Sunday, December 12, 2010

Who Watches the Watchers?

I went to a Latin dance party at a local restaurant/club last night, and continued a pattern that for me goes back to high school: I don't really don't know how to dance Latin style, though I like the music and I enjoy the crowds. So I watch the people who do know how to dance, have some conversation with an acquaintance or two, sometimes meet new people. I generally enjoy myself, and last night was no exception, despite a smallish crowd because of the bad weather. (The blizzard that hit the northern Midwest didn't arrive until today, but temperatures dropped and there was some snow; plus we're on the eve of Finals Week, and the town wasn't all that active last night.) It's a lot better for me than it was when I was a kid, partly because I have a lot more social experience (and, I hope, somewhat better social skills), which gives me more confidence, and partly because I'm out of the closet and no longer worry about what people will think about me.

Still, I kept thinking of a passage from Colm Toibin's 1999 novel The Blackwater Lightship, which I read last week. It's mainly the story of an Irishwoman named Helen, married with two kids, alienated from her mother (her father died of cancer when she was about 12), struggling to keep up connections with people, but not unhappy on the whole. Abruptly she learns that her younger brother Declan is seriously ill with AIDS. She'd long known that he was gay, but the diagnosis takes her by surprise. Declan wants to stay with their grandmother, who lives in a cottage near the sea, but he also calls in a couple of gay friends who've been among his main caregivers for several years. Helen has to tell both their mother and their grandmother that Declan is dying, and of course all sorts of conflicts and reconciliations take place.

One thing I liked, parenthetically, is that Declan's friends, Larry and Paul (they're not a couple, though Paul has a partner of many years), are not at all apologetic about being gay, or about being odd men out in the gathering at Granny's house. Declan's mother Lily is normally homophobically bigoted, and there's a great exchange between Lily and Paul when Declan shits his bed and Paul chases everyone out of the room to give him privacy during the cleanup.
‘How dare you speak to me the way you spoke to me in there!’ Lily stood up and faced him. ‘I don’t know what you think your place is here.’

‘Look,’ Paul said. ‘I knew as soon as I came in that Declan felt humiliated and I decided that he needed privacy and I didn’t notice him saying that he wanted you all back in when you left.’

‘As far as we are concerned you have no business here,’ Lily said.

Helen sought to interrupt her, but Lily continued. ‘Maybe it’s time you and your friend thought of taking yourselves out of here.’

‘Like now, immediately?’ Paul asked patiently. ‘Just because you want us to?’

‘As soon as you can, yes,’ Lily said.

‘And just because you want us to?’ Paul asked again.

‘Well, I do live here,’ Lily said.

‘No you don’t,’ Helen interrupted.

‘It is my mother’s house,’ Lily said.

‘Declan asked Larry and myself to come down here,’ Paul said. ‘We have, Larry more than me, the two of us have been looking after him during very difficult times when I didn’t notice his family around.’

‘We weren’t around because we were told nothing,’ Lily said.

‘I wonder why you were told nothing. Maybe you could ponder that, instead of getting in the way and making pointless arguments,’ Paul said.

Helen felt that he had gone too far, but he remained placid and in control, weighing each word he said.

‘I wasn’t in the way,’ Lily said.

‘Well, it looked that way to me,’ Paul replied.

‘I’m his mother!’ Lily shouted.

Paul shrugged. ‘He’s an adult and he has got a bad headache and he needs a drink and there’s no room for this sort of hysteria.’

‘So are you going to leave?’ Lily asked.

‘Listen, Mrs Breen,’ Paul said, ‘I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that as written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan’ [222-23].
I'd love to see this story staged or filmed; I think this scene would play very well if it was properly done.

But as I say, this is parenthetical. What I was thinking of last night was this, Helen recalling her father-in-law's funeral:
No one in Hugh’s family watched things as Helen did. She looked out for a niece or nephew or cousin or aunt or brother or sister who watched everything, who took everything in as though it were not happening to them. But there was no one like that except Helen herself at this funeral; they were all involved in being themselves, and this surprised her and impressed her. She wished she had been like that at her father’s funeral instead of watching everybody, instead of observing her mother as though she were someone she had never seen before. And she wondered, as she passed the ball-alley on her way into Blackwater, how different she would be now if she had spent those days after her father died openly grieving for him. Would she be happier now? [219]
I immediately identified with Helen as I read this. But then I backed up a little. I think it's possible -- at least, I think it's possible for me -- to be both watcher and to be involved in being myself. Being one who watches everything is part being myself, after all. It's taken me a long time to come to terms with it, and I've been helped by many people who saw me watching and came to talk to and befriend me. It may be one of my strengths that I don't repel them (as Helen would have, though she too appears to be outgrowing it), but accept the attention. I still usually find it difficult to take the initiative in talking to people, though I'm getting better about that too; by the time I'm 90 I should have it all together). But those who can approach others need someone to approach, and I've been lucky that so many people have reached out to me.

Would Helen have been happier if she had openly grieved for her dead father? In the context of the novel it's hard to say. He died of cancer when cancer was still unmentionable, at least in Irish society, and even in our tell-all American society (which on the whole I prefer to the repressed tell-nothing society Helen grew up in, as did I) parents might be reluctant to tell their children about a terminal diagnosis. Helen was only about twelve when her father died. Her mother dropped the children off with Granny without explanation when he first got sick, which understandably led them to feel abandoned. Some children are more resilient and even resistant, but the fear and confusion of such a situation would derail many. The novel is hopeful about Helen's prospects for opening up in the ways she wants and needs, thanks largely to her husband Hugh and the relationship they work quite consciously at maintaining. Whether she'll make real peace with her mother is left open at the novel's end, though they've made progress. It's an interesting novel that gave me a lot to think about it. I will have to read more of Toibin, whom I've been hearing great things about for some time now.