On the 27th day, I’m grateful for Heather, and the things she taught me.
A long time ago, I was a 19-year-old Marine, and I was in love with a fellow Marine named Heather. We were an unlikely pair. She was a liberal Catholic from Montana. I was a conservative Methodist from Mississippi.
We were inseparable. One weekend I brought her to Byhalia, to see where I grew up. We then went to Oxford, where The University of Mississippi is, and talked about how cool it would be to live there when we got out of the Marines. For 28 years now, I can’t go to Oxford without thinking about walking across the grounds of William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak with her that crisp fall day. She was filled with derision at the monument to the Confederate dead that was on the town square, on the lawn of the courthouse. As an aside, that monument finally came down last year.
We talked a lot about children, and figured between my round head and her dimples, we would make some pretty babies. We talked about marriage, and she told me about the examples of strong women she had in her life, and that I shouldn’t expect her to be June Cleaver sitting at home making dinner.
When we were dating, Heather drank. A lot. And the closer we got, the more she drank. It was a huge problem in our relationship. Drinking has never been really important to me, and drunk people annoy me in the way they can only annoy sober people. Her birthday was coming up, and I had planned a great day for us to spend together. We would go to the art museum, then a picnic afterwards.
She didn’t show up. She had gone out with her friends the night before to celebrate and gotten incredibly drunk, and then overslept. Actually, that isn’t quite true – she just didn’t remember that we were doing anything. I was, in a word, forgotten.
It’s hard to remember what life was like in those days before cell phones. Her roommate told me what happened and that Heather was passed out in their barracks room, and that she would tell Heather I had called when she woke up. I sat in the lobby of the barracks, waiting for her to show up. Just after lunch, she showed up, looking like hell.
She apologized profusely. I was royally pissed. But I could never be mad at her for long. We went for a long walk, and then I took her back to the barracks and we agreed I would take her to the art museum tomorrow instead.
And we did. It was a lovely fall day. We walked through the museum grounds, hand in hand. I saw my first Warhol that day. And when we were in the parking lot, she told me she had something she wanted to talk to me about. We went to a diner she liked and that we ate at a lot, and then she took my hand and told me she wasn’t going to be able to marry me, because she was a lesbian. She had seen how much she had hurt me the day before, and knew that if she didn’t tell me now, it would only hurt me more later. I had been her last shot at trying to be straight, she said, and apparently, wanting to be straight wasn’t enough.
I wish I could say how accepting I was. I wish I could say I saw her coming out to me as the gift that it was, that I recognized she was putting her safety and her career in the Marines in my hands, that she loved me enough to tell me the truth about who she was.
But I didn’t handle it well. I mean, I am Southern enough I wasn’t rude, but I was hurt and confused by it all. It wasn’t just breaking up with someone. Instead, it felt like they were gone forever.
When we got back to the barracks, I went for a long walk to process. Everything I knew, everything I had been taught about sexuality told me that being gay was a sin. Everything I knew about Heather told me she was one of the kindest, best people I knew. It was my first real ethical crisis – do I stay true to the religion I grew up in, or do I stay true to the person I knew and (still) loved?
In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a point where Jim, the escaped slave, is captured, and Huck is faced with a choice: He can break the law and go against the everything he had been taught about religion, morality, and racial norms and try to rescue Jim. Or he can be safe, and follow the things he had been taught, and let them take Jim.
He knew what he had been taught. He knew what the preacher and the Sunday School teacher would have told him the right thing to do was. But he also knew he loved Jim, and that Jim loved him. And he believed that to throw in with Jim would damn him to hell forever – it would be the point of no return.
He came to a conclusion: “Alright then. I’ll go to hell!” And he helped Jim escape.
I decided that I was throwing in with Heather. I knew her, had loved her, and would support her, even if I would not be able to be her partner or her lover. And if it meant betraying the religion I grew up with, then so be it. If I was going to Hell, it was going to be while loving Heather.
I went back to the barracks and told her I loved her, that I would always love her, even if it meant we couldn’t be together, and that I would always be on her side.
Over the next six months or so, she introduced me to her friends – other Marines who were also lesbians, people I had known but who were not out. This was the first circle of LGBT folks I had ever been invited into. They were so accepting of me, answered so many of my questions – even the ones that were unintentionally rude – so loving toward me. I think I freaked some of them out, but they knew I was important to Heather, so I was accepted.
Our marriage plans ended the day she admitted to both me and herself that she was a lesbian, but our friendship stayed intact. She and I were the same age, and we watched each other celebrate milestones – she had first a partner, then a wife and then children and grandchildren.
She continued to struggle with alcohol the whole time she was in the Marines, back in those days when being Queer and in the Marines put you in danger of being arrested, but after she got out, she eventually got sober and became an EMS worker, then went back to school and got her RN and eventually fulfilled her dream of becoming a trauma flight nurse on the air ambulance.
The last time we saw each other face to face was in the early 2000’s, but we stayed in touch – first by email and then Facebook. When I was in NC, she supported my work there as a monthly donor – one of the first, actually.
About 5 years ago, she ended up with breast cancer. They did all the right things and the normal treatments and it went into remission – and while she was in remission her granddaughter was born.
But it came back. She died in December of 2018.
Heather was my first of so many things: My first liberal friend. My first feminist friend. My first Catholic friend. My first Queer friend. And the beginning of the end of the religious certainty of my youth.