This week's This American Life is a repeat from a year ago of a live broadcast featuring, among other celebrity guests (Joss Whedon on vocals and piano!?), sex columnist Dan Savage. He isn't talking about sex in this one, though. He's talking about a number of things, but mostly two: Catholicism, and his mother.
Savage's story is funny, as he usually is when he isn't being a privileged white asshole who thinks being gay gives him the right to talk shit about people in various other minority populations. Then, later, his story is sad. Incredibly, painfully, wracked-with-uncontrollable-sobs sad. You see, he's talking about his mother's terminal illness, and about her last moments with her family in the ICU in Tucson, Arizona. Her lungs, scarred by pulmonary fibrosis, were finally, permanently—fatally—coming apart. There was nothing to be done.
I live now in perpetual fear of that event, the moment Dan Savage powerfully, emotionally depicted on the radio last year. I hear his coming out story, how his mother didn't know what to do and consulted a priest (who immediately came out to her as well), and I remember the book my mother bought for me to read before I even knew what being gay was, a book called Am I Blue that was full of fun stories by some of my favorite authors. Stories about being gay, about coming out, about gay parents and friends and kids and other normal people.
According to Amazon.com, this book, the first ever young adult fiction anthology for gay and lesbian teens, was published when I was eleven or twelve years old. I officially came out to my mother just before my twentieth birthday, a minimum of eight years after she knew. That book is still sitting in my parents' house, on my father's office bookshelf. I look at it every time I visit them, and I wish I could explain exactly what it has come to mean to me, how incredible my parents are, and were, and have been. How much my mother understood me, and knew that even though she couldn't find a way to talk to me about it, Bruce Coville and Jane Yolen could.
Now, she still can't talk to me about things, but she tries. And I try. She can't really pronounce most consonants anymore, and her voice is weak and pinched and punctuated by long, wheezing breaths, but we struggle to have conversations. Every Sunday we talk, and every Sunday it's harder to know or to guess what she's saying. Every Sunday it's a relief that we haven't reached that ICU in Tucson, Arizona.
She doesn't have pulmonary fibrosis, of course. She has her own unique form of ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. We're not waiting for scar tissue to build up on her lungs, but for the motor neurons that allow her to breathe to cease carrying the electrochemical commands that make those lungs work. When that happens, I hope that I will be there with her, that I can share that last moment. I can't, as Dan Savage did, share her last words, because she won't be able to make words by then. Even now, hopefully long before that point, only my father, my sister and I can understand what she says. Sometimes.
Savage admits that, even though he has no religious belief, he has turned to the ritual of Catholicism in the vain hope that it will provide him some solace, some comfort after her death. I don't have that impulse, which is probably good, as he admits it has hindered more than helped him to process his grief. I'm not looking for a higher power, or a reason, or a ritual practice to make this unbearably painful circumstance somehow bearable. I just want it to go away.
I want to go back to before Mom was sick, when my biggest maternal worry was that she bought me dozens of 50¢ used cookbooks I didn't need, or that she was a really lousy driver, or maybe that she seemed to have a moral opposition to exercise. I want to see her face and have it show what she's feeling, no matter how much she won't talk about it, instead of seeing her face and knowing that it doesn't move in response to her emotions anymore, and that smile might not actually be a smile, but some kind of rictus. I want to tell her how much she means to me and know that she understands what I'm saying; none of us can tell how much she comprehends now, especially since she doesn't usually respond.
But I'm a grownup now, and have heard the Rolling Stones tell me time and time again that I can't always get what I want. In the morning, after a few hours of fitful sleep under the quilts she made for me, I'll return to my everyday life and try to keep this on the back burner again. I'll teach my students, sit in class, and rehearse some 14th-century French music. Stiff upper lip and all that. It will hurt, but it would hurt even more not to.
In lieu of conclusion, I give you John Dowland's song that titles this post, as performed by Sting. His voice strains occasionally, and he gasps for breath, and his obvious effort and discomfort seem oddly appropriate to this particular plea.
Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?
Look how the snowy mountains
Heaven's sun doth gently waste.
But my sun's heavenly eyes
View not your weeping
That now lies sleeping
Softly, now softly lies sleeping.