Licking the Sticky, Bitter Liminal Juice Off My Fingertips: An Essay About The First 12 Months After Maternal Death When You are Queer & Closeted AF
Content Warnings: death/dying, bereavement, severe illness, intensive care, cancer, stroke, sudden death, heart attack, maternal death/parental loss, LGBTQ issues, closets, use of the word queer, received queerphobia & internalized queerphobia, conservative views on sexuality, brief mention of kink & nonmonogamy, brief mention of religion/catholicism, allusion to mental illness
I thought my mom’s death would be an insatiable gravity. That in the aftershocks, I would be shaking, buckling knees, crumbling crumbling to the ground. I thought a permanent mutism would wrap around my throat like mold to pipes. I thought — I thought of the score, slow-paced string-orchestra humming low notes. I didn’t think of functioning. I was sure I knew what was to come, but now I realize I knew nothing. My predictions were melodramatic in their poeticism, unlike the mundane reality of my grief.
I was warned. A few years ago, a sudden, fatal heart attack struck my uncle, her brother. My family sated our loss with rosary beads and rumination. My mom’s mortality a whiplash, her newly tangible eventual slurred my imagination in circles. Her demise fascinated me, or really the way her demise could destroy me.
She didn’t die suddenly. Her death came after six weeks of intensive care, sixteen months after a cancer diagnosis. Her stroke, however, was sudden, confiscating her voice and mobility. My mom’s last words were wheezes. Long drawn out percussion, inharmonious to loved one’s sobs.
I never told her I was queer.
Closets aren’t a big deal, I would say to myself. Our intimacy is fragile, I would remind myself. I need her? I asked myself.
In the year since she died, my girlfriend and I have fallen in love. I’ve asserted my non-binary gender. Recently, I went to a pride party where we burned heteronormativity into dust. My life continues to be pretty queer.
If my mom were alive, I wouldn’t share any of this with her. I don’t know if I ever would have. When she was here, thoughts about coming out were thoughts about destruction. I imagined the words squeaking out of me, slamming into an appalled face. Instantly, I would long to recoil my identity back into my private life. I imagined her shaking and crying, pelting threats like raindrops plummeting off tree-tops on a windy day. I thought if I came out, I would cease functioning.
Losing a parent/guardian isn’t alien for many queer folk. For many cis-straight people, it’s a storyline interwoven in fairy tales about a misjudged hero. For queer people, it isn’t a metaphor. I grew up attentive to my family’s queerphobic commentary. Their slurs told me there’s no such thing as unconditional love. The condition was heteronormativity and I feared disobeying to a clinical level.
And I have a lot to come out about. I’m far from homonormative. Could she really come to terms with sapphic-attraction and neutral pronouns? Non-monogamous and child free? Gray ace and infatuated with kink? How would she feel if she realized I was here, right here, this whole time? Alive and queer and in the present.
I twisted my spine into a perverse posture, trying to avoid this pain. I believed that as long as I kept up the hetero act I wouldn’t lose her.
Of course, I still lost her. I was always going to lose her.
My former fears were floaters in every vision, but now that I don’t have the option to come out my sight has cleared. If I had, it wouldn’t have been like the narratives I told myself. It wouldn’t have the organized arc nor the predesigned meaning I put my faith in. I know because after my uncle died I wrote climatic narratives of what my mom’s death would be like. When it actually happened, I faced how out of touch I can be.
I’m reminded of six years ago when I went on birth control.
My mom drove me to my appointments even though she was so frustrated she threatened to slap me. She firmly believed no man would marry me if I ‘lost my virginity’ — ignorant that that ship has sailed. And yet, after my IUD was inserted, she bought me Advil, heating pads, and let me sleep. She took care of me. In the years after, she didn’t throw it in my face.
Coming out is not the same as getting an IUD. From my mom’s perspective, queerness is less soluble than birth control, yet she was a support system when I did things she opposed. The essence of our relationship was her persistent nurturement. Isn’t that evidence of something?
I was never going to have a painless coming out experience. I’m certain that, at first, she would’ve been very clear that she didn’t want this. She would try to change me into someone more digestible and it would hurt, perhaps more than bereavement. Predicting this agony paralyzed me and never seemed worth it. I narrowed into this plot beat and used it to define what coming out would mean. I was too distracted to think about how there would be a time after that where she would stretch herself for me.
I could have had acceptance if I had the strength to go through the trials. If she had the time to go through them with me.
It’s an uneasy feeling to imagine what could have been — but the uneasiness isn’t regret. Regret is taking responsibility for the resolution. I ask myself, how am I responsible for this story? Her illness and death are a distant and demented twist from my former reality. They are more elements of a dark dream than the resolution to our actual lives together. I don’t regret the consequences of a narrative that I don’t feel like I’m actually a part of.
Let’s say, my mom was never sick. Let’s say, I found this courage that seems to be beyond my physiology and we spoke together. Like really spoke to each other. Let’s say, I came out. Was there any way my mom would meet my girlfriend? Or would she be too disgusted?
Let’s say my coming out turned into the kind of fight where we stopped speaking to one another. While in this silence, my mom gets sick. Let’s say I missed her last weeks, I missed her dying. Supporting my mom throughout her stroke, progressing illness, and death was traumatic. And yet if they had to happen to her, then I had to be there. Missing these sacrifices would have been more devastating than experiencing them.
But I’m primed for sacrificial love.
In the last year, my love and contemplations have matured and waned. I’ve continued to develop our relationship, even if this new connection has a mother-shaped silhouette. I’ve longed for the what ifs. What if she was alive? What if she continued to be an active participant in our relationship? What if she saw me now?
She was the person I loved the most. I know, because when you are closeted you quantify love. If I came out and lost everyone, who would hurt the most? Who in my life do I love more than anyone I could ever meet? Who do I love more than I could ever love myself?
As I watched my mom die, I said goodbye to the person who knew me most, but also not at all. The person I trusted with my life, but not my self.
I miss her and that’s obvious.
My life is a cavern of empty spaces where she should still be.
Thick, loud voice, shrinking syllables. South Brooklyn chasing her to the woods. Picking me up from the train, hair bright and freshly dyed. Auburn highlights this season. Face like heat, scarlet blush. Matching lipstick.
Blunt commentary — always her honest opinion on my hair or outfit or whatever. It wasn’t always negative, sometimes she complimented my every molecule.
Stuck in the car with her, surrounded by familiar oaks and pines. The road as blurry as my eyes when I grieve for these moments. And we are talking. About something mundane maybe, like sunny weather and tomorrow we should go to the beach. Miraculously bathing suit sales would turn to her pushing into my intimacies. She always pried. I let her in more and more with age, but never fully.
I even miss that. I miss those stifling, claustrophobic car rides.
I miss being closeted.
And then, as I make eye contact with the shadows, I remember. Our love always contained negative space.