When Donna Koonce went into the hospital, I kept telling everyone that “Katy’s mom” was having bypass surgery. I didn’t want to give the state of Texas too much credit for recognizing my relationship to this extraordinary woman.
By the time Donna was moved to the ICU, I needed the shorthand of “mother-in-law.” I spoke the words into the intercom, and the nurses buzzed me into the locked ward. (Every time I said, “I’m here to see my mother-in-law,” I had to remind myself that I wasn’t fudging: Katy and I are legally married–in California and the eight other states that recognize our marriage. But that legal status is pretty theoretical when you’re stuck in a small southern town.)
Now that Donna is dead, it feels strange to use a stuffy matrimonial label to describe her. For one thing, she was terribly vain and would not abide any appellation that made her sound old. (Her own grandchildren were forbidden from using the dreaded G word.) For another thing, saying “mother-in-law” inevitably reminds me of our first wedding and how Donna Koonce, grand southern diva that she was, nearly derailed it.
Donna’s presence, and her disapproval, could be formidable. In 1981, when Katy came home for Christmas with a “friend,” her mother “accidentally” discovered their love letters in Katy’s bag. Donna called the girls to the living room, where she presided over the house from a throne-like velour recliner. Trembling, Katy and her girlfriend awaited judgment on the couch. Mom stared the girlfriend down.
“Do you love her?” she asked, finally.
“Yes,” said the young woman, sneaking a glance at Katy, “I do.”
“Well, good,” Donna answered, taking a drag on her cigarette. “You better.”
This was the era of panic over the new “gay cancer.” Only three years earlier, Anita Bryant and her minions had campaigned to remove anyone who supported gay rights from positions in California public schools. Donna’s husband was a high school football coach–a position of considerable visibility and social standing in small Texas communities. The Koonce family lived on the Gulf Coast, in Lake Jackson, a historically segregated community for white employees of Dow Chemical. But even a “chemical corridor” town like Lake Jackson was cosmopolitan compared to the place where Donna was raised: Carthage, Texas, near the notorious Piney Woods of East Texas.
As its ancient namesake might suggest, Carthage is located in one of the more violent parts of the Deep South. The names of other East Texas cities resonate with histories of racial discrimination and terror: Paris, Tulia, Jasper. So how did a privileged white woman from Ku Klux Klan territory come to unquestioning acceptance and support for her butch lesbian daughter? I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I have a few answers: she was extraordinary, she was full of love, and she didn’t give a fig for what other people thought.
“Extraordinary” is shorthand in our family for Donna’s tendency to behave like minor royalty. When Donna went to the bank to make a deposit, she refused to deal with anyone below a Senior Vice President. If she made reservations for a restaurant, she asked to speak with the manager before dropping her own name: “Dhis is Donna Koonce, do you have a good table for me tonight?” If Donna sent you to the Kroger for a cut of meat, she’d remind you to “tell ’em you’re a Koonce.”
If a Koonce was gay, then, by Donna’s logic, gay was good.
She didn’t really care what other people thought, just as long as they were paying attention. As a forty-something mother of three, she wore mini-skirts and go-go boots and Angie Dickinson wiglets. At the Junior Civic League variety show, she played Mae West, but threw in some Sophie Tucker jokes for maximum shock value. On the golf course, she was known as “Dirty Donna” for her foul mouth. “Goddamnit, Donna,” her introverted husband would say at the end of a party, “it’s time to go home.” “Oh shit, Phil,” she’d habitually reply. “You go on home.”
She loved a lengthy public prayer. Before any family meal, she’d gather kids, grandkids, friends, and spouses into a circle. When everyone had joined hands, she’d begin, “Lord, thank you for allowing us to be together once more.” And then, depending on her mood, she would go on, mentioning those who were absent, those who had come before, those whose financial foresight to invest in natural gas had paid for this meal we were about to consume. The length and superciliousness of the average Donna Koonce prayer could cause respectable grown-ups to be seized with fits of giggles. If anyone dared to make eye contact across the prayer circle, it was all over.
For private prayers, Donna preferred moonlight. When the moon was full, she’d slide on her house shoes and shuffle out to the moist swath of grass behind the house. There, with a Carlton 120 in one hand, she’d unload her troubles to a personal god–a confection of Father, Son, and pagan moon goddess. She prayed for all her many grandchildren (including the ones conceived outside of marriage, who occupied a special place in her heart). She prayed for patience with her husband. She prayed for the social life of her cross-dressing neighbor. For the success of her housekeeper’s daughter’s quinceañera. Most of all, she prayed for her adult children, that they would find peace and stability before she had to leave them.
Saying your prayers to the moon is pretty risqué stuff in a town where the Baptists still believe that Methodists go to hell. But Donna wasn’t shy about it. If the moon was particularly big and beautiful, she’d come inside, pour another drink, and then call friends and family. It wasn’t unusual to hear the phone ring at 11 pm. “I want you to go outside and look at that moon,” she’d evangelize. Then she’d fill your ear with everything she’d been praying about–especially if it had to do with you. Just in case her intercession with the moon didn’t work, she was going to take the earthly opportunity to let you know exactly what she thought you should do with your life.
As you might imagine, I was full of trepidation the first time I met Donna. I’d heard stories of previous girlfriends who’d suffered Donna’s frank appraisal–which grew more frank throughout the evening as Donna consumed her customary cocktail–scotch and water in a 24 oz styrofoam cup. At the time, I had 3/4″ hair that was dyed old-lady silver. I wore round black glasses that made me look like a raccoon. I was nerdly. I could not pull off a convincing “y’all.” I had never tasted gumbo with oysters. I was a Yankee.
I could tell you that we bonded over the crossword puzzles that she completed every day. I could say it was Donna’s gumbo or her cornbread dressing, which I ate with relish and appreciation. Or our shared love of vintage fashions from the 1950s and 60s. But the truth is, it felt like she loved me before any of these things.
It’s a cliché to say that your in-laws make you feel like one of the family–and yet, that’s exactly what Donna did by being herself. I still remember the first time I saw her get into an argument with Katy. It all happened so quickly; one minute they were talking about taxes and the next minute they were digging into buried reserves of anger and reproach. I wanted to melt into the couch. “That’s it,” I thought, “the visit’s ruined. We’ll have to go home.” But while I was mentally packing the suitcases, mother and daughter had moved on to some lighter topic and were once again enjoying each other’s company. I couldn’t believe it. Watching them taught me about myself, how unrooted I was, how every little storm could make me feel like I’d been felled.
Although I found Donna’s emotional volatility a bit scary, I learned that I could trust the authenticity of her emotions. When she hugged me goodbye at the end of a visit, I could honestly feel the love flowing towards me. It wasn’t unusual for her to cry a little and to tell me how very, very grateful she was that Katy had found me. “Thank you, Darlin,” she’d whisper in my ear. “Thank you.”
In spite of her love for me, Donna Koonce disrupted my wedding.
It was a balmy July evening in Austin, Texas. The elegant oak trees and simple pine plank fences were strewn with tiny white lights. More than 150 people had gathered for a backyard ritual designed to acknowledge our friends and family, our queer village and social support network. Twenty of our most special people were seated on the patio behind us, with Donna on the front row.
Our celebrant was Gretchen Phillips, singer, songwriter, and inveterate marriage skeptic. Katy and I had needed to break through a lot of resistance to convince her to unite us in unholy matrimony. Now, just as Gretchen was about to deliver the words she’d crafted for the occasion, Donna stood up and grabbed the mic. There was a gasp from the audience. “Your turn is coming,” Gretchen admonished. Donna, undeterred, pointed to the sky. Then she spoke, slowly and Southernly, into the microphone.
“I. Want. You…to look at that Moon!” Thus instructed, the entire audience gazed skyward and gasped again. A giant silver orb, a spectacular full moon, was shining its blessing on our nuptials.
Eight years later, I was hurrying back to the hospital in Lake Jackson. It was day six of Donna’s hospital stay. Her blood pressure had never returned to normal after the bypass and her vital organs were failing. The surgeon had offered the possibility of exploratory surgery, but cautioned that Donna was unlikely to survive another procedure. The family thoughtfully declined. Now the nurses said she wouldn’t last another night.
I had taken our son, Waylon, to stay with friends and was anxious to rejoin the rest of the family. Stuck at a stoplight, I felt something looming in my peripheral vision. The moon. It was a spectacular golden dinner plate pasted on the sky. I texted Katy: “look at that moon.”
Back at the ICU, Katy held Donna’s hand and told her about the beautiful spring moon. Then she spoke with the nurse. The doctor had given permission to stop the blood pressure medicine that was Donna’s last artificial tie to life.
When I arrived, Katy stepped out of the room to call her brothers. It was the first time in six days that I’d been alone with Donna. With everyone else gone, I didn’t feel self-conscious about taking her hand and putting my face next to her ear.
“Donna,” I said, “it’s Paige.” I had to try to project over the sound of the respirator. “Thank you for always being so sweet to me,” I said. “Thank you for always loving Waylon like he was any other grandchild,” I sobbed. And then, just as a wave of emotion was swelling inside me, I felt something equally strong and real emanating from Donna. Her emotional response hit me like a tidal wave. Her presence was so strong, I was almost reeling, but I stood my ground and stayed in close.
“I learned so much from you,” I said. My throat was tight with emotion. “It’s Paige,” I added. “I know you might not recognize my squeaky voice.” But, even as I said it, I knew she knew me. “I love you and I’ll miss you.”
Still touching her arm, I sat back down on the stool by the bed. The fullness of her presence had subsided now, but I could feel it resonating inside me.
Katy came back from calling her brothers. She took her mother’s hand. “I just called Phil and Blaine, Mommy. It’s okay, you can let go if you need to.” She kissed her mother and settled in to wait.
It was hard to look at Donna’s beautiful face disfigured by swelling and tubes. We stared at the blood pressure monitor, which produced a new reading every 15 minutes. Katy busied herself by making sure her mom still had the crumpled tissue that she habitually clutched for comfort.
There was little sign of change until the heart monitor began to beep. We watched the lines on the screen grow slower and farther apart. Donna did not labor or rasp. Because she had a DNR order, the nurses walked calmly into the room. One put a stethoscope to Donna’s chest. Then she handed it to the other. They agreed that the last heartbeat had happened at 12:13 am.
Except for the screaming of the heart monitor, the difference between life and death was barely evident. Then the nurses turned off the respirator and she was still. The respiratory therapist came and rolled the machine away.
I waited with Katy until her brother Phil arrived. Then I stepped outside to give them some time alone with their mama. Phil’s wife was in the hallway and we made small talk. Donna was gone, but the intensity of our moment together was so great that she didn’t feel all the way gone to me. The body in the room seemed insignificant now, because a small part of her spirit had migrated to my heart. I can still feel it right now, as I’m writing these words. It fills my chest and buoys me up.