A few days ago, a Toronto newspaper printed an amazing in-depth story about a 55-year old single woman who is in no way a celebrity or a public figure. When I printed it in a tiny font, it came to six pages.
The single woman profiled in the story, Shelagh Gordon, is no longer with us. She died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. A reporter from the paper saw the obituary and became curious. Eventually, 14 reporters interviewed more than 130 of Shelagh’s friends and family members.
To the people who knew her, Shelagh was hardly ordinary. As the reporter explained, she had no husband and no kids
“But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews, and her ‘life partner’ – a gay man – who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her wearing matching reading glasses.”
Her obituary said that she had two “special friends” – the gay man and a woman who had been her best friend since ninth grade. She had no children of her own but several of the children in her life considered her a second mother. More than two adults thought of her as a best friend. She nurtured, entertained, brought people together (I’m not talking couples here), and kept them close. Go ahead and read the entire story if you are interested.
Toward the end of the article, after describing in great detail how full of love Shelagh’s life had been, the reporter just can’t seem to help herself. Now she has to know why Shelagh never married. It wasn’t for lack of opportunities – she had three of them. Here’s the question the reporter asked:
“Why did the ultimate lover hide from making the ultimate commitment?”
Think about that for a moment. Do you find the question, and its underlying assumption, as narrow-minded as I do?
The question takes it as a given that “the ultimate commitment” is marriage. I bet if you allow yourself a few seconds you could easily generate other commitments that are equally “ultimate.” Personally, I’m not a religious person, but I imagine that people who have devoted their lives to their God believe that they have made “the ultimate commitment.”
This weekend, I read about a woman in her 60s, who had been single all her life, and who took care of her mother, and then her brother, and then her brother’s wife, as each faced the end of their lives. Isn’t that quite a commitment?
What about all the people who devote their lives to social justice or to scientific discovery or to any of a limitless array of options that enrich the lives of many people beyond just themselves and a spouse? Some make contributions that last for generations. Why aren’t those commitments just as ultimate as getting married?
It is just stunning how many other endeavors, however noble, are relegated to second-class status. A few years ago, I was sent a dissertation by a publishing house that was considering publishing it as a book. The dissertation was about single people, and the author told the story of a man who had been spending years working with children in another country who were desperately poor. The author believed that he should stop spending his time that way and come home and get married. You will be shocked to learn that I did not recommend the work for publication.
I don’t think you need to do anything as extraordinary as cure disease or right social wrongs in order to make the ultimate commitment. What matters, I think, is to lead your fullest, most meaningful, and most authentic life. That’s the ultimate commitment.
As for Shelagh, if she had tried to squeeze her great big heart into a conventional marriage, I think her life would have been smaller. She owes no one an answer as to why she purportedly did not make the ultimate commitment. Her commitments were legion.
By the way, can you believe Shelagh is in her grave and is still getting hounded with singlism!
[Note: Thanks to Sheila for the heads-up about this story and for her many insightful critiques of it. We both agree, though, that on balance, it is very much a positive thing that a single woman was featured in such depth, with so many of her strengths and contributions recognized.]
Woman with dog photo available from Shutterstock.