When I was 24 years old, my mother died the same day I almost told her I was gay. You know the cliché “If I come out to my parents, they’ll just die?” In my case, it almost happened. Well, it did happen that she died shortly after I almost told her, so that part is true. But still, the words “I am gay” did not pass my lips that July afternoon when we sat in my family’s den and she told me I needed to spend less time with my ‘friend” Donna. I knew she was uncomfortable with the fact that we shared a double bed in our small Portland apartment, because when she first visited, she remarked “Wouldn’t twin beds be cooler in the summer?” Now, if you know Maine, the word hot does not describe its summers. Her twin bed remark and later suggestion that I should find other friends led me to believe that she highly suspected what was going on, but she never came flat out and asked me. In our Irish Catholic family, touchy subjects were layered beneath innuendos, sideways glances and silence.
My mother certainly did not expect to die that very night, and would have been surprised to know it happened on her second-hand, nubby pink couch in clothes she had thrown on at 1AM. Her middle-of-the night trip to the emergency room yielded no answers for the excruciating headaches that had finally gotten bad enough for her to seek medical attention. It was the beginning of July and as everyone knows, July 1st is when first-year residents start impersonating doctors, quaking in their boots that they will encounter a real emergency and come up short in skills and knowledge. Residents at the Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine were certainly not the brightest, nor the most talented in their graduating classes, else why would they be assigned to a hospital in Portland, barely a city and with a hospital so limited that its emergency room was taxed if more than three people sought help in the overnight hours. Arriving with a mere headache meant you were not critical, and the non-critical patients were the last seen. But, given the outcome, it really didn’t matter when my mother was examined, neither the Medical Center’s emergency room nor its residents were equipped to save her life.
The night my father drove my mother to the hospital, ahead of her in line was a broken leg, a nasty cut from a domestic dispute requiring stitches, and a 20-something with alcohol poisoning. Blood and vomit trumped headaches, so she waited two hours before being ushered back to the treatment area, by which time she could barely speak because of the excruciating pain in her head. The young resident took her blood pressure, listened to her heart, asked her a few questions, then sent her away with a prescription for pain pills. Had the technology been available, my mother might have been given an MRI, which would have shown the large tumor pressing on the left side of her brain. She might have been immediately wheeled into surgery where (if available), a neurosurgeon would have tried to remove the tumor, or at least reduced its size. Or, she might have been airlifted to a teaching hospital in Boston---Massachusetts General perhaps---where more resources, sophisticated equipment and talent resided. But this was 1975, and a pain pill was the only recommendation of a still-wet-behind-the-ears’ resident who had just completed his academic training. So, she died.
All of this I imagine. None of us knows when or where our parents will die, unless we are lucky enough to orchestrate an assisted suicide, which I hope my children will do for me when I am no longer able to think, or feel, or communicate. As I said, my mother died suddenly when I was 24, and I was not with her the night she went to the emergency room, but I did receive a call early the next morning from her colleague, Martha Greenleaf who, as was her custom, stopped by my parents’ house at 8:30AM that Monday to pick my mother up for work. My mother was prompt to the point of obsession, so Martha knew something was amiss that when there was no Kitty at the end of her driveway, so called me with her concern. I lived about fifteen minutes from the house in which I had grown up; so I got to 77 Hill Street pretty quickly. I was concerned, but not alarmed. After all, I had seen my mother less than 12 hours before, so never assumed she was ill, much less dead.
I had no key to the house and knocking on the front door roused no one. I pounded and pounded until my father finally heard me and slowly came downstairs to open the front door. I asked him where my mother was and he just looked at me quizzically, then motioned to the den which was to the left of the front door. “We went to the hospital last night and she wanted to sleep downstairs when we came home,” he mumbled. My father was incoherent until his first cup of coffee in the morning, so I stopped asking questions and walked into the den. There my mother lay, seemingly asleep on the couch we had gotten from the O’Brien’s when they updated their living room furniture. I said “Mom,” then louder “Mom!” then shook her arm. Nothing. No movement. Not breathing. Just lying there. Cold to the touch.
That was when I learned something important about myself—I am great in a crisis. I immediately called 911 and asked for an ambulance, I called my older sister who worked in Portland and dispatched Donna to go and pick her up. I held off calling my brother in Kentucky until I had more information. The medics came and after attempts to resuscitate failed, they pronounced my mother dead. My sister arrived and I told her what I knew. I called my brother’s wife. The medics tool my mother’s body away in their ambulance. I watched my sister and father walk around the living room in circles, not talking, just holding on to each other and walking. My father had suffered a heart attack in March and concern for him overshadowed any feelings I had for my mother’s passing.
That last sentence isn’t accurate; I did feel an overwhelming emotion when my mother died and it was relief. I was off the hook. Most immediately for my relationship with Donna, which I had not disclosed to anyone. I was unsure what the relationship actually meant—was I gay, was I experimenting, was it just this one woman, what the fuck was I doing? Confusion over my sexuality was not something I could discuss with my mother. Sexuality, in general, was never discussed between us, and I sincerely doubted she would be open to something so nontraditional, plus I feared her implicit criticism of me, which always lay just below the surface of our interactions.
Let’s get back to that emotion: Relief. The day before my mother died, I visited her and sat on the very couch that became her deathbed. At one point, she said to me, “You know, you really should have more friends than just Donna. It’s just not healthy to spent too much time with one person.” This was about as personal as anything my mother had ever said to me. I knew what she was implying and thought this might be an opportunity to tell her that Donna was much more than a friend to me and that, in fact, I was in love with her. The urge was strong to come clean, but I resisted it. Relief. Imagine if I had told her I was gay and she died that very night? I would have been convinced that I killed her. No therapist could have persuaded me otherwise. As it was, it took years of therapy to turn off the critical voice of my mother in my head whenever I was afraid, or confused or just tangled up in emotion. And still, I hear it.
So, what killed her? A lifetime of smoking cigarettes probably didn’t help. Cervical cancer at 40 may have contributed. Defective genetics may have been a factor, but I think my mother was also just worn out with living. Rather than say that, I interpreted the headaches as proof of a tumor and, as my father dismissed an autopsy, I created a physical reason for her death because that is easier to accept and understand. And of course, I did not cause a tumor.
Relief. After her death, I could no longer disappoint my mother. Not because of my friends, not because of my grades, not because of a lack of direction in my life and certainly not because of my relationship with a woman. I was free to succeed or, more importantly fail, without fearing my mother’s reaction. Of course, my fear of her disappointment didn’t magically disappear after her body was lowered into the family plot, nor did her voice inside my head stop plaguing me with doubt and insecurity, but gradually, over the years, I have learned to recognize it for what it is—my own creation--and love it into silence. I also believe my mother’s death when I was so young was a gift to me, a chance to break free of a relationship in which I always felt less-than; and feelings that I was a constant source of disappointment to her.
I have gone on to do some pretty amazing things with my life: in my thirties I discovered a field I loved and obtained a master’s and doctorate in it and had great professional successes. I have been with my current partner almost 30 years and together we adopted and raised two bi-racial daughters, who are now 26 and 28, respectively. I’ve gotten sober twice, once for five and a half years in my forties, and again now that I am in my sixties. My mother has now been dead over forty-seven years and, while I often wonder if we would have discovered a more tolerant and kind relationship for ourselves at some point, I still feel relief when I think of her passing when I was in my twenties.
A favorite author of mine, Niall Williams, once said: “writers have one story and if they stick to that story, they will eventually produce something good, something that resonates, something that speaks to the heart”. My one story is my mother, a strong Irish-Catholic woman who was born before her time and who would have been much happier running a business than keeping a home. I believe she was meant to be my mother because she planted important seeds of independence in me. I observed how much happier she was when she re-entered the workplace after I no longer needed her at home. She craved the intellectual and social interactions that satisfied her need for productively and value. A product of the 1950’s, she was supposed to be fulfilled by a clean house and dinner on the table for her husband and family every night. We now know those expectations are superbly flawed and reductionist at best. Women are capable of, and yearn for much more than the lives they tend to at home. How constricting it must have been for women who yearned for a life beyond their front doors. My mother hated anything domestic and in this I echo her and proudly sport the banner of ‘non-cooker’ in my family (although I do have a close relationship with my vacuum cleaner). I think our similarities in this realm make me feel akin to her; this woman whom I wanted desperately to love me in ways she was not capable of illustrating.
Every fall, I teach a college course to first-year students called Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History in which my goal to help 18-year old students realize how limited life was for women ‘back in the day.’ It is so easy to live in a world with open options and so hard to conceive of a world where those options don’t exist. I consider myself a bridge between two worlds, the world of my mother, who suffered from a lack of options, and this young generation who believe their options are unlimited. They will learn, in due time, that this is not true and that women, especially can’t have it all. But before they learn this, I would like them to hear about the women who made the current options possible, through their work and words, and even sometimes through their disappointments and death.
Jeanne Buckley recently retired from a 40-year career as an academic administrator and, because of that, has now freed up enough brain cells to write about the larger-than-life women in her life, the west coast of Ireland and Portland, Maine, where she was raised. A long-time rabble-rouser, Jeanne currently divides her time between the city of Philadelphia, the Pocono Mountains and Rehoboth Beach Delaware.