The One I Turn to for Strength & Inspiration
by John Francis Leonard
My mother and I have always had a special relationship.
I was born in 1969 to an unwed mother when that was still a source of shame and seen as untoward. The product of a relationship with a much older, married man with his own wife and family, I was also the progeny of a still young and naïve eighteen-year-old. This made our relationship unique and it would always seem to be her and me against the world. She would go on to marry a different young man as an escape from her parents’ unhappy home and to provide me with a stable family of our own. She married a man, no better than he ought to be, as my Irish grandmother used to say, thinking that it was the best she could do for me, and it was at the time. This man always loved my mother, but that love, being unrequited to a great extent, turned to anger and resentment. He saw me as merely a carbon copy of my Ma, a mirror image of her and it was true that we have always been two halves of a whole. That acrimonious marriage lasted fifteen years and I was always made to feel like the third person in it, a heavy burden for one so young.
It would be rough going for a while. When her first marriage collapsed, with it went our family’s finances, but my mother worked hard, as she always had. There was a disastrous second marriage to a man even worse than the first, but my mom picked up the pieces and built her life again. She can sometimes seem to be fragile and overly emotional, like her son, but my Ma has a quiet strength and always perseveres. She found a great guy to whom she is happily married today and he’s got two daughters of his own.
The first thing people notice about Ma is her beauty. I still remember the fuss that was made over her when she’d show up at school when I was a child; it was the only time the other kids treated me with something other than derision. At seventy-one, my mother barely looks forty and has an effortless style that belies the effort that goes into it. What’s important, however, is her quiet but strong faith and her sense of kindness and empathy. She remains extremely protective of me and I could never have made it through my tumultuous past without her strength. When I told her of my HIV diagnosis eighteen years ago, she didn’t fall to pieces, but stood with me and remained strong.
Thirteen years ago, my life as I had known it was in flux. I had lost everything, my relationship, my career, my home, just as she had more than once earlier in her life. I was living in L.A. and my mother convinced me to move back East, where I could rebuild. It took some doing, the road was rough, but she stood by me. She lent me her own strength until I could find my own. I rebuilt my life into something better, something stronger and I couldn’t have done it without her.
Now, more than ever, I need to tell her that, to show her that. On top of a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, my mom is having surgery this week for lung cancer. They’ll be removing a section of her lung in order to stop the cancer’s spread. The Alzheimer’s has seemingly snuck up on us; she’d been having problems with her memory for years and now it’s getting worse.
Before the cancer diagnosis, I was sitting with my mom having a glass of wine while we were waiting for her husband to get home so we could leave for camp. Ma expressed to me that she was ready to go, not to camp, but was ready for her time to be over. I wanted to implore her not to speak that way, but instead, I listened. I did what she would do, had done, for me. She expressed that she had had a full life, with much joy, but with much pain as well. It was her time, she felt. With her most recent diagnosis, those words seemed all too prophetic.
I pray to God for the strength I’ll need if I lose her, but hope that we’ll have her a bit longer. I know it terrifies her that she might be a burden to us. Any survivor of AIDS who lived through the worst of the crisis knows that fear. I will be there for her, my brother and stepsisters will be too, but they have or are starting their own families. I have a luxury that they don’t have, and that’s time. And I owe a debt that I’d never be able to repay. I will do what I can, and do it gladly with that strength that was her most precious gift to me. I think of my mom’s mother, that tough little Irishwoman and her strength, a strength that allowed her to raise “six kids and a drunk of a husband” by cleaning houses until a weak heart sidelined her. But she had that strength, that quiet strength that was her gift to us passed down by so many before her.
Losing one’s parents is a journey we all must take. It’s a part of life. One of the greatest heartbreaks of my life was losing so many dearly loved friends to AIDS. But even that tragedy serves its purpose; it’s made me stronger. That and my faith, as well as my Ma’s strength will get me through.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.