The walk from the front pew of the First Unitarian Church of Rhode Island to the podium seemed to take forever. I silently cursed myself for wearing heels as I fumbled on a step. Suddenly, I was there.
My inner mantra rattled through my head: “Back straight, eyes up, breathe, ” and I peered out to see each individual face in the crowded church. I opened my mouth to sing.
I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, the youngest in a not-so-nuclear family of four. My two mothers (yes, as in lesbian) made history when they became the first gay couple in the state to adopt each other’s children, so my sister Zoë and I grew up proud of our groundbreaking family.
Zoë was a nature child, and was always fascinated by plants and animals, but my interests were never as focused. I loved to read and would alter myself by the week based on the characters in my books. One of my best friends, Olivia, always tells the story of the first time we met. I was sitting on my front stoop in a long, tattered wedding dress, with a bright pink oversized sunhat, two different colored elbow-length gloves, and my mother Carla’s heels. I couldn’t have been older than six, and Carla had just started reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to me. Of course the character I was most drawn to was the unstable Miss Havisham, who had been jilted at the altar and kept her house precisely as it had been on the day of her wedding. Olivia says I called out to her in a British accent as she walked by my house. “Keep walking,” her babysitter said.
Growing up, I was close with my mommies, and they both nurtured my creativity. With my mom Gigi, I played the “follow my note” and “harmony” games, where I matched or harmonized with the notes she sang. Gigi taught me to embrace my voice and to love music. Carla read books and plays to me and encouraged me to read as much as I could. I became hungry to sing, and take on new characters.
I found an outlet for my cycling identities in theater. My mothers enrolled me in a children's theater company and I blossomed. Once I discovered that acting was a socially acceptable way to become other people, I couldn’t get enough. I auditioned for plays at school, community theaters, a nearby all-boys school, and eventually for University level acting programs.
I auditioned for and was accepted into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for acting. There, I learned more about myself and about the craft than I ever thought possible. I worked with professors and students who pushed me. I worked harder than I have ever worked and because of that, Tisch is an experience I am so grateful for.
Unfortunately, during my time at Tisch, my mom Carla was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. While I went to school in New York, the liveliest, most colorful person I ever had the privilege of knowing was in Rhode Island with my mom Gigi, braving chemo and increasingly regular hospital visits. Although Carla’s attitude remained amazingly positive, in late April of my senior year at NYU I got a call saying that treatment had stopped working. I decided to come home a month before the end of school to be with Carla, Gigi, and Zoë. Less than a month after I came home, Carla passed away surrounded by her loving family.
Although I really hadn’t wanted to initially, after Carla passed I knew I needed to sing at her service. The week before she died, I had been at her bedside singing to her constantly, so this felt like the perfect way for me to pay tribute. I carefully selected two songs to sing: “Amazing Grace,” and “We’ll Meet Again,” a song I had sung to her the day she died.
After the service, lots of people asked how I had gotten through the songs. It had simultaneously felt like the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and the best performance I’ve ever given. I’m not sure if I would have been able to let out anything but sobs without four years of training. Acknowledging the grief I felt and looking out at the faces in the congregation, some of whom I knew and some I did not, I felt compelled to speak to them, and singing was a way of doing that. It was a way of saying “thank you” to my mom, and reminding myself that we will meet again.
It’s been over two months since my mom died and I’m moving back to New York in September to pursue the passion she helped me realize. I miss her every day but with the help of Gigi and Zoë I also see her everywhere. I like to think that every time I perform, she’s there with me.