When I came out to my mother in 1990, she paced and yelled and threatened to disown me before finally saying with a low growl, “I will never accept this.” She went to her room and slammed the door and I sat in the living room–shaken. My mother lived deep in southern Missouri on the Lake of the Ozarks and I had no friends there. There was no email or texting then and it was too late to call anyone that might provide comfort. It was probably the most alone I have ever felt.
I eventually left the house, went down to the lake, stripped my clothes off and slipped into the still water. It was a clear night and I floated in the water and stared at the stars. The quiet and the water and the sky held me, giving me time to think, to realize that I had little control over what my relationship with my mother might become. I knew only two things for sure that night–I was at peace with myself and I loved my mother.
We didn’t speak for a few days but I thought a lot about her during that time. She grew up working class and hadn’t gone to college. She’d spent almost her entire life in Kansas, a place not known for progressive ideas. Her world was so much smaller than mine. And all of this distilled down to a single thought–this must be hard for her to understand.
When we did finally speak, I didn’t argue and I didn’t flinch at her continued rants and insults, I said only this, “I know this must be hard for you.” She was silent and narrowed her eyes suspiciously, “It is.” I nodded, “I understand. Just know that I will never give up on you.” And I walked away.
That moment was a simple beginning and my ongoing compassion for her struggle changed our relationship forever.
She was there to strip wallpaper and paint when Luisa and I bought our house. She was there when Luisa and I had our commitment ceremony. She was there to hold and love our two children, to celebrate birthdays and holidays together.
She was there. That is the power of compassion.
I was not a saint at 21 when I first showed my mother compassion and I am not a saint now. Luisa and I strive to teach our children compassion and we talk to them about taking the high road and building bridges. But the truth is that there are days on the high road when I have my hands on a jackhammer and could easily flip the switch, days when I stand before bridges with a match and a gallon of gasoline.
Compassion is not always easy and not always without pain. It is work that requires patience and there is no guaranteed reward.
I don’t like the phrase Family Values because it has long been used against families like mine, wrongly connected to morality. But every family has their values and our family values compassion. If our son’s note is any indication, I think we’re passing that value on to our children.