Young, Gay and Single Among the Nuns and Widows
When I graduated from college in Portland, Ore., eight years ago, I dreamed of taking my Spanish major and spirit of adventure and moving abroad, where I would quickly acquire a gay lover who would introduce me to new languages, foods and sex.
Instead, I moved back home to St. Paul, Minn., and into my Irish grandmother’s Catholic senior living apartment, where she and I barely spoke, and where she, at least, didn’t eat. At 90, having lived a long and healthy life, she had decided to die by starvation, and I had decided, at my mother’s request, to be there for her.
My grandmother had moved to the United States from Ireland 65 years earlier. While she spoke with a thick brogue and still chose tea over coffee, she did not glory in tales of the beautiful country she had left behind.
“Sean and Jimmy hated Ireland,” she would often say about my brother and cousin who had studied there in the early 2000s. “It rained the whole time, and their feet were never dry.”
Of course, all I heard is how much they loved their semesters in Ireland; they never complained about having wet feet. But my grandmother had left that dank, gray island brutalized by British imperialism and never looked back. She landed in New York City, the bright and bustling opposite of her slow, sea-washed homeland. She wore pink linen pantsuits and turquoise floral tops, never beige Irish wools or long plaid skirts. She preferred pasta with red sauce to potatoes and brown bread.
And then, having reached 90, she had decided to die with seemingly as much confidence and determination as when she left her home country. Having been healthy her entire life, and still blessed with the full ability to walk, talk and cook, my grandmother stopped eating. There was no discussion in the family as to whether we would force feed her or somehow coerce her into living more years that her body could have managed. She simply remained in her chair, draped in rosaries, waiting for what she believed to be her next step: heaven.
My grandmother’s matter-of-fact death announcement came a month after my college graduation. As the jobless and largely aimless person I was back then (except for the aim to experiences new languages, foods and sex), I became the most obvious candidate to be there for my grandmother during her final weeks.
And so, for the next six weeks, I spent my days shouting over the TV (she was no longer using her hearing aids) as she peacefully lay in bed and starved herself to death. In the morning, we would listen to public radio (or I would — she probably couldn’t hear), and I would make eggs and toast and put them on a plate for her, knowing that she would wordlessly refuse to eat. Within an hour I would be eating them myself.
I would follow a recipe for Irish soda bread I found on yellowing newspaper in her drawer, only to eat half of it myself and pass the rest out to the neighbors, mostly nuns who were thrilled to get bread from a “real” Irish kitchen. In the evening, an old Italian priest would knock on the door and deliver the blessed wafer, which my grandmother took solemnly on her tongue.
I took it too, not because I believe it to be the flesh of Christ but because I knew it was the only way to share a meal with my grandmother. Needless to say, my living situation was not at all conducive to gay sex or most other “sins,” so I had none to confess before swallowing the wafer.
I quickly learned how the human body can function with little food. For several days, we would walk together down the hall to daily Catholic Mass. While the other Mass attendants wore threadbare slippers and even bathrobes, my grandmother, even in the face of death, wore suits splashed with tropical patterns and a glistening gold watch at her wrist.
Far from my gay South American fantasy, I found myself single and surrounded by the pasty white faces of nuns and widows. No men were in my daily life other than the bloody, crucified, well-muscled (and oddly sexy) Christ hanging above the altar.
Despite how close we were, especially as I saw her through to her end, my grandmother didn’t know I was gay, and I didn’t tell her.
Within weeks, she could no longer get dressed or walk down the hall to Mass or leave treats for the neighbors. Her pearly white skin turned dishwater gray, her piercing green eyes became as cloudy as the sea she had once crossed.
Perhaps out of religious fervor, or simply a need to cover up the smell of decay, the priest lit a tall red candle depicting Jesus with his crowned heart aflame popping out of his chest. Like lace curtains barely concealing Irish poverty, the rose-scented candle did little to hide the aroma of death that permeated the room.
One day as my grandmother lay in bed, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher flashed across the screen. Having not spoken in days, my grandmother nodded at Thatcher’s face on the screen and said, “I won’t be seeing her in heaven.”
Like many Irish people, my grandmother had never forgiven Margaret Thatcher for her hard-line stance on keeping the North of Ireland in the United Kingdom, particularly her infamous indifference toward Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike while interned by Thatcher’s government.
I don’t know if my grandmother saw the parallel that like the freedom fighter Sands, she too was on a hunger strike — against aging, in her case.
My grandmother stayed alive for six weeks without food, almost as long as the 66 days Sands lived on hunger strike at age 27. Her death left me again jobless and without purpose, single, living with my parents, and full of that driftless feeling that you’re afraid will never pass when you’re in your early 20s.
I tried my best via Grindr to make it seem like I hadn’t just spent the past several months in a Catholic senior living community going to daily Mass while seeing my grandmother to her death. I never told most of the men I met about that — neither then nor in the years that followed.
On my first date with Matin, though, I immediately opened up in a way I never had before. Something in his warm brown eyes said that I didn’t have to lie. As we walked through Central Park, he told me lovingly about his Muslim Iranian parents and the various foods, prohibitions and celebrations that seemed to govern their lives. I knew that, like me, he was no stranger to prayers and incense, candles, prayer beads and rituals for rituals’ sake.
We shared a kiss in the park, and I invited him for a drink. He said he would love to but that he had promised to bring his grandmother Iranian food in the hospital.
“There’s no way she’s eating the American hospital food,” he said with a laugh. “If I don’t go, she’ll starve.”
As I watched him walk away to fulfill his family duty, I was filled with a calm curiosity that I had never felt after a first kiss.
Years later, Matin and I have taught each other our grandmothers’ cooking. He has filled our kitchen with scents of saffron and sumac, and he has learned to love Irish soda bread with Kerrygold butter. Despite his halal diet, we don’t let a St. Patrick’s Day pass without blood puddings, bangers and Guinness.
My grandmother died not knowing I was gay. It’s not that I thought she would object; it just didn’t come up and I didn’t raise it. Matin’s grandmother, still living, doesn’t know he’s gay either. She comes from a country where homosexuality can be a death penalty crime. Mine left a land where Catholicism once ruled that then became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage through popular vote.
Many straight people can’t imagine hiding a core part of their identity from their loved ones. And some gay people would surely consider Matin and me to be cowards for not being honest with our grandmothers — for not trusting them with the knowledge of our true selves — and say it isn’t real love if you’re keeping such a major part of yourself hidden.
My only response is that love is complicated and diverse. In many immigrant families, it’s intertwined with duty and care. For Matin, love is in the passed-down Persian rugs, the five daily prayers and the perfectly browned rice at the bottom of the pot.
For me, it was being there to comfort my dying Irish grandmother as she chose to leave in the manner she wanted, cursing Margaret Thatcher’s name to the end.