My mother did her best to protect me, but I only understand that now, at age 32.
As a child, I was ridiculed by everyone in my small town of La Marque, Texas, for my flamboyancy. Scared of what my behavior could mean for my future, my mother controlled who I associated with and how I spent my time; she slept in the same bed with me until I was well into my teenage years—just to keep an eye on me. Once I came out at age 16, she was embarrassed that her son was queer.
In my senior year of high school, I was kicked out of my mom’s home because of my sexuality. And though I still managed to finish high school at the top of my class, I found myself struggling to survive on the street. I saw my mother sporadically during this time, but she remained resolved in keeping her distance. When we happened to be in the same space, I felt invisible.
Sleeping on the street one night, I met a man who took me to meet “Pops”—one of his friends—and have dinner. Pops was an openly gay, 30-year-old college student living in a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Third Ward in Houston. He didn’t know much about my situation, but he saw a glimmer of potential. He offered me his extra bedroom for the night, which turned into many nights; soon I was moving in. When I was having a hard time staying afloat, he’d take me shopping for college supplies, and give me money for the bus and other necessities. Pop became my chosen father.
My mother and I barely saw each other for the next three years. When we finally met, she had lost half of her body weight and could barely walk. Years before she’d looked strong and intimidating; now she was a frail and fragile old lady. But the vulnerability in her body and looming sickness—a result of diabetes—made her have a softer heart toward me. Though she never approved of my sexuality, she realized it wasn’t going to change, and for Thanksgiving in 2009, she made a decision to be a part of my life.
Both Pops and I had anxiety about her coming, but he confidently cooked a feast, set up our home for a family dinner, and was playing soulful Christmas music in preparation for her arrival. She walked in using her cane, uncomfortable and grouchy, and found her seat. Pops stood in the corner nervous after hearing and witnessing the horror stories of our sordid relationship. She said nothing for a while and sat in the corner looking at the room as if critiquing it with a microscope. Pops tried to engage her in conversation and, though she wasn’t as rude as I had seen her with others, she was still not very welcoming. He kept a smile on his face and continued to assist her while she sat in the same spot looking around.
The whole dynamic was awkward until she received her plate of food and exclaimed, “I don’t even need any hot sauce. This is good!” The day continued, and the more she ate and sat in our company, the more her guard seemed to let down. Before I knew it, we were all around the table playing card games and laughing like one big happy family. As the night came to an end, she whispered in my ear not to take her home until the next morning because it had gotten too late.
She ended up spending the night, and we slept in the same bed. Instead of feeling like she was encroaching on my space, this time it felt comforting. She woke up in her normal pain in the middle of the night and, before I went to grab her pain pills, she whispered, “Don’t wake Pops.” For the first time, I heard my mom give life to someone I had chosen. I sobbed on my way to the kitchen to get her water.
We spent every holiday together from that point until her death in 2012. Playing cards, listening to music, cooking in the kitchen together, and watching my mom and Pops talk to each other about me—their son—were some of the happiest moments of my life. I miss her now more than ever before.
This year, Pops and I had made a decision to hold a “re-memorial” for my mother. And though visiting her gravesite and then sitting in the chapel may not have completely healed the many wounds between us, it reminded me of that Thanksgiving 10 years ago, when we’d all been together, sheltered in life and love and family.
On the pew, I reflected alongside Pop—my chosen father—and Michael, my chosen son. I squeezed their hands and felt only happiness, for the family I once had and the family I had now.