All That’s Left Is God
Born in the heart of the Bible Belt, the author found refuge on the Front Range after a series of traumas. Through it all, she was discovering who she was—as a daughter, a woman, a partner, and a mother. One woman’s journey to faith and family.
There’s a story that’s passed down through my family that says when my mother was two years old and visiting her grandparents’ farm, she begged them to let her hold a baby chick. She was careful at first, but when they asked her to put it down, she couldn’t fathom giving it up, so she crushed it in her hands.
Six decades ago, my mother had no idea what she’d done to that chick except love it, but she knew emphatically what it had done to her. As her grip closed on the little ball of feathers, it defecated in her palm, at which point she screamed and dropped it.
Now, at 64 years old, my mother sits on our deck, her fingers cradling a cup of coffee, staring at the Flatirons and the foothills slouching like thugs against them. I study her, and though I look more like my father, I have my mother’s Italian nose, olive skin, petite build, and yes, hands—a fact she once pointed out to me during a piano lesson when I was five. “Poor thing, you got my hands,” she said. “They’re so ugly.”
I raise the umbrella to try to give my mom some shade, and we watch a herd of deer scale the hillside. “You shouldn’t have run this morning. It’s too hot,” my mother says. She raises her hand to block out the sun with her fingertips. “Tell her, Avery.”
“Don’t get me involved in this,” Avery says and heads back inside our home where it is safe. I ignore my mother. I want to ease her worry, but shouldn’t she be comforting me? I’m the one who’s just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
I sense the incoming verbal grenade just before it hits. I brace myself as she says, “You stopped going to Mass. That’s why this happened.”
“Unbelievable.” I chew on my thumb, but cannot stop myself from saying, “So regular Sunday Catholics don’t get diseases, and everyone else does?” My cuticles are raw, close to bleeding.
“God works in mysterious ways, Michelle.”
I do not know, and will never know, who my mother would have become if she had a mother of her own. As it was, my grandmother took ill when my mom was six years old, and never quite recovered. Because my grandfather, an Italian immigrant with a seventh-grade education, worked long shifts on American Oil tanks, the nuns at St. Dominic’s helped raise my mother, hammering home a Catholic education that was as black and white and rigid as the habits they wore.
My mother’s faith saved her by giving certainty and structure amid chaos. But it couldn’t tell her she was beautiful, or brush the tangles from her hair, or sing her to sleep. Because of this, my mother was determined to love me with a ferocity and devotion she had never known. So when her 36-year-old baby was diagnosed with MS, my mother fell apart. She lived too far away to fix me, so Avery’s gender no longer mattered to her—or, one might argue, mattered to her less. My mother learned she could not turn away a person who loved me, her child, enough to stand beside me through a spinal tap, weekly injections, and the rarely discussed possibility that I might be wheelchair-bound one day. Avery became a part of the family.
It took me getting MS, but my mother finally realized she didn’t have to choose between being a good Catholic and loving her gay daughter. She could find a way to do both. Still, I do not confuse my mother’s acceptance for approval. The words are not synonymous. We agree to disagree and to let God be the judge. It is the only way to move forward. My mother believes I have left a mess inside her open palms, and I alternately accuse her of holding on so tight I cannot breathe and of dropping me. We struggle to find even ground. Sometimes, it seems, all we have in common are our hideous hands and a bone-crushing love.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve § Alaska
At 40 years old, I have had plenty of time to fear what kind of mother I will be. While most of our friends are celebrating their children’s high school and college graduations, Avery and I are just deciding to become parents. At first, we look at international adoptions, but all of them ban same-sex partners. Only a handful allow single-parent adoptions, and most of those make the adopting parent sign papers avowing that he or she is not homosexual. Worldwide there are 133 million orphans, and 114,550 children languish in foster care in the United States. With a single phone call, Avery and I learn that Boulder County does not care about our sexual orientation. Instead, Boulder sees two women with a stable relationship and the financial, emotional, and physical capacity to care for a child in need of a family.
To get certified as foster-adopt parents, we turn over our tax returns and medical records to the county for scrutiny. The FBI scans our fingerprints for a background check, and a home-study worker interviews us about every detail of our past. Fifty-plus hours of mandatory training later, we are wait-listed for a match. The social worker encourages us to take a vacation before we begin our life as parents, and so we head to Alaska.
In Wrangell-St. Elias, I fly in a bush plane to the top of an unnamed peak while Avery catches salmon in the river below. I stand on the summit, and though I did not witness this mountain’s birth, I know how mountains are made, how they become something solid from cracked earth and shifting soil. God will bring us a child who needs us. And though our son’s beginning might be shaky, he will change the landscape to a grand and beautiful thing. Already, this child is my hero.
Boulder County Courthouse §
At 14 months old, Lucas has been placed in foster care twice. His biological mother and father were homeless and young. Dad had mental illness; Mom was developmentally delayed. Lucas was malnourished, left unsupervised in a bathtub, and hospitalized twice before he came to live with us.
Now, two-year-old Lucas runs across the courtroom and into my arms. “Mama!” he says, dragging his Lamby and nestling against me with his buttery skin. Today, he will become our son. Because there is a judge present for the adoption hearing, and we are allowed to say something to the court, Avery and I take this opportunity—after nine years together—to exchange the equivalent of vows, along with our promises as parents to Lucas. We cannot marry in Colorado, but with family from both sides here and in a court of law, we make our commitment official. My parents and sister cry. They sweep up our son, in his sport coat and tie, and cover him in kisses. On Lucas’ new birth certificate, he has two mommies.