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The character of survival

By MARGUERITE QUANTAINE
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002

The preliminary police report listed Lilly dead upon impact.

We'd been broadsided by a Checker cab. The driver had been drinking gin while clocking 70 in a 30-mph zone. He collided with the Volkswagen Lilly was driving as I sat next to her in the suicide seat.

The impact was ferocious. Peripheral vision allowed Lilly a glimpse of her would-be killer. There was no other warning. No screeching of brakes. No screaming of pedestrians. No sense of impending doom. Just her mild look of astonishment before whispering, "Oh my God. I'm dead." That's what she said.

Our car was ripped apart lengthwise from hood to trunk, leaving the steel frame welded to the front end of the taxi. Lilly hung twisted and broken through a hole beside me. Her face hovered just above the pavement. Her auburn curls sopped blood like a red rag mop.

Most gay couples are drawn and quartered by such tragedy. They're impeded by laws awarding jurisdiction to distant family members. They're intimidated by protocol and prodded by propriety. Their feelings and wishes are summarily dismissed as irrelevant. Barred from the ambulance. Excluded from intensive care. Denied any decision.

"She's my sister," I lied emphatically. It instantly ended any question of my authority. The first time I lied was to the officers who cut me from the wreckage, then tried to restrain me from reaching back for her. They had dragged me clear, insisting Lilly was beyond help.

How I broke loose and what actually happened is a wonder. She responded to the energy of my touch. She warmed to the blending of my tears in her eyes. She sensed the silent incantations of my heart imploring hers to hold the course of us as one against all obstacles and odds.

"Hey, babe!" she said.

My second lie was to the ambulance attendants. The third, to emergency room doctors. The fourth, to nurses. And then to technicians, aides, investigators. I didn't hesitate to claim her as my sister, knowing involuntary deceit has long been coerced from gays in lieu of public humiliation. Lies have become our only conceivable lifeline.

Fortunately, Lilly was a corporate executive for a large conglomerate. It gave her special insurance privileges which provided me with unlimited hospital access. I stayed in her room. I partook in every detail of her care and was privy to all medical information. Her doctors consulted me. Her nurses kept me informed. Nevertheless, when it came to certain courses of action, not everything suggested was allowed. Because (even now) most lesbians mistrust the medical profession.

We cringe at the prospect of contact with male doctors. We shy to probes pertaining to our personal lives and intimate behavior. And even though many older women entered conventional relationships in an effort to hide their true sexual identities, there are vast numbers of lesbians who have never engaged in intimacy with a man. Women who know being gay goes far beyond an aversion to heterosexual sex. That the differences in our codes include a wiring that circuits a general discomfort and basic incompatibility with all dominant aspects of the opposite gender.

It's as if, like Asian and African elephants trumpeting in the night, science will someday discover that we, too, are a similar -- but separate -- species.

So it came as no surprise to learn Lilly refused to be catheterized, even though catheterization was necessary to save her. Regardless of the brutal total body trauma she suffered, this perfectly natural anomaly had triggered her sense of dignity, demanding decorum. Only the empathy and courage of a surgical nurse named Christine could clear the emergency room of male doctors and provide Lilly with the symbiosis she needed to survive.

Thirty years have passed since that crash that forever altered our lives. Lilly insists the change was for the best, even though she passes each day in pain, and walks with a cane, and sleeps with her neck and left side braced. Her brain still spasms on occasion, jerking her head violently to the left. Her hand sometimes trembles. Her body sometimes buckles. Her ears burn shades of purple whenever her immune system begins to shut down.

But even though she still can't sit for more than 60 minutes at a stretch, or walk longer than 30 without resting -- from all other outward appearances you'd never guess there was anything wrong.

No criminal proceeding ever materialized, and it took over a year before the civil action found its way onto a court docket. By then the driver had vanished, while both the taxi cab company and insurance firm handling its policy went bankrupt.

That left the state to assume jurisdiction over the proceeding, and it would only approve payment of a dime on every dollar litigated, with a preset ceiling attached.

Lilly's lawyer told her to settle for $30,000 against bills that would total 10 times that in just 10 years.

"Why should I?" asked Lilly.

"Because you lied about being sisters," he said. "And if we went to court . . . well . . . that lie would come up. It becomes a character issue."

"A character issue?" said Lilly. "Whose character?"

Her attorney remained silent except for his shuffling of documents.

"The drunk driver" she asked. "His employer? The insurance broker? The lawyers demanding a decision?"

"Settle," he said a second time.

"And if I don't?"

"I'm not certain my firm can work a trial date into our calendar. I'm afraid, if you don't settle, you'll have to find other representation."

So Lilly settled.

She was just so happy to be alive. Grateful for every second of every extra day.

"And when you think about it," she added as we left the courthouse heading home, "for the rest of our lives we get to be us. But they have to be them."

-- Marguerite Quantaine is a freelance writer living in Florida.

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