LIFE THROUGH DEATH
A parent’s death forces a new look at life
When my father’s spreading cancer set a very short timer on how long he had to live, i wanted to spend as much time with him as i could. Though i had left my childhood stomping ground of Prince Edward island in my 20s, as so many LgBT people from rural and small-town backgrounds do, my relationship with my father had grown stronger and mutually more supportive as i grew older. The guy’s guy who had grown frustrated trying to win his only son over to his passion in cars, boats and outdoor endeavours had gradually developed an interest in talking about my relationships and gay life in general. So last year i shuffled my workload to spend a couple of months at his side, including his five last, painful weeks in the palliative care unit of a small healthcare centre in the heart of potato-growing country.
in doing this, i certainly wasn’t exceptional. in fact, studies have found that LgBT people are more likely than their straight counterparts to step in as caregivers when a family member is ailing. in a 2004 survey of older LgBT new Yorkers, one-third reported that family expected more of them because they were LgBT, and perceived them to have fewer explicit family responsibilities, “even though this assumption was often false.” at a gut level, at least, our behaviour seems to have vindicated the scientific theory, which i’ve always thought was half-baked, that the evolutionary purpose of homosexuality was providing childless caregivers-at-large to advance the family genes, if not their own.
in practice, though, LgBT people face particular strains when dealing with the decline and death of a parent at a time when there’s no shortage of trauma. Conflict caused by the declaration or concealment of sexual orientation haunts many relationships to the parent’s last dying breath and, if no sort of closure or healing is achieved, long beyond that. Even where the familial bond is strong, LgBT people often have to step outside their comfort zone to return to places they had long ago disconnected with.
isolated from my chosen family, i faced a pageant of relatives and family friends, all very likeable and supportive atlantic Canadian people, who revealed in their faces that they did not recognize the kid they watched growing up in the somewhat more urbane adult standing by the hospital bed. i often felt like a mystery man, my relationships, professional achievements and personal interests all hidden offstage. on one hand, to not be asked about an absent wife is a friendly shorthand for “Your dad told us you were gay and we are fine with that.” But to not be asked about anything else