1975 I was a high school senior and sprained my ankle playing basketball, tearing ligaments so badly that I was on crutches for weeks. A special bus drove me to and from school, but as Mother’s Day approached I still couldn’t negotiate my way to the store to buy a card for Mom. I composed a poem instead.
Through autumn leaves and winter chills
And the seasons of the sun
Three hundred sixty-five days a year
Your work is never done.
It seems a meager tribute
For all your love and time
That once a year on Mother’s Day
I simply drop a line.
For no words could begin to pay
All that I owe you
No poem could encompass
Everything you do.
And what I guess I’m trying to say
In this second week of May,
Is “Thank you, Mom” and by the way,
Happy Mother’s Day!
Mom, of course, adored the poem more than any Hallmark card I could have purchased. When her sister Margi called later that day, Mom read it to her. I felt proud and happy that Mom was pleased, and validated as a fledgling writer. This was in great contrast to what I felt at age fourteen when I’d first told my mother that I wanted to be a writer. Mom had shaken her head doubtfully and explained to me that writers traveled all over the world, that they had lots of experiences, and all kinds of jobs. I was a skinny kid who spent most of his time holed up in his room. Not too much hope there.
1984 I had broken up with Jim, my first lover, in January. After sinking into a months-long depression, I met Jonathan, and by the time Mother’s Day arrived, we’d had a couple of dates and I was in love. Mom expressed sympathy for my break-up with Jim, and asked how he and I were doing in the aftermath.
“It’s really okay,” I told her, “because we’re still great friends. We talk on the phone almost every day and see each other at least once a week. And also, I’ve recently started going out with someone else....”
Before I could even mention Jonathan’s name Mom said, “Your father and I have discussed this and we don’t want him coming here.” I was stunned.
It had taken a great effort to convince my father to overcome his homophobia enough to allow Jim to visit as an extended family member. I’d made an emotional appeal to him, I sang a song I’d written for him—he cried, he softened, and relented. Now my mother, who’d been my tacit supporter the first time the issue came up, was telling me, “This time I won’t go against him.”
My father said, “Last time it was like you asked us, ‘are you big enough to do this?’ So now we’re asking, ‘Are you big enough?’” It didn’t seem to matter that my request was one of love and inclusion and theirs was based on bigotry and exclusion, their minds were set. But it was Mother’s Day and the conversation/discussion/argument that I wished to have with them about their horrific decision had to be put off, because we had company. I was emotionally overwrought and sought singing as an outlet for the hurricane gathering inside me. Borrowing my brother Dave’s guitar, I sat on the backyard grass by myself, strummed and pounded the strings, sang and wailed songs of the deep hurt and injustice I was feeling.
I must have reached an estimable volume, because Mom came out to talk to me, though she’d explicitly stated minutes before that “now was not the time.” It was as if she’d dropped a bomb on me and agreed that while my spilled blood and guts meant that first aid should be administered and a trip to the hospital strongly considered, nevertheless holiday decorum dictated that it wasn’t the proper moment.
She attempted to stop my musical plaint first by telling me I was creating a scene on her special day. As far as I was concerned she’d sullied her own day by conspiring with my father on the premeditated and malevolent plan to bar Jonathan from their home. Next Mom used her Illness as a weapon, suggesting that she wasn’t a well woman, and that my behavior could only make her sicker. Her system was so fragile, she implied, I could actually kill her. She stood above me as I sat--still holding but no longer playing guitar--and I looked at her directly and said, “I have needs too!”
If placing myself before her was catastrophic enough to kill her, so be it, I thought. Mom walked to the house; I finished a song, and was satisfied.
1987 Jonathan remained banned—and I, in seeming acquiescence, had continued to return home on certain holidays, but after Chi-Chi, the family dog, died in 1986, I simply stopped visiting. Chi-Chi and I loved each other dearly, there was no need to punish us both by my staying away because of my parents ruling. Now that he was gone, there was no reason to come to a home in which I was not truly welcome. After several “missed” holidays, Mom called to ask if I was coming for Mother’s Day, and when I said no she asked if I was ever coming again. “No,” I said. “Not without Jonathan.”
Mom still didn’t want to overturn or oppose my father’s decision, but in June chose to visit Jonathan and me in our apartment in Astoria. “I’ll go anywhere to see my son,” she told my father. Dad held out until December when he phoned to ask, “What are you guys doing for Christmas? Do you want to come home?”
2004 Heather and I had just returned from vacation in Tennessee and I wanted to call to wish my father a happy birthday, but our phone line was dead. I went to a phone booth. Mom answered. I told her I was on the street in the rain; she thought I was trying to tell her I couldn’t talk long, but I was merely being descriptive of my situation. “I’ll get your father,” she said and left before I could tell her I wanted to talk to her a bit. She sounded tired and a bit disgusted; I thought she was angry with me. I spoke to Dad briefly and told him to tell Mom I’d see her on Sunday for Mother’s Day.
On Thursday I got the call that Mom was in the hospital. It didn’t look good. Eight years prior she’d had her leg amputated owing to diabetes and smoking, and now she was having difficulty with her heart. Doctors had suggested an operation to help prevent a heart attack but she’d declined because, as a consequence of the surgery, she’d need to go on dialysis permanently.
When her doctor vociferously told her that she’d die if she didn’t get this operation she told him, “I have to die of something!” After having miraculously come back from heart attacks a few times, she was making a last stand, choosing how she would die.
I planned to visit the hospital on Friday, but Thursday night she had a heart attack and was completely unconscious the next day. A doctor later told us that the last words she said as they rushed to save her were, “Let me go!”
Sunday morning I got a call that she was close to death. It was Mother’s Day. Heather was fighting bronchitis but recognized that I needed support, and she pulled herself together and accompanied me to the hospital.
Mom was all but gone. Heavily sedated. I thought she responded ever so slightly to my holding her hand. I thanked her for bringing me into the world, for raising me, for giving me love. I meant it, but of course our relationship was more complicated than I could speak about on her deathbed.
Dad, Lily, Pete, Dave, Heather and I stood around her. The decision was made to remove the dialysis machine they’d put on her—something she’d never wanted. The respirator was kept on. She’d never actually filled out the DNR form, but her wishes were known to all of us. The time for heroic measures was over.
I was first to notice her heart rate diving on the monitor, 51...47...34...it all happened so quickly...her breathing with the respirator continued steadily—in/out, in/out...the nurse came in, felt Mom’s wrists and said,
“There’s no pulse, just some electrical activity. I’ll take the respirator off, so it’ll be better for you.”
The family went outside while the intrusive apparatus was removed. Dad broke down and cried big time. I thought he should wait until Mom was really dead, but everyone else surrounded him, giving comfort. When we went back inside, Mom was still.
“She’s not breathing,” I said. Everyone looked at me in astonishment. “Is she...?”
“She went before. Didn’t you know?” Heather said.
Now I cried big time, a little behind the curve. I had convinced myself that while Mom had no pulse she could live a while longer. The electrical activity the nurse had spoken of meant she was alive. Removing the respirator would help her die more easily, I’d thought. “You know what Mom used to say to me?” I said. “‘You’re so smart, you’re stupid.’”
In addition to this funny comment, I was left to ponder the last few words Mom had said to me. Her disgust was probably not with me, but with herself, the world, her illness. She knew she was close to the end, though the Christmas before she’d said to us all, but staring at me, “No one ever thinks that it’s going to happen to them. Not really.”
I remembered the last actual conversation we had. She’d asked how and what I was doing, and I told her I was working on completing my one-person theatre piece, “Queerer Than Thou.”
She subtly, then not so subtly, denigrated my efforts. The gist of her remarks was: Where do you come off thinking you can do a musical theatrical piece all of a sudden? You’re not trained in music, you’re not this, you haven’t done that...etc.
“Have you ever seen me perform?” I asked, knowing the answer too well.
“No,” she said, having turned down every invitation I’d extended to see me read or perform.
“There’s something you don’t know,” I said. “I’m pretty good.”
“But it’s not Broadway,” she said.
No, it wasn’t, I admitted, leaving out what I thought of most Broadway plays. I didn’t say that after a five minute performance of an excerpt from “Queerer Than Thou” a man had written on a feedback form that my piece had “transformed my homophobia into revelation.” How I wished that I could have made that happen for her.
While I’d acquitted myself well enough in standing up to Mom’s negativity, I was still very hurt, and I’d need to summon a great deal of courage to continue work on “Queerer Than Thou.” I was reminded of another time Mom had undercut my efforts to become a writer. It was 1988, and I was speaking on the phone with Mom about my play, The Dust Bunny Murder, which was about to be produced at the Gay Center in New York.
“Ohh,” she sighed. “It’s so sad.”
“What’s sad?” I asked, confused.
“You could have been a writer.”
“Mom, what are you talking about? I did write this play. It’s going to be produced.” But she could not be dissuaded from thinking I’d failed to realize my potential, the same potential she’d tried to squelch when I was fourteen. I got off the phone dazed, hurt, damaged.
Only weeks after Mom dying I got the notion to self-publish Sanity’s Bane. Her death and my idea were intimately related. I had known about print-on-demand publishing, its affordability and practicability—a friend had published this way with great success—yet I’d never imagined it as a possibility for me until Mom died.
“The agreement with your mother not to tell secrets was stronger than you think,” my spiritual mentor, Eliane, told me. Eliane is someone I listen to seriously. She’d told me to call her soon after my 47th birthday, and I knew that something big was in store for me. I was scared, thought it might be a death.
I managed to put it out of my conscious mind for many months. But a week before my 47th birthday I had a dream. In recent years my dreams are usually sketchy and ephemeral, but this one was relatively long and complex, and I wrote it down as soon as I awoke.
Mom was dressed in black—young & pretty—but something was wrong.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“You can tell me.”
“I feel my mother inside me,” she says.
“What does this mean? How do you feel her inside you?”
“I feel cigarettes.” Mom begins to roll on the floor.
“You mean you’re craving cigarettes?”
She shakes her head hard, as if I don’t get it. “No one knows the truth,” she says, clearly in tremendous pain. She begins to spit up and cough. I try to help her, and a nurse coaches and encourages me.
“I know she’s your mother but you can change sides (meaning from her right to her left), you’re allowed to move her.”
I take off Mom’s jacket because it’s getting caught and she wants it off, but the nurse comments, “She’s been feverish, I don’t know if it should be off.”
I throw the jacket on top of Mom, along with the blanket already around her. As Mom seems to recover from the fit the nurse says to her, “You’ve got to make a choice between staying and getting ready to go.” Then she says more firmly, looking directly at her, “You’ve got to get ready to go.”
Mom died nineteen days after this dream, eleven days after my 47th birthday.
During the publication party for Sanity’s Bane, it was especially irking to me that my friend Jamie, during a toast to me, said, “Mrs. Collazo was not able to hang in another year to witness her son’s triumph. If she could somehow look down today, I’m sure she would be very proud.”
I held my tongue but my mind screamed—“No! She wouldn’t be proud. She’d be horrified. She’d try to stop me!” In a way, Sanity’s Bane was published on her grave.
2005 In August I attended the Lammas Gathering at Radical Faerie Camp Destiny in Vermont. During this week, I joined the Playback Theatre group facilitated by Mountaine. Playback Theatre is a process by which audience members relate incidents or stories from their lives and the actors “play it back” for the person and audience. The results of these stories being played back are often hilarious, and frequently moving, bringing insight to the person whose story is being re-told.
While rehearsing for our culminating Saturday afternoon performance, we, the actors, provided each other with the stories to play back. One sunny afternoon I offered up the story of Mother’s Day, when Mom told me Jonathan would not be welcome in my parents’ home.
I, as the storyteller, got to select the actors who would play the parts of Mom, Dad and me. Mountaine also decided there should be an actor who would play my Mother’s shadow—who would speak the things she was thinking but not saying. This proved to be a brilliant addition. The dialogue went something like this:
Vinny: Hi, Mom.
Mom: Hi Vinny. How are you?
Shadow Mom: Thank God he’s not here with that faggot Jim!
Vinny: I’ve met someone else.
Mom: Oh yeah?
Shadow Mom: I hope it’s a woman. Why can’t he be normal?!
As Mom’s Shadow spoke more, I realized that yes, she must really have been thinking things akin to what the Shadow was expressing. How else could she have treated me so shabbily?
The scene built towards the climactic moment, and the actor said, “I have my needs too.” But he didn’t shout it, as I did in real life, he stated it firmly, but with the vulnerability he’d expressed throughout, unlike the real Vinny. It felt healing to see my story played back in this fashion.
For me Mother’s Day now has a dark aspect so distant from the light, admiring poem I composed for Mom in my youth. I will carry to my death the knowledge that the last conversation I had with my mother consisted largely of her putting me down as a writer and performer. I will be sad and regretful on each Mother’s Day as I reflect upon her life and death. But this devastating experience will help me to be mindful of the things I say out loud, as well as question the things my Shadow-Self thinks. I will continue to write and perform, revealing some bitter and difficult family secrets along the way. I will never win my mother’s approval, admiration or respect, but through the imagination of art and the transformative power of love I can generate those things for myself, and pass them on to others.