By ANDIE MACLAREN
Last July I had a visit from the woman I fell in love with when we were young, new teachers.
I pulled up beside Rosel standing by the Taos Inn. She hopped in and waved to her husband as I zoomed off to make good on my promise to treat her to legendary tiramisu. It had been nearly six years since Rosel and I had seen each other. We were going to enjoy a sweet time together, catching up and reconnecting our rich spiritual bond that we’d shared since we fell in love at age 22. We were partners for five years, but our spiritual connection and friendship persisted for forty.
Later in the evening, sugared up on rich desserts, Rosel and I relaxed in my little adobe house. There was a soft July breeze floating through the living room, bringing notes of sage, piñon, and Lambert’s Restaurant grill. We shared our dreams and laughed till we cried as we recounted shared experiences.We reminisced our getaway trips to beaches in Jersey, cabins in the Colorado mountains, and that one time we had met secretly in the hidden space behind the pipe organ in the church school where we both taught.
After we’d brought each other up to date on our children, jobs, and life during the pandemic, we couldn’t avoid discussing the elephant in the living room: Brian—Rosel’s conservative, homophobic, über-religious husband. She practically begged me to like him.
Suddenly, I blurted out, “Rosel, did you tell Brian about us?”
“Oh, God, no!” Rosel laughed.
I jolted as if hit by lightning, fending off the reverberation of those three words. They blasted into my head and tried to define how I felt about myself. At once, I felt the old branding iron scorching “SHAME” onto my forehead. Don’t go there; it’s not about me…
But it was about shame—the shame that I’ve been working to surrender to self-love since the 1960s. Now I was angry all over again.
“Rosel, did our adventures and our spiritual connection mean so little to you that you couldn’t tell Brian? Was I just some fun secret…”
The mirth dropped from Rosel’s face. I felt my heart thump so violently: surely it was visible through my shirt. It didn’t matter that I’d spent a lifetime attempting to relinquish my shame and all the emotional wounds I’d endured by walking in the world as a lesbian. I realized the second she uttered, “Oh, God, no!” that I was still carrying the experiences I’d had with not only Rosel, but also of other past loves to “protect” them. Protect them—protect their “integrity.” Meaning I must never tell the bad things that we’d done out of love.
Rosel turned to me. The moonlight illuminated her long hair through the living room windows. “Andie, I…” she took my hands with tenderness, totally unaware of the power of dismissal her soul-crushing words had on me. She looked into my eyes. “Being with you was life-changing for me. It was transformative.”
That is where our hearts had met. And where they had always lived.
I accepted that Rosel had chosen Brian for the reasons she did. It was her prerogative to partner with someone she knew would be a good father, while not allowing him to know the fullness of who she truly was. She said, “If Brian knew half of what I know, we wouldn’t be together.”
While she sat across from me, trying to breathe with all her secrets suffocating her, I realized she was gifting me the opportunity to make a vow to myself—to never be someone’s secret again.
Five months later, on December 8, Rosel called me: “I have COVID-19.” She had been zealous about double-masking, washing her hands, and sanitizing. Her husband’s family were not. She let down her guard, and her mask, at Thanksgiving.
I texted with Rosel every day for the next two months as she grew sicker, and as the hospital became her main residence. She made me promise that when she got better, we’d finish “the conversation” from that balmy night in July. By text, we shared prayers and songs that we’d done for our elementary and middle school concerts. On Christmas Eve, as Rosel languished alone in the COVID-19 ward of the hospital, I sent her favorite carol, “O Holy Night,” so she could calm her mind and labored breathing. Instead of making cookies with her kids and decorating her house, she sent details of how she was slowly succumbing to the increasing demands for oxygen she required to breathe. And yet, she maintained her humor.
She was allowed to go home four times, only to have to return to the hospital after a day or two. She said “Brian is having a hard time being a caretaker. I have to get better to take care of him and the kids.” She voided her DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) and insisted that the nurses and doctors take all measures to keep her alive except intubation because she knew it would kill her. She wanted to live, see her children marry, and hold her grandchildren.
After the last trip to the hospital, her texts dwindled. I kept sending uplifting ones, as did her daughter and son. And probably Brian. I asked her not to respond unless she had the energy—to just focus on breathing. As they wheeled her into the ER to intubate her on the last night of her life, her last text to me was, “I love you very much.”
Rosel’s death broke my heart in a way that was more than feeling sorry for her suffering and my loss. I experienced being broken open in a way that can only be understood as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” My love for Rosel was one that was so much more expansive than the physical intimacy we once shared. It was a love that was felt as the play of the Divine. Her joy was pure delight in all she did. And her light was radiant.
Two days after Rosel died, when I’d forgiven myself for being angry and I’d accepted that she’d kept our relationship a secret out of fear and shame—I got a text from her.
I was in bed, beginning to stir as the first light of dawn spread over my comforter. My phone dinged a message. I reached over, picked up the phone and read the message. “What?!” I bolted up and banged my head on the headboard. I rubbed my eyes and refocused. “Oh my God.” I squeaked. “Are you alive? Rosel, are you messing with me?” I clicked on the message.
Dear Ellie, It’s with a heavy heart that I must tell you that Rosel died two nights ago. There are no words. Love ya, Brian.
“Ellie?” I yelled. “Who the hell’s Ellie?” I couldn’t put two and two together with the chaos in my brain. My body was buzzing and shaking. I stared at the message.
Oh no….NO! There it is.… She did it again.
Ellie was an old friend of Rosel and Brian’s from church. Rosel and I had been sharing stories, thoughts, and intimate things for over a month. To keep Brian from finding out, Rosel had put my phone number under the innocent name of an elderly congregant and family friend. She thought he’d never bother to read the texts from Ellie. But he did. The last one, anyway. I’d written that I envisioned her healed and walking on the beach in glorious sunlight. I’m sure it manifested, only on the other side of the veil. Rosel had made sure I would be kept a secret even after her death. Besides the blessings of a rich life, my dear friend took many secrets to the grave.
As a queer non-binary lesbian, the title “pride” has never resonated with me. At this point in my life, all remnants of rejecting my non-binary, lesbian space on this planet are just shadows behind me. Why would I feel pride for being someone who embraces an expression of loving that I can’t help? I’m thrilled I’m gay! But I’m no more “proud” of it than I am of loving coq au vin paired with a good red. I can’t help either one. Nor do I want to.
I’m much more apt to cheer with pride the fact that I am not ashamed for being a lesbian. But mostly I feel pride for no longer allowing myself to be someone else’s “shameful secret.” I claim not pride, but humility and honor for being allowed to serve as a mirror of integrity, confidence, and love of who I am. I am here—always—for any person, regardless of their age, who is afraid to be who they are because of circumstances like those Rosel endured.
As Pridefest steps into another year of embracing and celebrating who we are as LGBTQI+ human beings, I share a major truth I have come to understand, after six decades of living life on this rainbow planet. This is the need for celebrating a forgiveness for the harm we’ve caused, either intentionally or out of innocent ignorance, to others as well as to ourselves. We can march and dance and celebrate with wholehearted joyful abandon the simple act of never, ever being another person’s shameful secret.