it went on and on. I tried to cover my head with my pillow, but I could still hear the moaning and sobbing. I understood what she wanted. Someone, anyone to come comfort her. Cough, cough, cough…. then a bit of silence. Maybe she fell asleep I hoped? Then a minute later, ohhhhhhh….sob…sob…aaahhhhhh. I was so tired. I’d been at school all day then a two hour swim workout after. I was exhausted.
I got out of bed wearing only my pajama bottoms as was our custom. At ten years old I would only wear a PJ bottom. Somehow to my three brothers and I this represented our growing maturity. My room was furthest away from hers and I wondered how come none of my brother’s seemed to have heard the moans. I walked around through her doorway and peaked in. She looked up from her bed. “Jer-bear?” “Is that you?”She asked in the dark. “It’s me.” I said walking over to her bedside. I looked down at her as she lay there holding her chest. She was so frail, thin and sickly. Almost bald, her skin paper-thin and gray with oxygen tubes coming out of her nose. “Sit here” she said patting the bed next to her. I turned slightly and sat with my legs dangling towards the floor. Her bed was the sort you would find in any hospital. It had the bars on the sides that could be raised or lowered and even had wheels in case she needed to be moved. She rested a hand on my arm. “Such a nice swimmer body” she said smiling. “Are you OK Mom?” I asked. “Oh yes sweetheart.” she said as if nothing was wrong. The stacks of pills on her bedside table, the filled ashtrays, empty glasses of bourbon and the twin five foot oxygen tanks told a different story. She was in constant pain and had been the last 6 years or so since she’d had a double-mastectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. She’d had her adrenal glands removed too and had a permanent open wound in her chest we changed the dressing on every night. The skin wouldn’t heal anymore and her bones were like swiss cheese from all the radiation, small fragments of which would occasionally appear in the wound and have to be removed. All of this she dulled with a crazy combination of narcotics and Jim Beam. Each of my brothers knew how to mix her drink. A tall water glass with two ice-cubes and a splash of water. “Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked. I wanted to say, “you know very well why” but I couldn’t. I felt so bad for her lying there all day and all night alone like she did. We were the only break in that monotony when we arrived home from school in the afternoon and then again later when we would each come in to kiss her goodnight. For all of this it didn’t seem strange to me, she had been like this almost as long as I could recall.
There was a time in my dim memory of a different woman. She was tall, blonde and statuesque. She wore mink and smelled of expensive french perfume. I rarely saw this mother though. That one usually left us with our nanny, Gloria. We only saw her as she left for glamorous outings with my famous plastic surgeon father. Later we might hear them drunk and fighting. She screamed for us then as we cowered in our beds. “Help me boys!” she would call as my father beat her but none of us responded. At 3 or 4 years old there wasn’t a lot we could do. I know my older brothers had each finally confronted him but they suffered for years listening before that. The mother of this world was exotic far off and mysterious like a tragic Queen. Sometimes she was”ill” and we wouldn’t see her for weeks. Then just as suddenly she was back joining us on Sundays for church in her pencil skirts, red lipstick and heels. Outside of church she was never without a cigarette held elegantly in long manicured fingers. The only place we went as a family then was Mass. I had six siblings but the older three no longer joined us. They were separated from the younger four of us by a gap of eight years. We rarely saw them anymore. They were off in college or busy with friends. More often than not the other three younger brothers and I were shepherded around by our angry nanny. She resented us for being privileged and white. Two things the young overweight black woman from rural Georgia was not.
But that fabulous mother was from another mythic time in a fairytale past. The one I sat next to longed for those days but her fabulous King husband had abandoned for a younger princess to adorn. They apparently even had a new set of children to fill their new kingdom although I’d never met them. The mother I sat next to would often regale that man for leaving her exiled and broken. She would cry bitterly calling him a fucking asshole or some other words I had been schooled in church to never use. Sometimes this mother would get up from her bed and dance in a narcotic and alcohol fueled memory of wonderful outings shared in former grand ballrooms with my father. She told me what a great lover he was and how he had swept her off her feet. Like Mrs. Havisham in The Dickens novel, Great Expecations it was as if time had ended when her husband left. The music had stopped and the guests had all left. Now it was just the 5 of us in this echo hall of past grandeur. My mother and my 3 brothers. I was number three. I had one younger brother who knew even less of the past than I did. The older two each knew more and I think were more injured for its memory.
“Want to watch a movie with me ber-ber?” she asked. Tired as I was, I agreed. “The life of Henry the Eighth is on at ten.” “Masterpiece Theater!” she said with some excitement. “Great Mom.” I answered crawling up next to her in the hospital bed. She lifted the remote and turned on the televison. “You’re going to learn a lot.” she said looking down. “I know Mom.” I answered back. I loved being with her and although I was tired, she was right. I learned a lot on these nights but most of it had nothing to do with the show on TV.
Lately I’ve become more aware of being judged and people who feel free to dispense their judgement on others. Some do so from some sort of ethical or religious authority that they use as justification. Others more ignorantly just pass judgement from an arbitrary sense of what “should” be. What I find most remarkable is that these same people do not hold themselves to their own standards or pick and choose which portions of their dogma to adhere with. It’s also amazing they don’t realize that even as they hand out their condemnations and guidelines for being proper they begin building a very confining prison for themselves. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” is an old adage that often comes to mind. When one draws too many boundaries around right and wrong behavior it becomes very tricky not to step over those lines themselves. Their lives and those around them become filled with unnecessary rules and restrictions that only serve to distort and pervert our normal state of joy.
Fundamental thought comes in all shapes and sizes and from what I can tell the consequences of it range from damaging to lethal. Guilt and perversion are very typical side effects. How many more times to we have to watch some televangelist ask for forgiveness for a liaison with a prostitute or drug dealer? People only turn to these avenues when they have no access to joy through safer and healthier routes. It could be argued that much of the violence and drug abuse we witness in the world is a result of people’s joy being blocked or taken away. I have witnessed this very thing in my own life.
Formerly as a closeted Transgender person the only way I could express my gender identity was in a night club. Generally these were bars or Drag Revue locations in seedier parts of town. I was fortunate in that at least I had one relatively nearby. Many of my Trans sisters in particular had to travel hundreds of miles to find a safe place. By “safe” I actually mean safe inside. Outside many of these clubs, Gay bashers looking for kicks or sexual predators looking for an easy target would frequently be some of the very real dangers one might encounter. I can’t tell you how much my life has changed since I’ve been able to come out. Not only have I benefitted but everyone I am involved with has as well. I no longer have to hide such a huge part of myself and can be more included and happier participating in others lives in a positive way. My intimacy is no longer searched for on kinky websites but among others who are out in the world expressing themselves openly. This ability to seek and find community or a partner in a more healthy and open way results in less victimization. When we aren’t singled out, discriminated against and targeted we feel more joy and experience higher self-esteem.
So what do the “judgers” get out of looking down on others? I would have to imagine it gives them something or they would be less likely to do it. My impression is that this need comes from their own low self-esteem. It is very typical for children who feel badly about themselves to try and show others how much better they are by putting their peers down or bullying them. If one’s self esteem hasn’t improved by adulthood perhaps it makes them feel better to occupy some moral high ground so they can look down on their lesser neighbors in a more acceptable way. I imagine they were put down or shamed for something they did as a child or as in the case of the Televangelist be hiding something and are over-compensating for it.
Whatever the case, it would be hard to ignore that judgement of others creates nothing beneficial for anyone. Wasting time wagging your finger or looking down your nose will only limit the boundaries of your own joy and that of others. Rather than wasting our time creating unhappiness why not open our hearts to others and remove the arbitrary boundaries to our joy? We should look for commonality with each other rather than what separates us. If our ideologies and societies are more inclusive than you will find less people pushed to the extreme boundaries searching for their fundamental needs and rights. People will need to escape less, participate and contribute more. I believe there was a great man who said, “Judge not lest Ye be judged.” Perhaps it’s time we listened to him.
Christmas. A time of year filled with memories. As we mature we gather more and more of them. Some magical and bright filled with all the love and traditional cheer, others dark and lonely sometimes filled with regret, resentment or pain.
I was fortunate to have had a few years of magic. As a small child our family was wealthy and our Christmas holiday filled with big parties, holiday music, food, presents, Santa visiting in his red suit, turkey, a fully trimmed tree and the gift you had wished for under it. Like something out of a fairy tale those years live in my memory flickering with a soft candlelight glow. After my parents separated, we had a sudden wake up call to my 3 siblings and I staring at an almost barren tree with only four practical gifts. Our only company, our mother dying in bed.
After my mother passed away 1o years later and my sister took over we agreed to not give gifts at all. At 14 we strung cranberries and popcorn to decorate the tree, made our own music, ate a small meal we prepared together and learned the true meaning of the day. We were happy to have each other and truly thankful for it. To this day I cherish that present of a simple lesson learned at such a young age.
Married with small children years later I lived Christmas through my children’ eyes. Watching their joy and delight at the tree, food and presents was priceless. I couldn’t afford the gifts they always wanted but did my best to make their holiday special. Most poignantly years later my son shared a story that brought me to tears. At about age 5 or 6 he had wanted a large rubber lizard for Christmas. All his friends had them and of course, he wanted one too. On my meager Artist salary his mother and I didn’t have the money so I made him one out of paper maché. I made it bigger than his friends’ and airbrushed it with opalescent colors. On Christmas day he was so excited to open this large gift, sure it would be the lizard he longed for. His face dropped when he saw the one I had made. His disappointment painfully obvious. Most remarkably though he put a smile on quickly and thanked me anyway. No complaints ever. Later he put the lizard away in his room and rarely played with it. After the divorce when we were dividing up his things I thought I would donate the lizard or give it away but he refused to let it go. He brought it over to his mother’s new husband’s large home and kept it there. I had moved into a very small 1 bedroom apartment. My kids’ bunk bed was only 2 feet from mine and they shared a single bookshelf for both of their toys. We had no room for the large creature. I moved many times over the years of their childhood, moving into bigger places where they could have their own rooms and then later back into smaller places. My children lived with me on weekends until their teens at which point they would simply visit so there was no point in keeping expensive empty rooms for them. I forgot about the lizard and imagined it was long gone. One day I was over at my ex-wife’s house and visited my son’s room as he was preparing to go off to college. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The lizard was still there. Of all the incredibly expensive and I’m sure much longed for presents he had kept this poor old paper maché toy. I asked him about it and his answer has given me many a teary eyed moment since. He said, “I kept it because you made it. It wasn’t what I wanted but I pretended to like it. Now it reminds me of you and how hard you always try to make Christmas special.”
I choke with tears writing this especially since I always felt so badly about what I could not provide. I would often pick my children up from their mother’s huge estate at Christmas time to bring them to my house. They had everything a child could want. A fifteen foot professionally decorated tree with electric train running around the base and presents stacked as tall as a person. Their living room warm and cozy, Christmas treats on every table, games to play and a roaring fire in the hearth. I almost felt guilty bringing them back to my tiny apartment with a three foot tree on a table and only a handful of gifts. With my son’s single statement about the toy lizard, all the feelings of inadequacy vanished and I knew he had learned long ago what Christmas really meant even as I had at 14. Of all the gifts he could have given me I have cherished this one more than any other. Later my daughter shared a similar sentiment in a letter she wrote in class. The best gift we can give one another is love and acceptance. To receive it from my children has been priceless.