The Most Difficult Moment of Your Life

“Mom came down out of the woods and I was born breech in 1928. It was kind of a bad delivery,” said my mother, Janet, at the start of the interview. She was about to turn 90 and the extended family was gathering down in Florida at my sister’s house for the celebration.

It was bound to be fun. When our family got together we were a pack of laughing hyenas.

“Wouldn’t it be great to do an oral history interview with Mom?” I said to my sister, Charlene. “I’ll interview her in her ‘cozy room,’ so she feels comfortable. I’ll send her the questions ahead of time. That way she won’t be caught off guard. Then we can all get a copy of the interview, and it can be part of the celebration.”

“Will this be an X-rated interview?” said my sister, knowing well my mother’s love of lewd stories.

“Probably,” I said. “You know Mom.”

Looking back, I wonder how closely my mother read the pre-arranged questions, if at all.


When I arrived for the interview, Mom was nicely dressed and propped in her chair. She lived in an assisted living facility in Florida. I knelt to give her a kiss on the top of her head while smoothing down her cowlick.

“Good morning, Mama. Are you ready for the interview?”

“Yes, yes,” she said. She was looking forward to this. I sat opposite her and started the recorder on my iPhone.

I knew she was the eldest of four children in the small town of Carthage, in upstate New York. Her brother was 15 years her junior. “I was kind of embarrassed at the time my little brother was born,” she said now. “To imagine that my parents had ‘relations’ like that,” she laughed. “I’m tickled he’ll be here to help celebrate my birthday.”


She said she excelled at school and skipped second grade, graduating at the age of sixteen in a class of 34 students. She was active in sports, and as head cheerleader, her voice could be heard above all others. “I got accepted to Cornell University, but Daddy didn’t have the money for tuition at the time. But that was alright. I chose the same school of nursing that my mother had attended 25 years earlier.”

She was set up on a blind date with my father who was home on leave from the Army. “High school friends set me up with Joe, who they thought should stop moping over this girl in Germany and forget about her. I was the blind date to help him forget.” It worked. Not only did he forget about the German girlfriend, but he proposed to my mother three months later. 

When I was old enough to understand the expression, I learned that my eldest brother, David, was a “shotgun baby.” So much for moping, I thought. But Mom didn’t mention this part. I don’t know if she knew that her kids knew this. It was simple math, but we never talked about it. Ours was not a family to tackle uncomfortable subjects. We were all better suited in the arena of quick laughs and practical jokes.

Much of what she said I already knew, but it was good to hear it in her words. I remembered more than she said, maybe because she thought I knew the stories already. Her father was an undertaker—an “underwear taker” we kids always called it—and the sprawling house she grew up in was one of only two funeral homes in town. If I had been telling the story of the funeral home, I’d have talked about the four generations who lived in that big house: one of my mother’s sisters stayed behind and raised her kids there.

The one I would have talked about was my great-grandmother, Lizzy. She was mean as a snake and was forever scolding us for minor indiscretions. “Put your socks on! Stop that giggling! Pick up those toys!” Lizzy was my grandfather’s mother-in-law, and though they shared the same table at mealtime, they never exchanged one word at the table, or anywhere else, we were told. It seems impossible now, remembering as I do the boisterous household filled with laughter of the later years in that house. But I remember the stone cold silence between them. Lizzy, at the age of 12, was tasked with raising her many siblings when her mother died early. Later, when her own daughter married my grandfather, she moved into the funeral home with them. Having a stern, humorless, mother-in-law sit at your table for every meal must have irked my grandfather to no end. 

Our family spent all our holidays and long weekends at the funeral home, with us eight cousins running wild. There was always a body in the morgue, or a corpse laid out in their finery in a polished casket ready for viewing. My cousin would always taunt the rest of us kids: “I dare you to touch him.” We’d creep up to the casket and then with one outstretched finger poke the cold, unyielding flesh, then run away squealing with laughter. Some were bolder than others. One time another cousin pretended to slap the face of a casketed man and said in a loud castigating voice, “Don’t you dare sass me!” in the manner of ancient Lizzy. The funeral home provided a trove of material for joking, and not just by the kids. One day my uncle was napping in his Sunday suit on one of the couches and my grandfather placed a lily on his chest, the perfect picture of eternal repose. He snapped a photo that would be brought out over and over, always to howls from everyone. 

Another time your sister, two years old at the time, went missing,” said my mother. “We eventually found her napping inside a casket,” my mother said with a snort. “We were so relieved, and then served up another round of drinks,” she laughedIt was an unconventional playground for eight rambunctious kids but Death was not hidden from us.


One thing my mother did bring up in the interview was her inter-faith marriage. My father was from a big Jewish family—eleven siblings. But Mom had a Baptist upbringing. As Mom explained it: “When I told my parents about Joe, my mother said, ‘Are you sure there’s not somebody from your own crowd that you’re interested in?’” She said this with what I assumed was some humor, but the casual antisemitism must have stung, even though her family soon accepted my father for the many years of their long marriage. If it did sting, she didn’t say so. 

I asked her if she felt stifled in her role of mother and housewife.

“Yes, I did,” she answered quickly. “I was quite happy to go back to work as Director of Nursing when Kirk (my youngest brother) was in third grade. But,” she added as if to cover her tracks, “I don’t regret staying home all those years.” She shifted in her chair and took a sip from her water bottle. “I always felt like one of you kids, and I loved telling you stories and playing games. Your father was the disciplinarian. I was one of the gang.” 

I asked my mother, if she could do it over, whether she would have chosen another career. She said she would have liked to become a Phys Ed teacher. This makes sense to me now: I recall all through my childhood, my mother screamed at the TV, cheering on her New York Rangers or shouting at the refs during a bad call in a Yankees game. Even in late retirement she swam endless laps in the pool. And she still shouted during the basketball playoffs on TV.  Not only was she athletic, she was a sports enthusiast through and through.

There were some things I didn’t know: Mom’s first vote was for Harry S. Truman in 1948. Her favorite show after the introduction of TV was “Texaco Star Theater” from 8-9 p.m. starring Milton Berle,  a boisterous comedian who often appeared in a dress. There were questions I didn’t ask because I already knew the answers: She was an avid reader. She smoked Viceroy cigarettes in secrecy from her husband. (We kids were always tasked to go bum cigarettes from the adult neighbors.) She cheated at card games, slapped her knee in fits of laughter, and loved a good party. She liked her Miller beer while playing solitaire at the kitchen table. I knew all this without asking.


One of the things I had wanted to ask, but thought might be too intrusive, was what she thought about the obvious differences between her four children. We four were on such different trajectories. In my memory I was a shy, withdrawn kid and, given the choice, would happily spend hours in my room with pencil and drawing paper; designing women’s hairdos, or creating strange mystical creatures, much to my father’s horror. 

My sister Char couldn’t have been more different: strong, confident, and exceptionally athletic; she could throw a football further than any of the neighborhood boys and loved to wow the neighbor kids with her large, hard biceps. When neighborhood football games were in progress next door, Dad’s booming voice would yell out the back door, “Charlene, let Barney play!” He’d shoo me outside into the unwelcoming gaze of my sister and the rest of the neighborhood kids. I was not an asset to either team, and everyone knew it. 

My youngest brother, Kirk, was three years my junior and the youngest of the four kids. My memory of him was as a “tag-along” and a pest. I was mercilessly cruel to him but this only strengthened his determination to be an accepted playmate. We took sibling rivalry to a whole new level. My sister likes to recount the time I nearly drowned him in a shallow creek behind our house. But, oh, how he knew how to “push my buttons.” He was shrewd as hell, and from my perspective, held the softest spot in my mother’s heart, though she never admitted to any sort of favoritism.  

My eldest brother, David, never seemed to be around. He had a rotating harem of girlfriends. I would occasionally snoop in his bedroom and find dusty brassieres under his bed, or a stray bobby pin left by one of his girlfriends. When he was seventeen, my father bought him a convertible Karmann Ghia sports car as an early high school graduation present. David would whisk his girlfriends away leaving a trail of dust as he sped out of the gravel driveway. It seemed he functioned solely on adrenaline and testosterone. He was forever getting speeding tickets, and Dad, with red face and throbbing temple vein, would threaten taking the car away each time. But he never did.

One night, the summer before David was to head to college, we got a call from the state police at 3 a.m. David had been in an accident. Thrown far from his car, he landed on his head in the middle of a dark, deserted road in Alexandria Bay. Drinking buddies he had been with that night circled back in their car and found him. He spent the next two months in a coma. We younger kids were shipped off to relatives for the remainder of the summer. I didn’t realize then the impact that summer would have on all our lives. The year was 1968.


When we got back at the end of the summer, I was thirteen and I remember being happy I got to move into David’s vacated bedroom instead of sharing a bedroom with Kirk. David’s injury hadn’t seemed real to me but soon enough I realized what it all meant. His accident was more traumatic than the younger kids had been told. His body had been ravaged. The doctors managed to reattach an ear that had been torn off in the initial impact of his body hitting pavement, but his left cerebral cortex was damaged, permanently paralyzing the right side of his body and greatly affecting his speech and memory.

David came home from the hospital after many months of intense physical and speech therapy. Doctors proclaimed he would never walk again. But he was determined to prove them wrongOver the next few years he exhibited slight movement in his paralyzed right limbs, and could walk (unsteadily), and always with a ‘spotter,’ a cane, and a sturdy leg brace. Through all this we adjusted to our new situation with our usual banter. We treated him in the same teasing manner we always did. He was generally good natured, but woe to us if we crossed the line. He’d catch us in the iron grip of his left hand, a veritable lobster claw. We’d shriek in pain pleading with him to release us.

Eventually Mom got him into a handicapped residence, with regularly visiting aides, where he was able to live on his own. He could navigate the streets of our hometown in a battery-operated cart, his bright orange, handicap flag flapping wildly in his wake. The townspeople watched out for him since he was “blind in one eye and deaf in the other,” as we liked to kid him. I thought of him as a myopic Mr. Magoo navigating our town’s streets with the confidence of a seasoned race car driver. He still has no recollection of the night of the accident or any of the events of that summer. 


As we got to the end of the interview, I asked a question that had been on the list I provided Mom at the outset: “What was the most difficult moment in your life?”

I had a silent bet going with myself about her answer. Would she say that my father’s death caused her the most trauma? After all, they’d been married for almost 66 years. I honestly don’t think they ever spent one day apart. Or maybe she would answer that David’s accident was the most traumatic event in her life? What could be worse than seeing your first-born child land half-blind and brain-damaged in a wheelchair for the rest of his life? I was sure she’d choose one or the other, but the accident was my hands-on pick. There wasn’t much hesitation before she answered, so I think she had planned her answer in advance.

“It was when you announced that you were gay. We were shocked! You had always dated women all through high school and college. Your father and I just sat at the dining room table, held hands and cried. We thought you were special and had such gifts that you would pass on to your offspring. But now all you raise is chickens.” 

She laughed, trying to lighten the mood.


She was right: I had dated women. I never acted on my sexual attraction to men until I was in my late 20s, and then, always furtively. I moved to Boston in 1981 and soon after began exploring the gay nightclubs. It wasn’t until 1988 that I met my partner, and now spouse, Tom. I was still leading a closeted life and not yet out to my family and most of my friends. Tom and I planned a fourteen-month round-the-world adventure. My family thought we were just friends.

We were 35 at the time and we both decided, during our travels, to write coming out letters to our respective families. We crafted our letters carefully over the course of several weeks, sitting in local cafes or by flashlight in our tent at night while camping. We read them to one another to make sure we were getting the words right. I expressed my years of hiding and denial; my inner struggles and fear of being rejected by my family and friends. My letter was weighty and long, eight pages handwritten on thin airmail stationery, and even knew it was probably too much for my parents to digest.

My mother wrote back. I received her letter at an American Express office somewhere in New Zealand and anxiously tore open the envelope. The bulk of her letter was family news, with a few racy jokes thrown in. There was only one short line addressing my eight-page letter to them: “To Thine Own Self Be True,” written in her neat right-leaning script. 

As I read her letter, I felt cheated. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but certainly more than that one line. I wished she had said something like “It must have been very difficult for you,” or “How tragic you had to hide for so long this essential part of your being, ”or “I wish we could have been there for you during your struggle.”

But none of this was in the letter, nor was it ever discussed when Tom and I returned from our trip. It was a subject with too many sharp edges. I had spent the first 35 years of my life hiding who I was. Writing my parents a letter expressing all this seemed safe when I was on the other side of the globe. But once I returned, I couldn’t face the prospect of discussing my sexual orientation in the same room with my hard-nosed, Army veteran father who grew up believing that all gay men were sexual predators and deviants. I couldn’t imagine talking about what had been secret for so long, and it seemed like they didn’t want to talk about it either. We moved gingerly forward in the following months and years, with them asking an occasional question in an attempt to better ‘understand’ the workings of the gay world and my life. 

Here in Mom’s room all these years later I was as stunned by her answer as if she had slapped me across the face. Sweat broke out on my forehead and I could feel my pulse race. I wanted to throw my phone and the recorded interview into the dumpster outside her building.

After a moments’ pause, I said, “I thought you would have said David’s accident was the most difficult moment in your life.”

“No, no.” She said. “I felt very calm about David’s accident. I was a nurse and felt capable of coping with it.”

I managed to hide my shock by quickly moving on to less controversial questions. But I was anxious to wrap up. As we got near the end of the interview, I felt shame and anger flood over me and wanted to erase the recording as fast as possible. I couldn’t stop thinking about her answer. Why did she say this now after all these years? Why didn’t she express this in her response to my coming out letter all those years earlier? What about all the happy memories afterward, their love for Tom, the laughter and hilarity, shouldn’t this have altered her answer to “the most difficult moment?” My sexuality vs. David being brain-damaged and in a wheelchair? Not an apples and oranges comparison—apples and asteroids! 

But this was her birthday. I didn’t want to ruin this festive reunion with an emotional confrontation.

Looking back now, after her death three years ago, I want to believe she didn’t say this to hurt me. But perhaps she was casting guilt my way. I believe I was viewing my mother through a flawed lens all those years. Memory is mutable, prone to the passage of time and the vagaries of imagination. Did I get her wrong? Is she a fiction in my telling? The past can be warped all too easily. Had I been imagining her as saintly, kind, loving? Many people want to see their mothers in this light, or else the opposite: as cruel and insensitive. In reality, almost all mothers are a mixture of each of these qualities. It’s rare when a mother is wholly Mommie Dearest or June Cleaver. If Joan Crawford and June Cleaver were opposite poles on the mother spectrum, I saw mine as closer to Joan Rivers, with her barbed comments and off-color jokes. Mom made us laugh. She rarely made us cry.

I didn’t share this interview with family members at the birthday celebration as planned. I was trying to digest her answer. I needed time to reflect. If my other siblings had conducted the interview would my mother have answered the question the same way? If David had asked that question, would she have been as troubled that he wasn’t providing her with grandchildren? 

Time passed and I never raised any of these questions after that interview. It’s difficult to break a deeply established pattern of family dynamics. I wanted to preserve the goodwill and love I still felt for my mother at age 90. But I kept the recording.


My brother David is now seventy-four. He lives in a nursing home. His mental capacity is greatly diminished, and his speech is difficult to understand. He has diabetes and is functionally blind. But I believe he is relatively happy. He flirts with the aides and they flirt back. He still knows how to charm everyone he meets. I can still make him laugh, and we love to rehash our childhoods, and the whereabouts of classmates we grew up with. He asks about my art and seems genuinely happy for my success. I’ve never seen him bitter.

Kirk lives near David and often swings by to “spring him from prison,” as David describes the Nursing Home where he lives. Kirk brings him back to his house where Kirk’s wife, Anne, stuffs him with homemade dinners and lavishes him with care and affection. Their family dogs never leave David’s side for the endless attention and petting he provides. His independent living situation years ago freed up my parents and we all continued to pursue our various goals and ambitions. I became a professional artist. My sister pursued a career in nursing and was the major caregiver to my mother in her final years. Kirk became a licensed electrician, and the caregiver for David once our parents had moved south.

My parents retired and moved to a retirement community in Florida and seemed to enjoy a rebirth of sorts filling their calendars with social events and becoming accomplished ballroom dancers. My father’s relationship with David before the accident was fraught with weekly fights about the car, his recklessness and partying. After the accident, my father was caught in a web of anger and guilt, and the warmth never really returned to their relationship.

Tom became a bona fide family member soon after we announced we were a couple. The younger generation barely blinked at the revelation. Tom enjoyed being part of the gatherings through years of countless reunions, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, and the general chaos and laughter. Eventually, my parents came to treat Tom like a son. In fact, I think they preferred his company over mine. 


My mother lived two more years after the interview. Though her physical health was compromised, she was still mentally lucid and engaging up until the end. We never spoke again about the interview. I am left to wonder what it meant. I’ll never know, either because of my own cowardice, or a desire to preserve the memory of her as flawed but kind-hearted. 

Eulogies at memorial services always paint the deceased as glowing figures of irrefutable charm, intelligence, kindness, fill in the blank. My mother was certainly not Mommie Dearest. One answer to one question does not define her for me. I’ve reconciled my feelings then and my feelings now. Shock and dismay has given way to a deeper understanding about our relationship, the bond of a mother and her son which still endures beyond the grave, in spite of our difficult moments. I forgive her now for her answer to that question, and that forgiveness has freed me to see us both more clearly. 


  • Barney Levitt received a B.A. in studio art from S.U.N.Y. at Oswego, where he studied under Robert Sullins. He is a member of three galleries in Massachusetts: Gallery Antonia in Chatham, Gallery Twist in Lexington, and the Stewart Clifford Gallery in Provincetown. More about his painting can be found at This is his first published essay.

  • One Wonderful Sunday is a 1947 Japanese film co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was made during the allied occupation of Japan and shows some of the challenges of life in early post-war Tokyo. The film is notable because of a fourth wall-breaking scene at the climax.