In an earlier incarnation – i.e. in my twenties, I might have claimed that marriage is an institution, and women don’t need to be put in institutions. And I would have been quite right, up to a point. The whole man-giving-away-a woman-to-another-man-via-another man-in-a-fancy-dress outfit stuck solidly in my craw. My craw was gagged. My craw was filled with repressive, misogynistic, deep throating patriarchal tradition. Tradition tasted foul. I frequently brought up bile.
Fast forward thirty-ish years to one of the happiest weekends of recent memory. My brother and his partner married after seventeen years and two extraordinarily beautiful children together. The comedian Susan Calman has written and performed very eloquently and movingly about the grossly unfair hetero/homo divide when it comes to the state and church allowing (or not) a partnership to upgrade to a marriage. I can’t improve on what she’s said, and won’t try to, but go and google her and you’ll see what I mean.
This wasn’t a religious ceremony, though. And thank God for that. It was a truly honest, glorious, joyful, deeply emotional event which was all about celebrating a relationship which had already endured the utter shit life throws at good people (my brother was assaulted and very seriously injured six years ago) as well as the everyday miracles and simple wonders (the births of my niece and nephew). This ceremony was all about celebrating, nearly two decades on, and witnessed and supported by their two children, a love that has already used love itself to trump the institutional card, the piety and hypocrisy of the church; a love that never needed a ring forced onto a finger, never needed a veil over a face to sugar the pill.
I was asked to read a poem written by my brother’s friend, the brilliant poet Lemn Sissay. The poem is called ‘Invisible Kisses’. Weeks before the big day, I printed out a copy, took a deep breath, read half of the first line and immediately burst into tears. Not ladylike, gently moisturising tears, no. These were fat, snotty, sucking in air like a drowning donkey tears. Why? I speak in front of people for a living. I like doing it, very much. I even dare to teach other people how to speak in public. I have never, ever cried during my work. (I have fallen fast asleep, granted, but it was a particularly dull session and I was horribly hungover.)
I tried again. Just get through the first line, I thought, and I’ll be fine. Very deep breath. No. Not a chance. Could I even think about reading it without crying? As the weeks went by, and I travelled around as usual by car, train, bus and foot, each and every time I thought about the poem, the tears fell. Talking to colleagues at work about it would set me off. Talking to my sister on the phone, outside Tesco, clutching happy chicken thighs set me (and her) off. Why could I not get through this beautiful piece of writing without my throat clenching like a frozen bum hole and the traitorous tears of sentiment flooding my face?
Love. Huge, pure, savage, tidal love. Because when pure and uncut love is felt and named, it is overwhelming. It carries with it the years of shared sibling history, the uncountable, unwritten stories of our lives, the ghastly and the great, the horrifying and the hilarious. My brother chose this poem because Lemn, great writer that he is, can write words which name what lovers know and understand. It is about protecting, without attributing weakness; it is about optimism without assuming disaster; it is about humanity, hope. It is about love.
At last, under chilly October skies and at a gloriously bonkers hotel, our family gathered, car by car, tribe by tribe. I welcomed family Elders to my room, and tried to read the poem. They started crying before I did. Hopeless. I took advice from my beloved actor cusband, Tom – nah, not a chance, he said. I’ll cry, you’ll cry. Sorry, can’t help.
Cue the lights and action. My brother walked through our gathered kith and kin, glowing with love. My niece and nephew – heartbreakingly adorable, brought a hand-written poem and the ring. My nearly sister-in-love arrived and I don’t think we stood up and cheered, but it felt like we did. Beautiful doesn’t begin to cover it.
And when it finally came to my turn to stand there before them, before our messy, surviving, clever, creative, difficult, gorgeous families, I took the slowest, deepest breath, and locked eyes with my brother. It was just us.
And the words, the beautiful, passionate words, came clear and strong. My throat let them out, my tongue let them roll and slip and fly. Geese heading home at dusk. Balloons into a blue sky. I looked only at my brother and his wife, at my sister-in-love and her husband, it was between me and them and my faith and joy in their marriage. No church, no men in fancy dress, no veils, no hypocrisy, no obeying. No crying.
My twenty-something self could not have been happier.