Lay to rest your soul and body
Lay beside your name
Lay to rest your rage
Your hunger and amazing grace.
—Natalie Merchant, “River”
Jim Talley passed away Monday, 15 May 2012, after a lengthy battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. For most in the world, his death has no significance; he was just one of the tens of thousands of people who die daily. Yet, for those who knew him, life will have less humor, less imagination, and less passion. His was a soul that sang full-out, center-stage and in the spotlight. This isn’t surprising, considering that he frequently said he was the 33rd reincarnation of Pan, the Greek God; he greased his ass and slid down a rainbow to get here.
I am among those whose life now has a void, as Jim was my partner and best friend for the last 17 years. His intelligence, his outrageous sense of humor, his love of people, even his endless chatter—I miss them all. Our house, now just my house, is a shell throughout which I can constantly hear his laughter. Even as I go through the most mundane tasks I hear him, insatiable backseat driver that he was, questioning nearly everything, not one of his better qualities—“Why are you doing it that way? Be careful.”
Jim and I met, stereotypically, in a bar, but our encounter was no cheesy bar pick-up. It was afternoon happy hour, and as I sat reading the local free paper, I noticed a handsome, impish man squatting down beside me, asking, “Hi. Who are you?” We talked for five hours that night, and I knew long before those hours were up that I had met someone I wanted in my life.
Still, it was six months before we went on our first date and a year from then that we moved in together. We marked as our “official” anniversary the day we moved in to our first home, which happened to be Halloween, Jim’s favorite holiday. Initially, we continued going to clubs and bars, dinners and parties, but as years passed, we became homebodies, content to enjoy one another’s company, watching tv or engaging in projects around the house. Nights in the bars were replaced by trips to the zoo and museum, and dinners out replaced by scrumptious home-cooked meals. (Jim was a chef by trade when we met.)
Our lives were enviable. It may be easy to dismiss that comment as a grieving husband’s idealized perspective, but I think back over our years together and recall the countless people, gay and straight, who told us, “I wish I could have a relationship like you two have.” Even recently, after Jim had spent six rough weeks in the hospital, one of the nursing assistants looked at the two of us, tears in her eyes, and observed, “You two are so sweet together; it makes me want to cry.”
People who got to know us didn’t see a “gay couple”—they saw two people who completed each other and brought out the best in one another. That I am a teacher at a university is due to Jim’s encouragement, and it was he who insisted I try to get on with the staff at PopMatters. No one could have bragged more about my accomplishments.
This isn’t to imply that he didn’t come with baggage. And a cat. He had issues, like the rest of us, and because of his full-steam ahead approach to life, he tended to express his many anxieties with the subtlety of Medea. He also had a bit of Aunt Clara in him, along with Judy Garland, Lily Tomlin, Ginger Rogers, and a heaping big dose of Moms Mabley. Yet, as erratic as his behavior was at times, the joy he brought to those who knew him outweighed his less rational rants.
Jim and I fought, like other married couples, but he would gleefully point out that we only fought about once a year. It was like an intense, loud annual cleaning of grievances. That is, until a few years ago. We had disagreed over some menial thing, and the disagreement started getting hot when Jim suddenly asked, “Are we about to have our annual fight?”
“Nah,” I replied. “I don’t really feel like it.”
“Me either,” he said, and we calmly talked it out. We never fought again.
I once heard someone say that losing a same-sex partner wasn’t the same as losing a marital partner, because there weren’t the bonds of marriage tying the two together. (And whose fault is that? Not ours). I would invite them to spend an hour in my head; how many times an hour I think of Jim, how often I forget he’s gone and make a mental note to tell him something when I see him, or how frequently I am overcome with a pain through my entire body and mind so severe it takes all my self-control to not break down. (This latter occurrence most often happens in public, hence the control, and seems to be triggered by countless things, from hearing a song on the radio to seeing one of Jim’s favorite things on the supermarket shelf.) There is no doubt in my mind or the minds of those who knew us over the years that my loss is that of a spouse.
The last several months of Jim’s life, unfortunately, were nothing but Hell. He went into the hospital for a three day chemo infusion that proved too strong for his weakened body, which had already fought off cancer twice before. Instead of three days, he was there for seven and a half weeks, followed by a two week stay in a nursing home. He suffered through, among other ailments, a heart attack, abdominal blockage, kidney failure, and c-diff, an abdominal infection that causes horrific diarrhea. That he was able survive all that to come home and return to his joking, singing self is a testament to what a fighter he was.
Every day of the two plus months that he was away from home, I rose early to get to the hospital/nursing home before work and returned immediately afterwards. His stint in the hospital provided me with several insights. First, a good nurse will do more for you and your loved one than a team of doctors. Second, doctors spend an uncomfortable amount of time guessing. Third, and of most importance to the LGBT community, people have progressed more than institutions, so it’s vital to make all the legal arrangements needed to protect your rights, even if there is presently no illness in the family.
Everyone—doctors, nurses, assistants, housekeeping, the check-out lady in the cafeteria—recognized that I was Jim’s spouse and treated me with all the kindnesses thereof. However, when it came to making decisions, the hospital didn’t care how long we had been together. When Jim suffered dementia under the influences of the morphine he was getting, the hospital deferred to me to make critical decisions about his care only because Jim had the foresight to prepare a power of attorney statement and advanced health care directive, both of which named me as the go-to person. Otherwise, even though I was at the hospital eight to ten hours a day and the sole person to whom Jim had relayed his wishes, I would have been left out of decisions about his health care. (I am blessed that Jim’s family didn’t fight us on his health care decisions.) Since the cancer had aged him considerably, Jim looked much older than he was, and twice, nurses asked him if I was his son. Both times, Jim laughed and replied, “No, this is my partner. We’ve been together for 17 years.” Jim was insistent that our relationship be honored.
At the funeral home, Jeff, the funeral director, was gracious enough to refer to Jim as my husband, and he apologized continuously for the fact that I had to be excluded from all of the legal aspects of the arrangements. Jim’s wonderful sister Mamie, a rock of support throughout our nightmare, had to sign all the legal paperwork, even though it was my check that was paying for everything. We were told that once Jim’s ashes were ready, they would be given to Mamie, his “legal” next of kin. However, Jeff was quick to add, “Who she gives them to once you all walk out the door is your business.” He is resting now in our study beside a framed copy of his sixth grade school picture.
When the hospice chaplain asked Jim how long he had been “out”, he told her, “Oh, I didn’t have a closet to come out of.” Since he struggled to keep secrets the entire time I knew him, that’s not surprising. He was an intelligent, funny gay man who helped teach his corner of the world a little bit about what being a gay man meant. As a teen during an era when homosexuality was vilified as much as Communism and being gay meant repeatedly getting the crap beaten out of you, Jim was open and proud, and from what I’ve heard, having a hell of a good time all over the city of Louisville. Recently, I went to our city’s Pride event and remarked to my friend Liz that it was amazing how many teens were there. Jim helped pave the road for them.
Still, anti-gay marriage straights could also learn a lesson from his illness. Because we weren’t allowed to get married here in Kentucky, the state considered me Jim’s roommate and couldn’t use any of my income in determining his ability to pay for care. Since he couldn’t work, he qualified for Medicaid, so those who opposed our marriage paid millions in tax dollars for Jim’s healthcare. Of course, if I could have married Jim and put him on my insurance, I’d now be like many straight couples, declaring bankruptcy due to the deductibles. So, thanks to Kentucky’s homophobes: you saved us—and cost yourselves—a lot of money.
Rest in Peace, Jim
My life from hereon will be different; I’ll adjust to the quiet in the house and shopping/cooking for one, just as I will eventually learn how to take care of Jim’s overgrown garden. I suppose dating is something that could happen in the future, which Jim encouraged, although I haven’t been “on the market” in almost two decades and wouldn’t have a clue what to do. For now, though, I still say “we” when talking, as in “We always use Product X”, which will have to become “I use…”, and I still have DVDs that I haven’t watched, because we were supposed to watch them together, which I’ll eventually pop into the DVR.
One way in which Jim and I differed from many couples was that we didn’t sleep together. Jim talked in his sleep, and I toss like a Mexican jumping bean. What’s more, he could only sleep with the TV on, while I like quiet at night, so he slept on the sofa in front of the TV and I slept in the bedroom. Each night of the 17 years we were together, I would turn out the light and blow him a kiss, loud enough for him to hear in the other room. I still do.