My mother died in October. She didn’t know I was gay. Let me rephrase that: I never told her I was gay. When I first came out, in my forties, she was just beginning to show serious signs of Alzheimer’s. I told myself it wasn’t necessary—why bring it up now, when she won’t remember it anyway.
The truth was, I didn’t want to make myself that vulnerable with my mother—we had a bad history, and this was just the kind of landmine that could explode in an instant. I didn’t have enough armor on this particular issue to go into battle.
As she descended into confusion, it was hard to tell what she understood and what she didn’t. Ironically, the disease caused her to become friendly and nice for the first time in her life—my kids and I were shocked when the nurses would say, “oh, your mother is so sweet.” This was a woman who could knock you out cold with one sentence and a single glare.
My partner at the time always came with me to see my mother—she got how toxic it could still be, even with the new, socially acceptable version of my mother. At the end of each visit, my mother would turn to me and say, “I love you.” Then she would turn to my partner and say, “I love you, too.” Did she know? Was she sending me a message that it was ok, and she was glad I had found love? Or was she just appreciating the fact that she was being taken care of?
My mother was proud to be a lefty—she raised me to believe that civil rights and equality for women were the most important issues of our day, and she fought for them. But I don’t think she would have been proud to have a gay daughter. I think it would have been a profound disappointment to her. And in spite of what I know in my head, in my heart I would have felt that I had failed her. Hearts are fickle like that.
Sometimes I wish I had had the courage to tell her when I was coming out. I was in my 40s for god sake—what could she have done to me? Even up until the very end, when she had lost almost all of her memories, she always knew who I was. I was with her for the week leading up to her death, and she died holding my hand. We had come a long way together to get to that peaceful end. I like to think that she knew, and that she had come to terms with it, just as I had come to terms with some of the things she had done and the reasons she did. On one of the final days, after she’d lost the ability to talk, I whispered to her: “we are both fierce, independent women,” and a tear ran down her cheek. She knew I was making peace. She did raise me to be a fierce, independent woman, with the strength to come out so late in life. And for that, I am grateful. Thanks, Felicia. May you rest in peace.