On Gay Modern Love (Mom, It’s Me, Your Gay Son, Finally)


In which The Gay Recluse provides a gay alternative to this week’s Modern Love offering in The Times.

Mom, It’s Me, Your Gay Son, Finally


Published: March 22, 2008

A YEAR after my partner Alan left me, and on the day before my estranged mother would have turned 77, I was flying into San Francisco for work. I had been back to the city many times since my childhood, but never in such a state of grief and confusion.

My “marriage” had ended suddenly—brutally even, given that there was a (much much) younger man involved—and while Alan and I were getting along well enough now, I had finally acknowledged that reconciliation was not an option. But I was still deep in an existential crisis: I hadn’t expected at age 49 to be asking once again, “Who am I?”

As the plane descended through a white bank of clouds to offer a view of the city, I gazed upon my old neighborhoods, the catastrophes of my youth as familiar to me as if I had just watched them on YouTube.

Decades before, when I was a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent, I was sent away from San Francisco. Returning as a lawyer, I noted how far I appeared to have come – at least superficially – from the chaos and distress of my youth, yet I suddenly knew that all of those old urges remained inside of me, more latent than extinct.

As much as I hated to admit it, I still felt as alone and alienated as I did when my divorced parents, unable to agree on much of anything, found common ground that summer of 1973 and turned me over to the juvenile authorities of the State of California. I had been arrested for LSD possession and was, admittedly, completely out of control. Had it been ten years later, there’s little doubt I would have been exposed to HIV, and in all likelihood would not be alive to write about this now.

As I got into my rental car, the afternoon was somber and gray, but the horizon was nevertheless infused with the soft, warm light of early autumn. I had intended to head straight to the city, but as I pulled onto the 101 and headed north, I “remembered” it was my mother’s birthday – funny how we block these things out – and felt compelled to visit her grave.

My mother died a couple of months after my 24th birthday, when I was living in New York City, trying to become the next New York Doll. Things had not been good between us for a long time. I don’t remember sending her so much as a single card in the five or six years before her death. I never called her.

Now, I owed her a visit.

I took El Camino Real into Colma and stopped for a bouquet at a flower shop, located in the middle of several cemeteries. I drove around, unable to remember which was my mother’s. Finally, a helpful employee asked the right question (“Was your mother Jewish?” “No, Catholic.”) and pointed me in the right direction.

The receptionist there looked up the location — Section U, Row 47, Grave 22 — and gave me a map with the route highlighted in yellow. It occurred to me that I was on a treasure hunt, a thought that however perverse at least distracted me from the adrenaline of what I suddenly suspected was going to be a long-overdue confrontation.

My mother was in the cheap section, far beyond the spires and mini-architectural wonders at the bottom of the hill. In the past this had embarrassed me, but I was now glad that her spot was clean, unadorned by what I saw were the gaudy trappings of the rich. I parked and walked gingerly along the row of graves to where, on a characteristically sunny mid-February morning a quarter-century earlier, my two brothers and I had buried her. At the time, the brightness of the day had seemed to represent closure: I remembered expressing relief that her troubled life was finally over.

My father left my mother when I was 11 (and my brothers were 12 and 8), on the first Saturday after the school year ended that June. We were at our grandmother’s house for the weekend.

When we returned, our mother was waiting at the front door wearing only her slip, looking crazed. “Your father left me,” she said as we approached. “He says he doesn’t love me. He says he’s never loved me. And you know why? He’s a faggot! And now you have to choose who you want to live with. I want to know right now!”

Later I learned that she had tried to overdose on pills the day before. In the following years this threat of suicide would become fairly common. “I’m going to kill myself,” she would say to us every few months. “And none of you little faggots can stop me.” That’s what she called us – and to be fair, many others – at her most deranged, and if it hurt me a little bit more than my brothers, I wasn’t about to tell anyone why (and especially not my father, who I hated just as much as my mother did, and probably even more, knowing exactly what I had inherited from him).

Her occasional attempts, always with pills, were surely aimed more at getting attention than actually killing herself, but it took me several years to understand the modus operandi of a true drama queen. Before this realization, each instance thoroughly terrified me, especially the time I was the only one home to try to stop her.

Over the last year, in the wake of the disintegration of my relationship with Alan, I had contemplated a kind of passive suicide myself. Many times, as I took long walks around my Seattle neighborhood, I hoped I would be the accidental point-of-impact of a car gone out of control, or the target of a mistaken-identity drive-by shooting. I went to sex clubs for the first time in decades and groveled for the affection of strangers.

Standing at my mother’s grave, I felt guilty about this, but didn’t know why. My body cast a shadow over the grave like a blanket placed there for a picnic. There were no other visitors, no gardeners, no gravediggers. All I heard were the bumblebee drone of a small plane and the wind in the eucalyptus trees that bordered the cemetery to the east.

“Happy birthday, Mom,” I said somewhat ridiculously, but then realized I had effectively broken the tension. I was not going to scream at her, after all. I looked away, my eyes following the path of the plane as it disappeared beyond San Bruno Mountain, which hovered over all those Colma cemeteries. At this time of year they were barren and brown and awful, as dead as the dead.

It occurred to me that my mother and I had not been alone together in more than 30 years. I was 16 the last time, released on a half-day pass from juvenile hall so she could take me to buy clothes. The following day I would fly to Los Angeles, to the boys’ home where I would live until I turned 18. I had run away from the first home I had been sent to, an outpost run by a pair of alcoholics in the hills east of Healdsburg, and then turned myself into juvenile hall after taking a near-fatal overdose of Nembutal after turning a trick with sadistic lawyer from Albany. (I wish I was joking.)

The half-dozen times I saw my mother after that – although I never came out to her – I always brought a friend. At the time I felt that I did this to keep her baser instincts under control, but I now think it was to check my own: I had good reason to want to kill her, but hadn’t yet come to terms with why. Even after she died, I couldn’t face her alone: the few times I had been to her grave, I was accompanied by someone: Alan, a friend or my daughter.

I put the flowers at her headstone, kneeling and cleaning out the little stone cups on either side that were designed to accommodate small vases. It took me years to understand and appreciate how difficult her life had been and to realize that the trouble was not that she was weak or mean-spirited or even homophobic – although she certainly was all of those things – but that more than anything else, she was mentally ill. As a public defender, it’s one of the lessons I have learned from working with my clients, whose problems are often alarmingly similar. It only now occurred to me that for all these years – on some psychological level – I had been defending my mother as much as my clients, and for the first time I was beginning to understand why.

The last time I spoke to her she was so drunk that I could barely make out her words. She slurred something about cussing out a cop who had stopped her on the highway. Sitting alone in the drafty hallway of my Lower East Side apartment, I held the phone at arm’s length, saying every minute or so, “Yeah, mm-hmm,” until I couldn’t bear it anymore and hung up.

A few weeks later, my older brother called in the middle of the night to say she had died of heart failure as she pulled out a hideaway bed for my visiting sister-in-law.

Cleaning out her apartment with my brothers, I found a journal she had kept during her last year. I flipped through the pages, reading inconsequential entries written in a scribble that only vaguely resembled the elegant handwriting I had known from my childhood. I came across an entry from around the time we had last spoken, when I couldn’t listen to her. It was written in pencil, as if one day she might erase it if her life changed for the better. It said: “I am so lonely.”

I don’t believe in ghosts, or in the notion that my mother is in heaven or hell. But that day in the cemetery, I felt her with me as I wept in the afternoon sun, which now seemed more warm than brittle. Even so, after telling her about my recent troubles, speaking aloud to her felt more like speaking to the grave itself, or to the air. Increasingly self-conscious, I started to walk away. But something drew me back, perhaps simply my need to come to terms with the hollowness and unease – and most of all, the depths of anger – that had always pushed me away.

And standing by her once again, I remembered something I had not thought of in many years. When I was little and my mother was feeling good, she would tell the story of how she’d had German measles when she was pregnant with me. Her doctors believed there was a high likelihood that I would have serious birth defects, and they advised her to have an abortion. But she wouldn’t hear of it. She told them she knew I’d be a beautiful, healthy child, full of spirit, someone who would make the world a better place. She would kiss me while telling me this story, her eyes smiling, full of love, the kind of tenderness that, in her later years, would resurface only rarely, reminding me always of what we had lost.

I knelt upon her grave, placing my hands in the grass, my fingers spread wide so as to touch as much of the earth above her as possible. I knew then why I had come, and why I had been unable to leave before that moment. For the first time, as I compared the vision of what she had been to what she later became, I understood that she, like all of us to some degree, had been crippled by the pain of life. That it had been a psychological condition only made it that more difficult to comprehend. As my anger finally began to dissolve like a giant block of ice tossed into a raging sea, I not only began to forgive her for being so hateful, but myself for hating her back in return.

I STILL had one more stop. Until my parents’ separation, we lived in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. Ours was a small house on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with hundreds of acres of undeveloped land as our backyard. The beach was a half-mile walk on sandy paths that wound through ice plant and wind-battered forest. It was where my friends and I had gone to play.

The drive there took less than 15 minutes. I parked in front of our old house and got out, smelling the salt air and sage that were a constant presence in my youth. The sun was an hour from setting. The street was quiet. Memories no longer swept over me in a torrent, but in clusters; the sky was clearing.

I stood on the sidewalk where my father – a future casualty of AIDS, which is another story – and I had played countless games of catch, and on the spot where I had first kissed another boy on a beautiful afternoon just like this. For nearly an hour, as the sun bled into the horizon, shining a russet light over the still-wild hills, I stood before that house and yard, watching myself between ages 4 and 11, playing and dreaming before it all went bad; I was oblivious but full of hope and belief, my actual future unfathomable.

I had already said goodbye to Alan. I had finally managed a proper goodbye to my mother. It was time to say goodbye to that boy, too.

I was ready then for the five-mile drive into the city.

Pete MacDonald is a public defender in Seattle. He is working on a novel.

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4 Responses to “On Gay Modern Love (Mom, It’s Me, Your Gay Son, Finally)”

  1. 1 gary budlong

    dear pete, thank you. i’m 61, disabled, retired and gay. my partner has died 5 years ago. knew i was different [gay] at an early age. my family situation was totally screwed up. your writing as you did struck accord with me and wished to express my appreciation. happy easter, happy spring…

  2. Gary, thanks for the comment and we wish you the best going forward. We responded in greater detail and provided some background to the gay version of the piece (which is not exactly Pete MacDonald’s doing) here:


  3. 3 R Denver

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article in the NY Times this past weekend

    and checked the internet to see if there was anything else that you had written. I was surprised to see that this piece had a very important element that was left out of the NY Times article. It’s a shame you had to change it to suit the readership of the NY Times.

    Well written. Struck a chord with me. My relationship with my mother could improve and your story has inspired me to work on it.

  4. Dear R. Denver, thanks for the comment but please note that Pete MacDonald did not put the gay content into the piece. The full story can be read here:


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