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My Mother Taught Me How to Choose a Family

Through the AIDS crisis and her cancer diagnosis, she taught me that all that matters in this world is love. It's a lesson that's shaped the family I call my own today.
November 24, 2016, 5:00am

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When I was a kid, my mother would drag me all over New York City in search of various treasures—biscotti on Mott Street, an espresso on Mulberry, paella in Washington Heights.

Along the way we would stop for cocktails with drag queens at a bar in Hell's Kitchen, or visit her friend Tony who was dying from AIDS. She would make him eat chicken matzo ball soup and dark chocolate cake and whisper to him how beautiful he was. We would sit in Washington Square Park with the gay boys, who were always carrying tape decks and dancing to their favorite songs. She would drag me to clandestine meetings with various lovers, who always knew where to get the best meringue in the city or that perfect slice of pizza.

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As a teenager I would follow her from gay bar to gay bar, watching as she flirted and sang and drank. You could almost see the fire inside of her, that burning desire to love and be loved, bending the world around her into something beautiful and endlessly wonderful. My mother is a force.

"You can't change life," she once told me. "Or its rules. Everyone will die. You will be abandoned, lose jobs, get rich, then poor, friends will betray you—these are just things that happen. But you can change how you see them. There's enough hate and pain and sorrow for everyone, but there's also enough love and joy and wonder. The world is what you decide it is. Do you want to live in a world where there's magic, or one where there isn't? We both know what world I live in."

The author and his mother. Photos courtesy the author

Eight years ago, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, my world slipped into darkness.

Back then I was a heroin addict, incapable of showing my mother any of the love and support she had shown me. I stood over her hospital bed, devastated, watching her cough up blood. I knew right then and there the secret to everything.

We will be devastated. We will be destroyed and we will suffer. We will lose everything that has ever mattered to us, and every person we have ever loved will die, often in ways that will hurt to watch. Those are just the rules of life. But they aren't the whole of it.

My mother didn't die then. And I didn't get sober, either—that took another three years.

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That lesson burned bright in my fight against heroin, and forever changed the way I live my life. I decided that the only thing I will carry with me would be love—the way I loved others, and the way they love me. My mother will die, but the way she loved me, absolutely and unconditionally? That will live with me forever.

I decided I would love the way she did—I would love big, and I would fall in love with the whole world, with all its unbearable suffering and misery, and find the beauty and meaning among it all. My world would become a burning altar to love.

I'm in an open triad relationship with my husband, Alex, and our boyfriend, Jon, and I'm often asked how I manage it all—how do I love them both? How do I love my boyfriend Conner, too, and how can I stand Alex loving his own boyfriend? Am I afraid they might leave me? Am I afraid I might leave them?

Those questions only remind me that life is full of pain and misery. I am afraid most of the time—I often feel like I will never be enough for them, or that I will never be able to give them everything they deserve. I worry that they will suffer (they will), and that I won't be able to save them (I won't). I worry that they will leave me, and they might.

But what's the alternative? Not loving Alex or Jon or Conner? The men who are my lovers, my friends and my family?


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My mother called me on Monday to ask what I was doing for Thanksgiving. I told her that Jon, Alex and I were going to our friend's restaurant for a giant potluck.

For much of my early life, Thanksgiving was my mother's holiday. She threw sprawling, decadent parties filled with eclectic characters; a swirl of conversations about politics and art and philosophy would swirl over our dinner table. She would bring out the pies first and let us kids pick one dessert as our appetizer, with one rule: We couldn't use silverware to eat it, fingers only. We would get stoned on sugar and run around like tiny mad people until it was time for the main course.

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I don't think there was a Thanksgiving as a kid where I didn't end up puking.

In my family, Thanksgiving was about love and family and friends. It was about getting drunk and fighting over those big, unanswerable questions—did art matter? Had science disproved the existence of God? My brother and I would hide under the table and listen to my mother's guests argue and laugh and kiss above, rapt as they told fantastic, wild stories. She called them spells; they were weaving spells for us over the table. When her friends began to die, we would say their names, like we ourselves were weaving spells, singing their incantations.

"I will miss you this year," she said to me over the phone. "Every Thanksgiving I think about them. I remember them all."

"Who?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.

"Everyone. All the people I loved. Hold Jon and Alex tight. Tell Conner you love him. Scream their names as loud as you can." I could hear her cough. No matter how strong she is, the cancer never really leaves anymore.

She laughs. It turns into coughing. "Every year I feel luckier and luckier. Even with the cancer. Even with you being so far away. Do you know what I mean?"

"I do. I feel really fucking lucky," I tell her.

"We got it all, didn't we?"

"We certainly got most of it."

"Kiss them for me. And kiss the ones I don't know about."

"I will mom. I promise. I'll kiss them all."

My mother has the most beautiful island-blue eyes. They sparkle and burn. And she's right. I feel luckier every year, and everything she's ever said to me was true. Life will be what it is. I can't change the rules, but I can change how I live it.

And so I will kiss them. And fuck them. And love them. And hold them as tight as I can. I will scream their names into the night, as loud as I can. And I will be as gay and as big as I can.

Because in the end, all I will have left is the love. The way I loved others and the way they loved me.

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