When I was almost a teenager, my mother had an office buddy named J. I was grateful for J. before I met her, because it seemed like she absorbed some of the bitch sessions that the 40-hour week brought out of my mom. When you're 11 or 12, office drama is baffling. I remember thinking, "It's just a job, not your whole life." (Still good advice that I now give myself when prone to grousing.) As she and J. continued their friendship, my mom got more glimpses into her life. J. was hilarious, smart, and kind, but she never talked about going on dates. She was in her late 30s and had a roommate. My parents and I were eating chicken breasts and broccoli one night, when my mom said that she thought J. might be a lesbian. "I wouldn't say anything to her unless she brought it up," she said. She didn't want to make her feel uncomfortable, judged, or any of the dozens of other things that closeted gay Michiganders might have to feel. Not long thereafter, my mom came home and said that after work, J. had asked if they could talk. "V. isn't just my roommate," she'd said to my mom. And in one of the moments that makes me proudest, my mother had given J. a hug and said that she'd love to meet V. sometime. She meant it. From then on, my mom became friends with both J. and V. They came out to our house for wine on summer nights; our whole family went to J.'s birthday party and celebrated. I liked both women very much, and their partnership seemed completely natural. I don't think my parents were trying to teach me a lesson on how to treat people, but they led by example, never talking about J. or V.'s relationship as being any less V.uable than a straight one. I'd like to wrap up this story in a pretty lavender bow. I wish there were photos of their wedding to share, or maybe a tale of an adopted baby and a nontraditional family. Instead, there is this: Everyone loved J. but J. She'd suffered from depression on and off for most of her life, and her deepening gray thoughts convinced her that V. — and everybody else — would be better off without her. One day, she called in sick to work, drove 50 miles north, checked into a hotel, unpacked a pistol, and fired a bullet into her head. My mother was shocked. "I knew J. was having a hard time," she'd said, "but I didn't understand how hopeless she felt." She reviewed the preceding days, weeks, and months to look for signs she must have missed. I think there was a funeral; I didn't go, but I don't remember the reason. Maybe it was because funerals present undeniable finality. Nobody really knew how to talk with one another after J. died. V. stopped returning my mom's letters, presumably out of grief; we also fell out of touch with J.'s family. She was our commonality, and she was gone. Every now and then, my mom will get quiet and say, "I still miss J." So do I. Even understanding the bleak self-loathing of depression, I wish she'd lived to be able to legally marry. (In some places, anyway.) I wish she'd known how many people loved her, and how our lives have all been dimmer since she left. And I wish I were able to call her and tell her how grateful I was to have known her and V. Their love and bravery helped shape the way I see the world. I wish I could thank her. Instead, I can only remember her and wish for an alternate, impossible history.
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