How Tagan Shepard’s mother and a scenic spot of remembrance helped inspire her new book, “Bird on a Wire”

On July 20th, 2008, my mother, Dorothy Elza, died. Saying the words like that, a simple and straightforward recitation of fact, does not begin to touch the meaning of the statement.

My mother and I were very close. We had dinner twice a week- once with the whole family on Sunday and then just the two of us every Thursday. I told her everything. She was a confidant and as close to a best friend as a mother could be. I am the youngest of five children in a blended family with four amazing parents, but I was without question closest to my mom. When she died a chapter of my life ended. I had to become a new person. A person who couldn’t confide in her mother anymore. None of that closeness was diminished by the deep and indelible way my mother hurt me when I came out.

I have rarely met a queer person who does not have a complicated relationship with their parents. I’m certainly no different. I came out in 2000 at the age of eighteen. My mother did not take it well to say the least. Some of the things she said to me that spring afternoon are etched into my soul. I can recall with perfect clarity the tone of voice she used when she broke my heart. Still, she was my mother.

Never once in all the times we spoke after that day did either of us bring up those words. I pushed them aside and took solace in the fact that, unlike some of my friends, I still had a home to go back to after coming out. It seems like cold comfort now and it seemed like it then, but she was my mother and I worshiped her. It helped that, when they were introduced a year and a half later, she adored my future wife. It helped that, when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer three years later, I was forced to appreciate the limited time we had left together.

Even though she lived five years with cancer, it was a shock when my mom died. She hadn’t missed more than a dozen days of work since her diagnosis, even with a mastectomy and nonstop chemo treatments. She was strong and she was my mother and mothers are invincible.

If it hadn’t been for my wife in those first minutes, hours, and days, I don’t know how I would have survived. It seemed every few moments brought a new wave of sadness. Each sight in my mother’s house honed my grief to a razor sharp edge. Eventually time dulled it, as time will do with all things, but the grief never left. As the one year anniversary of mom’s death approached, I knew I would find the pain just as sharp as it always had been.

I don’t know where the idea of a hike came from. I had fond memories of childhood family hikes along the Appalachian Trail, so it seemed as good a thing to do as any other. I drove the hour and a half from Richmond to the Shenandoah National Park on July 20th, 2009 and started out on the trail to Mary’s Rock. It turned out to be exactly the remedy I needed.

Mary’s Rock is a scenic overlook just off the Appalachian Trail. The trailhead is just past the Thornton Gap entrance to the park. It’s an arduous hike. The climb is steep and the trail narrow, then there’s a section of switchbacks that do little to soften the ascent. July in Virginia is hot and muggy almost without fail, but strenuous exercise is perfect for a troubled mind. Right at the top of the mountain, just when you think you couldn’t take another step, a spur trail juts off from the AT and there you are, on top of a shale outcropping overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. The view is tremendous. It’s one of the reasons I set a pivotal scene of Bird on a Wire in that spot.

 

It’s beautiful but it’s popular. I make the same hike every year on July 20th. Each year it gets a little more crowded. One trip a few years back I found a dozen or more people on the rock ahead of me. I couldn’t quite face them all in my grief, so I went off down the AT for a bit, hoping they’d disperse by the time I got back and give me the privacy I craved. My time alone on top of the world with my mom.

That’s when I found it. I wasn’t looking for it. It just appeared. A break in the trees to my right and a positive flood of hot summer sunlight. I moved toward it by pure instinct and found the solitude I craved. A boulder balanced on the edge of the world. I christened it Dorothy’s Rock for my mom. It hangs all alone off the side of the mountain, close enough to Mary’s Rock that it shares the spectacular view but far enough away that I only occasionally catch a burst of laughter or a dog’s bark on the wind. I didn’t go back to Mary’s Rock that day or any day since.

This July marks the 10 year anniversary of my mom’s death. Ten years is a long time. Long enough for the shine of perfection that came in the immediate aftermath of her passing to fade. Long enough to dull the pain, too, of her cruel words the day I came out. Long enough to merge the woman I worshiped and the woman who hurt me into the one thing she never could be when she was alive. A human being. Flawed and beautiful in equal measure as we all are.

This year when I sit on Dorothy’s Rock, I get to tell my mom about Bird on a Wire. A book about the complicated relationship between queer women and their mothers. A book about love mingling with loss. A book I dedicated to her. A book about a daughter who loved her mother despite and because of her flaws.

Bird on a Wire is available for pre-order and comes out on May 17th.

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