Dan's Mom, R.I.P. An appreciation of the woman in Dan's life

Robert Ullman

I thought I could bang out a column today—a regular column, a column about my readers’ problems and their freaky fetishes and all those asshole politicians out there. You know, the usual.

The day my son was born, I managed to slip out of the maternity ward and write a column; I wrote one the day I was indicted by the state of Iowa for licking Gary Bauer’s doorknobs. (I was actually indicted for voter fraud—on a trumped-up charge, your honor—but Bauer’s knob needs all the attention it can get.) I’ve written columns on days that I was dumped and on the morning of 9/11. So I figured that I could bang out a column today.

I opened my laptop and started reading your letters. I love reading your letters—I do. But I couldn’t get into it. I just don’t have a column in me this week. I’m disappointed in myself. I write this column at Ann Landers’ desk, for crying out loud, and the old lady banged out a heartbreaking, truncated column when her marriage collapsed. If Landers could bang one out under that kind of emotional strain, then I could damn well bang one out, too. Just do it, right? Just fucking do it. But I just fucking can’t.

My mother died on Monday.

Perhaps a sex-advice column isn’t an appropriate place to eulogize an articulate, elegant woman, a practicing Catholic named for the patron saint of hopeless causes and, perhaps consequently, a Cubs fan. I mean, really. Eulogizing my mother in close proximity to escort ads? So let’s not think of this as a eulogy. Let’s think of it as a thank-you note, the kind of nicety that my mother appreciated.

Forgive the cliché: My mom gave me so much. She gave me life, of course, and some other stuff besides: her sense of humor, her bionic bullshit detectors, her colossal sweet tooth. She also gave me—she gave all four of her children (Bill, Ed, Dan, Laura)—her unconditional love. Long after I came out, she told me she always suspected that I might be gay; I was the quiet one, the boy who liked Broadway musicals and baking cakes and shared her passion for Strauss waltzes. When I asked my parents to take me to the national tour of A Chorus Line for my 13th birthday, that should have settled the matter. Your third son? Total fag, lady. But my parents were Catholic and religious and it somehow still came as a shock when I told them. My mother came around fast and she came out swinging—rainbow stickers on her car, a PFLAG membership card in her wallet, and an ultimatum delivered to the whole family: Anyone who had a problem with me had a problem with her.

But the real reason I feel compelled to thank her in this space, in close proximity to the escort ads, is because I wouldn’t have this space if it weren’t for her.

My mother, as my brother Bill likes to say, made friends like Rockefeller made money and George W. Bush makes mistakes—and she was that friend you confided in and went to for advice. I was a mama’s boy—hello—and I spent a great deal of time in my mother’s kitchen listening to her tell her friends exactly what they needed to do. Sometimes gently, sometimes brusquely, always with a dose of humor. My mom liked to say that her son got paid to do something that she did for free—and isn’t that the way the world works? Women cook, men are chefs; women are housewives, men are butlers; she gave advice, I got paid to give advice. (And for a few years, she did too; my mother and I wrote a joint column for a couple of Web sites in the 1990s.)

So I want to thank my mom. I wouldn’t be writing this column today if it weren’t for her gifts and her ability to find the humor in even the most serious of subjects.

Even death, even her own.

After a long struggle, we had to go into my mother’s hospital room and tell her that nothing more could be done. She didn’t go into the hospital expecting to die and she was not ready go. But she took the news with her characteristic grace. She said her farewells, asked us never to forget her (as if), and paused for a moment. Then Mom lifted an eyebrow, shrugged, and said…

“Shit.”

My mother wasn’t crude; I didn’t get my foul mouth from her. She used profanity sparingly and then only in italics and quotation marks. When she said “shit” on her deathbed, we understood the joke. What she meant was this: “Now, the kind of person who casually uses profanity might be inclined to say ‘shit’ at a moment like this. But I’m not the kind of person who casually uses profanity—and certainly not at a moment like this. But if I were the kind of person who casually used profanity, ‘shit’ might be the word I would use right now. If I were that kind of person. Which I’m not.”

Everyone gathered around her bed—my mother’s husband (my son has two fathers and so do I), my sister, my aunt—knew what Mom wanted: She wanted us to laugh. This woman, so full of life, who wanted so badly to live, having just been told she would not, she was trying to lift our spirits. (“Shit,” for the record, wasn’t her last word. Those were just for the family.)

Anyway, my mom is dead, and I am not in the mood, as she used to say. (“You are so,” one of us kids would usually respond. “You’re in a bad mood.”) So I’m going to take a week or two off, from the column and the podcast, hang out with the boyfriend and the kid, and burst into tears in coffee shops and grocery stores. I’ll run some greatest hits in this space while I’m away—I’ll find a column or two featuring Mom—and then I’ll be back, just as filthy minded as ever. In lieu of flowers, please send pictures of your boyfriends’ rear ends. (Lesbians may send flowers.) If you’re the donation-making type and you’re so inclined, my mother would be pleased to see some of your money flow to PFLAG (pflag.org) or the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation (pulmonaryfibrosis.org).

Oh, one last thing: I was supposed to take my mother to see the national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone in Chicago this Friday, April 11. It was her birthday present. I got us great seats: seventh row, on the aisle. But I won’t be able to use our tickets now. Not because it would be too depressing to go without my mother—not just because—but because, as rotten, stinking fate would have it, I’m going to be at my mother’s wake on Friday night.

But I’m practical, like Mom, and I’d hate to see perfectly good tickets to a national tour of a hit Broadway musical go to waste. And it occurs to me that there has to be a teenage boy out there—in Chicago or close enough—who likes musicals and has a mother who loves him for the little musical-theater queen that he is. If you know that boy or you are that boy or you were that boy a decade ago or if you’re that boy’s mother or grandmother, send me an e-mail and I’ll arrange to get these tickets to you.

Like I said, they’re great seats. I would go if I could. But I can’t.

Shit. —­Dan Savage

Dan Savage’s most recent book, The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, is on sale now. Send your Savage Love questions to mail@savagelove.net. A new Savage Love podcast is available for download every Tuesday at thestranger.com/savage.

Our Readers Say

What a wonderful, heartfelt evocation, Dan. I lost my Mom in late 2006-so I know what you are beginning to go through. Grieve well, as a good friend likes to say. Your loyal readers will be here, and we send our heartfelt best.
Dan I read your column every week and if you got your killer sense of humor fron your mother, she gave you plenty. I lost my mother many years ago and I think you will find in time as I did that she never really leaves you. She'll be with you when you hear another woman laugh like her, when you smell the perfume she wore, or when you hear a song she loved. All the love stays with you.
Dan,

I never knew your mom and would never presume to think that I'd get to meet her, but reading this epitaph made me wish i'd gotten the chance.

I'm sitting on the verge of the first anniversary of the passing of my own mom and it seems this article brought forth bubbling the emotions I knew were under the surface but thought I had under wraps.

I can't and won't say anything about "understanding" or "knowing" what you are going through. Hell I don't even know you...All I can say is thanks for sharing...and I miss my Mamma...
Dan,

I lost my mother in January of this year. She sat in her chair and fell asleep on us. We didn't even know there was anything wrong with her.

We had our ups and downs over the years. She was always there for her boys (so was my dad). She was a stay at home mom and always there when you called.

I am in the process of selling the house and each time I go in I yell "mom" and there is no answer. The phone is disconnected. I speak to her out loud now because I know she is with me as your mom is with you.

I'm crying again.

Shit
Having lost my dad last year, and I find the grief process is easier when you talk about the humor a parent brought in your everyday life.
Get trashed at the wake, and don't stop talking about her and what she meant to you
Dan,

I too lost my mother in August of 2006. I had the honor of being present as she moved on. There are no words that will help the pain, however, there are some words that may increase your strength to move on. Focus very hard on the peace of mind your mother would want you to have and the strength that she gave you to be strong for others. What you may find is that it takes many tears and much energy to grieve but it takes strength to heal. The strength and support that others who loved your mother find in you will help the healing process and provide a positive reminder of the great person your mother wanted you to be. For me, knowing that was the greatest comfort and the greatest honor I could have paid my mother.

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