In the opening to one of my favorite films, Angels in America, Meryl Streep pays the part of an aged Jewish Rabbi presiding over the funeral of a woman he did not know (as often happens with clergy of various sorts). He speaks of how her journey is one that cannot be repeated in the modern era of rapid travel. Simultaneously, he speaks of how her remaining family members carry within them a piece of her, of her journey, of her triumphs and her hardships.
Later in the film (or more accurately, miniseries), Louis, portrayed by Ben Shenkman, is beckoned by his ex-lover's best friend Belize (played by Jeffrey Wright), a nurse to speak the Kaddish over the recently deceased infamous closeted lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Louis, a secular Jew, struggles at first with the traditional prayer for the dead, but finds himself supernaturally assisted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also played by Streep). His only personal addition comes in his referring to Cohn as "you son of a bitch."
Death and legacy are common themes in the popular-play-turned-HBO-miniseries. Personally, I try to sit down and watch the entire six hours of the film in one sitting at least once a year. Every time, I find myself learning something new about myself during the process. My primary reason for mentioning this film pertains to tonight being All Hallows Eve, followed by tomorrow being All Saints.
I've lost a number of family members over the course of my life thus far, the most recent and important of which was my grandmother nearly a year and a half ago. Tonight, in the pagan tradition (the religion of my partner), is the holiday of Samhain (pronounced so-wen), a night that recognizes the presence of our ancestors in our lives.
There are too many people to list who have influenced me being the man I am. My grandmother, whom I called Nanny. My great, great-aunt Blanche. Several of Nanny's siblings and in-laws (Kathleen, Ira, Evelyn, Pansy). Tonight I seek to honor them and their journeys. Tonight I give thanks for the ways in which they loved and shaped me, gave me strength. Together, and separately, they taught me the importance of family, of perseverance, of selflessness. They taught me the value of a home cooked meal, of time around the table sharing story and self. They helped me understand what it meant to take pride in your work, and to do everything with a sense of significance, worth, and value.
As I sit here in my living room lit only by candles and the glow of my computer screen, listening to various movie scores and the sound of a relaxation fountain, I wish I could down with them all. I wish I could see their faces and their smiles, hear their voices, feel their arms embrace me. I would I could tell them thank you for loving me so deeply and unconditionally. I wish I could be certain they knew how much they meant to me, how deeply they changed me, even if they didn't necessarily understand or agree with my identity and relationship. I loved them, and I know they loved me.
I miss Christmases with Aunt Pansy, who always bought a box of Zachary's chocolates every year and shared it with anyone. She made sure I got the vanilla creams. I miss being in the kitchen with Aunt Blanche, a woman who could cook for an army without breaking a sweat. I miss the coziness of Aunt Evelyn's kitchen table, a place where we could sit and talk for hours. I miss Uncle Ira's laugh, even on days where he was grumpy or cynical. I miss the drive to Aunt Kathleen's house at the end of what was, for a very long time, a dirt and gravel road, and how I could always count on her having some kind of baked good ready for consumption upon my arrival. I miss sitting in Nanny's living room watching shows like NCIS, CSI, Law & Order (you get the jist), or being with her in the kitchen, cluttered around the stove making a simple but ever-filling meal.
These are my ancestors. Yes there are many others whose names, faces, and voices I did not or can not recall, and just as these are the ones who shaped me, so were they shaped by the ones before them. Their blood runs through me. There are some I did not know so well who passed before I got a chance to do so. However, given their influence on the ones that shaped me, I am thankful for them and I honor them. I sit here letting the words "We do not grieve as those without hope" run through my mind. I've moved beyond thinking I know what happens the moment a person exits this life. I do not know where these aforementioned family members are now, but regardless, part of them is still here... inside me... guiding my actions and choices. I pray that I can honor them by the way I live and, in doing so, I can honor the One who made us all for the purpose of love. I can hope and pray that, one day, I will leave a legacy similar to theirs. I hope to change lives as they have changed mine. One day I will be counted as an ancestor of someone else, and I hope that one night very much like tonight, they can sit among the candles, the water, and either silence or music, and be thankful for how I've changed or transformed them.
The primary male lead of Angels, Prior Walter (a man diagnosed with HIV in the late 80s), ends the film with this: "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and we'll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The great work begins."
I pray this for everyone I meet... more life. We are all in this great big mess called life together, and we will all leave a legacy. I pray that mine is one of transformation, restoration, and healing... that the ones who come after me know that, even if I never meet or know them, I love them and offer a part of myself to them for the betterment of their lives. Tonight I honor my ancestors, my saints, and I say a prayer for those for whom I will be an ancestor, a saint...
More life... the great work begins...