The Gift in My Mother’s Letting Go
My mom was sixty-five years old when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I was twenty eight at the time, building a life in Chicago five hundred miles away from the small Missouri town where I was raised and where my mom still lived. Before her diagnosis we spent our twice-weekly phone calls talking about my fledgling corporate career and the wonders of big city living (Thai food! El train commuting! Oprah Winfrey studios!). However, I left out all references to my personal life, afraid of what my mom would think of her lesbian daughter.
Neither of us was living a full life. After my father had died of a sudden heart attack three years earlier, my mom carved out a solitary life in the house that was once bursting with her eight children. The upstairs was closed off. The living room was still dominated by my father’s oversized easy chair and ottoman. My mother kept time in a chair tucked in the back corner of the room, reading books from our small town library and feeding herself a steady diet of canned soup and cheese sandwiches. She didn’t see the point in cooking for one. She rarely left the house, content to wait for visits from my brothers and sisters. She was playing out the string, not up to the task of starting over.
In her younger years she’d been a far more adventurous spirit, playing violin in a local symphony and enrolling in college at a time when higher education was considered unnecessary for women. She wrote a movie review column for the school paper, earning some notoriety for a quick wit. Still, she dropped out her junior year to marry my father, a handsome young military man who fell in love with her during their first evening together.
It was what young women did in 1952. I entered my twenties with considerably more options. I’d moved to Chicago without knowing anyone, attracted to the infinite possibilities of a big city. Yet two years in, my transition was incomplete. Through the week I kept time working long hours as a data analyst, paying my corporate dues and avoiding lonely nights in my studio apartment. I was at the very beginning of my life as a lesbian, acknowledging my identity to myself, dipping my toes in the shallow waters of new relationships, but always protective of my privacy.
Both lonely, my mother and I looked forward to our long rambling phone conversations. She gave me the news of her cancer diagnosis on one such call.
“I got my scans back,” she said. Her voice was steady, nothing to betray bad news.
“How’d they go?” I asked. My mom had been tired and running a fever for months.
“The breast cancer is back,” she answered, still even toned. “It’s spread into my brain and lungs. I can do radiation to extend my life, but it’s not curable.” She had survived breast cancer in her late fifties, but she wouldn’t be so lucky again.
I took in the information, but not really the impact of what she was telling me.
“They say maybe two years but I’m ready to go. I miss your father,” she continued. My mother had lived her life for her family, often ignoring her own psyche. With no family left to care for, the hole in her life had filled with anxiety. Even though I was at the other end of my journey, I understood about the heaviness of empty spaces.
“I’ll miss you,” I told her, not as a protest of her willingness to let go so easily but as a statement of fact. My mom was not good at talking about emotions, so there would be no wailing from me if she was satisfied with her lot.
However, I still braced myself for what was coming. My dad’s death had unleashed a torrential grief. I walked around with a huge abscess in my chest for months, my daily life almost an afterthought to hours lying in bed talking to my father from across the divide.
“Are you there?” I would whisper into the dark. I could almost feel the weight of his presence in the room, as undeniable as it was untouchable.
“What do you think?” I asked, tentatively. As much as I grieved the absence of my father, I was also anxious that he could now see all the parts of my life I’d hidden from him. Some things were trivial, like smoking cigarettes. Others felt monumental, like my being a lesbian. At that point, I was still immersed with shame over my identity, fairly convinced I was going to hell. I’d had a couple of alcohol infused coming outs to close friends, but had not sought out a relationship with a woman, so unwilling was I to give life to my secret.
My grief over my father and my wrestling match with my sexuality ran in parallel.
Confronting the reality that life is finite made me acutely aware of the cost of my compartmentalized existence. As I celebrated what I most admired about my dad – the fact that he prioritized family so highly – I knew that I had to come out before I could have a family of my own. Simultaneously, in my anger at his abandonment of me, I questioned why I worried so much about the opinions of people who would die and leave me anyway. The dual lines of thought prompted my move to Chicago with it’s thriving gay community.
No one in my family knew for a fact that I was a lesbian but I wasn’t particularly feminine, and I had never mentioned a boyfriend, so they weren’t oblivious. When I had come out to one of my best friends, she laughingly responded “Good, now we can talk about it with you in the room.” Talking to me about it was ok for my friends to do, but I wasn’t ready to give that permission to my family.
I mostly feared my mother’s reaction. I remembered being nine and listening to her side of a somber phone conversation with my older sister. “At least you were a church goer,” I heard my mother say more than once. “What does the doctor say?”
The talk was so heavy that I was convinced that my sister was dying of cancer. I exhaled with relief on learning she was only unmarried and pregnant. Looking back at that time, I was convinced that being a lesbian would be worse in my mom’s mind than my sister’s supposed transgression. I was beginning to accept myself. I didn’t need to go spinning back into worries that I was hell bound
And now that I knew my days with my mother were short, I resisted centering myself in her journey. I knew that it wouldn’t be possible to express all the gratitude, voice the long list of resentments, or resolve every question before she died. As my final gift to her I wanted to push that to the side and give her the space she needed to let go of this world.
For the next few months I flew home to see her every other weekend. Our visits were quiet – we reminisced, we watched TV. I never saw her hesitate in her willingness to die. Rather, she seemed to enjoy her going away party. When the radiation treatment made her hair fall out in clumps, she shaved her head bald. Instead of turning to wigs or hats, she left her head bare. The first time I saw her that way I was braced for an early glimpse of her in her casket, but on the contrary she nearly glowed. Her baldness harkened to the beginning of a wanted journey, not the end of a life she was tired of.
I fully expected things to end that way – her immersed in the simple things with no pretense or grand farewell. So I was surprised when on what turned out to be my last visit home she turned off the evening news we’d been watching together and turned to face me.
“It’s time for me to go,” she said. She clasped her trembling hands in front of her.
I nodded, tears welling up but not falling. I knew she was telling me that there would be no two years of saying good bye – she was resolved to let go now.
“I love you,” I told her. What else could I say?
“I love you too,” she said, then pausing.
“All of my other kids are settled down with families of their own. I worry about you. You’re by yourself.”
“I’ll be ok mom. I’ll miss you, but I’ll be ok.”
“You’re the only one who doesn’t live around here,” she said. “You’re different, you like Chicago.”
“I do.” For a moment I feared she was going to advise me to come back to Missouri. To re-assimilate to life there.
“And I know you have friends there who are alternative.”
My heart skipped a beat. I wasn’t shocked that my mother might have suspected I was a lesbian, but I never thought she’d be the one to bring it up, albeit hedging her bet by saying “alternative” in case she was off the mark.
I nodded again.
“Be happy,” she told me. “I know some of the people in this family won’t like your choices. They’ll say I would have disapproved.”
“Live your life. Make choices to be happy.”
I smiled, slightly shaken in surprise, and she beamed back, knowing her impact.
“I love you,” I said again. I felt lighter in knowing my mother saw me for who I really was and still loved me.
She picked up the TV remote and turned the evening news back on. It was the last conversation we’d have before saying good bye on her death bed. It was the last conversation I’d have expected to have from my no nonsense mother.
In her last weeks in this life, she invited me to live mine more fully. Two decades later, I still think of my mom when my wife and son and I are playing basketball in the backyard or sharing a laugh around the dinner table. I am free in enjoying these moments. My family is the greatest joy of my life, given to me in no small part by a mother who, in her days of letting go, counseled me to give up the fears that held me back. I carry her words with me, always.
Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about lesbian parenthood and the experience of raising a child with Down syndrome. She lives in San Diego with her wife and son.