This Mother’s Day, I must, for the first time, actively recall and remember the woman who was my Mom. She died from COVID-19 on December 22, 2020. But her passion, her love for me — her gay son — and all her selfless acts helping others stays with me. She has always shaped who I am, and she will continue to do so.
My mom’s last days were spent in a hospital in Topeka, Kan. She battled the disease for 30 days, alone. I remember the phone call and the deep helplessness that came over me when she first told me she was not feeling well. A complex mix of emotions persisted: fear, sadness, anger, and guilt. I could not help her and protect her, the way she had always done for me.
At the time, the COVID-19 death toll was more than 250,000 people across the United States. I tried to be strong, knowing many more had survived, and yet I was gripped by the fear of what could happen.
A few days later, my mom walked by herself into an emergency room. Her oxygen-saturation level was low. She had migraines and could not sleep well. She tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to the hospital. I cannot imagine how scared and lonely she must have been. But, as many times before in her life, she found the courage to do what she had to. She walked alone and trusted the goodness of life and others would find her.
Living more than 1,000 miles away, there was little I could do. Even if I could get there to be with her, the hospital would not allow anyone inside. Instead, I could only FaceTime mom — or call her nurses and doctors, sometimes two or three times a day. I cried thinking of how alone she must have been sitting in the hospital bed by herself, no family to hold her hand. In her final days, she saw only nurses in full PPE gear. This had to have been surreal for such a loving and warm woman: a sterile, isolated, and dystopian place in which to suffer.
During her final 30 days, I recall good moments where she would talk to me, and I could get her to smile and laugh, lifting her spirits and giving her hope of being home by Christmas. I promised her Santa would bring her a new iPhone so she could play her favorite word games and do puzzles while she recuperated. That new phone still sits on my desk in a rhinestone purple case.
Then, there were the toughest days, after she was put on a ventilator. She was not responsive, and our ability to connect came to a halt. The nurse told me my mom was kind. She said they hoped she would be one of the lucky ones.
In the bag of her belongings the hospital gave to me, I found her Mickey Mouse shirt and her heart necklace that said “Mom.” I cried knowing these simple, everyday items must have been her only sense of comfort walking into that hospital. She went in as my mom. I lost her in there.
I know mom loved “Mickey” and that Walt Disney World was a special place for her. We took her there in 2004, right after my Dad had been killed by a drunk driver. Despite tragedy, my mom held strong and always loved us with each piece of her broken heart. Together, we would walk in front of Cinderella’s castle at night. I would hold her hand and raise it up so she could spin for me. She would smile and laugh.
Near the end, though, I know that my mom didn’t need or want to dance under the lights at Disney World. She just wanted to see her kids. She just wanted to come home, to be back in her own little castle.
Late on Monday, December 21, the hospital informed me and my sister that they would allow both of us to visit my Mom. Her health was in rapid decline. I didn’t ask questions and got the next flight.
Mom had been put back on a ventilator and several other necessary machines due to issues with multiple organs damaged by COVID-19. My sister got to the hospital first and sat alongside Mom, brushing her hair. My sister played Dolly Parton Christmas music on her phone and watched Hallmark Christmas movies all night in mom’s room.
I arrived the next day and saw my mom, who was heavily sedated. I held her hand and kissed her one last time. I did not want to ever let go. I wanted her to know that both her kids were there with her, always.
My mom was my best friend and my biggest fan. I never had any doubt that she loved me. When I was a child, she would always say: “I love you to the moon and back. And even more!” She would continue telling me that throughout life on the phone and through Facebook messages. The last time she did was on her birthday, the October before she died.
My mom was a single parent when she gave birth to me. She dropped out of community college so she could work and have money to support us. She worked as a waitress part-time and then worked her full-time job on the Iowa Tribe reservation. My mom worked hard to give me everything — and she was my everything.
My mom never knew a stranger and would do whatever she could to help others, especially single mothers and kids. When I came out as gay to my mom in 1992 during college, she became a fierce ally. Nobody was going to hurt or talk badly about her son. She would often try to help other gay kids and parents. My mom would never sit back; she always wanted to take action, to find justice.
I was beyond lucky to have my mom, a profoundly strong woman, who instilled the values of passion, perseverance, and a relentless desire to always help. She truly loved unconditionally. She loved my husband and all of the life we built. She loved my sister when she too came out and recently married her wife.
My mom was proud of my work with Campus Pride, the books I have written, and the young LGBTQ+ people who we have helped over the last 20 years. She would often be troubled hearing about a family who could not or would not love their LGBTQ+ kids. She wanted all kids to find love, acceptance, and a supportive family. Many times she would volunteer to be that mom, pouring her love, kindness, and passion into all those around her.
My mom and the other 575,000-plus moms, family members, and friends who have now died of COVID-19 did not have to die. If only people would have taken care of one another, if only we had competent leaders when the historic pandemic first swept across our nation.These lives lost are more than a number; they are real people killed by both a virus and the cruel incompetence of others.
This Mother’s Day, I pay tribute to and remember the sacrifice, the nurturing and the love of my Mom, Diann Mendez Windmeyer Hall.
Throughout her life and until her last breath, she was a fearless, brave, loving person. She was a caregiver and a fighter in equal measure. She forged my soul to be a change agent. And she is the reason for my activist heart. It beats on each day because of her.
Love you, Mom.
Shane Mendez Windmeyer, M.S., Ed. is a best-selling author, LGBTQ+ campus pioneer and civil rights champion. He is founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the leading national LGBTQ+ organization for student leaders and campus organizations working to build future leaders and create safer campus communities.
Windmeyer is the creator of the Campus Pride Index (CampusPrideIndex.org), the premier national LGBTQ+ benchmarking tool for colleges and universities. Released Fall 2006 by Alyson Books, Windmeyer is the author of The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students, the first-ever college guide profiling the “100 Best LGBT-Friendly Campuses.” He is also the editor of Brotherhood: Gay Life in College Fraternities and co-editor of the books Inspiration for LGBT Students & Allies, Out on Fraternity Row: Personal Accounts of Being Gay in a College Fraternity and Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian & Bisexual in a College Sorority.
Windmeyer graduated from Emporia State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and then attended Indiana University where he received his Master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. with his husband Thomas Feldman. They were legally married in 2015 after 20 years of being together.