Essay: ‘Until death do us part’

Eva Tenuto of the TMI ProjecfBY EVA TENUTO
TMI

The amount of money people blow on weddings has always struck me as insane. Me, I’d rather have a potluck barbecue and save my cash for real estate. So, naturally, the last thing I’d ever dreamed of becoming was a wedding planner.

But on June 24th, 2011, when same-sex marriage became legal in New York State, I was in the midst of my own monumental moment. With a history of openly dating men and secretly dating women, for the first time ever, at 38 years old, I was enjoying a same-sex relationship publicly. Everyone in my life knew about Julie and they all adored her. I wanted to celebrate coming out with all of New York State, so I launched a same-sex wedding planning business.

It was easy to put aside my mixed feelings about weddings and marriage because my new business was also a welcome distraction from something painful in my life: a month earlier, my 94-year-old Grandmother was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Granny wasn’t one of those quiet, retiring little old ladies, at least not as long as I knew her. Before I was born, when my alcoholic grandfather was still alive, she spent years keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself. But once she was on her own at 71, she let it rip, and made up for lost time.

We were always close, and as I got older, I felt I could confide in her. Despite her being Catholic, I even found the courage to confess to her that in my early twenties, while deep in the throes of alcoholism, I’d had an abortion.

I admitted being afraid she’d judge me. “I may be religious,” she assured me, “but I’m not stupid!” And she gave me a hug.

For some reason, I was even more scared to tell her I was involved with Julie.

“Granny,” I finally announced, “I’m seeing a woman.”
She sat quietly for a moment, with a strange look on her face. Oh, no, was she having a heart attack? After a pregnant pause, she asked brusquely, “Does she drink?”
“Uh, no,” I said, trembling.
“Well, that’s good!” she responded. End of story.

Granny knew first hand the devastation of living with an alcoholic, and was so proud that I’d broken the cycle. She came to my recovery celebrations every year. Once she was assured Julie wasn’t a drunk lesbian, she welcomed her into our family with open arms. Maybe she’d even be open to the idea of us marrying some day.

That summer Granny kept getting weaker. She still insisted on doing the laundry, the dishes and making dinner. But then, at the end of August, she fell. She took a turn for the worse and then rapidly continued in that direction. She could no longer walk, go to the bathroom or eat on her own.

“I think today is the day,” my mother said when she called, one afternoon.

It wasn’t the first time we thought it was “the day.” The entire family had gathered around Granny’s bed many “final” times before. On many occasions, Julie –- doing double duty as my graphic designer –- and I had to stop frantically working on the wedding planning business to rush over.

But that day I found Granny staring ahead into a place only she could see. In the days prior, she’d been having visions of babies and dogs. She’d also looked at me in what I am telling myself was a hallucination, and declared, “You are a has-been!”

That day she wasn’t calling me names or wondering why an imaginary German Shepherd was lying next to her. She was just gazing ahead, presumably into the afterlife. I said goodbye to her when I went to bed that night. I couldn’t imagine possibly finding her still breathing in the morning.

The next day, at 7 a.m., I peeked into her bedroom prepared to find her still and breathless. Then she whipped her head around and snapped in my direction, “No one got me breakfast yet!” My heart raced. I felt as if I’d just been yelled at by a zombie. “I want oatmeal!” she demanded. Seriously? I thought she was going to be having breakfast in Heaven with dogs and babies But instead I made her oatmeal. She insisted it wasn’t oatmeal and that I was a liar.

It went on like this for weeks. One day she’d appear to be on the mend, and the next, was completely comatose. Hospice warned us that this was common. Even though she was now just 70 pounds, it could still have been months before she passed. I should have been relieved that she was still with us, but all I felt was out of control. I wondered if I’d ever know which “goodbye” or “I love you” was the last. I felt as if I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

Good thing I had my big gay distraction. When I wasn’t caring for Granny, I kept myself busy signing up for wedding expos, having Julie create marketing materials and order business cards in mass quantity. In this frenzy, it hadn’t occurred to me that even though I was glad gay marriage had been legalized, gay or straight, receptions are booze fests –- not the ideal working environment for a sober alkie like me. But my common sense and obsession were not on speaking terms. I latched onto the challenge, which rivaled the emotional rollercoaster of watching Granny slowly and painfully exit this world.

After a few weeks, I took a suggestion from hospice. “We are all going to be just fine, Granny,” I told her. “It’s okay if you’re ready to go.” To which she replied, “Where the hell do you think I am going? I can’t get out of bed!” She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind, and in a way, she was right. I had.

Reeling, I dived into my computer for some more desperately needed distraction. And there, before me, was a goldmine: an email addressed to Julie and me, from an acquaintance in PR read: I’m planning a publicity stunt for a company. We need a same-sex couple to beat the current Guinness World Record for the most bridesmaids. We want you two to get married on November 11th, 2011 at 11:11am with 111 bridesmaids! We will pay for everything!

Whoa. That was crazy! Who’d want to get married that way?

Um, me –- that’s who. My entrepreneurial wheels started turning, my addict mind started latching, and Julie hadn’t even agreed yet. Even though she was excited that same-sex marriage was now legal, she has been clear that while she wants to be with me forever, she also wants no part of the institution of marriage. But that didn’t stop me.

“Honey, did you get that email?” I asked her, trying to camouflage my interest in a forced-casual delivery.

“Yeah –- it’s nuts!” Julie answered.

“But honey, right when I’m starting the gay wedding planning business!” I said. “The exposure! The inspiration we’ll be for all the teeny-tiny lesbians all over the world! And they’re going to pay for everything. Please honey? Please?”

Julie hates to disappoint me. Later, as I was driving to my mom’s for my next overnight shift with Granny, Julie called. “Honey,” she asked, “will you marry me on November 11th?” Of course, I said yes.

At my overnight with Granny, I got to tell her about the wedding while she was in a coherent state. With tears in her eyes, she squeezed my hand and said, “Will I be able to go?” Knowing she would surely be gone by November dampened my excitement. “No matter what,” I told her, “I am sure you will be there.”

The next morning I went back home after a sleepless night of waking up to help Granny, followed by hours of Googling women’s white tuxes and bridesmaids’ dresses I wouldn’t mind seeing 111 times over. So much for a potluck barbecue and a real estate investment. The first legal gay bridezilla of New York State was born, and she didn’t have time to sleep.

Neither did her girlfriend. When I got home, Julie’s neck was bright red and blotchy -– a sure sign she’d been obsessively thinking.

“I can’t do it!” she blurted. “It’s not sitting right with me. If we get married, I want it to be real and romantic, not a publicity stunt. I’m sorry, honey.”

Even though a short while later I would realize that what my girlfriend did was loving -– and that after planning three weddings, I would burn all 5,000 business cards in a bonfire -– at the time, all it did was land me back into a world where my Granny, a woman who’d loved me for all 38 years of my life, was leaving me. Julie was cutting off the lifeline to my distraction, and I was furious.

“Well, if you ever ask me to marry you again,” I threatened, “make sure you mean it.”

Honestly, I didn’t want to do the stupid 111 bridesmaids wedding either, but I couldn’t let go on my own. Holding on took me for a ride away from death and mourning and deep sadness. Now, I’d have to face those things.

On September, 20, 2011, Granny passed away still thinking Julie and I were getting married.
I’d convinced myself that all I would feel when Granny passed was relief, that I would feel fully satisfied with the number of times I’d said I love you, the way I’d cared for her, and the conversations we got to have –- that I’d be ready to let go. But I was wrong. Nothing could prepare me for the loss that accompanied her passing, the shift in the feeling of being here on Planet Earth with out her.

Now a year later, I’m so glad my girlfriend loved me enough to do what she knew was right in her heart. Without 111 bridesmaids distracting me, I got to be there with the one woman who mattered at that moment -– Granny. I got to be by her side, fully, until the last minute, until the last breath. Until death do us part.

Eva Tenuto is the director of TMI Project – a memoir writing workshop in which real-life stories are shaped into well-crafted monologues and performed by the people who lived them. TMI Project will be holding a retreat this year for Women’s Week in Provincetown at Sage Inn and Lounge.

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