“I Had A Mommy And A Daddy And A Bernie.” A Gay Man’s Legacy Inspires An Ally To Do More.

by Jean-Claire Fitschen

I’m Jean-Claire Fitschen. I’m from Chicago, Illinois.

When I was a baby, I had a mommy and a daddy and a Bernie. Bernie met my parents at the University of Chicago when they were in graduate school. He was studying history of religion. He was a theologian and he was a passionate Episcopalian who lived with us while he was working on his PhD and his doctorate, doctoral thesis, which I hear took forever.

When I was little, when I was 4 or 5 years old, I went to people’s houses, visiting, and I would say “Where’s your Bernie?” because I thought everybody had a Bernie. And as I got older and I was in high school and then in college, I got to know my Bernie as a more fully-formed person – not just someone who loved me and took care of me but someone who I, in turn, cared about and loved.

When I finished college and I was living on my own, I ran into Bernie just on accident in our neighborhood – we lived near each other – and he introduced me to a friend, who, he said, well, “This is Joe.” And it was at that point I realized that he had relationships that couldn’t be talked about or weren’t talked about, that weren’t acknowledged. I realized at that moment that he was living his life in the closet, although I probably didn’t even have those words. I felt shame at that moment because he was introducing me to someone who was really important to him, but it wasn’t introduced in that way.

When I was older and I was pregnant with my own child, the really unthinkable thing happened and that was that Bernie passed away. It was really sudden and he was really young – he was 63. He had just retired from an incredible career as a teacher. I was both grief stricken and I was also in the process of helping to plan his memorial. Friends and family came together and asked me to create a memorial-like booklet that would honor his life, that would be a collection of stories from his friends and family and former students.

I was looking at all of the stories. I was six months pregnant with my daughter and it was the summer time in Chicago, which is very hot and humid. I remember sitting on the floor in my living room with all of these stories all over the floor, in paper, in handwritten scrawls, and in printed-out emails. I sat there and I remember thinking a whole range of emotions including frustration and shame because what was apparent to me is that there were huge pieces of his life missing that were not reflected in these stories. There was just the most incredible outpouring of love and memories of a life that was so incredible, and there were no stories about who his loves were. Something just clicked or changed in me that this was not right.

I called someone that I knew was a long-time partner of Bernie’s and I asked him to contribute stories to fill in the gaps of Bernie’s life. Of course, he was thrilled to be asked to share all of these stories. So, I collected stories from him that sort of filled in those holes. I asked him if he would please come to the memorial and could I bring him as a guest of honor.

So I got in the car with my belly out to here and I drove to his apartment and I brought him to the service. I sat him down with my family and Bernie’s extended family in a seat of honor that I felt appropriate and something that Bernie would have really appreciated but, more importantly, honored the people that loved Bernie and Bernie loved.

That memorial changed me because I promised to myself that I would connect how I feel and think to what I say and what actions I take. And that shows up as not just going to a pride parade to enjoy the spectacle, but actually walking in the parade with my friends and family and coworkers. It shows up as of putting up a pride flag in my office – a very simple thing that sends a very specific message to my coworkers that this is a safe place to be out and to be supported and celebrated for all the ways in which we should as individuals. Those are just some ways in which I try to walk in this world differently since Bernie’s passing and sort of be the person I want to be because of him.

I was pregnant when Bernie passed and my husband and I had a bunch of names, you know, on a list. When Bernie passed, Mark just turned to me and said, “Well, of course her name is Bernadine.” That meant a lot to me and, you know, I think she has a great name because that name comes with a great legacy of someone who put so much good in this world and passed it on to her.

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