Exactly one year ago, my mother said goodbye to this world. Unable to walk without assistance, she had been living in a nursing home for some time. While she was suffering from some mild mental issues (mostly having to do with short-term memory loss), she was coherent enough to see that she possessed more of her faculties than anyone else in her wing. She was miserable, and if it weren’t for the wonderful caregivers she had, she would have never gotten through that mercifully brief period of her life. She was in Indiana and it had been about six months since I’d seen her, and only a week since I spoke with her. By that time, she had adjusted to her life as well as anyone would, and seemed to be in a genuine place of acceptance. But less than a week before her passing, she was comatose.
It was Saturday, June 29th, 2013. 7:40 PM. The downbeat for the final performance of the 32nd season of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus was twenty minutes away. In the greenroom, I was getting text updates from our house manager: “Lots of walk-ups. Possible hold.” That was always a good problem to have. I was sitting there chatting with our guest artists when my phone began to vibrate at regular intervals. This was probably not the house manager, but I had to check.
“Dennis Robison,” the phone showed. It was not that unusual for my brother to call, even on a Saturday night. In recent months, we’d become much closer as mother’s health began to deteriorate. I had just gotten past the point of answering every call from him with anxious fear, so I let it go to voicemail. He was hundreds of miles away in Alabama, and didn’t know I had a performance that evening. The message was short and the voicemail notification came up pretty quickly. I figured it was just a check-in, but just to be sure everything was okay, I calmly went into the restroom to hear his message in private.
“It’s your brother. I need you to call me immediately.” His voice choked up at the end of his two-sentence voicemail. I checked the time and realized I was taking a gamble, but I did have twenty minutes, and I really didn’t have a choice but to return the call. When he answered, he proceeded to tell me that mother had suffered another brain bleed – the second one this year. This one, however, was massive, and was not something from which she would recover. She was unconscious and it was simply a matter of days.
After a few seconds of silence, I asked him if he was okay. It seemed normal to focus on him rather than on myself at this point. An audience flowing in, a hundred men getting ready for the final performance of the season – I could not afford to fall apart. Dennis was struggling to hold it together – something I’d never experienced with him. At the end of the short conversation, I explained I had a performance to conduct and promised to call him first thing in the morning. Then I looked up in the mirror, phone to my side. “Stop. Do not look at yourself. Do not be alone a single moment until this last performance is over. Say nothing to no one and do your job.”
While it was on my mind the entire performance, I managed to hold it together, even through the audience Q & A afterward. I said nothing about the news. When the evening was over, I found myself in the green room with the founding artistic director of the chorus, Jeffrey McIntyre, who was the first to hear the news. As people were coming and going around us, we kept the conversation quiet. There was no need for the evening to be marred for anyone by this. I certainly didn’t want chorus members to be concerned about me. Shortly thereafter, I was in the car alone, driving home. There had been no tears until just before I took my exit from the interstate. It was real. I probably would not see her alive again, much less be able to talk with her. I knew at that point that the days ahead were going to be rough. In the meantime, there were going to be multiple caps to this night — just as soon as I could unload the car, unlock the door, and open the liquor cabinet.
My mother knew about my upcoming wedding and despite her increasing dementia, she always knew when it was going to be, and whenever we talked, she asked about Keith, whom she adored. She was very excited about the fact that I was getting married, and when we visited last February, we talked at length about how neither of us ever expected society to ever evolve in this way. When I came out to her, she had that southern matronly meltdown and lay bed-ridden with a migraine for days; but once she realized she was only afraid of what I would face in my life, she embraced the fear, embraced me and began saying the thing she would always say when we ended a conversation, “Be happy, Kevin.”
In her mind, “Be happy” was not trivial. Happiness was a choice. She had lived most of her life in a state of unhappiness, but when my father passed away she realized how much she had missed out on. During the few years of good health remaining, she chose happiness and lived life to the fullest. I learned more from Jean Robison during that time that probably the rest of my years combined.
On the weekend before our legal wedding ceremony in Manhattan, mother finally passed. A couple of days earlier and I would have been able to go to the funeral. But passing on a Saturday made it impossible for me to get to a Tuesday funeral in Indiana and make it to New York by Wednesday, where friends from California would be joining us for the ceremony. I was at once jubilant and heartbroken, and for the next week, led the life of a steel magnolia.
I had tremendous guilt about not being able to be at the funeral and wondered what some of my conservative family members might have to say or think. I posted photos of mother on Facebook and wrote about my heartbreak – not only having lost her, but not being there when she was laid to rest. “There’s just no excuse for not going to your mother’s funeral,” I kept telling myself. But Dennis had already told me not to worry. He completely understood, and he was probably the only family member who needed to.
As the comments to my post flowed in, there was one that stood out in particular. It was from my friend Brenda who said, “Kevin, your mother knew she couldn’t make the trip to your wedding. Now she can be with you in spirit.” Brenda was right. Just as I looked at Keith on that special day and said, “I do,” I couldn’t help but see the image of my mother behind him. Smiling and saying, “Be happy, Kevin.”
Thank you, Mother. Because of you, I am.