Four (Same-Sex, Half-Jewish) Weddings and a Funeral

A Breast Cancer Narrative

My girlfriend proposed — if you could call it a proposal — over the phone, long-distance, on a Sunday afternoon in October 2003. Cordless in hand, I was rooting through my fridge for something to eat when she said, “So, what do you think about getting married?”

I paused, the cold air from the refrigerator blowing in my face.

“Um,” I said, “okay.”

And that was that. We were getting hitched.

The Canadian province of Ontario had — finally — granted same-sex partners the right to marry only the previous summer, and all of a sudden “gay marriage” was on the radar, the topic of every conversation, garnering its own special section of the editorial pages each day and forcing Canadian queers to consider the question: Will you or won’t you, now that you can?

“Not us,” I had thought about me and Rachel. After all, we were good feminists. We both had master’s degrees in Women’s Studies, for God’s sake: we had been well schooled in marriage’s economic, not romantic, origins, in the idea that modern marriage is rooted in archaic notions of women as chattel. Not for us the need for state sanction, that piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true. Not for us the capitulation to tradition.

And then, she asked. And all of a sudden it was us. When I asked her why, Rachel simply said, “It felt like a good approximation of where our relationship was at the time.”

She had a point. Eight and a half years in and counting, there we were. We’d just spent the previous year rescuing the relationship from near ashes, sitting across from a skilled therapist as we learned to talk to each other all over again, to wipe clear that pane of murky glass that seemed to be there between us, distorting our images of each other. She’d finished her doctorate, had got a tenure-track job teaching at a Northern Ontario university. I’d built up my freelance career. We were looking at houses up north; I planned to move from Toronto to be with her in the fall. And we had booked the first flight for our sperm donor to fly in from Vancouver so we could begin the process of trying to have a baby.

We didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks. At first, Rachel didn’t want to tell anyone at all, ever. She wanted to elope, have a secret ceremony at city hall and never mention it again. I think she was scared: if we said it out loud, if we told anyone, it would be real. But we were also scared of my family’s influence. I come from a family big on big weddings — weddings of the white-dress variety, with dozens of attendants. Weddings that cost tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Weddings with DJs and klezmer bands, with first dances, with showers and rehearsals, with open bars and (I swear) mashed-potato bars and (kosher) hot dog carts wheeled in at midnight. Weddings with disposable cameras on the tables and head tables, preceded by a year’s worth of Friday-night dinners in honor of the engaged couple. My mother’s sister owns a bridal store. We had lots of reasons to be afraid.

Slowly, though, we both warmed to the idea of a public ceremony, on our own terms. We began to plan our ideal wedding: outside, maybe on one of the islands on Lake Ontario. Summer. A string quartet. Fantastic outfits. I would bake. A big party with family and close friends. We’d find a way to afford it.

And then we told my parents. More precisely, on a Sunday evening in November, we invited ourselves over for dinner and told them about our baby plans. “And there’s one more thing,” I said.

“There’s more?” my mother said, weakly. My father just grinned as he sat next to her on their family room couch, where she spent most of her time these days.

“There’s more,” I confirmed. “We’re getting married.”

What I thought was an afterthought became the main event. “You’re getting married? When?” asked my mother. “Where? How?”

We began to outline our vision: summer, outside, family and close friends —

“Well,” she interrupted, “you’ll have to do it here. At our house.”

Rachel and I looked at each other. I was about to explain why we couldn’t possibly hold the wedding at my parents’ house when Rachel said, “Okay. That would be lovely.” I looked at her as though she had gone insane. “What were you thinking?” I asked her in the car on the way home. “Well,” she said, “it’s just that it’s your mom.”

My mom. Who had reached out in dozens of small ways to my girlfriend over the years. Who had helped pave the way toward my father’s slow but eventually steadfast acceptance of my relationship. Whose chicken soup Rachel — at the time a vegetarian — ate without hesitation. My mother, battling breast cancer, there, on the couch.

And that was the end of the first wedding, and the beginning of the second. By Monday morning, my mother had notified all our relatives: I came home that evening to a half-dozen messages of mazal tov from scattered cousins, aunts and uncles, who promised to be there for our “big day.” By Tuesday morning, my mother was in full swing, brainstorming caterers and flower arrangements, guest lists and officiants.

“Um,” I said, “I’m not sure we can afford all this.”

She paused. “Oh, Susan,” she said, “we’d like to pay for it.” It was a vast gesture of acceptance that I should have anticipated and hadn’t — and the fact that I hadn’t suggests that I was more caught up in doubts about the legitimacy of my own marriage than were my parents. For them, this wasn’t a “gay wedding.” It was their daughter’s wedding, and, damn it, they were going to do it up right.

Doing it up right, I soon found out, meant a lot of details. We set the date: June 13. We met with the caterer. We negotiated the guest list, capping my parents’ friends to, in my mother’s opinion, an impossibly small number that seemed to grow as the weeks passed. (We had conversations like this: Her: “Gloria’s coming.” Me: “But she’s not invited.” Her: “I know. I told her that. And she’s still coming.”) We found a rabbi — possibly the only one in the city — who would agree to perform both an interfaith and same-sex wedding. A secular humanist Jew, her only conditions were that the ceremony contain no reference to God and no sexism. We could live with that. We booked the string quartet, asked my sister-in-law to do the flowers. I applied for our marriage licence: the forms hadn’t yet been updated to reflect the new legislation, and so my name was entered under the heading “groom.” I wondered which of the two men in line ahead of me at the registrar’s office would be a bride. After much convincing on the part of family and friends, we even registered, and then spent a couple of giddy hours debating china patterns and testing the fine blades of luxurious German knives.

In the meantime, we bought a house up north. We flew our donor in for a second try, then me to Vancouver for the third, which “took” — I was pregnant. My parents were over the moon. So was the rabbi.

And my mother’s chemo failed.

Through it all, we had tried to ignore the question that hovered, unspoken, in the backs of our minds: Would she make it to June 13? Back in October, we had been optimistic. Yes, my mom was weak, but for the past three years each successive round of chemotherapy, each new drug, had brought her back. Over the past 20 years she had survived, against astonishing odds, two previous bouts with cancer, one ovarian, one breast. The disease was the product of mutation 5382insC of a gene now known as brca-1 (BR for breast, CA for cancer). Women with this mutation — women like my mother, and her mother, who died of ovarian cancer in her 40s, and her mother, who died of breast cancer —have a pretty high risk of developing ovarian or breast cancer. One in 45 Ashkenazi Jewish people carry a brca mutation, as opposed to one in 800 to 1000 individuals in the general population. Their daughters — women like me — have a 50% chance of inheriting that mutation.

Those were the facts. And yet we couldn’t quite face them. Although my mother had tested positive for the genetic mutation, I had resisted testing. Never mind that I was pregnant — and potentially with a daughter to whom a Jewish family legacy of cancer could be bequeathed. Never mind that my mother’s cells were coded to multiply beyond her body’s capability to sustain them. I couldn’t think about my own mortality, and as for my mother, we thought she was invincible. We were counting on her track record of almost miraculous resilience: Why would this occurrence — breast cancer now metastasized — be any different?

And yet, it was. By April, she was vomiting up most of what she ate, and had started spending nights as well as days on the couch, because the walk up the stairs was too hard. She found it increasingly difficult to breathe.

We all saw the third wedding coming, but we hesitated. Finally, my mother said out loud the words no one else had been able to say. She’d spent the night at the hospital in respiratory distress; the doctors had drained two liters of fluid from around her right lung, the one that didn’t have a catheter in it already. We had an appointment with the palliative care doctor the next morning.

“Susan,” she said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to June 13.”

“We’ll change the date,” I said. “We’ll do it sooner.” She nodded. My father just looked into his lap as he sat next to her on the couch. I didn’t cry until I phoned the rabbi to reschedule.

We settled on Mother’s Day, May 9, three weeks away. It was the closest we could fathom pulling everything together. It would be a truncated affair, just family and a few close friends at my parents’ house, no dates, no quartet. Our families changed their flights. We flew up north, signed the lawyers’ papers on the house, flew home, found rings and outfits, met with our midwife. We printed off our ketubah (no God, no sexism) — no time to commission anything custom. I had a pre-wedding pedicure, and then burst into tears when the polish smudged. “All I want is for my toenails to look nice,” I wailed in the car on the way home. Rachel looked at me sideways. “Is it really your toes you’re upset about?”

Meanwhile, my mother deteriorated rapidly. She had moved from the couch to a hospital bed we’d set up in the family room, but she could no longer get comfortable. Even small efforts like going to the washroom became overwhelming. My father spent hours trying to convince her to eat something, anything, but she wasn’t hungry, and her body wasted, wisps of chemo-thin hair framing her gaunt face. She had coughing fits that left her exhausted. Some combination of drugs and disease left her unfocused and anxious, confused or annoyed. “I know I’m not making sense,” she told me. “It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to make sense.”

The night before the ceremony, we ordered in Thai for the immediate family members who had congregated. My mom napped in the family room while we ate quietly in the kitchen, unsure how to work her decline into the celebration, how to acknowledge such sorrow in the midst of what was supposed to be joy. The food tasted like sawdust.

“I’m not sure I can go through with this,” I told Rachel at the door as she left to meet her mother at our downtown apartment. I was going to sleep at my parents’ home, on night duty.

The next morning, the tips of my mother’s fingers had turned dusky and I wasn’t able to rouse her. But her chest rose and fell, and so I called up denial, found the now-much-too-big clothes she wanted to wear and laid them out, to help her into later on. She died while I left the room to eat breakfast and while my father was at his computer, printing out his toast to the brides. “Excuse me?” said the home-care worker. “Miss? I think that your mother is not breathing.” I closed her eyes, rested my forehead against hers for a moment. We held the funeral the following day. My cousins, already assembled for the wedding, were pallbearers. The wedding caterer fed the hundreds of people who showed up at the house following the burial. Rachel and I exchanged rings privately, then sat shiva.

The fourth wedding was on June 13 in my parents’ backyard — a much smaller affair than we’d originally planned; just family and a few close friends, hors d’oeuvres and lunch. In the photos of the ceremony, we all look so sad under the chuppah: my father and brother are holding back tears; my sister-in-law wears dark glasses, and Rachel and I clutch each other’s hands and stare straight into each other’s eyes, biting our lips. At three months pregnant (with, as it turned out, a boy, who would be named for his Bubbe), I am barely showing. When the time came to break the glass, though — because according to Jewish tradition, in each simcha we are always reminded of our sorrows — we couldn’t do it. We tried, but maybe there had been too much sorrow already. Our high heels simply pushed the glass deeper into the soft ground, where it stayed resolutely whole, unbroken, unbreakable.

Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer and editor, and co-editor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families (Insomniac, 2009). In 2006, her radio documentary, “Finding Out,” about being tested for the brca-1 genetic mutation, aired on the CBC. She teaches creative writing at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and blogs at