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The teachings of my mom

For much of the last two months, I’ve been in my hometown of Kansas City helping care for my Mom through her battle with an aggressive form of cancer which tragically ended in her death. It has been shocking and excruciating. Mom had been in terrific health—a relatively young 69, exercising and teaching full-time at a university—when she went to the hospital in early November with stomach problems. She never returned home, and passed away seven weeks later, on December 21.

I want to thank Equality California for being so gracious with me, for allowing me to put my focus on my mom’s health and spending quality time with her—time I now so greatly cherish. I am truly lucky to have such caring colleagues.

I have had some chance to reflect on my Mom’s life and death, and I want to share some of my thoughts on how she inspired me. If you’d like, you are welcome to read the eulogy that I delivered at her memorial service. My family created a website where the eulogies are posted for those who couldn’t attend her memorial service.

Mom was a gentle yet determined advocate for equality, and her primary struggle was feminism. She came of age in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and as a student at NYU was captivated by the writers and folk singers of Greenwich Village. After graduating, she rejected her father’s offer of a car to stay near home in New Jersey, and instead ventured to Stanford for graduate school where she spent as much time as she could exploring San Francisco. Like me and so many of my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers, she was drawn to the places that were the most liberated in order to gain inspiration for a vision of who she could be. I remember my own path as a 20-something person, first traveling to Israel to try to find peace and meaning but instead finding it at Market and Castro, where the towering rainbow flag welcomed me and invited me to be free and live in safety.

As a child, I remember Mom making deals with me and friends: we’d go door-to-door on behalf of her candidate (almost always a progressive woman) in exchange for lunch at McDonald’s. I also remember hearing, over and over on Mom’s turntable, Helen Reddy’s iconic hit I Am Woman:

You can bend but never break me
'Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul

If I have to
I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

Those times were transitional times for women, and Mom essentially had two full-time jobs—keeper of the home, and fighter to reach her own full potential and for others to achieve the same. And my beautiful Mom did it all with tremendous grace. She had dinner on the table every night for my father, my sister and me, while working as a speech therapist and taking coursework to earn a Ph.D. Her specialty was to help people with neurological disorders recover their ability to communicate and maximize their quality of life. Later in her career, after decades of working with patients, she took a job as a professor teaching the next generation of practitioners, earning tenure at the age of 65.

There’s no question that my own passion for winning equal rights for LGBT people was inspired by my Mom’s passion for justice, commitment to helping others, and determination to realize her fullest potential.

Mom joined in our battle as well, as a loving, supportive Mom of her gay son and advocate for equality for all. She and Dad marched with me in Boston Pride in 2004, right after we won the court case granting the freedom to marry in Massachusetts. Later that day at the Pride festival, she picked up a clipboard and, wearing a Freedom to Marry Coalition t-shirt and a pin that said Mom Knows, asked people to sign postcards to their legislators. That night, she and my Dad danced the night away at a friend’s post-Pride party (I remember my friends talking about how cool my parents were!). When my father was running for city council, Mom and Dad met with a group of queer youth in Kansas City, some of whom had been tossed out of their homes. The experience moved her profoundly—she simply couldn’t understand how a parent could do that to her/his child. Mom loved the successes we had in Massachusetts, and would kvell about seeing my name in the New York Times or watching me on TV (of course, what she really wanted to know was when my husband was coming along!).

Over these past few weeks, as I watched my Mom courageously face her own death, what was most important to her came so clearly to the fore. Her focus was on her family—my Dad and their 45-year marriage, her two children who were both making positive contributions in the world and who were there to care for her, her son-in-law and beloved granddaughters who brought her so much joy, the rest of her family, and her dear friends that she’d had for decades.

Upon learning of Mom’s illness, so many students, former colleagues and former patients got in touch to remind her of what a profound impact she had had on their lives. That deeply moved her as well. Though her life was cut tragically short, as she reflected on what was truly important, she knew that she could leave this world with a sense of peace and satisfaction about the life she had lived.

Having been through this experience—at once tragically sad and awe-inspiring—and as I now reflect on what we’re fighting for, it’s so clear how right our cause is. What brought happiness to my mom—the deepest, most abiding happiness—was family. And that’s what our struggle is about, too. Now most of that work is not the work of government… it’s the hard work of building and maintaining relationships. But we also can’t underestimate the important role that our public institutions play—both with respect to tangible benefits and protections and, perhaps even more importantly, the intangible societal recognition that is conveyed through the right to marry--the recognition that our relationships are just as good, just as meaningful, just as deserving of support. Those who battle against us argue that we’re trying to dismantle the institutions that strengthen our society. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are actually fighting to join those institutions, make them work for us as well, take on the responsibilities they bring forth, benefit from the protections and respect they offer, so that we have the same potential for happiness.

We don’t all need to marry, and we don’t all need to raise kids. But I know what brought my Mom her most abiding happiness, and having that right is certainly worth fighting for.

Thank you, Mom, for every one of the gifts you gave to me. I am forever grateful.