How can you mend a broken heart?
The Bee Gees asked that question in their 1971 song by the same title. The answer, I suppose, is different for each person who suffers. I have suffered greatly, you see; I’ve experienced loss, the kind of which one so young never should. And now that I’ve put my broken heart back together, at least sufficiently enough, it’s time to share with you my story.
We met at two years old, Ashton and me. We would know each other, we would love each other, for a quarter-century.
Let’s start from the beginning.
My parents, from Ireland, and Ashton’s, Scotland, had known one another since their teenage years. By this time, 1987, my family had moved to Toronto and Ashton’s to Ottawa. It was the occasion of a trip to Canada’s capital city and a visit to one of the popular Irish-Scottish gatherings when my father knew something wasn’t right.
Whatever the issue, or issues, was no matter to me as a young boy. All that mattered is that Ashton was coming to live with us.
At two years old, suddenly I was living under the same roof as the love of my life.
I can’t remember exactly, I may have been eight or nine years old and it was long after our family’s relocation to Ottawa, when I started telling Ashton I would marry him; for I only knew then that I loved him. Did I even know I was gay? In hindsight, yes, but what is a boy that age to understand? As for Ashton, well, that was a wait and see situation. The thing is his sexuality never occurred to me; I was to be his and he was to be mine; that is how it was going to be.
Our first kiss came as young teenagers. Months later, one afternoon, my mother, Margaret, walked in on us making out! We were 14 years old. Ashton and I hid in my bedroom, mortified, until we were called for dinner and there, leaning against the kitchen counter was my father, Edward, who smiled and asked, “so you two are finally dating?” A father’s blessing, that, and my dad would play a huge role helping Ashton and me integrate into the gay community.
We travelled a lot as kids, which was wonderful because it ensured a direct connection to my Irish roots. My mother was from Dublin but it’s Waterford, my father’s hometown, to which I feel most connected. I resemble my father with my blond hair and blue eyes; the Irish fairies come from Waterford way and I’m very much a proud Irish fairy boy.
During these trips we’d visit Ashton’s parents, who’d returned to Scotland, so their son could know them. While I loved having Ashton close, it always bothered me that not only were his parents not nearby, they expressed no interest in him and couldn’t bring themselves to validate him when given opportunities to do so.
At 17 I was recruited into the military; a year later Ashton began post-secondary studies on his way to becoming a middle school teacher. We were young and in love and at age 22, in 2007, we married and moved into our own home in Ottawa.
We were happy. It was meant to be. Sure, we had our challenges, namely my multiple deployments to war torn parts of the globe, but Ashton and I just knew. Together, we clicked. Together, we belonged. I was his Irish fairy; he was my Scottish superhero, a man’s man and the man I’d affectionately kiss on the top of his head, a little way I showed him love dating back to our youth when I’d give him a peck on his crown as he played with Lego. It’s a sweet memory; one I cherish.
My father was a kind man, a loving man; he was skilled in mathematics and the sciences, gifts he passed on to me. Edward had a way about him; I’d say he’s the most emotionally intelligent person I’ve met and was empathetic unlike anyone else I’ve known. My mother was creative, a gift passed to me through my love of drawing, and Margaret wrote wonderful poems. Our way of connecting was this indulgence of our respective passions.
It goes without saying, then, that Ashton and I suffered great sadness with the passing of both my parents, first my mother and then my father, within about a year of each other in the latter part of the century’s first decade. My parents lived into their mid-70s, my mother having given birth to me just weeks before her 51st birthday in May of 1985. I grieved the deaths of my idols; also, the sadness wasn’t lost on me: Just as two of their beloved boys, Ashton their adopted and I their son, were beginning their lives together, my parents’ lives were ending. We anticipated celebrating so much; we trusted they would celebrate with us in spirit.
Would it surprise you to know Ashton and I first held hands as boys? We’d walk home from First Avenue Public School in Ottawa and he’d stand and wait as I’d do cartwheels on walkway railings. If I tested his patience he never let on; plus, I was athletic – I’m still athletic — so he let me do my thing.
These memories I cherish; ordinarily I would but they hold additional meaning to me now. We’ve reached the point in my story where I must explain why.
September 28, 2012.
My life changed on September 28, 2012; at first it was shattered, the grief unimaginable, the sorrowful abyss into which I’d fallen seemingly too deep out of which to climb.
Ashton, riding his motorcycle, was killed in an accident. He was 27.
What do I do now? What is my purpose? Is there a God and if there is why did this entity take my soulmate, my true love, my person, away from me? What am I to make of this debilitating permanence?
There were these questions and more; there was also impenetrable grief. I’m a protector, you see. This trait is inherent in me. I protect my loved ones; in my work I contribute to the protection of my country.
I could not protect Ashton. Trust me, I understand your logical and rational explanations for why I shouldn’t blame myself and I appreciate your kindness toward me; however, in this instance, please simply understand and accept this is how I felt then and the feeling still exists.
What came next, in the aftermath of Ashton’s death, is a blur. I spent two years on suicide watch. I was bedridden for much of this time; my loving family and my dearest friends, which include my support within the military, took care of me as best they could. They’d feed me. They’d take me out for runs.
There is no playbook for this. It was hell on earth. I don’t remember parts of the first year after Ashton died. There is no script one could possibly follow to deal with the tragedy of losing a spouse, a life partner, a soulmate, so young. How is one to deal with it when it’s part of the normal cycle of life? That’s hard enough, I imagine, but this? This required, eventually, an active decision on my part.
A decision to continue living.
I’d asked myself this question repeatedly; every day, now that I think about it.
The clouds of grief began to part with therapy; and not necessarily the therapy you’d consider for someone my age; someone not yet 30. I was placed in grieving therapy for those who’d lost a long-time spouse or partner because Ashton and I had been together, in one way or another, since we both were wearing diapers. Very strange, yet very appropriate in my case, for someone who hadn’t yet marked my 30th birthday.
I remember, one time, lying in bed, one of the many times I would talk to Ashton in my heart. This time, though, he had a clearer message for me: “You have to go on.” I realized, then, I owed it to him to be happy. I’m a visual person and I could see his face in that instance; his spirit, his essence, absolutely was present with me.
The sun began to shine, ever so occasionally, when I decided, in the latter part of 2014, to begin planning a trip to Ireland and Scotland for the summer of 2015.
I needed to return to my ancestral roots in Ireland; I also needed to return to Ashton’s ancestral home in Scotland, which included a visit to his parents who were living there.
If a shell had formed around me in the aftermath of Ashton’s passing, it began to crack with the planning of the trip. I was in my grieving therapy. I spontaneously purchased the overseas tickets; I remember asking myself the next day, “do I really want to do this?” The answer, quickly, was yes. I needed to pack my knapsack and to make this trip; it was part of the break in my depression.
When I’d book hotels, it would force me to speak Gaelic on the phone; I’d never met these people, be they the hotel owners or the receptionists, in my life, and talking to them forced me to talk to someone; that simple act of communication with someone I’d never met, it caused a pivot inside of me.
I went home to Ireland. I went to reconnect with my roots. I went to Ashton’s Scottish home. I went to reconnect to his roots. I could feel his spirit with me constantly; I was by myself physically, yet we were together spiritually. This was necessary for my healing.
Starting in Glasgow, I found a bar. It’s not what you likely are thinking; I didn’t go to drown my sorrows but rather to draw. I sort out my thoughts through my artwork. I enjoyed the scenery, I appreciate Glasgow whenever I visit, including the beautifully maintained, 500-year-old cobblestone roads.
Ashton’s parents knew I was coming; I’d first mentioned this visit in November 2014, our first contact in two years, and here we were eight months later.
I arrived with something to say and with a request for some items. On the latter, I wanted Ashton’s baby ring and I wanted his Christening blanket. Religion, his Catholicism, mattered to Ashton.
As for the former, the conversation with Ashton’s parents had the greatest effect, I believe, on Ashton’s dad. My late husband struggled his whole life with abandonment issues; remember he was handed to us at the tender age of two. All Ashton ever wanted was his parents’ validation, something my father repeatedly made clear to them, and each time we’d visit they couldn’t bring themselves to give it. To this day I’m angry about it. How could they?
So, you know what I did? I took their issue, and please allow me to highlight this point, their issue, which Ashton carried his whole life and in one conversation I lifted the matter off his spirit and firmly deposited it in my father-in-law’s lap.
We remain in touch to this day, speaking to mark occasions such as Ashton’s birthday, which falls on April 8. I am, however, still bothered by that visit because it was clear they were bothered more for my loss than they were about the death of their own son.
I spent time in Inverness, a city I love for its personality and its scenery and its art, and in Edinburgh. Ashton has cousins in both cities; it was important for me to see them.
I’d hired a tour guide who drove me from place to place and on the recommendation of his wife I spent some nights at the Glenspean Lodge in Inverness-shire. It was around this time, for the first time since Ashton’s death, I began to feel myself. I appreciated its beauty. I ran up the hills of the Highlands and got back on my dietary routine, regaining some of the healthy weight I’d lost in the two years of my deep depression.
Next, it was off to London for art, nightlife and music. I have family in the UK capital, along with friends and military acquaintances. Retiring to the top loft in the Westminster Bridge Plaza each night, I appreciated the view of the River Thames during my two weeks in the city.
My arrival in Ireland, my homeland, meant so much. I started in Dublin and visited with my mom’s family. Mom was the youngest of five; I have three uncles and an auntie. It was wonderful to see them and their spouses and their children, who of course are my cousins and all of whom are older than me.
I took occasions to attend a couple of football (don’t call it soccer!) matches; I took in some rugby, too. These sports are much a part of the social fabric of Scotland, England and Ireland.
In Waterford, my father’s hometown, I’m truly in my roots. I’m truly in my DNA. I’m truly in the ground. I can feel my genetics and not only because I look like half the city’s population; swordsmen, true warriors came from Waterford. I, too, am a warrior and I am a fairy. You may know Waterford best for the crystal which takes its name; I have cousins who work at the local plant, which has produced, among other items, the crystal ball which drops at midnight, annually, to ring in the new year in New York City’s Times Square.
The Irish love having fun; they draw you in with song and dance and, of course, the occasional drink. The local watering hole in Waterford is always a joyous scene.
I toured Ireland for the next three weeks and returned home, via Halifax, on August 31.
I felt human again, so much so that around Christmas I began dating. We’ll call him Jordan, a friend of a friend, who’s a kind and honest man and who helped me as I relearned what it felt like to be desirable.
Jordan wasn’t threatened by my past; he was patient. Remember, I’d known Ashton since we were two years old; intimacy with another man was foreign to me. My first kiss with Jordan felt like I was betraying the essence of my marriage. I cried and he was okay with it, he didn’t personalize it, and that saw me through. With Jordan I reclaimed my sexual nature; however, we weren’t a love match. He’s now married and I’m happy for him.
By 2017 I was working regularly again and in the latter part of that year I began dating a man who we’ll call Cameron. Our relationship lasted for nine months, a similar length of my courtship with Jordan; and while I felt more myself during my time with Cameron, he and I weren’t a fit. We communicated well and therefore didn’t have hurt feelings, for which I’m thankful, upon our breakup.
September 28, 2017, marked the five-year anniversary of Ashton’s death. I’d started specific therapy, about six months in advance, in anticipation of this day. Through counselling I established a plan which materialized with the gathering of my family, specifically my brother, sister-in-law and my four nephews, and Ashton’s parents who’d flown in from Scotland. An uncle and aunt living in Victoria BC joined us, as did some of my other aunties; my dear friend, Brìn, who like Ashton grew up in my home, graciously attended. We gathered at the beautiful Château Montebello hotel in Montebello, Quebec.
Three-dozen, or so, of us were together. I spoke. Ashton’s father spoke. We had wonderful meals. We played some sports. Ashton’s cousins did a Scottish dance, which brought me to tears. I’d painted a photo of our wedding – there are a couple of photos of us on our wedding day, which I particularly adore, and I painted one of them.
It was an intimate weekend; it was endearing; it was heartfelt. I got to say goodbye to Ashton on another level, which was important to me.
These days, I’m back to work and I’m busy advocating for my LGBTQ+ community. I, along with other friends of mine, help to sponsor a Syrian couple through Rainbow Railroad, a wonderful organization which helps queer people relocate from their war-torn homelands. This couple happily lives in Ottawa; they’ve learned English and they’re busy creating a life for themselves.
My work in the LGBTQ+ space goes back to when we knew it only as “LGB.” I was about 20 years old and I showed up at work one Monday wearing a dress; remember, I’m in the military so it was an odd look! I did so to protest bullying I experienced. I’d get pushed against a wall, held there, in a bathroom; sometimes the bullies wouldn’t let me in the bathroom or, if I did make it inside, they’d hold the door closed from the outside.
It was classic death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts homophobia.
The problems stopped one day when, as I was walking to the bathroom, one of the bullies came out of a doorway from behind me and two others came at me from a perpendicular hallway. The guy behind me pushed me into one of the guys in front of me; this guy knocked me down. However, I got up and roundhouse kicked the guy in front in the chest. I heard the thud of my boot hit him and he fell on his backside. I went upstairs, got my stuff, and went home.
Later, in conversation with my father, I told him I didn’t need the headache; I could find a job in another line of work. He pivoted my thinking when he gave me permission to seek alternatives but suggested I could lead the change in the military’s approach to its LGB members. He appealed to my protective nature; he encouraged me to be the beacon for others.
An initial phone call with the Major, my boss, hit a wall when he suggested I “suck it up.” I told him he wasn’t hearing me. I took the next day off work, despite his initial protestations, telling him I was sick. That was a Friday.
The Monday? That’s the day I showed up in the dress. It was my way of saying I’m gay, you deal with it, or I’m gone.
The other gay guys loved it; I got cheers and pats on the back.
That same Major, with whom I’d had the unproductive phone call the previous week, told me his superior wanted to meet with us. Thankfully he didn’t treat me any differently wearing my dress than he would have if I’d been in regular uniform.
I told him the bullying stories; then, he asked the Major to leave the room, upon which point he asked me about my life and how we could fix the bullying problem.
That meeting was the genesis of the military’s push toward sexual and gender equality within the ranks.
I live fully. I have been through much. With me, you get my heart and my loyalty and my honour. You get my protection.
I’m happy. I’m kind.
I still feel as though I didn’t properly protect Ashton, like if one of us was to die it should have been me.
He is frozen in time. Ashton is 27, never to age. I picture my dear love in my mind, his face and its features and, more deeply, the man he was and the man he could have become, it’s as it will always be.
It isn’t easy trusting I can love again. What if another love is taken from me?
Love is worth it, though, and I’m finding it again with my partner, Scott, who likes it when I call him Scotty so don’t mind if I do!
So, perhaps, the rest of my life will be spent answering the Bee Gee’s question; the mending of my broken heart is an active, daily decision I make.