MOM'S STORY #1
By Tracy Duvalis Kriese
And Joshua commanded, “Now children, shout!”
And the walls came tumbling down.
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho
The woman who had just been introduced stood to take the microphone. Applause gave way to a hush as the crowd of teenagers awaited her first words—a quiet that honored her loss, that paid tribute to her courage in the face of great pain. Karen’s daughter had committed suicide the year before, unable to endure one more insult, one more beating, from a community that could not accept who she was. Tiny little Rockdale, Texas, had not understood Tesia, a transgender teen, and so tiny little Rockdale had killed her almost as surely as if they had hung the rope around her neck themselves.
Tesia was dead, and for her, there would be no more taunts hurled through school hallways, no more abuse shouted from passing cars. For her mother, there would be no more of Tesia’s radiant smiles, no more of her free-spirited dances…and yet, here was her mother, standing before us—before other people’s children—wanting to tell them the same thing she had told her own child: you are beautiful, you have dignity, you have worth. You are loved, just the way you are.
I stood at the back of the crowd with other adults who were there to lend support to these kids and their fight for protection in school. The Dignity for All Students Act was once again before the Texas legislature, and we were determined that this time the bill would not die in committee. These students were there on the capitol steps to tell their stories of the insults that teachers did not seem to hear, of the threats that principals did not want to take seriously, of the awful burden of trying to learn in an environment that was dehumanizing and threatening. Tesia could no longer speak for herself, but her mother was there to share her story.
As she spoke, tears began to fall from my eyes before my heart even realized that they had been loosed. Immediately my breathing quickened and my stomach clenched. Oh, no…no!…I could not cry! With tears came pain, and I would not feel that pain again! I knew that it lived somewhere in me still, but I had so successfully confined it behind thick walls of anger and activism that I could forget that it was there—that it had ever existed. Now those walls were under siege, and they were falling with every word Tesia’s mother said.
I wiped the stinging tears away with suddenly trembling hands, but it was no use: I could not hold them back. In desperate retreat, I turned away from the woman whose voice was pulling from inside of me this shaking, melting person I did not want to be. Panicked at how quickly, how inescapably the tears were coming, I searched the familiar grounds of the capitol for some sort of cover. There were the manicured green lawns shaded with oaks, wide walkways stretching to the street, bronze statues of fallen Texas heroes—monuments to courage?—but I could barely see them through my own fear. I was terrified of this pain that was pouring from me. I’d survived this feeling when it had first been born, had carried it with me day and night as a mother must so that her child’s burden is lighter…why did I have to feel it again now? In such an overwhelming rush that I might fall to the pavement if I gave in to it?
I stepped back farther away from the crowd, still well within the reach of Karen’s voice. Her words were unintelligible now through the pounding of my own heartbeat, but I did not want to hear them anymore. Pain, heartache, grief—how could a mother bear it? The loss of her child? How does a parent survive a child’s death?
Standing there that day, I knew that I might have been her. I had almost lost my child. Eric had wanted to die. And oh, hadn’t he died in a way? A thousand times, over and over, as the world told him he was not normal, as we told him that he could change—that he must fight to change!—as he told himself that God did not love him? The killing of his spirit had been so nearly complete by the time he was fifteen that the death of his body seemed not far behind. There were the nights of sleeping outside his door, of taking turns with my husband staying awake through those dark hours when our son might take that desperate step he seemed to long for more and more. In the stillness of a house asleep—fitfully, finally asleep—I would lay down at his door and listen for him…listen, too, for my daughters, anxious to keep them safe from the awful intruder, fear, that had moved into our home.
The house was heavy with its presence, especially in those hours before dawn. Moonlight through windows—light that once would have brought serenity with its quiet glow—now cast shadows in the corners. Dark and ominous, those shadows crept across the floor towards me as the hours crawled by. Haunting my thoughts were their whisperings of easy Sunday school lessons about heaven and hell, of memorized scripture references about sin and repentance, salvation and damnation. Nothing was easy now. Nothing would ever be easy again.
Daylight brought no answers and the shadows held only more questions, but still my husband and I took up our posts, night after night. Behind my son’s bedroom door was a struggle with pain and despair which we did not understand and could not fight for him, but in the darkness outside his door we remained watchful, vigilant—believing that if we just listened hard enough, if we just waited hard enough, we could somehow save our child from the agony that was killing him.
And it was killing him. I saw it gaining hold in his once bright eyes, now dull and empty; in his body that no longer seemed to walk but rather be forced to move through his days. I heard it in the laughter that no longer rang. Joy had been Eric’s gift since infancy. He had been blessed with a soul that delighted in life and that sought expression of intense feeling in whatever form it might come. Now those highs and lows had become one unrelieved surface, a depression of spirit that had left him empty of everything except its own aching void.
I felt again the utter helplessness of holding him as he sobbed for release from this thing that he was…as he collapsed under the terrible burden of being a gay boy in a Mormon family, in a straight world. We and that world had taught him well: homosexuality was unnatural and unholy. It was not of God. Later he would tell me of the torment that haunted him during those dark nights: if God did not make gay people, then who made him? The nightmarish answer that came into his mind placed him so far outside the circle of creation we had taught him of that he despaired of living. Eric would rather be dead than gay, but in my arms he sobbed all the harder because he lacked the courage to kill himself. His self-loathing extended even to that: he was a faggot, and he was a coward.
Now, hearing Tesia’s mother speak of her loss, I was confronted again with that fear of five years ago. Washing over me and out of me was the pain of that knowledge—that my own child had almost chosen death in the face of his unbearable suffering. Flooding my senses was the weight of that burden: of that five years of heavy lifting as our family had worked to free our son and thereby ourselves from the crushing lies that we had all been taught about homosexuality…from the heavy shame of being born gay in a society that declares there is no such thing.
Where was Eric now? I had to find him—had to hold him! These tears were for my son, and I had to cry them while hugging him. I had to tell him again that I was so sorry for those first two years of misunderstanding and ignorance, two years of not seeing, of not hearing the truth he had been fighting, alone, for much of his life. I had to tell him how grateful I was that he was alive, that he had endured our struggle and our fear. He needed to know how thankful I was that on the other side of that bedroom door, he had waited, too—had waited for us to understand.
I found him, seated toward the back of the crowd. He was there that day not as a high school student—he had graduated the year before— but as an ally to support the kids who were carrying on the fight for dignity in the public schools. At Lake Travis High, he had founded the school’s Gay Straight Alliance. At nineteen, he was an experienced speaker at congressional hearings, at rallies and marches, with newspaper reporters and television interviewers. His voice was now that of a young adult rather than high school teen, but he knew he wanted to be there that day listening to others who were continuing the work.
I stepped carefully over the rows of teenagers and placed my hand on Eric’s shoulder. He turned, his quick glance becoming a look of worried surprise at the unfamiliar sight of Mom’s tears, and followed me away from the crowd.
It was right and fitting, then, that I would fall into his arms and find my tears giving way to quiet sobs. The boy whom I had held through so much heartache was now a young man holding me. “I’m so sorry, Eric—so sorry!” Words broken with emotion spilled from me as I told him how grateful I was that we had not lost him to the death he once thought would be his only freedom. He was here, he was whole, he was my beautiful child to embrace in all his awesome creation. He was holding me now, reassuring me with his words, healing my heart with his amazing compassion.
“Mom,” he said with quiet insistence. (That voice! How close had we come to losing the sound of that voice forever?)
“Mom, you don’t ever have to apologize for loving me the way you did.”