2017 Theme Issue - Stranger(s)
My whitewashed cubicle feels sterile and confined. The glare of light penetrates the thin curtains that separate me from identical compartments on each side. The year is 2016 and, at 65, I find myself in the emergency room hooked up to monitors and an IV drip, listening to my newly assigned cardiologist describe treatments for atrial fibrillation, the condition with which I have just been diagnosed.
Ailing hearts run in my family. In 2006, my mother died of heart failure at the age of 80. She also suffered from a-fib, as she called it. Her heart was big. She was 10 years younger than my father when they married. My mother—beautiful, even verging on glamorous—started her working career as a young secretary. My father, a superlative writer and rising star in the ’50s advertising culture, achieved the ranks of management quickly. Their marital roles were clearly defined. Her world was usurped by her children’s and husband’s needs, managing the household, shuttling us to doctors, volunteering at church carnivals. My father’s advancement from creating clever ads to agency administration resulted in long stressful hours and his own health issues, including depression and stomach ulcers.
“In a healthy heart…” My cardiologist’s words linger in my mind. I listen carefully as she sketches an image of a heart on the back of her notepad. It looks something like a big beetle from where I lay on the hospital bed, but I trust she knows her stuff and appreciate the visual. Atriums are chambers on top. Ventricles, chambers below. And then there is the electrical system. I had forgotten about this aspect of the heart’s intricacies. Coordination. Stimulation. Contraction. The textbook memory vaguely surfaces. My doctor illustrates this “pass along” process by drawing marks that resemble stars across the bug-like heart. “Cell after cell transmits the electrical charge, and the entire heart contracts in one coordinated motion, creating a heartbeat,” she continues. I watch the monitor’s dipping lines that resemble a paint can after the final coat, an image that contradicts the steady, reliable beat of the healthy heart my cardiologist describes. I touch my pulse. The throb pauses and stutters. “Causes?” I ask. “Family history,” she begins.
My mother and I shared many genetic traits: green eyes, dark hair, medium height. Now I discover one more bond: our hearts. I often wonder when her cardiac problems began. As kids, one of our favorite activities was to get my parents’ wedding album from the back of her closet, marvel at the younger versions of aunts and uncles, and delight in my mother’s satin dress, her beaming smile, the crown-like headpiece and long veil, the regal walk down the stairs of her home. We thought she looked like a princess approaching her prince charming, and we were the happy recipients of this fairy-tale bliss that characterized their union. At least this is what the photos seemed to convey.
By age 30, my mother had given birth to five children and settled into what I imagine was a rather isolated existence in suburban Philadelphia. From all outward appearances, her middle-class lifestyle, complete with Buick sedan and milk delivery, epitomized the American dream. She had grown up as the oldest daughter in a large first-generation Scottish family in Tacony, a working class neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. Her family owned a bar, her dad managing the business while her mother served up pots of homemade hot sausage and meatball sandwiches for the regulars’ lunch.
As children we would visit our grandparents on Sunday afternoons when the bar was closed. The high-lacquered stools invited us to spin till we were dizzy. In between rides we drank root beer from frosted mugs, and cracked salty peanuts from their shells. The prison loomed across the street, scary with its large gray stone walls and barbed wires lining the top. What seedy criminals resided there? Could they escape? We often hiked in Pennypack Park near my grandparents’ home, where we spent much of our time looking behind bushes and rocks to see if we could spot an errant runaway. After all, we were well versed in the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys techniques of crime-solving, and the thought of a real mystery to unlock both captivated and terrified us.
Little did I know that a real mystery related to my mother had existed in our family for years. As it turns out, the happy wedding photos, the picture perfect suburban family, the sheer physical beauty she radiated, all belied a secret she harbored her entire adult life.
The mystery unraveled with a phone call to my brother, Jim, one Sunday afternoon in 2007. Longtime friend and former dean of students at Jim’s medical school, Joe called Jim to share a story of his own discoveries. He confided that recently he learned he was adopted and, almost immediately, began to search for his birth parents. Catholic Charities played a role in his search as did a family doctor who practiced in the Tacony area of Philadelphia. For months, Joe pieced the puzzle together. His father was a military man who had died in World War II. Access to information about his mother, however, was elusive. Adoption documents directed that his mother’s name could not be revealed until after her death.
“Jim,” Joe’s voice was a whisper. “Just a few months ago I got a letter from Catholic Charities. My birth mother died and the seal on information was lifted. I did some digging. She was from Tacony. Her mother took her daughter to Chicago to have the baby. Save her the public embarrassment. I also found out about her family.” Long pause. “Jim. Your mother is my mother, too.” The final puzzle piece slipped into place.
My brother recounted listening to Joe’s revelation in stunned silence, wondering how to reconcile the woman he knew as our mother with this new version. That’s the question all of us asked when Jim called us individually to share Joe’s story. “You better sit down,” he began when I heard his voice on the other line, husky and cracking. “I have some difficult news to tell you.”
Immediately I thought one of his children had been in an accident. Or the worst possible scenario, someone had died. “I have this friend,” Jim started. I listened to Jim’s description of Joe’s call, the discovery that he was adopted, his subsequent quest to find his parents. I kept waiting for the bad news to come, feeling a bit frustrated at this lengthy run-up to the story’s point. And then it came:
“Mom had a son before she ever married dad. And that son is Joe.”
That simple sentence upended my world. My heart ached for my mother. I imagined her living her whole life carrying this very heavy secret. Had she told my father? I doubted it. I heard Jim’s voice on the line, filling in details about our newly discovered half-brother, but his words became distant background noise as I tried wrap my mind around this new reality. Was my shock because she had had this child and had to give him up? Or that she had not shared this heart-wrenching experience with me at some point in what I thought was our very close relationship? It seemed selfish to make this about me, but I couldn’t help myself.
After Jim’s call, I recollected some of my closest moments with my mother, almost as a checklist that would confirm that, yes, we were devoted friends in addition to being mother and daughter. I wanted to reassure myself in a concrete way that it was not my imagination painting a rosy picture of our bond. I questioned myself: Did I miss signs of her sadness, a longing, or regret? Could I have asked more questions about her life before marriage to my father? But the question that haunted me most was: Were we really as close as I thought we were? Was the honesty I thought we shared real? And if it was, how could she not tell me about the first son she had to give up?
One by one each of us grappled to understand the woman who was our mother. “What will I tell my children?” I recall Jim saying in a low voice during that phone call. “I want them to remember their grandmother as they knew her.” But that reality was forever gone, replaced by the person who endured an unthinkable loss and carried this dark secret all her life. Did her first son look like her? Did she wonder where he ended up? Or did her heart pay the price—heavy, I imagine, with regret and sadness—blocking this memory as a chapter of her life she would never revisit.
We were to discover in subsequent conversations with Joe that, as a baby, he was adopted by a couple who lived close to my mother’s neighborhood, an arrangement made through family and church connections. But my mother’s distance from her first-born son could not be measured in city blocks. As far as we know, she would never see or speak about her first son again. Carrying a heavy secret for most of a lifetime cannot be good for the heart.
Like my mother, secrets were not good for my heart either.
The year is 1991. My mother’s green eyes brightened as I shared my plans to attend a dance in D.C. with friends. She is elated. I was her 39-year-old daughter, having recently left the convent after 20 years. She was a devout Catholic, but hopelessly romantic when it came to matters of the heart. My leave-taking promised cozy conversations about potential dating prospects.
She probed: “When?”
“What kind of dance?”
“It’s for women. All women.”
Our green eyes locked. A weighted pause. “It’s good your father’s dead.”
In 1969, I entered the convent at age 18. And left the sisters after over 20 years as a Catholic nun. When I left, mine was far from a peaceful heart. I wondered if I should remain with the Sisters where I had discovered a spiritual world, a community, and a passion for values to which I aspire. Or should I heed the gnawing feelings of guilt and duplicity that shook my world each time my heart jumped at the sight of an attractive woman, or endured yet one more romantic crush on one of my convent mates.
My angst grew more intense with each attempt to bury the dread and shame of acknowledging that I was gay. Coming from a traditional Catholic family and having spent nearly 20 years in the convent, this was a revelation that I was not eager to share. I grew up attending Catholic schools, adoring but also mystified by the nuns who taught me. I was the “good” student who often carried Sister’s books to the convent next to the school. One Friday afternoon, my teacher handed me a rag and a can of Pledge, original scent, and asked me to wipe down tables on the first floor of the convent. But there was no dust. Nothing. Anywhere. To me this exercise seemed like a waste of time, but I was so thrilled to be in the confines of the nuns’ mysterious cloistered existence, I dutifully carried out her request.
What came next took me completely by surprise: Sister took off the stiff large bib (yes, they called it a bib) to get deep into those spotless corners. Dressed to the neck with infinite yards of black gabardine, she was hardly revealing, but a little patch of neck and an uncooperative tuft of hair peeked from under her headgear. I couldn’t help myself from looking sideways while I mopped, hoping to catch another glimpse of flesh. The idea of her having a body collided with my more ethereal imaginings. This felt intimate, a memory I treasured.
It was not until I reached high school, however, that I sensed that my attraction to the nuns expanded beyond the circle of those rather safe objects of fascination. I attended an all-girls high school, where entering students were matched with an upper class person as a “big sister”—someone who showed you the ropes, welcomed you, and acclimated you to high school life. I came to know Carol through this designed “coupling.” She was the star of the basketball and hockey teams (enough to make me try out for the JV hockey team although I was a pitiful player), handsome, drove a very cool Cutlass, and made my heart skip just at the mere thought of seeing her. I knew her class schedule and arranged to pass by her in the halls whenever I could, just to get the nod, the smile, the brush. I clocked her time of arrival and departure based on the parking space she typically used. My second string JV hockey status gave me entry to dinner with the team at Madras’ deli after each game. I was obsessed!
One Christmas, Carol gave me an engraved gold signature ring. I recall reading immense significance into this gift; in my mind it equated to “going steady” although somehow it never signaled to me that I might be gay. Carol was simply a very dear and treasured friend. As children we had a neighbor rumored to be a “homosexual.” He was summarily condemned as “Queer Jack” by the local kids and taunted for his “perverted” ways. Never in a million years could I imagine myself as one of them.
In my senior year of high school, I decided to join the Sisters of St. Joseph, the community that had taught me all my life. In retrospect, my attraction to a community of nuns makes perfect sense. At some level, the idea of marrying a man was not appealing. The sanctuary of the convent offered a safe and more than acceptable way to avoid the big questions. Over the years, when asked about why I entered the convent at such a young age, I usually went to my tried and true (and safe) answer. In 1969, the civil rights movement was exploding, young people were embracing social justice, and the work of the Sisters offered an opportunity to be part of this historic period. At 18 years old, I bought the story myself.
After entering the convent, my homoerotic attractions grew more intense. My relationships with “personal friends” (much frowned upon by the Mistress of Postulants) was innocent enough at the beginning. The thrill as one of my Sister companions brushed by me in the dining hall, a “personal” invitation to take solitary walks for private conversations, the intimate glances that caused my heart to leap. Over time I engaged in more involved relationships, driven by a sexual curiosity and desire that outweighed the threat of being discovered. I sought counsel at the time and was told that I was experiencing what could be termed a “hot house” situation: living with all women during a period in my early and mid-20s when hormones are raging. This will pass, I was assured. But it didn’t pass. With my secret life came the guilt of duplicity and shame, exacerbating an already tumultuous period of my life.
By the time I reached thirty, my confusion about identity and my choice to live a Sister’s life came to something of a breaking point. After finishing my undergraduate degree in English, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in English as well. At the time most Sisters in our Order who chose English for graduate work studied at the University of Notre Dame. While the institution had an excellent reputation, South Bend, Indiana, was not top on my list for a summer escape. More importantly, I longed to be free of my usual circuit of nuns, priests, and Catholicism in general. One of my college professors recommended a school called The Bread Loaf School of English, a summer graduate program designed for teachers and affiliated with Middlebury College. Intrigued by the name itself, I wrote for information.
Bread Loaf changed my life. Situated on the idyllic Bread Loaf Mountain about ten miles outside Middlebury, the school boasted an internationally recognized writing institute; professors from Harvard, Yale and Princeton; a vibrant theater and creative writing program in addition to highly respected graduate degrees, and a nurturing community of students and scholars. What they did not advertise in the brochure, however, were the extra-curricular activities that would confound, confuse and thrill me all once: living on the same hall with twenty women of every variation you can imagine (poetry readings each Friday afternoon—one I recall with a vagina’s mucus and cheesy delight metaphor); participating in the “First Saturday” square dance, swirling and sweating with 250 literary types while dosey-doing to a country music crooner; dressing up for the annual Suppressed Desires Party which required inventive costumes that ‘expressed’ ourselves (my personal best? Pat Benatar in pink skirt and black leather jacket); gathering at The Chipman Inn’s “watering hole” in the evening for wine, beer, and the flirtations, frivolity, and “elevated” conversations that are typically produced by such a mix. I was amazed, appalled, intoxicated and enthralled by my new world and the awakening that accompanied it.
Seven weeks each summer for five years, I would enter this magical oasis that represented an escape from the regimented and relatively restricted life I led as a nun. My intellectual, social, and sexual borders were all being challenged, and while this encounter with “the wild side” was exhilarating, it also catalyzed extreme emotional highs and lows, resulting in debilitating letdowns each summer on my return to convent life. Self-punishing guilt and a constant questioning of my “vocation” took me to a breaking point.
Facing a 40th birthday, I knew I had to take a step outside of my relatively safe but completely chaotic world and figure out who I was. My top priority after leaving the convent, given the secrets that had plagued me for years, was to be honest about being gay: no more bringing women to family gatherings under the guise of female “friends.” For many in my Catholic family, this was unsettling to say the least. My mother cried when I told her I was a lesbian, perhaps because of shame, or with concern that I would live a life of loneliness and rejection.
Coming out had its share of heartaches for me as well. I was soon to discover that while my years in the convent had shaped my professional skills, when it came to matters of the heart, I was a 40-year-old stalled in the developmental stages of a teenager. While reeling over heartaches, I also faced, for the first time, living on my own, balancing a checkbook, paying an electric bill, and worrying about retirement savings. But with all its challenges, this decade in my life was liberating and exhilarating. I cobbled together several part-time jobs and finished my doctoral studies at George Washington University. I met my first love and entered the lesbian world of Washington, D.C. with freedom and honesty. I interviewed for and was hired at my first college teaching job. I survived heartbreaks and heartaches, and doled out a few myself. I trained for and ran a half-marathon (therapy after a heartbreak). I practiced meditation and explored Buddhist traditions (more therapy) and began to know and understand myself in ways I never had. My obsessive desire to “partner” was replaced by a deeply satisfying life on my own.
Through it all, my mother supported me at every turn. Perhaps she gave up her pursuit of my imagined gentleman callers because she saw my happiness even with all the transitional ups and downs. She welcomed my partners throughout the years with an open heart and sincere affection, sharing the missed opportunities (often) or ecstatic moments (seldom) of the Eagles or Phillies depending on the season, as we watched television in the intimacy of her living room. “I am fine with your choices,” my mother would confide at points of the visit when we were alone. “I just don’t want to talk about them.”
My mother’s fail-safe emotional response that protected her from realities that were uncomfortable, even shameful, had its roots, I am sure, in the lesson learned when she was 18. What effect did this dissembling have on her heart? And where did my revelation about attending a women’s dance in D.C. fit on her spectrum of disappointment or shame? Did my coming out add to her heart weariness or assuage it in some way? I would like to believe the latter, but knowing her as I do now, the nagging question remains. Would I ever understand the real truth of how she felt?
I look at one of the few remaining photographs I still have of my mother in her lovely wedding dress, her bright smile, looking straight at the camera. Her heart must have been aching even as she celebrated her marriage to my father. As I hold this photo and imagine the day it was taken, I wonder what was going on in her mind, behind the smile that effused wedding bliss. Was she excited about this next phase of life, with the harrowing chapter locked in a heart that would vigorously guard that secret? Is there relief in her eyes? Or is her gaze more steely, marking the moment when she put the whole wrenching ordeal behind her, squared her jaw in that determined Scottish way, and forged on, looking only forward.
My mother embraced death in much the same deliberate manner. She chose when she would die. After spending days in the hospital, her heart failure had been complicated by various infections. No more tests, no more hospital directives, she insisted. It’s time. I want to be with your father. She was even clear about the dress and jewelry she wanted to wear for her wake: a light blue gown that could be found in her condo closet and pale topaz earrings to match. Make sure to take the earrings off before they close the casket, she reminded us. They should be part of the estate. Always the pragmatic Scot, and beautiful right to the end.
As each of us filed into her hospice room, she awoke long enough to ask, “How are you?” with that same beaming smile that accompanied her through life. Sons and daughters, grandchildren, in-laws, and friends gathered around her bed watching her chest rise and fall, listening for the breath that was becoming more hollow and labored. My brother Mike was the last to arrive, traveling the farthest from North Carolina, and she was able to look up one more time and lovingly recognize her youngest son. But gradually, her eyes opened less often, her smile faded, and her heart came slowly, steadily to a stop.
Why does the heart signify the locus of love, the vault for secrets, or the muse for inspiration? Why do we see this complex organ that pumps our blood as bruised over lost love, or wounded by rejection? For me, my mother’s heart never “failed,” although heart failure was noted on her death certificate. I’d rather think that, in the end, her heart simply came to rest because her vessels were tired, her impulses dulled, and her blood flow slowed to a peaceful end.
Months have passed since my hospital stay. I still have the cardiologist’s drawing of my beetle heart with stars floating on its surface, a reminder of what the heart’s chambers resemble when all systems are in sync. I feel my pulse. No more rapid beats or stutters, aberrations now managed through the wonders of modern medicine. No more secrets either. I manage that.