When I told her that I was looking after him because two things were clear: it was AIDS that would kill him within some months and, secondly, he simply had no-one else, her face sort of fell in on itself. Her mouth tightened and she looked away (a response I had known since childhood), out through the kitchen window onto a view I had known since I was a child and which had remained unchanged. Only four years earlier her husband, my dad, had died suddenly and she still had not spoken to me about that and what that was for her. What she wanted to ask me (I realized some years later) was if I had the disease as well, but she could not bring herself to. I did not see that at the time. She just stared out onto the hillside where we all used to play, where she would keep half an eye on us. I felt the familiar isolation, the shut-out that mention of anything to do with my sexual orientation elicited. She couldn't speak it seemed, and I was quietly raging with her for that. I couldn't speak either. I wanted to say 'are you not old enough to realize what is going on here? Is some death less 'worthy' than others because its 'self-inflicted' through immoral behaviour, is that your problem?', but words failed me. I did say, "I know its hard for you to imagine, but I live on a battlefield - my generation, my kind, are dying one after another". It was 1997. Her eyes remained hard, her lips mostly pursed, her demeanor stiff as I kissed her goodbye. She said "I have never had to do what you are doing - I do not think I could".
I have often thought about those days with my dear mother and how the human rights struggle for gays and lesbians matter - to unloosen the tightness, to free the words, to allow the easy flow on the local and th familial level. I think she would have been freer to engage with me - that automatic panic button might have been switched to off and her moral 'conditioning', as all of us have, less harsh on my kind.
This was the closest, or most intimate, conversation I ever had with my mother about my 'gay' life, and so much left unsaid. That makes me sad because it was so inadequate, both at the time of happening and in retrospect. So many times I have wondered why it was so hard to speak of - what is the necessary language that continually eludes us. My ex-partner who died a few months after those words with my mother had been the love of my life - although by 1997 we had been apart for six years - but we had remained dear friends, not lovers. He had been older than me and with him I had discovered my heart and my life in books and art. My mother never knew any of this, or ever knew him.
Neither has my present partner, of 16 years, been the subject of intimate conversation with my mother. I see her discomfort when she asks "How is George?" and I pretty much say "Fine, he's fine, thanks", and I see her relief when I do not speak about him any further, or speak inanely about how the garden of the house we just built is proving a challenge. Its not about him of course - when she is with him she is grand, chatting away at some pace - but it is the idea of him and me, and the 'selfishness' she feels I practice by forcing her into acknowledging something that really should be kept private, and which does not need to be 'advertised' - i.e. our relationship. Further, she is 'worried' for the kids (he is the birth father of two with lesbian mums) - and is it fair to expose them to the ridicule, or at least difficulty, that will inevitably befall them. These truths have not been directly spoken, but have been inferred and communicated through the silences, the body language and occasionally through third parties.
The whole thing gets a bit compounded by the fact of my work over the past few years in LGBT human rights advocacy. When she wants to move the topic off the (my) domestic front, and she says "So, what are you working on these days?" and I say "Oh, you know eastern european, ex-soviets human rights for gays and lesbians sort of stuff", she looks like she could run across the mountaintop she's looking out the window at. She might say something like "Are there those people there as well?" or "It must be very dangerous work", and I have to bite my tongue and laugh it off with "We are everywhere and always have been" kind of comment said in a Hitchcock kind of way. I sometimes try to address our (hers and mine) situation by talking about how important it is for the issues to be spoken about in parliaments and in media, and for stuff to be 'normalized' and for people's fear not to be stoked. About how important it is that minority rights are human rights and how majority needs to stand up for them, like say for the Jewish people in Europe during the 1930s and what a difference that would of made. At this stage I see her eyes have glazed over with a certain boredom with what she dismissively calls "the wisdom of my children".
Its a tough one because I feel and will always wonder if I could have set something of her Victoriana free if only I had played it differently. On the one hand I was protecting her sensitivities by not challenging the inherent offense I felt, or was that a cowardice in me and a fear of her rejection? I never imagined her as a mother who would walk between myself and George at a Pride march for example - I never invited her to, and maybe that was exactly my job, my challenge in the claim for myself. But this I will never know - a slow creeping dementia has set in and she stays at home all the time now, looking out that window and across those fields onto the hillsides that we knew so well.