then I was generally the last to be consulted, if at all.) This hurt us both, especially since we were both quite aware of how much the church benefited from our connection and how much it cost us both to live with such a limited version of what we both wanted. Aside from a very few close friends, I don't recall anyone ever showing concern for what Stan's marriage must be costing him, though it seemed to me that those costs were obvious.
Six years ago, Stan's health began to fail. I was and am convinced that this was due to the strain of all that he tried to hold together for the sake of his ministry. Three-and-a-half years ago, this culminated in an eight-week hospitalization. At the end of that hospitalization, Stan lost his ministry under circumstances that still make me heartsick.
The years since then have been a struggle for Stan, and for me. Having lost his ministry and fighting constant health problems, he made known his intention to leave his marriage. Doing so would have been difficult and complex under any circumstances, and Stan needed support that he did not receive. The way that he spent his last years, in a way, confirmed the fears that had led him to make the choices he did. He did not retire; he still had much to give, but his community did not support him in the way he needed in order to continue to give in the way that he still could. My friends outside the church benefited because, even broken, Stan could not stop being a minister.
I loved Stan and cared for him mostly without support, except from his daughter and a few friends. His passing leaves a void in my life that will never be filled. We talked nearly every day for 19 years. He knew me better than anyone. He was the one person with whom I could risk sharing my most unprocessed thoughts. He listened to me and loved me and helped me be a better person. I don't know how to process something as huge as my grief over losing him and over the trauma of these last few years without talking to Stan. And that is all on top of the other losses I have suffered, including the loss of my own ministry inside the church.
I am a strong person. I expect that I will find a way to survive because that is sort of my thing. Before this loss I already took many opportunities to approach suffering with a determination to keep my eyes open for what is there for me to learn. I am afraid and hurt and sad, but not afraid of being hurt and sad.
You might guess, though, that being ignored and discounted is particularly painful for me. My life with Stan has included a lot of that (though never from him) and the loss of him has included lots more.
So even though it feels big and you probably can't think of what to say, it does help to hear that you are thinking of me and that you grieve with me, if you do. If you ask me to let you know what you can do, it's unlikely that I will because I just don't know. But it helps to be remembered in whatever small ways you happen to think of. It helps when you ask how I am doing, even if I can't think of how to answer. A couple of my friends explained that they had learned to just show up and do stuff--and I have definitely found that is the most helpful thing.
And ask me about Stan. I love to talk about him, and about things we shared. I still count myself lucky for having known him so well.