"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter around it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town, or I fought at Mechanicsville, or Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."
DuBois captures so elegantly the experience of being "other," of being a trigger for the discomfort of others.
I have many experiences in my life of being the "other," of feeling myself the outsider. But never more than in the nearly four months that have passed since I lost my life partner, Stan Thornburg.
As I have written ( http://opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com/2014/05/complicated-grief.html ), Stan and I loved each other deeply for 30 years, and for the last 19 years we privately related to each other as life partners. Stan remained in his marriage for complicated reasons (though he was long separated and nearly divorced from his wife when he died), but we functioned as partners. Most people who knew us knew we shared some kind of special connection, but the true extent of it was closeted while Stan was alive.
The morning after Stan died, I realized that I had no more will to keep our relationship in the closet. I had never wanted that to begin with, and I was facing not only the loss of him but the loss of our hopes to finally live together in a marriage. The chasm of my grief was deep, and I could not bear the thought of facing it alone and in secret. The closet is no place for joy, and it is definitely no place for a grief this big.
It came to me as an insight that it was up to me to model for people how to think about our relationship. Stan had done some work to lay the groundwork too (though not as much as I wish he had): he had left specific instructions that I should have the place of prominence at his memorial, and he had spoken to varying degrees to family members and others close to him about my importance to him. He had been living with me for a year-and-a-half during which I supported him and cared for him under extremely difficult circumstances.
So I was very clear from the beginning of my grief journey that I had lost my life partner. I have persisted in speaking from that experience.
And I have been met mostly with silence so absolute that it can only be described as shunning.
Not from Stan's daughter or from my own circle of friends. Though my family of origin does not function as a haven for me, I do have many people out there who care for me and who express their concern with love. I am grateful for that. But very few of those who have reached out to me are part of the community that Stan and I served together and for whose sake we sacrificed our desire to be together as a couple. Actually, the closer people are to Stan and the church community, the less likely it is that I have heard from them AT ALL in the nearly four months since Stan died. Even people that I would typically hear from, who previously often commented on things I post on Facebook or communicated with me in other casual ways, have stopped communicating with me even in those ways.
I am left to speculate about the reasons, since I am so cut-off. But my strong instinct is that I am a problem for that community. And I am the kind of problem that people would prefer to ignore.
There is no box in which to put my relationship with Stan. He was a pastor whom they respected, and he was in a marriage. I expect that it is difficult for some to understand how it can be okay that Stan and I were partners. I imagine many of these people deeply wish I would shut up about my relationship with him. (In fact, a couple of people have anonymously written to me telling me so.) It is simpler to just ignore me--in fact, often that happened in terms of my role in Stan's ministry while Stan was alive. I actually have a lot of experience with being overlooked on that score.
The lurking question that DuBois identifies--How does it feel to be a problem?-- isn't actually being asked in my case. No one evinces curiosity about how it feels to me to be a problem. Their silence tells me they just wish I would go away.
Nevertheless, I undertake to describe what is like to be a problem. As I have all along, I describe my experience because I need to, but also because it feels important to do so.
It is like being erased. I have just lost the person I talked to every day, the person who knew me so well that every conversation was a continuation of a longer and ongoing conversation. We shared a long history of working together on each other's projects. We talked through Stan's sermons and articles, and my speeches and articles. I edited his work. He helped me strategize about my work with minority lawyers and law students. I understood more deeply than anyone the things he was proud of, the writing projects he still wanted to do, the hopes he still carried. And hardly anyone wants to know. Hardly anyone even acknowledges that I have lost anything at all.
I worked alongside Stan as a minister for 19 years. We knew and worked with many of the same families. We spent evenings at their homes, or played cards with them at church retreats. I played music with them and took their kids on trips to Ashland. And now these same people, the ones who have the best basis for appreciating what we meant to each other and the depth of loss that I must be carrying, don't communicate with me at all. If they see me in person or my name on a Facebook dialogue, they may not acknowledge me, or they may say an awkward hello but not acknowledge that I am grieving.
I know that my very existence is a problem. It would be easier for the community if I had never spoken up about the depth of my relationship with Stan. Perhaps many feel ready to judge that there was something wrong with what occurred between us. Perhaps some think I am lying. I don't know because they are not asking me. And I don't know how they can judge without hearing my story--or really, without walking in my shoes.
I don't have any regrets, nor any shame. I do walk in my shoes, and I know that the deep connection that Stan and I shared saved both our lives. I knew then and I know now that the community that we served (and for whose sake we sacrificed) benefitted a great deal from the love that grew between us. As time went on, nearly every sermon or speech that either of us gave and every moment either of us spent listening and caring and being deeply present with others reflected work we did together.
So, I am suffering more than the terrible loss of the one I loved most. I am suffering the pain of being erased.
I realize there are lots of possible reasons for silence. Perhaps you feel awkward. Perhaps you are angry with me, or with Stan. Perhaps you feel guilty for not saying something sooner.
My guess, though, is that if you decide now or at any future moment to express sincere concern for me, you will be met with the gratitude and relief that most grieving people express when someone acknowledges and expresses sorrow about the fact that the lonely journey they are making must indeed be a painful one. As I understand better than I ever did before, grief is a lonely journey for everyone. Just not this profoundly lonely.