motherMy mother has become the tender of graves, the oldest daughter who dutifully changes out the fake, Valentine’s roses for fake, Easter lilies, who wipes down the granite headstones, who rakes the leaves and clears away the weeds.

We go to Lakegrove Cemetery where my grandfather and my uncle bud are buried. My grandmother goes with us. The three of us crowd into the front of my mom’s black pickup truck, me in the middle, with my legs folded up in front of the staticky radio.  The truck winds down a single lane dirt road. We rumble over ancient bridges, past dilapidated old vacant barns and churches, past grazing cattle, and tractors left rusting out in overgrown fields.

My grandmother clearly remembers a story of my uncle Billy cutting down a Christmas tree one year, and a woman named Mable who stopped and questioned him, but after learning he was my grandmother’s son, said he could cut down any tree he wanted.

My mom interjects and says, “I’d have told that old bitch where she could stick it! It wasn’t her land! They weren’t her trees anyway!”

Unfazed, my grandmother points out a ramshackle, old, windowless church that she used to go to on Sundays as a child.

“That church was mentioned in the bible.” She says.

My mother grips the steering wheel tightly, but says nothing. It drives her crazy when my grandmother makes things up.

When we reach the cemetery, I wander around, looking at dates on headstones of strangers who were born and who died a century before I existed. My grandmother wanders around, lost in memory, I guess, or whatever memories she can cling to momentarily. My mother is planting Bermuda grass over her father’s grave.

I wonder if, years from now, I’ll go back to Iola, to change the flowers on her grave?

When my grandfather died, they purchased a joint headstone with my grandmother’s name on it as well.

My grandmother stands in front of her future grave and stares at her own name, and asks my mom, “When did I pass away, Jean?”

My mom breathes in deeply and exhales before saying, “You’re still here, mama.”

“Oh.” My grandmother says. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her ask this. The past, present and future are all jumbled up for her now.

Moments later she’s already forgotten, and asks if the date on her grave is her birth date, or the day she passed away. Because my mother has forgotten the clippers we have to go back to my grandmother’s and come back to the cemetery again.

On the way back to the cemetery the second time my grandmother tells the same story. “I’ll never forget when your uncle Billy was a teenager, he was cutting down a Christmas tree, and…” Then she pauses because she can’t remember how the story ends now. “Who stopped him?” She asks.

“Mable.” I tell her.

“That’s right.” She says.

My mom starts laughing.

Later we sit around her table and eat lunch, and for a little while, my grandmother almost seems like her old self, and then she asks,“Who’s going to take me home?”

“You are home, mama.” My mother says. To me, she adds, “If I ever get like this, I want you to put a bullet in my head.”

When my aunt comes by to spend the night with my grandmother, my mother and I go back to her house. The five sisters take care of my grandmother in shifts, they leave notes letting her know what day it is, what time to take her medicine, who is going to be spending the night. They have a system, but it’s becoming overwhelming.

In my childhood bedroom, my dad has had the carcass of a deer he murdered stuffed and mounted on the wall like some grizzly trophy.

“He wore me down.” My mom says. “Technically it is his house too.”

I am unnerved by the unblinking, furry head of my new roommate.

“Couldn’t he just take a picture?”

The next morning we head back to my grandmother’s. My aunt Shirley has already left, and when we arrive, my grandmother is sitting in a chair in front of her open doorway, just waiting. She is hardly ever left alone, and then never for more than an hour, but still enough for my mom to worry that she’ll wander off.

“There’s something wrong with the phone.” She says when we get there.

“What’s wrong with it?” My mom asks.

“I called Linda and no one answered.” My grandmother says.

My mother assures her that there is nothing wrong with her phone.

My grandmother stands holding a list of the names and phone numbers of all of her children. My aunts have had it laminated and placed it by her telephone.

“Are these the wrong numbers?” She asks.

“These numbers are all correct.” I assure her, but she’s become fixated on the numbers.

“I just can’t figure it out.” She says, sitting on the loveseat beside me. She’s been going over the list of phone numbers for nearly an hour.

“What are you trying to figure out, Maw Maw?” I ask her.

“This can’t be right.” She says. “Why are all the numbers different?”

My mother starts crying. “I just can’t keep doing this.” She says.

Seeing my mother cry destroys me.

My aunt Linda comes over then, and my mom wipes away her tears, and my grandmother is distracted from the phone numbers. I am relieved that my mom and I are able to get a break again.

I’m made uncomfortable by the knowledge that when I’m not here, this is what my mom deals with on a daily basis. I know that I could never give her the care that she gives my grandmother. This knowledge is a heavy shadow that sits between us all week long.

When my week at home ends, my mother drives me to the airport. We get up before sunrise even though my mom is afraid of driving in the dark, and sit beside one another in her little black car, the one she uses to drive to the city. It rains the whole way.

“You don’t have to go.” She says. “You can stay here.”

I don’t know what to say. I’ll never be the dutiful son. The son who stays. The son who’ll takes care of his family when they get old and feeble. The son who’ll tend their graves. I’ll always be the son who leaves.

At the airport my mom gives me money, even though I tell her that I don’t need it. (I don’t put up much of a fight.) She hugs me and tells me that she loves me. That she wishes I didn’t have to go.

I tell her that I love her too, and then I turn and go to catch my plane.

The Book

My mother and I speak on the phone three times a week.

Three times a week we hash over three repeated themes.  Work.  The weather.  Our family.  We’ve unconsciously agreed that these are the safe subjects.  The comfortable ones.  We do not deviate.

Even she is aware of the repetition.  Once she pretended to be a recording.  We laughed about it, but by the next call we were back at our old stand-by.

When I came out as a teenager she made it clear that she didn’t want to hear about that part of my life.  So I grew accustomed to changing pronouns and omitting big chunks of my history when I related it to her.  I’ve edited out half of my life.  Romances.  Relationships.  Heartbreaks.  Dreams.

Even now, 15 years later, I don’t know how to talk to her.  I can say, “Carlos and I went out for breakfast.”  But I can’t say, “Carlos is my boyfriend.”

I’m afraid to go through the pain of rejection I went through when I came out a second time.  But I want her to know me.  All of me.  I want to be able to share with the people who raised me the person I want to spend my life with.

So I made a picture book.  I found a company online that allows you to arrange pictures with a story and print it out in a nicely bound, hardcover print with glossy pages.  I put together pictures of my odyssey from Los Angeles to Seattle.  The coffee shops and restaurants that I frequented.  Pictures of my friends.  All of the places she’ll never see and the people that she’ll never meet.

I told the story of how Carlos and I met in a coffeehouse.  How he was waiting for me at the finish line when I ran the marathon.  The two of us eating sushi.  Us going out for drinks.  Hiking.  Our anniversary.  The two of us smooching.  Sweetly.  Eyes closed.  Smiling.

I thought if she could see what my life was like, the other half that we don’t speak about, then maybe it wouldn’t be so alien.  Maybe we could actually have a real conversation about something meaningful.  Maybe she could see me, all of me, and have the opportunity this time to accept me.  To love me for who I am, instead of insisting on rejecting all but a portion of me.  The bland and inoffensive bit.

I mailed the book to her three weeks ago.  I sent it with a handwritten inscription that though it may not seem like it, my life is really full of happiness and beauty, and that I hope someday we’ll be able to talk about those things too.

I waited nervously for her response.  Would she think it was sweet?  Would she be disgusted?  No matter the response, at least it would be a conversation starter.  A chance to talk about something real.  A door to an authentic relationship.

But every conversation is the same as all the ones that passed before.  Work is fine.  It’s raining today.  How’s dad?  Grandma isn’t doing well these days.

I guess I should have been prepared for it, but it never occurred to me that she wouldn’t mention it at all.  The book, like my relationships, my hopes and dreams are things that just don’t exist to her.  It’s disappointing, but if she can’t accept my sexuality, at least I can accept her limitations.  And love her anyway.