My friend Elizabeth McClung died Monday morning. Normally this isn’t something I would talk about online, but Elizabeth was the first person who I met online, never met in person, and considered a real friend. She lived her life publicly and openly, sharing with the world her wry wit, sharp analysis, generous spirit, and raw unfiltered experience, holding nothing back. So it seems appropriate to say something about her here.
Beth hated the word “inspirational” when applied to people with disabilities, so I’ll say instead that she was a brilliant badass superstar who changed my life. I met her through her blog, Screw Bronze, which started out as a blog about her just-published novel, Zed, her life as a champion fencer, and her musings on queer culture and rights. (A sidenote to say, unlike a lot of queer cisgender writers who discuss LGBTQI issues, with Elizabeth the “T” and “I” were a real and present part of the conversation.) By the time I found her blog, in 2007, she had begun her long journey with a terminal disease and the blog had become “An archive of posts regarding disability, lesbian life and culture, wheelchairs, mobility, goth and goth crip fashion, manga, anime, epee fencing, women and LGBT issues”. After some particularly crap stuff happened with her family of origin, she put out a call for family-of-choice; I requested the role of “flakey cousin” and had the honor of being accepted into the fold. Over the years we sent each other many care packages and postcards – Beth was the most inventive, elaborate postcard creator, and kept a spreadsheet of each recipient’s interests so she could tailor the card specifically to them.
The last time I corresponded with her, a couple of weeks ago, I told her, “You and the blog were once one of my few bright spots in a world that had narrowed to the few feet around my bed. Your words and your stories and your strength and your humor and your brilliant, clever, vast mind. You connected me to the disability community online and you were the first person I ever thought of as a friend who I’d never met in “real life.” Knowing you changed my idea of what “real life” is.” I literally learned how to live as a person with a disability from Elizabeth. I discovered through her that there was a community out there I could connect with without ever having to leave the house, and that this experience I was having was not just a quiet, shameful, personal one, but instead part of something greater, something with history and advocacy, allies and people standing in solidarity with one another.
Beth’s wife of nearly 20 years, Linda, put a final post up on Screw Bronze that talks about some of Elizabeth’s many accomplishments, if anyone is interested in reading further about the life of my extraordinary friend. Elizabeth was candid with her friends and readers throughout the years about her desire for affection and appreciation, and about her fears that as she grew sicker, as her memory and eloquence and many of the things that made her “her” started to change or disappear, people would leave her and she would be alone. I feel like her sincerity and honesty in this regard blew a hole clean through the fog of shame that sometimes surrounds admissions of vulnerability and needing other people. I tried to let her know often how much she meant to me, but I wish I’d done this sooner, while she was still alive – stood up and shouted, “Elizabeth McClung is an amazing person! I love her and want everyone to know about her!”
I can’t actually conceive of a world without Elizabeth in it. She’s been dying the whole time I’ve known her, but that means I’ve spent the last six years watching her evade death through, as far as I can tell, sheer force of will. Almost all of my postcards and gifts from her were in my living room, and constituted the bulk of the irreplacable things lost in the fire. We hadn’t been in touch as much since I started graduate school, but, like in many of my friendships with PWDs, we had a general understanding that sometimes you don’t have enough spoons to make contact but that doesn’t mean you don’t care. I can’t believe there will never be an “after I finish school” chapter of our friendship, or any more Elizabeth postcards to replace the ones that were destroyed. I’m guessing this is something I’ll be processing for a long time to come – Elizabeth affected my life in so many different ways that reminders of her and my gratitude to her are everywhere I turn.
The last thing she wrote was “I am a fraction of a fraction – 20% of me at 75% – still enough to regret that everything I was, everything I would be, everything I did unknown all fall into dust; swept by the angel of history.” The world’s time with Elizabeth was far too short, but I know her impact will continue to reverberate onward. Elizabeth, my friend, my cousin-of-choice, my mentor, my guide: you are loved, and you will be remembered.