I was raised in a gay relationship in the 70s and 80s, before Heather has Two Mommies(Alyson Books) hit the mainstream in the 90s, just a few years after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973. There isn’t enough room here to discuss how that shaped me (that will be covered at length in my first memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings) and that isn’t the purpose of this essay, anyway.
This narrative was prompted by years of being told that my family was living in sin, that my mothers were immoral and headed, with no detours, to el infierno, that homosexuality is taught and not innate, that homosexuality is unnatural and an abomination, and gay marriage will be the downfall of our great society, and, yes, by the recent overturning of California’s Proposition 8 by a federal appeals court.
I have flipped out on people when confronted with their intolerance. As a kid, I once pummeled a girl who, in her anger over losing a boy’s affections to me, told me, “You’re dirty like your lesbian mothers.” As an adult, I’ve had heated, near-foaming-at-the-mouth arguments both on-line and face to face with people who have hurled bible scripture at me to defend their disgust of the homosexual lifestyle. Just the other day, I avoided a sure to be heart-seizing exchange with a self-described fundamentalist by refusing to entertain his insistence that both science and the Word prove that homosexuality is profane and sacrilegious. Shortly after dodging that bullet, I was harangued by another gentleman (and I use the term loosely) who went on a tirade about homosexuality being abnormal and socially incorrect. At this point I lost the battle to control myself and went off. I’m full force enmeshed in the first draft of my first memoir about my formative years, and as the seventh anniversary of the death of my second Mom Millie nears, I am very sensitive to anything that I feel dishonors her memory. All this is to say that I lost my cool on this dude, only to feel shortly thereafter that I could have handled the situation better.
All issues that pertain to gay rights and understanding of the lifestyle are matters that I am and will always be passionate about. That will never change. But I realize that, like me, people shut down when confronted by a frothing, furious individual. I am a writer and avid reader, and, as such, I am more apt to listen and feel compassion for story, so I took this recent frustration and decided to pen my own narrative about my second mom and the secret she shared with me weeks before her death.
Millie was a self-proclaimed butch who loved me with a fierceness many think can only come from having carried a child for nine months. But Millie was not my biological mother. She met me when I was two. I only have one memory of life without her. The rest of my childhood is wrought with recollections of her tenderness, her many lessons on how to handle bullies, on fighting for what I want, on how I had to take on life “con puños, Vanessa, con puños.” Millie supported all of my whimsical fascinations, from my brief obsession with basketball to my love for dance and all things art-related. So when I told her, excitedly, as she lay withering away on the last bed she’d ever lay in, “I think I wanna write a book, Millie,” she propped herself up on one arm, her breathing raspy, and said, “Of course, negra. You’ve always been a writer.” And that night I went home and started building the main character of my first novel.
To be honest, she was a tyrant. Things had to be her way in the house. She was controlling and domineering and could be malicious with her words at times. But this isn’t attributable to her sexuality. We all have our rot, no matter our sexual orientation. None of us is perfect. Not a one. What she taught me, I carry to this day. She taught me to go after what I want. She helped me believe in myself and my abilities. She saw through me to who I could and would be one day, and led me to see that in her way.
I visited Millie everyday while she was in the hospice. Calvary was just a mile and a half from my home on Pelham Parkway; I was home collecting unemployment while nursing my then only months old daughter, so every morning, I’d bundle up my nena, pack up the stroller, and walk my way over to the hospital, praying the entire time that Millie would have a good day, she’d be vibrant and laughing, her breathing smooth, her pain subsided.
Millie had been diagnosed with breast cancer six years earlier. She’d had her right breast removed and repeated stints of chemotherapy treatments. The mastectomy and chemo were not intended to save her life. The cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes by the time she felt the lump while in the shower, so Millie knew that eventually she would succumb to the disease. She carried that mortality with her like a turtle does its shell, except this shell didn’t protect her innards, it was an onus, a heavy load that shrank her will and faith with each passing day.
She’d joke sometimes about the breast that remained, saying it looked like a deflated whoopee cushion. She’d slap it so it would bounce, and her double rolled belly would quiver while she laughed. “Si yo fuera una mujer femenina, esto me molestaria,” she said about the keloid gash, all that was left of her right breast. But I could tell that she was lying, covering up her sadness with jest, as was her way. I once caught her staring at her nude reflection in the mirror. She traced the wound with her finger and bit her lip. When she met my eyes, she laughed. “Yo si estoy gorda, negra.”
When I cleaned the gash, she’d search my face, looking for a reaction, disgust, I think. I never showed it because it simply wasn’t there. This was the woman who cleaned me when I soiled my pants that time I had a bad case of the runs when I was eight. This was the woman who carried me on her shoulders when I was just three and mom made us walk the mile and half to Knickerbocker Park. This was the woman who taught me how to jab and weave when I was being bullied in school. I was only doing for her what she’d done for me since the day we met. I was loving her.
One day, when I walked into the hospice, she was whimpering into her pillow, trying to snuffle her heaving. I ran to her. “What’s wrong? Te duele algo?” I reached for the nurse button but she grabbed my arm with the hand that was perpetually swollen from liquid retention after the mastectomy, so it looked like a blown up latex glove.
“No, I’m okay.” She wiped the tear that clung to the tip of her Castilian nose and smiled. “Hi negra.” She kissed and hugged me. She was trembling. “Pasame la nena.” I removed Vasia’s coat and put her in her arms, sat on the chair next to the bed and watched.
I knew better than to ask any questions. Millie was never the type to reveal what she was feeling when she was in the thick of an emotion. She did so in her time. I get my “I need to process this” tendency from her.
After she drank the coffee (con leche y dos azucar) and old fashioned donut I brought her every morning, after holding Vasialys and cooing at her, after explaining to Vasia what was going on in whatever show she was watching on the television, in between her anecdotes about life and love and how blessed she was to have been born to me “because I raised her,” she looked at me. “Tengo miedo, negra.”
“Why? What are you afraid of?”
“Te sacastes mas leche o le vas a tener que dar seno?” Millie preferred that I pump my breastmilk so she could feed Vasialys during the day until mom came in the early evening and sent me packing, telling me I needed to go home to my marido, though by then my daughter’s father was more roommate than partner, but the hospice was no place to reveal such failures on my part.
“No, Millie, there are two bottles in the bag. Don’t change the subject.”
“Que subject, ni subject,” she shrugged. “Two bottles no es suficiente.”
“Millie, there’s plenty of milk in these jugs.” We laughed, staring at my engorged breasts that threatened to push out of any and every top I owned no matter how large. “And I brought the pump just in case.” I pointed at the bag hanging from the carriage. “So, you were saying?”
“Ay na’, it’s nothing.”
I grabbed the remote and turned off the T.V. No one but I could do that without getting a searing look and a blunt object thrown at their head. I raised my eyebrow and waited. She looked down at Vasia who was snoring lightly on the bed next to her. She adjusted her onesie and rubbed her back. “What if it’s true what they say? That I’m going to hell.” Her hand trembled as she rubbed Vasia’s hair.
“What do you mean?”
“Vanessa, la biblia dice…”
I cut her off like I always did when she spoke of the Bible. Conversations about religion never ended well between us. I’d listen for a while, pursing my lips and rolling my eyes, but then my frustration would get the best of me and I’d go on my spiel about how the bible didn’t come to earth via fax, that it was culturally biased, contradictory, misogynist and couldn’t possibly be held as absolute truth by any rational person. But this conversation felt different so I held my tongue, or at least made the effort to. “Millie, you’re not going to hell.”
“Y como sabes eso tu?” she huffed and stared out the window, one hand still stroking Vasia’s head.
I leaned in and ran my fingers through Millie’s hair. It’d re-grown to its full thickness after her last chemotherapy session, but now the gray overpowered the once jet black of her mane. She started to cry softly. I held her head on my chest until she calmed down. “Tu huele a leche,” she giggled. Comedy was how she kept her sanity.
“I don’t know for sure, but my heart tells me que eso es imposible. How can you be sent to hell? You showed me what love is, Millie.”
She brushed the hair out of my face. “You’re the one thing I did right.” I bit back the tears. She needed me to be strong. This was no time to get lost in my grief.
“You’re really scared, aren’t you?”
“Si negra. Everything I learned desde chiquita says that I’ve lived in sin. God doesn’t forget that.”
“Quien dice? Who is this God you refer to? The God I know is forgiving. The God I know loves you.”
“Si, pero la Biblia dice que la homosexualidad es pecado and if you live that lifestyle, you go to el infierno.”
“Que infierno ni infierno?” I was getting bothered by the conversation. I felt helpless. I knew that I could do nothing to discharge the decades of religious teachings she’d received from so many avenues; an upbringing in the hills of Lares where the Pentecostal faith was as deeply rooted as the wild mango trees, years of lectures from her three preacher brothers, one who was especially self-righteous after having been an alcoholic for twenty some odd years, because if he could abandon sin and give himself to God, then anyone could, and a whole lifetime of preaching from her mother who’d died begging her to leave her life of sin. “Deja esa vida, hija, ” she’d plead. “Te quiero ver en el cielo un dia.”
My helplessness got the best of me. We didn’t talk about it again, though she’d sometimes confess to being scared at random moments, like before an exam or after a particularly bad night. I’d hold her until her shaking passed.
I’d sometimes catch her crying in the bathroom or sobbing into her pillow. I knew better than to try to alleviate her pain. There was nothing I could do but hold her until the moment passed.
She died on the morning of March 15, 2005. Alone, like she wanted to.
Countless studies show that homosexuals are more likely to suffer from depression and isolation. They are more likely to attempt and consider suicide. Many also report having experienced harassment and/or violence at the hands of a family member and/or peer as a result of their sexual orientation. The Ali Forney Center estimates that, tragically, “as many as 25% of [gay] teens are rejected by their families, and many end up homeless on the streets.” Statistics are scant for homosexuals who grow up in religious households but all indications show that figures on suicide, depression, isolation, etc. are even more alarming for this population.
In 2009, a Connecticut church, Manifested Glory Ministries, posted a video of what church members called the exorcism of a “homosexual demon” from a teenager’s body. In the twenty minute clip, the boy is seen writhing on the ground, crying and even throwing up while churchleaders yell, “Right now in the name of Jesus, I call the homosexuality, right now in the name of Jesus.”
The church described the ritual as a casting out of spirits. “We have nothing against homosexuals. I just don’t agree with their lifestyle,” said the Reverend Patricia McKinney of Manifested Glory Ministries.
It’s true that it’s impossible to say how often similar exercises occur in churches nationwide. Kamora Herrington, who runs a mentoring program at True Colors, a gay advocacy group for gay youths, says, “This happens all the time.” The fact that it’s happened at least once, as this video testifies, is enough to cause me anguish.
So what does this all mean? It means that Millie wasn’t (and still isn’t) alone in her desperation to reconcile her love for women with the dogma that was ingrained in her. I can only imagine the torture she endured throughout her life, while she moved in the world as a lesbian woman, when she visited her family in Puerto Rico and was subjected to their lecturing, and even the torture she subjected herself to.
I won’t attempt to convince anyone that homosexuality is inborn, though I will confess that this is my stance since I have yet to meet a gay person who contends otherwise. Whatever the case, that is a moot argument and will only complicate things further. What I will say is that watching Millie suffer as she did, the burden of her impending death exacerbated by her terror for what awaited her in the afterlife, has made me inexhaustibly compassionate for the plight of homosexuals and all people, for that matter, that are shunned and reproached. And, though I do not identify myself with any one particular religion and am not a believer in the Bible (or any religious text for that matter) as the absolute word of God, I do have a very deep belief in God and spirituality. It is a personal relationship that I hone daily, and everything in my being tells me that God is Love and nothing like this hateful, vengeful image that’s been propagated for millennia.
In the end, none of us is free of sin; we are all very flawed, and, as such, should focus our energy on the reflection that stares back at us before we attempt to point the finger to berate another. This is the place I choose to sit in—introspection—hence this essay and my memoir. It’s why I do the work I do with youth and adults. It’s why I created the Writing our Lives workshop, to show the importance of personal narrative, because studies and statistics and numbers do not give face to people and meaning to their struggles. Story does.