Tuesday, August 10, 2010

REMEMBERING MARCEL

Marcel, with Paprikas, at the end of his life - this was taken just days before his death,
when he had already decided he was leaving.

Marcel was a short, slight, eye-glassed, fair-haired boy in high school. He had a plain face, long nose and rather pouty lips. His rather effeminate manner made him the butt of endless teasing by his teenage classmates, macho boys who were all mouth and muscle. His demeanor was quiet, watchful, withdrawn, often rather sullen. But when the kids taunted him beyond what he could bear, he would sometimes flare up, quoting Shakespeare at them in frothing, red-faced tirades that reduced them to fits of laughter, and left him seething with frustration.

"Begone, thou milk-faced fools!" he'd rant, face red and eyes tearing with frustration. He'd follow with a whole section of quotation, verbatim, while they all roared heartlessly.

In the Old Ways, Marcel would have been called "two-spirited". He would have been honored, in some cultures, for carrying the two sides of human nature, the male and the female, within him, thus being doubly blessed. In high school, in small town Kelowna in the '60's, he was tormented, for simply being himself, one apart from the herd.

I ran with the popular crowd, but I, too, felt different. My ready laughter, my bouncy personality, hid a secret: a dismal home life with alcoholic parents. I was either cresting a peak of excessive hilarity, or plunging into profound despair. I pretended not to see the raised eyebrows, the dismissive, superior shakes of the head from "normal" kids, who seemed to ingest balance with their morning vitamins. My popularity felt a fragile thing, should the other kids discover who I really was.

I hated how the boys bullied Marcel, though I was not brave enough to stand up to them on his behalf. I'd say "Hi" to him in passing, a greeting he would quietly acknowledge. That was all it took to make him my devoted friend.

He began to shadow my footsteps, meeting me on the way to school in the mornings. From down the street I'd see him trudging towards me, head down, his arms full of books, shoulders hunched protectively in his shabby tan corduroy jacket.

I remember those dark winter mornings, walking to school with an emptiness inside me as big as the sky. At the corner of Richter and Elliot, Marcel would fall in beside me, our boots crunching over the frozen ground, our frozen hearts marching like brave soldiers with no choices towards the brightly lit school. At the lockers, we'd part; I'd merge into the crowd and he would make his solitary way through the rest of the day, till we were released like prisoners by the three o'clock bell.

We didnt talk about our struggles, his persecution, my unhappiness. He fell in beside me again and we walked much in silence, turning off at our respective corners. The trials that drew us together remained unaddressed between us.

There were times when my heart sank at his persistent presence. Once a boy I liked offered to walk home with me, after the three of us had been decorating the gym for a dance. Marcel, flushed and happy from the unaccustomed feeling of being included, chirped "I'll come too!" Later it hurt to remember that he caught and understood the look that flashed between me and the boy, and how he turned off at the first side street and made his lonely way through the falling dusk.

But mostly, I was kind, and he was my loyal ally, a quiet steady supporter.

Kelowna was a church-going "respectable" community, about ten years behind the times in 1964. We attended a Catholic high school, which one might have thought would not tolerate bullying among the students. It was a time of strict mores, and following the norm. "What the neighbors will think" was highly important, and neither Marcel nor I filled the bill, he because he did not act enough like a boy, me because I acted too much like a girl. My dating, my flamboyant facade, kept me at risk of being considered "fast", though in truth I was a babe in the woods, and a virgin when I married, likely due to Early Trauma By Nuns:) I was constantly at Mass praying, since I was always in a "state of sin" for thoughts, feelings, dreams over which I had no control. The nuns assured the students these were "occasions of sin" that would send them straight to hell if they died in the night. But it was worse for boys - it was whispered if they committed sin by touching, they could actually "go crazy" - their lives would become unmanageable.

It is a wonder any of us managed to procreate at all!

Discipline was so strict at Immaculata that once during choir practice, Sister fell off her stool and onto the floor and none of us broke ranks or made a peep, beyond one, single collective indrawn gasp. We were trained to be silent and obedient, and in silent disbelief, we looked at her lying on the floor, a source of angry power reduced to crumpled human proportions. We felt as horrified as if Jesus had fallen off his cross. Sister rose up, with dignity, climbed back up on the stool, her wimple crooked, her expression fierce, and we shakily carried on with the next verse.

I spent Saturday nights necking in the back of '64 Chevvies, and Sunday mornings singing in the choir, my confused eyes looking out from under the brim of my brushed tan sailor hat, my soul at a point equidistant from hell and heaven. My white gloves, though, were immaculate, primly drawn to the wrist, one hand modestly folded within the other.

I alternated between wanting to be a nun and wanting to be the mother of six. A faceless husband figured only peripherally in this dream, once the beautiful wedding was over. Life was waiting up ahead, in glorious Technicolor, once I reached the magic status of adulthood, when I would finally know what to do. A picket fence, milk bottles on the porch, (they still did that in those days), and babies in high chairs would make it all come right. It would be perfect.

Meanwhile, Eyes watched everywhere from behind lace curtains. My heart sank at grave admonitions from Grandma, because Mrs. Long or Miss Hicks or the Bennett sisters had seen me laughing too loudly on the street, or, worse, Riding with some Boy in a Car.

Through high school, those unseen eyes were my judges, and the feeling that I never measured up I hid behind the jokes and the "I dont care" attitude.

Times when I was hurting the most, Marcel would quietly fall in beside me, walking home.

"Hi."
"Hi."
"How's it goin'?"
"Hangin' in."

We never talked about our pain, but his silent presence was a comfort to me. Only much later in life did I realize the sensitivity he displayed, understand that he must have watched me, had seen the feelings I thought I was hiding. Never would either of us have spoken unkindly to the other. We were adrift together on an unfriendly sea, and our boat was leaking faster than we could bail.

I was on student council, involved in everything, and Marcel came along on my coattails, grabbing whatever crumbs of inclusion he could from the edge of the crowd. The kids teased that he "follows Sherry around like a puppy dog". I thought I was being kind to him, befriending someone so socially un-cool, by tolerating his constant presence. Only when I was older would I realize the gift he gave me, standing by me in silent loyalty, through those painful years, steadfast, asking for nothing in return.

None of us understood, in those years, that Marcel was years ahead of us all in terms of his own inner development. Because he lacked social connection, he was forced onto his own resources. He was a scholar, reading Shakespeare for pleasure. He listened to classical music by choice. He wrote, dreamed, thought about life, planned his future, while the rest of us used up megatons of energy having crushes and getting our hearts broken, turning into, as the principal joked disparagingly, "a two-headed monster, with googly eyes", sitting in the front seats of cars.

Marcel shone when, for a school project called My Dream House, he produced full architectural plans, down to the last specific detail. The rest of us cut pictures out of magazines and glued them on poster board at the last minute. It was obvious Marcel had put hours and hours into his project, time the rest of us were unwilling to spend.

Once I went to his house and he showed me a photograph of himself as a four year old. He was sitting on a bench, one foot up and tucked under the other leg. He had long golden ringlets, and a dress. I didnt comment beyond a murmured "mm-hmm". It felt like he was trying to tell me something, but I didnt know what. I thought perhaps since his parents were European, it may have been their custom to dress small boys that way.

There was no judgment in me. Perhaps because I had felt its sting so often myself. But even more because, if anyone felt unworthy in any human equation, in those years, it was me.
I hated living in a small town, yearning for the anonymity of Vancouver, where I fled right after graduation. I rejected school and the emotional torture kids inflicted on other kids in the name of fitting in. So I refused a scholarship to college (that would have changed my life) and blended happily into the sea of nameless faces taking the bus to work every morning.

Marcel was in the city too, attending university, and once I visited his small apartment. I was impressed at how well he knew himself, and expressed his individuality in his surroundings. He had shelves of great books, he had a wonderful classical music collection, he had a stereo, art on his walls, and a mosaic-topped coffee table he had made himself. He lived like an adult, I marveled. How had he learned this?

My apartment, and my heart, were still a girl's. I had frilly curtains and stuffed animals. With my first paycheque I bought a stuffed dog. The first piece of "art" on my wall was a black velvet painting of a puppy with tears in his eyes.

Marcel was happier in his own skin these days. He was among intellectuals; in university he fit in. Differences, mocked by the pack mentality of teenagers, were now encouraged. The rules had changed; being who you were was everything. Marcel found friends who were like himself, and his life seemed full. He had grown beyond me.

When I moved away, our letters crossed back and forth for a time. In one of them, Marcel wrote that he was homosexual and he hoped telling me wouldnt affect our friendship. It didnt; it was simply a fact I noted. He wrote me a story, on a long scroll I had to unroll, in which a princess despairingly called out "Marry me, Marry me, before I become a spinster," which made me laugh, but also rather aptly described my mindset at the time.

After I was married, he sent baby gifts, a silver mug for Jon, and a little pair of moccasins for Lisa, "to chase the boys in".

When my husband and I moved back to Vancouver, Marcel asked if he and his lover could come over for a visit.

"Of course," I replied. "Great!"

When the guests arrived, the men all sat in the living room, while I prepared tea in the kitchen. As I was carrying it in and pouring it, I noticed a terrible silence had fallen over the room. My husband sat scowling, arms crossed, beard bristling, refusing to speak. I made some forced remarks, tried to smile and draw Marcel and his partner out, but conversation was stilted and very soon they left, Marcel giving me a sad and wondering look as they went down the steps.

"You were not very friendly to our company," I said to my husband, as I closed the door.
"What do you expect, when a man comes calling on my wife?" he snarled.

I was speechless, and then enraged. "Marcel is my friend! He has never been a boyfriend. Besides, he's gay!"

"He still has the equipment," my husband muttered darkly.

When I was older, long divorced and finally at home in my own being, I understood that homophobia exists and that people of gentle hearts constantly have to bang their heads against it in order to simply live their lives. Love is such a private and tender thing between two people. Behind closed doors, we act out our love and our pain, and why should it matter to anyone else with whom we share our deepest selves or how we choose to do it?

I also, by then, knew that Marcel was three hundred times the man my ex-husband was. He knew and accepted who he was - and who I was! - in a way that was simply not available to my ex-husband. But all my life I will remember Marcel's sad look as they left my house that day, and think of what their conversation must have been, as they made their way back to their own world. I didnt hear from him again for three decades.

****** ****** ****** ******

In 2000, I was living on Vancouver Island, and tracked Marcel down through an on-line high school classmate search. He still lived in the city. With joy, we resumed our friendship via email.
"I am overjoyed to hear from my old high school heart throb," he wrote.
"I was your heart throb, Marcel? I'm touched."

"That was before I realized I was gay. I thought I was just a late bloomer. However, if I am a late bloomer, I am somewhere between the last of the chrysanthemums and the last Christmas rose. I live by myself with a furball called Paprikas - he arrived in front of the building a bag of bones, so I took him in. He got his name because he is the color of paprika. Am I happy? Sometimes, when the sun shines. Most of the time I am concerned about my future. Ill health is no joy."

Marcel had severe health issues and could not work. He had been battling an insurance company for disability payments. Insurance companies being what they are, it could withstand the battle longer than Marcel's defeated spirit could. Marcel felt his integrity was being attacked, when he was not believed.
I was going through a bad break-up at the time. Sometimes the email would come from Paprikas, saying his master requested that I write about something other than a whiney woman mourning a lost love. When I sent along a missive on another topic, Marcel returned to my inbox, acerbically remarking, "Perhaps you can still write, after all."

Around that time, Marcel was gay-bashed, his hand broken, in downtown Vancouver. With typical lack of complaint, using two fingers of his remaining hand, he continued to painfully tap out emails to me.
He identified his attacker, a bus driver, but no charges were brought, "because it is my word against his." Marcel was outraged. He encountered the man on two other occasions in his neighborhood. The man behaved menacingly to him. Marcel felt threatened.
He grew quiet. Sometimes a short email would come from Paprikas saying he was worried about his master, he never smiled any more. I was distracted, still grieving, and didnt grasp the significance of the message. Somehow I thought Marcel would always be at the other end of my emails. We had only just reconnected; we still had so much catching up to do.

In the fall of 2001, after a definitive "claim denied" notice from the insurance company, Marcel planned carefully over three months' time. In early 2002, he held a lavish and perfect dinner for visiting relatives, during which he seemed light-hearted and charming. They said he laughed a lot, reminisced. He almost glowed. Later that night, after they had returned to their hotel, he swallowed most of a bottle of antidepressants and with finality departed from this life.

He left a letter saying he felt terrible deserting his mother, but he simply could not go on.
"I am tired of the struggle, of injustice, and of the rage that makes me feel. I cannot work, and I will not beg. Please find Paprikas a good home. Dont put him through the trauma of going to the SPCA. Please." It was his only wish.

He left instructions that I be called. I was devastated; we had not even begun to finish our conversation. I had only just gotten him back. I also felt guilty. I had had a second chance to be the kind of friend to him that he had always been to me and, preoccupied with my own problems, felt like I had let him down again.
He left a letter for me. "By now you will know that I have left this world. I could not handle life any more. When my claim was denied, I knew this would be my end," the letter said. "I just didnt have the strength to go on. I am sending you a little owl to give you wisdom, a Chinese gentleman to give you tranquillity, and a piece of Inuit sculpture to give you a happy family. Thank you for the too brief renewal of our friendship. All my love, Marcel."

I went to the city to attend the memorial, held in his ninety-year-old mother's apartment. She had buried her husband years earlier, had lost her other son, who died in childhood, and had now outlived her only other son. When the door to her apartment opened, the rooms were filled with relatives and friends who cared about Marcel. Did he know how many people loved him? In their midst, I saw a teensy diminutive woman, under five feet tall, her shoulders bent with age and sorrow. I went over and put my arms around her. The tiny woman felt like a little bird, her arms folded in like wings.

I had written a poem to Marcel when I learned of his death. Crying all the way through, I managed to read it during the memorial. I read it right to him, his ashes resting in an urn on the coffee table, a photograph of him in happier days beside it. I was telling him he meant more to me than I had even known.

The family had had only 24 hours to empty Marcel's apartment. There was no time. Paprikas was taken to the SPCA, Marcel's worst fear. Poor Paprikas.

I returned home. I unearthed the graduation photos of myself and Marcel at seventeen, and hung them in my office, along with the photo above, of him holding his beloved Paprikas, with one of the saddest faces I have ever seen. He had his friend take it just days before he died. His eyes sent me a message of farewell from beyond the veil.

I grieved for a long time. I knew he was, at last, at peace, free of intolerance, phobia and prejudice, free also of the private demons that had plagued his earthly journey. I was grieving my own failure to do better by him this second time around. I needed to believe he was still nearby, was still my guardian angel.

"Can you still hear me, Marcel? I miss you more than I can say. But you have finally been released from this painful, obtuse land of milk-faced fools."
***** ****** ****** ******

3 comments:

  1. Such a sad story, Sherry..poor Marcel, and poor Paprikas! Yet it's a story with uplifitng moments. Knowing the challenge of living with alcoholic parents as I do, the knowledge that you had someone in your corner must have been a wonderful comfort. We moved too often for me to form long-term friendships. Obviously, Marcel cherished you as much as you cherished him...

    Forty years ago, I too, lost a gay friend to suicide..a man who, in trying to be straight, got married and had a beautiful son. When it didn't work out, his wife went to the judge and complained about Dales's unwholesome influence. Back then, being gay was the only reason needed to deny my friend any access to his beloved boy. He moved across country when living without his son became too much for him, and my letter arrived from there before too long. I will always be sorry I was not able to do more.

    I would like to think everything is better for gay parents now, but I know bigotry is alive and well in some factions. Progress seems especially slow in this area.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful, dreadful story...

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  2. Oh, another horribly sad story of heartbreak and loss - your poor friend, being denied his son. A terrible loss for his son, as well. When will this world evolve?!

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  3. A very moving story, Sherry! And so beautifully written, from a deep place of truth. I hope you will publish your memoirs some day!

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