My grandmother’s Bible is in remarkable shape, considering it’s spent almost 20 years shuttling between cardboard boxes, garages, and basements, and traveled more than 1,000 miles from Florida to New York.
Its soft leather cover is free of cracks, its maroon handles show no strain, and its zipper opens smoothly.
But the book inside is clearly well-read: any given page is marked up with yellow highlighter and ruler-straight red pen. Many pages also feature hand-written marginalia in the same looping, careful script. It is the book of a dutiful student, a product of many hours of reflection.
I have spent several years combing through this Bible, trying to understand a long-buried conflict between my grandmother and Miguel—her son and my uncle—which forms the centerpiece of Memories of a Penitent Heart, a feature-length documentary I am directing. Miguel died in 1987 at the young age of 31, after struggling with AIDS-like symptoms and complications from a heart transplant.
Miguel had been openly gay for many years, and at the time of his death was living with a man named Robert, who had been his primary caretaker during his illness. His mother Carmen had made it clear that she did not approve of Miguel’s relationship.
As Miguel got closer to death, Carmen escalated her campaign and begged him to repent of his homosexuality.
I grew up hearing rumors about my uncle’s supposed deathbed conversion. As I got older and became gradually disenchanted with the Catholic Church’s official stance on homosexuality, these rumors left me increasingly agitated.
I couldn’t believe that my uncle had willingly or freely relinquished a partnership—and an identity—that everyone acknowledged he’d previously had no shame about. And if he had, I needed to know what spiritual conditions would drive anyone to such a choice.
So I went looking for Robert, who disappeared after parting bitterly from my family. After almost two years of dead ends, he turned up, on Christmas Eve 2012. But he was a changed man. Robert had become Father Aquin, a Franciscan friar. Amidst his grief after Miguel’s death, he found solace in the Catholic faith, and he decided to return to the monk’s life he’d lived before meeting Miguel. He told me: ‘When Miguel died, Robert died also.’ From that point forward, he became Aquin, and out of respect for his wishes, this is what I have agreed to call him.
About a year and a half ago, my mother discovered a type-written letter tucked inside the pages of Carmen’s Bible.
The letter was from Miguel, dated 1980, seven years before he died. It’s a letter full of frustration and anguish, the words of a thoughtful young man fed up with his mother’s pressure. He writes to her:
God does not know differences. For him, we are all the same. We will all be judged in the same form and manner that we judge others. For that reason I try not to judge others. That is my God. […] Please, I ask of you, do not judge me. How can one know that he makes one of us thus, and another the other way around? […] I know your concerns. Do not waste my time in bitter things. Write to me to bring joy with the sweetness of your letters. With that maternal love that nothing, nor anyone, may be able to change.
Carmen’s Bible has turned out to be packed with such clues. A few months later, I also came across a prayer card from Miguel’s funeral in Puerto Rico, the sort of keepsake that was handed out to guests. Inside the card is a Bible verse from the book of Wisdom. The text is in Spanish, but reads:
There was one who pleased God and was loved by him, and while living among sinners he was taken up. He was caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul. For the fascination of wickedness obscures what is good, and roving desire perverts the innocent mind. (Wisdom 4:10-12)
Every discovery seemed to beget more questions.
Why would Carmen choose that Bible verse, among all others, to form the public statement about her son’s untimely death?
Was it some kind of passive aggressive dig at Father Aquin, who had little say over the funeral and burial of his partner, and was sitting in the back row of the church as the family sat up front? Or was it that the only way she could make sense of her grief was to think of Miguel as an innocent among sinners, rather than a fully formed gay man?
These questions have, inevitably, kicked up some dust. Making this film has not been easy for my family. While on the one hand it’s offered a second chance—for my mother to reconcile with Miguel’s partner, and for Father Aquin to find a measure of peace after 25 years of grief—it’s also made some of us uncomfortable.
At times people have challenged me outright, asking, justifiably, what right I have to reopen these old wounds or to pry into anybody else’s pain. It’s been confusing for me too. I’ve really struggled with competing images of my grandmother; the woman I grew up with was so gentle that when she died in 1996, many called her a saint.
I never saw my grandmother act out of bitterness or cruelty.
But the woman I’ve found in these documents seems hard, immovable. She seems incapable of hearing, both her son’s insistence that he is happy in his skin, and his feeling that her disapproval is driving them apart.
At times I’ve even had to ask myself, what kind of mother would do such a thing? AIDS-related deaths in those days were a horror on their own—who needs to be harangued about the state of their soul at the same time that their body is disintegrating?
It seems fitting to be reflecting on motherhood—I am, after all, writing this essay on Mother’s Day. It’s a day when we’re meant to celebrate our mothers; but does that mean that we can’t also acknowledge their imperfections? Can I love my grandmother, even as I disagree with her choices?
I only have to look back at Miguel’s letter to have the answer.
If he could write to her with kindness, even in his pain, then surely I can forgive her too.
Cecilia will be speaking about family, faith, and LGBT inclusion in New York City at Advent Lutheran Church on May 22, and Middle Collegiate Church on June 8. You can watch a trailer and learn more about Memories of a Penitent Heart on the film’s website.
Photo via Memories of a Penitent Heart