My mother had known for decades that Dad was gay. He told me so in 1975 when he came out to me.
It would be another decade before I had the nerve to ask Mom why she stayed.
She was someone who shied away from difficult questions. But at a family gathering sometime in the 1990s, I found the courage.
We were alone in the family kitchen. She stood at the sink washing dishes while I leaned on the island between us, facing her. Without any buildup or warning, I sprung my question on her.
“Mom, why’d you stay with Dad after you found out?”
She shot me a glance. To my surprise, though, this time she answered.
“I wanted you kids to have a father,” she said. “I never had one.”
I’d never thought of it that way. My dad was a good father. If they’d split up when I was little, he still would have been my father. He’d still love me. He’d still be involved in my life. I just knew that.
But that was my frame, not hers.
Unlike me, Mom barely knew her father. When she was three, he gambled away the family home in Minneapolis. My grandmother took their three children, my mother the youngest, and boarded a train to her sister’s home in northern California.
It was the last time Mom saw her father. She’d spent the rest of her life with but two memories of him: sitting on his lap and his brown, shiny shoes.
When it came time to decide whether or not to leave her gay husband back in 1957, with whom she’d had four children, all under the age of eight at the time, her decision was pre-baked. Their children would be raised by both parents and in the same house.
My father agreed.
I felt the weight of my mother’s self-sacrifice over the years, though she never gave me any indication that she viewed it that way. Despite the double life my father lived throughout their marriage, she seemed almost determinedly happy.
She enjoyed decades of developing photos, a trade she’d learned in high school. She brought home the imperfect ones from work every night and spread them out on the kitchen table for all of us to see. There were children making cute faces; a dozen cats lined up in a row; romantic wedding photos; and exotic faraway places. They weren’t imperfect to her.
In later years, Mom travelled the world with her girlfriends, taking hundreds of pictures of little children, of course, all over Spain, Turkey, France, Norway, and other countries.
Despite everything Mom knew about Dad, she never seemed to stop loving him, even as they aged. Her eyes still lit up when he walked in the door.
She died five months shy of their 64th wedding anniversary.
In the final days of her life, I asked if there was anything, anything at all, she’d like to tell me, “before it’s too late, Mom.” She just shook her head. “No, honey.” That time I let it go.
I’d been sleeping on a small settee next to her bed, keeping watch over her. At daybreak, on April 18, 2006, I awoke with a start. I could see that it was time.
“Oh, Mom, have fun in heaven with Susan,” I blurted out, awkwardly. Susan, my little sister, had died from cancer in her twenties. Mom always hoped to see her again.
Her face looked so peaceful in that moment. I took a deep breath and looked straight into her eyes.
“I love you, Mom,” I said, my final words to her.
She silently mouthed the same words back to me, her final words, too.
“I love you.”
Of that, I never had any doubt.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You mothered me with all your heart.
First published at The Gay Dad Project on May 11, 2017