The Living Years
I feel fortunate that I have few regrets, or at least fewer than many people I know. Of the regrets I do have, one stands out: I never came out to my mother. There are good reasons why I didn’t, but I still wish I had when she was alive.
I recently read a story about a man who was terrified to come out to his parents, especially his father. Even after they died. To the point where he visited his dad’s grave specifically to tell him and could not. He went back several times and still couldn’t do it. I feel his pain.
About 10 years ago, long after she had died, I wrote a coming-out letter to my mother filled with anger and blame. I don’t feel that way now, maybe because I’m older, have had a lot of good therapy, and have forgiven her for her role in my troubled childhood. She did the best she could, as we all do. It doesn’t leave her blameless. But it frees me.
I came out in 1980. I was in South Carolina, 600 miles from my family. I told my friends and one of my brothers. I was still in college and living with my first partner. When my parents came to visit, I moved stuff from our bedroom into the second bedroom to make it look like we were just roommates. I was not ready to tell them. They did not meet my partner; she and I agreed that my parents seeing us together would have been too obvious.
By the time that relationship ended, I had graduated and was working as a journalist. I was in several more relationships. I had my own apartment, then my own small house. A few more years passed and I still didn’t tell either of my parents.
My mother came to visit several times and would stay with me. Whenever she would ask about my love life, I deflected, saying I was too busy in my career. I don’t think she bought it, but she didn’t press too hard. There were many secrets in my family, and I guess she assumed that I preferred to keep that information to myself. But it was getting harder and harder to keep my “secret.”
In 1988, I moved to DC to work for a US senator. That put me much closer to my family in Maryland. It also made me extremely busy. My parents came for a visit at the end of March. My mother had a strange facial tick, and it worried me. I asked my father to make sure she went to the doctor when they got home. She did, and the news was bad. She had a brain tumor, the result of metastatic lung cancer. She had just turned 58, and by May, she was gone.
I visited her a few times while she was sick. I really wanted to tell her then, but it never seemed a good time. I worried that the news would land like a bombshell—the last thing I wanted to do. She was gravely ill and on morphine. She had always been mercurial; I didn’t want her to be angry or blame herself or feel bad. I wanted to share the news joyfully, not under a blanket of gloom.
On one visit I took the woman I was seeing with me. My mother made it a point (granted she was high) to tell my partner not only how nice she was, but also how beautiful. Not once, but numerous times. It was unusual behavior for my mother. But now I wonder if that was her way of letting us both know that she knew and approved. Hard to know for sure.
I didn’t actually say the words, “Dad, you know I’m a lesbian,” to my father until he came to live with my wife and me in 2009, when I was 49, and he was dying. Of course, he already knew and just smiled kindly. But it was important to me to say the words. I asked him if he thought my mother had known or if the two of them had ever discussed it. He said they hadn’t. He had no reason to lie, but then, my family carried secrets.
I don’t feel the need to tell my mother at her gravesite like the man in the story. I’ve told her numerous times over the years, including in that angry letter. I believe that had she lived, I would have told her and despite a likely negative first reaction, she would have come around. She would love Sandy and the life we have together. Who knows, maybe she always knew. I just wish that I had let her know in the living years. ▼
Beth Shockley is a retired senior writer/editor living in Dover with her wife and five furbabies.