I saw my Mother on stage tonight.
She was channeled through Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally's astoundingly poetic new play Mothers and Sons. To briefly catch you up: Tyne Daly plays Katherine Gerard, the mother of Andre who died of A.I.D.S. nearly two decades ago at the height of the epidemic. She's come to drop off her deceased son's diary to his longtime partner Cal, finally able to confront his death, his homosexuality, and quite possibly herself. The diary's never been opened: it symbolically looms on a table like the proverbial white elephant in the room, and more significantly, the white elephant in their lives.
I lived with that white elephant in my family until I was 23. I'm an only child, born and raised in St. Louis, confirmed Catholic, and lived with my mom after my parents divorced when I was 4. We were close. We did everything together. And although I was always sensitive to other people's pain- like the time my mother fell and scraped her knee, I cried so hard I couldn't go to school- she kept her emotional angst from the divorce so hidden, I lived a pretty idyllic childhood. As I got older something shifted. I couldn't name it at the time, but my life was being altered by feelings I "wasn't supposed to feel" and "immoral thoughts I wasn't supposed to be having," so I slowly shied away from our relationship for fear of making her feel anything less than joy in her life. I couldn't live with myself if I knew I had caused her pain. And I started writing in my diary.
Flash forward several years, I moved to Los Angeles to essentially start the journey of self-discovery without her, and we met up again in St. Louis for the holidays. We're sitting at a table sharing a plate of spaghetti at the Olive Garden, when a silver bracelet falls to the end of my wrist. "What's that?" my mom asks. "Oh, my boyfriend gave it to-" Yup, somewhere the record skipped and an angel got her wings. I just came out to my mom, and not at all like I planned. I seem to remember her saying through tears "How can you do this to me" and after a few awkward more days spent together, we went back to our individual lives, never to speak of it again. More writing in my diary.
Years passed with a continued painful struggle of feeling disconnect from the one who gave me life. Ultimately, though, it was my choice: in order for me to happily move forward, I had to let go of the need for her approval, and anyone else's for that matter, and come to a personal sense of peace within. Thus began my on-going journey of self-love: painful at times, challenging, scary, raw, and full of immeasurable rewards of liberation and joy like I'd never felt before. The journey continues as I write this.
But something even greater happened in that letting go process for me. As I began knowing the sense of unattached joy and freedom to self, I was able to become the observer of my own situation: I started to get a deeper understanding of my mother's sadness, confusion, and fears, and step by step lovingly addressed them all in a personal manifesto written to her. In essence, I handed over my diary. I remember writing those last words, "I will always love you and thank you for making me the man I AM today," and cried myself to sleep in a little puddle of love. Surrender really is a beautiful thing.
What happened next is a milestone moment in my life I shall never forget. Within a few days of sending the letter, she called me crying. She'd been waiting for this. Yes she was upset, confused, even scared for me, but more, I had unknowingly completely shut her out through my own projected confusion and fears. In my letting go, I actually let her back in. We talked for hours that night, like high school girls in the 50s talking about how cute Bruce was at football practice. Ok, maybe we didn't go quite that far yet- it was definitely much more awkward and surreal- but we were talking nonetheless, and both of us recognized the simple beauty in that action alone. Before we hung up that night she said something to me that has stuck with me to this moment. I asked her, "Didn't you ever know?" Her response: "I just didn't want to see." And suddenly I got it. How many times have I put up blinders to a situation. Like the A.I.D.S. pandemic, the ongoing LGBT civil equality struggle, or any other social issue that isn't directly connected to you, it can be easy to close your eyes and ignore the pain of others. It takes courage to face it head on, because ultimately you realize the ill-feelings you have are not about "others" at all- they're about yourself.
As Katherine (Tyne Daly) blazes across that stage, the pain she has carried with her all these years is palpable to the point of raw discomfort, and whenever that diary is picked up you can almost feel the fiery touch of fear it still has over her. She "just didn't want to see," and therein lies the true pain: a mother finally becomes self-realized only to recognize she lost her son long before he left his body. And all she can do now is move forward with that knowing for the rest of her life.
Do yourself a favor today: Open up your own diary to your mother in whatever form that looks like to you. Life's too short to hide. And too full of joy not to share. All I wanted to do at the end of the play was hug my mom a little tighter, thanking her for taking the risk to love me and be open to something she never understood before. That is a gift that continues to give because there truly is nothing like a mother's love. Believe me, I know.
Do yourself another favor and put Mothers and Sons at the top of your must-see list next time you're in the city. Bring your mother. And tissues. Lots and lots of tissues. For tickets and more info visit www.mothersandsonsbroadway.com.
Follow James Brandon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JBJustBE