It’s Saturday, November 19. I’m 17 years old and trying to shield my face and thighs from the sun blazing through my aunt’s Camry. Despite the date, I’m wearing shorts, because November scorchers are standard in New Orleans. I cashed my first paycheck and was on the way to visit my mother in the hospital. I bought her a card and a box of Russell Stover’s. We sat in traffic for hours. We sat in traffic so long, by the time we arrived at the hospital, they led us directly to a small room and my dad said, “She’s gone.”
“Gone” has always seemed like such a trivial word for death; as if they’ll be back with milk and toilet paper at any moment. In all fairness, I’ve waited for her to come back. I saw them close the casket and it still feels like a 22-year-old prank. If I saw her sitting on my Pittsburgh porch, I might just knowingly nod, unlock the door and make her some lemonade. I’ve accepted so many deaths in my life, but hers always seemed unreal.
I spent the majority of October in the hospital. After my first procedure, I had a really hard day and night. I can’t remember when I was awake and when I was dreaming. I do remember hearing, “What happened, Melanie?” My mama was in my dream, wearing her signature brightly colored something, smiling as though I burned the chicken and she was here to save dinner. I couldn’t even talk. I just stared and let her talk to me – about everything. She rubbed my scalp and braided my hair. She chastised me for not bringing lotion to the hospital, and rubbed my elbows and ankles with vaseline from her bag. She did all the things I took for granted when I was a wild little black girl who just wanted to be barefoot in a tree. And I let her. For three days, every time i fell asleep, my mama came to me and took care of me; always bright, always smiling.
When she asked about my babies, I asked her to stay around and meet them. She just clicked her tongue and smirked a little – her go to response when I wasn’t being realistic. “You’re going to take care of them. I’m going to take care of you.” She asked if anyone else takes care of me and before I could answer, she said, “If they do, let them and love them. Stop being a jackass.”
The afterlife has never been a clear concept to me. I don’t believe what I was taught, but I also don’t have a belief of my own. Much of the last month, I’ve pondered what those days and dreams meant. Can dreams influence your well-being? They were so vivid, I was able to make it through those initial difficult days. Also, considering my mama came to me exactly when I needed her, perhaps “gone” is the correct term.
My health wasn’t the only thing struggling in this past year. My heart and spirit floundered as well. Losing my mama is a cruelty I may never understand. But the kindness in which she “returned” to me, while not smoothing over the mama-sized hole in my heart, brought me back to myself. I still miss her, but 22 years later, she can still reach into my heart and move me.
Birdie, I miss you, I love you, and I’m forever grateful. Thank you.