Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Tears She Shed to Save Me

My mother died in 1995, after 5-6 years of senile dementia. Had she lived, she would be 88 today.

The most painful period of my life was late in 1994, having to care for my mother alone while my father (usually her principal caregiver) was in the hospital, following quadruple bypass surgery. What giving care to someone in her condition means I won’t go into now—needless to say it involves odious tasks for which I was unprepared, tasks exacerbated by my father’s absence, which caused my mother further discombulation and helplessness.

My work situation and my father’s weakened condition after his surgery forced us to put my mother in a rest home, where she died almost a year later, at age 75.

Even before her final illness, my mother was a troubled woman. At an early age, I became an unwilling confidant as she raged against my father (he was cold, she said; he was cheating on her, she claimed; she would divorce him, she threatened, and then demand that I decide then and there which parent I would choose to stay with). When I tried to defend him or offer an alternative interpretation of the facts, she would fly into a rage against me, slapping me across the face with a belt buckle.

I was an only child, so I got the full force of her adoration at one moment and then the full force of her disappointment and disapproval the next.

Occasionally, fairly frequently, she threw away my birthday and Christmas presents a month after I received them. Once she had a puppy of mine put to sleep, informing me of her decision on a crowded bus, hoping the presence of other passengers would keep me from crying and embarrassing myself and her. I cried anyway. She said I wasn’t taking good care of the dog.

At the same time she exploited my compassion, taking me to pet shops to point out the cute animals in the store windows and complaining that, given the unreasonably high prices, the owners would be unable to sell them and would eventually kill them.

She told me about her past. She had lost the use of her right arm in a drunken automobile accident. All my life it hung limp and paralyzed at her side. She could not therefore pick me up when I was a baby.

One of her brothers had raped her, she said. Her own parents had never told her they loved her, she said, which was why, she said, she so compulsively told me she loved me (even in her dementia, she would repeat phrases like “You’re crazy, I love you”).

She had been a close friend of Hank Williams, she said. In his early career in Alabama, he would get so drunk she had to stand next to him to prop him up close to the microphone.

It was not unusual for me to find my mother alone and crying uncontrollably. In my teenage years I learned to cajole and play the fool to try to break her dark moods.

When we visited her brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, typically she got into a teary shouting match with one or all of them. She had little use for her older siblings, whom she felt abused by. And yet she liked to remark on how lonely I must be, as an only child, instilling self-pity, all the more because (I suspect) I was naturally cheerful and self-contained.

In the 1970s, right when I was struggling in private with my homosexuality, my mother joined forces with born-again entertainer Anita Bryant to rid Dade County of its protections for teachers and other county employees, regardless of their sexual orientations. She asked me point blank whether I was gay. I denied it. She said it was a good thing since if she ever found out that I was gay she would put a bullet through my head. Homosexuality equaled murder, in her mind.

It took another seven or so years for me to tell her the truth—and then I did it in a rage of my own, spurred by her heated insistence that AIDS was God’s judgment on the wicked. Irritated that I disagreed with her on this, she asked me again, “Are you gay?” “Yes,” I said. “Then you’re not a Christian!” she said. She literally spat out the words, while she burst into sobs.

To her credit, she eventually came around to accepting me as I am, even referring to Vince, my lover for some time, as her second son.

My mother loved me. I’m not sure she knew how to do this, but she often, maybe too often, repeated the words “I love you” to me. In her crying fits she would tell me that I was the only good thing God had ever given her. Growing up, I felt unworthy of the devotion and tears she spent on me. I was too much the center of her world, the sole justification for her sad existence. Her love for me was both miraculous and scary.

She never left my father, and my father never left her. They needed each other, whether they liked it or not. My friend Luis once remarked, wryly, that his parents had met in church and divorced, while my parents had met in a Miami bar and remained together until death did them part.

When she died, I sobbed uncontrollably—as I had on the crowded bus as a boy. Too heartbroken to be embarrassed by my lack of self-control. I cried because she was dead. Because she had never really had a happy life. Because I had been everything to her and had let her down over and over again. Because, in a way I had never anticipated that I would, I missed her.


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