I just gave up.
I gave up on the idea that Mother’s Day isn’t hard now. It’s something that can’t be explained to someone who hasn’t lost their mother, because they don’t see all the manipulation that goes into marketing until after they don’t have to buy a gift.
Your mother’s death changes you in ways you won’t be able to understand until she’s been dead at least a few years. You can’t process that kind of loss overnight, nor really in your lifetime. You don’t release that kind childlike, animalistic grief. You learn to live around it. When your mother dies, you will see memories and feel emotions you haven’t felt since the events occurred. Sometimes, you will actually be seven at the time of her death. Sometimes, you’ll be an adult and feel seven and 13 and 45 all at the same time. This is because just like with machines, the computer in your brain is working on many cores and threads, and you’re experiencing the pain of several things at once from different areas of your life. You may not even realize that you’re doing it, but my example is blanking out.
When grief gets hard, my mind separates from my body. My thoughts are pictures, and I get lost quickly. When I come up for air, I have no idea how much time has passed. In the first three months, it could be a minute or five or ten, with no way of predicting how long the blank out would last. Just because my body has gone slack doesn’t mean my brain isn’t trying to protect me. Isn’t trying to see the path I was going down here and think, “well, we gotta shut this down.” When it’s not that bad, I see memories. When it is, the picture is akin to snow on TV. It depends on whether my brain’s mode of operation is through the problem or it’s too big an idea not to really hurt, so let’s just shut down that whole thing. I lag as easily as an old gaming rig with shitty wireless. Bringing the network back up takes time.
Where this is most acute is the time I didn’t get. My relationship with my mother went up and down like a roller coaster, based on the limitation of not growing up with queer people and then winning the home version. Her dreams for me were slashed, because she focused on all my limitations instead of my strengths in order to make sure I didn’t seem all that weird to parishioners and friends. I am not sure it ever really stopped bothering her that I was so different. She grieved for the tape in her head that was planning my wedding (think of the time). You don’t let go of that kind of fundamental loss, You learn to live around it.
The tape in my head that’s been running since I came out, so 31 years, is that my mother thinks I’m defective. I couldn’t help but believe she wanted a refund. My dad at least had gay students around him in grad school, so at least he’d met a gay person before I was born. If my mother had, she never said so.
Thus began the most unhealthy relationship of my life. I looked around for every queer person I could find. Either they were rumored to be queer or they looked like it based on pictures/videos I’d seen of their styles and mannerisms. I noticed butch women and effeminate men and wanted to run toward them, like a black kid raised by a white family and just as intense. I wish my mom had been like the white mom who looked around with their black child to ask them how to care for black hair.
My mother simply resigned herself to the fact that she had to look like the PFLAG type, but she didn’t have to be happy about it. She came to a gala where I was receiving an award for being part of the team at HATCH (Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals) that went out to local churches and spoke about our experiences. She was dating a Republican, and focused on Sheila Jackson Lee the whole time, because said Republican had told her there wasn’t a more dangerous place in Washington than between her and a TV camera.
I thought his joke was hilarious. The fact that my mother didn’t even seem to be proud of me? Not so much. I think that’s because one of my talks was at a church where she was employed. Again it was the message of “you will not do anything to embarrass this family.” Now it was her job, not my dad’s….. skipping over the fact that the church had invited HATCH in the first place, so why worry? I was a preacher’s kid. Like I don’t know how to work that particular crowd. Jesus had my back that day, and it made me happy that people were actually curious and not judgmental. One woman even asked me if it was true that gaydar was real. You could just tell. That was interesting because I knew what she was asking was if people could tell that about her. It wasn’t necessarily because she was queer (thought it could have been true). It could have been because she didn’t want people to think she was gay. Back then, that was not a good thing. We’re not talking about legislatively. We’re talking about violence on the street. It was perfectly acceptable to bash the unacceptable in the head.
Everyone focuses on the day that Harvey Milk was shot, when they should have been focused on “The Twinkie Defense.” There should have been some language of the unheard about that. Dan White, Harvey Milk’s executioner, told the jury that his homophobic behavior was created by his diet of junk food, and he was acquitted. He was Derek Chauvin before Derek Chauvin. No one also seemed to notice that Harvey Milk wasn’t the only one killed. So, that defense was used for a straight person as well, and would have been bullshit if the trial wasn’t for both of them. You cannot tell me that would have worked had the Mayor of San Francisco been the only one shot…. that he’d been driven to murder by junk food.
What would it have been like if my mother had gone with me through the problem rather than shutting down and asking me to pretend I wasn’t all that different from her? I could be gay as long as it never came up. The subject was off the table. Dana told me that my mother never looked her in the eye, and I don’t know whether that was hyperbole or not, because surely it couldn’t be true. I asked my mom about it, and she said she wasn’t aware of it and would make an effort. That was the beginning of redemption and resurrection.
It didn’t stop the jealousy of families that had two gay kids, because at least the siblings had each other. My sister is wonderfully and beautifully made and I am not saying that my life would have been better if she’d been born like me. No, I’m talking about in the randomization that happens before you are born. The story before you came into it. It hurt that there was no one hurting just like me. They were all hurting differently.
The mask I wore as a preacher’s kid was the mask I wore for the rest of my mother’s life…. most of the time. I let her in a little more when we were living in the same city, but mostly we chatted for hours on the phone about nothing. It was good because we’d stick to teaching, music, and diet soda. We had a ton of fun, but it wasn’t all rainbows.
The pain of superficial interaction vs. the fun my mother had together will be a recurring theme, because her different moods come at different times. She was a saint in my eyes, because of the way she took care of other people. What I cannot say is that I can rest in how she felt about me.
This is because her friends have told me how proud they are of me, how she never let anyone get away with homophobic comments, how she was so proud of me and loved me to bits. I am quite sure all of that is true. I wore the mask, so did she.
What she didn’t do was ask me about my life, because it would mean telling her about women who she also thought should get with the program. “Don’t embarrass” me was the whole show. She was horrified by Meagan, but she never would have said so. It wasn’t because she didn’t like her. It was because now me being gay was a thing she had to deal wth up close and personal. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Meagan’s mother was convinced that Meag had been perfectly straight until I came along. So, they should have talked to each other. I also never got to tell her that her daughter pursued me, not the other way around. There is no way I got a toaster on that one. If I’d been in any way bold enough to stand up for myself, I would have said “you’re going to have to look up ‘butch’ in the dictionary. Have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up.” I would have been grounded for months, but it wouldn’t have been untrue. Hanging out with a gay person doesn’t make you gay any more than hanging out with Indians makes you Indian.
It’s a concept my mother never really got, either. She thought my relationship with this older woman had set me on a bad path. She did, but not for the reasons she thought early on. She all at once read me the riot act for being gay and got tired of raising a lesbian daughter, so let someone else do it.
From my perspective, I came out to myself when I was about 10. It led to a massive depression that my mother attributed to me being lazy and telling me I couldn’t sleep all day. I was a ten year old, not a teenager. It wasn’t teenage angst. It wouldn’t have gone unnoticed today.
I didn’t meet the emotionally abusive adult until I was almost 13. That’s a lot of time to sit in my bedroom and wonder what in the hell was wrong with me, because no one else was going through it in my circle of friends. Still aren’t, as far as I know. As in, some have gay/trans relatives, but no one had struggled or is struggling with their own sexuality from my elementary and junior high school circle of friends.
I mentioned this to Daniel, and he thought I was picking on him for not standing up for me. I was not. I was telling him the reality of what happened, and how I might get along with his friends, or I might not…. and that was my concern, not his.
But, to get back to being almost 13, I wasn’t interesting as a love interest, but I was the picture of a mark. Rejected from everything I knew. Getting bullied for legit no reason except Baptists gonna Baptist. It was relentless, and for all the emotional turmoil that this relationship brought me, it was a haven as well. She could have gotten fired for people knowing at her school. Her trauma wasn’t over yet, either.
My trauma was that Houston was pretty accepting, but the further you went from it, the worse it got. That’s where I learned code switching. Being able to talk to a room of people who were horrified by me and saving my hurt for later.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that something is wrong with me. Fundamentally wrong. Internalized homophobia is strong with this one. At the same time, there is actually something wrong with me and it’s frustrating to an enormous degree…. both mentally and physically. I often don’t have enough spoons to donate energy to other people, and that’s when I really isolate, because I feel like I have nothing to contribute to the conversation.
The fact that all of this started at ten years old is frightening.
I don’t want to be the person that spreads the message that Mother’s Day is bad. Just that it’s not easy for everyone, and those people deserve comfort, too.