Earlier this year, for Fertility Fest at the Barbican, Shelley and I were asked to create a piece about being a family – the two of us. We live in a society that thinks ‘family’ = two parents and children. That forgets about the elders we care for, the extended families we are often part of, that assumes two is not enough to be ‘family’. We wrote what follows separately, not sharing what we had written, and on the night we read our lines to each other, alternately, in front if a full room of strangers and some friends as part of a night about ‘queer family’. There were tears and laughter and – because we had written our pieces without reading each other’s – a joy at each reveal, for us and for the audience, especially those that said the same thing.
Family doesn’t just belong to those who are fortunate and have children, or those (like us) who are fortunate and have partners. Family is a story we are all part of …
Walking hand in hand on the beach at Muriwai in New Zealand, thinking of our babies, making up silly songs and eating kumara chips with mayo.
Knowing, the day I met you on the steps of the Banana Cabaret in Balham, Yes, here she is.
Dancing for you when you were having chemo, trying so hard to distract you and make you laugh and knowing all the time you were in great discomfort and distress.
How much my Mum loved you and even though you never met my father, you do a pretty good impression of him anyway. And the huge admiration I have for all the work you do caring for your mother.
Our godson telling his mum that he was glad Stella married Shelley because he gets to have two godmothers.
You dancing while I was having chemo to take my mind off the drugs going into me.
A hot bath made by you, often accompanied by a cup of tea or bourbon on the rocks, ready for me after a long training session on the road.
That you know the address of my childhood home and how to get there.
The surprise gift of a break in Iceland for our 25th anniversary – despite agreeing there would be NO presents – because I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights and because I love cold weather and snow – and you don’t.
Singing thought the night to your sister when she died, Maori lullabies and soft songs.
Your freckled face in the crowds at the finish line of my first half marathon and your utter pride that I did it and my amazement that I did it.
How we called the frozen embryos made from my eggs and Brad’s sperm, ‘the Waltons’, because there were so many of them. So many maybes.
Laughing when Marlowe the cat jumps onto you at 4am to say hello, I’m awake, why aren’t you?
Climbing over that massive hill in Sifnos to Vathy when we were so much younger and so much less fit than we are now!
Cooking together for our friends. You’re so much more organised than me, I tend not to read recipes and then get worried that I’ve run out of time. But you’re always there to make it right.
How my dead sister’s daughter claimed you for her own and the special link she feels to you.
Diving off a boat into the warm waters of the Mediterranean knowing you’re watching me constantly, my private life guard.
Each time we tried with those frozen embryos and each time we lost them. So many losses.
My mum calling you her third daughter, my mum and you sitting opposite the body of my dad just after he died at home, my mum apologising to you for giving you such a hard time. My mum loves you.
All our friends who have been sick, are sick, disease and terminal illness as an everyday part of our lives and that of some of our dearest, and how mortality infuses and inspires our connection with those we love.
Being unable to tell you that your mother had died, how to say the words?
The joy Marlowe (our cat) has brought into our lives every day for almost 20 years. How lucky I am that you decided you could live with a cat after all. And how lovely it has been to see you love her.
Our first wedding and then our civil registration, which then became a civil partnership and then became marriage. All the weddings, all the people, all the love with us all the time.
You bringing the scooter I gave you for your 40th birthday to New York when we were doing Lifegame off-Broadway, and scooting through Central Park.
And after that marriage, equal marriage, when we cried because our mother’s names were not on our marriage certificate, we went to the Ritzy in Brixton where we watched The Imitation Game and ate hotdogs with lots of ketchup. Just us two, celebrating just us two.
So much fun, so much playing.
Watching your face exude relief when Fun Palaces received its funding and knowing what a massive difference this will make to your life and your work.
After you did the pregnancy test, going downstairs and telling my Mum who was staying with us that you were pregnant, we were pregnant. Her joy
Your egg retrieval at Kings College Hospital, post-surgery and pre-chemotherapy. A hugely worrying time for so many reasons but as ever you got on with it, you got on with life. You get on with life.
Holding your hand in the scan when they told us there was no heartbeat.
Running across the loft from east to west to watch the fireworks on the 5th of November or Diwali, running and laughing and enjoying the display surrounding us.
The breakthrough when I realised that you weren’t breathing right when swimming and that if you could learn to breathe underwater, you could be a mermaid too. And you, because you can’t ever just do one thing, becoming a triathlete mermaid.
Holding hands while we wait for hospital results, yours and mine. So many hospitals, so many results.
You in pain after your miscarriage and so it was me who danced with your father at your nephew’s barmitzvah, in front of all of those people – a moment that was about such loss and also the huge gain of your father’s love, after more than nine years when he had refused to meet me and how hard that had been for both of us.
Dancing in our kitchen at any given time of the day or night and generally being stupid. Being stupid is fun. You can be stupid at any age and it is always fun.
My Catholic, south London, white working class family and your north London, Indian-Jewish family and the massive differences and the many similarities – the food, the noise and always – so … many … people.
Sitting in our summer loft with the door open watching the sun dance across glistening roof tops and being grateful for each other. Being grateful for our lives.
You running the Paris Marathon not two weeks ago and my huge, utter, deep pride in you, your training, your accomplishment and your determination.
Driving to the seaside as often as we can, listening to music, singing and throwing our arms into the air or deep in conversation or silent. Watching the seasons change, trees in bloom and then shedding their leaves and then completely bare.
When my mum died, sitting up on the sofa, shopping list in front of her. You unable to say the words to me on the phone, and then I was sitting beside her and holding her hand, that last embryo inside me, the last time I had a generation on either side of me.
Leaving a family funeral together, us two, while others get into their cars with their children. Our back seat is always empty.
Our godson telling his mother “I’m really glad Stella married Shelley because that way I get two godmothers.”
Standing next to each other in yoga or Pilates, me knowing you’re always watching me, and glaring if I make someone else laugh. Being stupid is fun.
A LOT of arguments, and now, after almost 29 years, fewer arguments, more ease, more kindness. And maybe more aging grumpiness.
Sitting alone in the state ballroom at Buckingham Palace, witnessing you get your OBE from Prince Charles. Utter pride and tears and then a laugh as you trip up so gloriously and walk off as if nothing has happened.
Waking up in recovery after my second cancer and eight hours in surgery and not being OK, bleeding too much, going in and out of consciousness and knowing how awful it must have been for you, waiting for me. More interested in the recovery nurse telling you that I was alive than finding out how the surgery had gone.
Sea swimming and beach walking and long, lazy sunsets. You taught me how to swim, made me brave in the water, made me a swimmer. I was a mermaid in training, now I am fully fledged and I own my mermaid tail.
Our eighteen nieces and nephews and our twenty-nine great nieces and nephews and how the younger ones have only ever known that yes, two women can be a couple and yes, our love is as real and valid as any other.
Sharing the last piece of chocolate. My piece is always bigger. You’re always more generous than I am with the last piece of anything.
Our second wedding, the biggest most public one, and your dad making a really funny speech, I can’t remember what he said, but I love the photo of us both laughing in shock at whatever he’d revealed.
Sleeping in a fisherman’s hut in Whitstable, waking to the smell of the sea, in each other’s arms, just us two.
Sitting with your mother just hours after your father had died. She was alone with him and you were sorting out the funeral stuff and I asked if she wanted to be alone. She didn’t. So I held her hand as she held his.
Skimming down a zip wire, afraid of heights, together, screaming and dreaming as we fly. Flying as we scream and dream.
Our best beloveds trusting that we know how to hold a baby, change a nappy, soothe a four year old, listen to a teenager – that even though we haven’t had children, we have been children, so of course we get it, we are adult humans and adult humans care for child humans, whoever gave birth to them.
At the cinema, in the dark, eating sweet salty popcorn and holding hands and feeling utterly comfortable with you.
Knowing that however hard it can be for us, we have each other, and our single friends are even more neglected in all of these conversations, even more othered.
Your second surgery, the hours and hours of waiting, the hours and hours of worry and then seeing you briefly, wanting to see you alive. The worst time for you and me. A worse time for you.
All four of our weddings and especially being up until two in the morning before the little wedding we hand-made at home, icing our cake, to acknowledge the end of a year of cancer and miscarriage and loss and LIVING.
On a Southbank carousel, because I love carousels because you know I love carousels.
The times one or other of us is crying or raging because we have been othered by mothers – rarely fathers, often mothers – who tell us, in both direct and subtle ways – that we are not graduate women. (And then, sometimes, caring for those same women because our society doesn’t let them tell each other how shit mothering sometimes is, but they can tell us.)
Skimming stones in Tankerton, I am totally rubbish, in fact we both are but that doesn’t stop us having fun.
All the young ones who treat us as their fairy godmothers. The kids who came out to us before telling their parents, the trans youth who want – and so need – welcoming older people and find welcome with us.
Watching our favourite programmes on TV which usually means couch dancing to all the theme tunes. Being stupid is fun.
When they finally allowed us to get married and it just being the two of us, down to the Town Hall in Brixton and saying the words and being the ‘married’ we’d felt all along. We were queering marriage – and celebrating with a burger and a movie.
Our Jewish Catholic Buddhist differences are in fact similarities, we cherish our backgrounds that have given us hope.
Understanding that yes, we did dream of being three or four or five and we are two, and within that two are multitudes.
You holding out a bottle of water to me at the first 5k of the Paris marathon because you knew I’d need some. You standing in the Bois de Vincennes and waiting and watching out for me along the route. You taking the metro on a warm, busy day to catch up and smile and support me to the end. You with your broken magnificent body and spirit. You at the finish line near the Arc Du Triomphe, shouting out ‘I’m so proud of you my darling’. You.
Because this is family, you and me.