To those I love--
Most of you know that for some time I've been planning to check out—not out of despair or depression, but a desire to end things well. I've been lucky enough to have had a remarkable life, immeasurably enriched by the love and support of a large (if improbable) group of friends and lovers. I don't want to let it fizzle out in years of debility and dependency. I've gambled enough to know that quitting while you're ahead (or at least even) is wise.
And those of you familiar with my birthday will recognize that the timing of my exit allows me to claim as my epitaph:
Love and good-bye,
Sally had planned for many years to "check out" before her 70th birthday, but I always thought it was a vague promise, along the lines of “gonna die before I get old.” Sally was more youthful in spirit than me, and I was half her age, so I figured I’d never see that day.
But I did see the day, in the form of a phone call from my ex, Honey, telling me that Sally had really gone and done it. She had cleaned her house, put all her affairs in order, and given herself and her beloved poodle, Jake, a perfect good-bye cocktail of narcotics. She died peacefully, and exactly as she had designed.
I cried like a baby on the phone. "I just saw her a couple days ago, and she said nothing to me, nothing."
Honey told me that Sally had sent out letters. The next day, there mine was, lying on the floor under the mail slot. No return address. It looked from the envelope like a party invitation, or some subversive plot she was hatching. It was, indeed, the most subversive scheme she’d ever designed.
I opened the envelope and found a typewritten note Sally had photocopied for her long-time friends, lovers, and those family members with whom she was still on speaking terms. In the letter, she sounded just as confident, determined, and funny as ever. "Toujours Soixante-Neuf!” she proclaimed at the end. That was her motto: "Forever 69!"
Sally Binford, as anyone who knew her will tell you, was an astonishing person. A pioneering anthropologist and archaeologist, her writings on prehistory are required reading for most college courses in the discipline. A passionate antiwar activist who dropped out of academia at the height of her career in the 1960s, she was one of the founding mothers of the modern feminist movement, a charter member of NOW. But beyond that, she was the first woman ever (if you don't count Emma Goldman) who I'd call the very model of a sex-positive feminist.
Sally was the living embodiment of radical sexual liberation— free from the bonds of jealousy, monogamy, and any and all love arrangements based on the idea of private property. She was one of the members of Sandstone, the infamous Malibu center for communal free love and rigorous chess playing. She was the female "star" of the only movie ever made about the sex lives of old people, "A Ripple in Time," which she made with her dear friend Ed Brecher when she was in her late 50s.
Sally was a one-of-a-kind sex educator and a trail blazer to the very end, the only bisexual member of the very first "Old Lesbian Conference" steering committee. Sometimes she'd end a phone call with me, saying she had to go to a Gray Panthers meeting, and I'd wonder how the rest of them could possibly keep up with her.
Ms. Binford could convert anyone to the cause of erotic camaraderie and social insurrection. She was so smart, witty, an intellectual's delight, a revolutionary's inspiration— and above all, a hell of a lot of fun. She made her homes in Maui, San Francisco and southern France, near her beloved caves at Lascaux. Her poker parties, which brought some of the finest minds in town to the table, were notorious. Her Thanksgiving and Christmas suppers were legendary.
She loved me to pieces, and I guess that's the thing that gets to me the most. Forget famous Sally, or notorious Sally, and you'd still find someone who would do anything for the people she loved—except live past her prime.
A year after Sally's death—and months after everyone who'd ever loved her had met at the enormous wake she requested—her longtime lover and companion Jeremy Slate wrote to each of us, asking what we made of Sally's choice to die. He wrote:
I believe in her dying, Sally had something to say, a point to make. Not unlike her, hey?
To clarify that point, to continue to reap the rewards of having known Sally, we should examine our feelings and let them be known to each of us.
If you agree, please answer a couple of questions and add some of your own:
Were you aware that Sally was planning to die when she was still 69? How'd you find out?
What was your emotional response/reaction upon learning of her death?
Where did your reasoning take you? What, ultimately, did you think of Sally's choice?
What are your feelings now, nearly two months later?
I wrote Jeremy a long reply. Yes, Sally had told me about her plan to "check out" according to her own design, and I hadn't liked it, although I wouldn't dream of trying to talk her out of it. She was the first person to ever prompt me to consider what I ’m am going to do when my life is at its end.
Was I aware that Sally was planning to die when she was still 69?
Sally first told me about her plans to check out more than a year ago on a car trip we took to M. and R.'s ranch. We were on the winding forest road that leads to their place when she brought it up. She was 68 at the time. She told me she had no intention of living past 69, blah blah, her usual rap about how she'd planned this for a long time. By way of explanation, she added that her whole family tended to fall apart after 70 years of age.
She spoke of three people who were influential in her wishes...
Continued in Mommy's Little Girl, "Checking Out"
Photo of Sally, on the right, and her dear friend, Frances Lorraine, in Barbara Hammer's 1992 film, NITRATE KISSES.