Gone, But Not

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.

The Eternity of Mama

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Today is your 65th birthday. Would you already be retired? Would you spend your off days going to IHOP, telling the waitress about Jesus and inviting her to learn with you? Would you hair be grey just at the temples, or would you have a full head of salt and pepper like your mother? I’ve filled the last 21 and-a-half years with questions that will always be unanswered, because you died when you were only 43 – just a little more than three years older than I am now. You passed away when I was ready for you to teach me everything. I fought through my teenage angst and finally believed you when you told me that you were my friend.

Fortunately, you gave me a good enough foundation to piece together the things I believe you would have taught me. I’m not the person you raised me to be, Mama – not entirely. There are vast swaths of my life that you would categorically disapprove of. This is the first year that I realized that’s okay. Perhaps it’s because my own kids are approaching adulthood. I won’t always like the things they do or the choices they make, but I will always be their mama. I think through our fights, my stubbornness, and your tight-lipped disapproval, we would have found our own rhythm.

You never get used to not having a mama. My brilliant friend Deesha said it best in a Facebook post last week:

I just sighed a long, long sigh and suddenly had the urge/thought to call my mother, as if I really could. I actually sat up to do it. As if I had forgotten that my mother died in 2005. The last time I had that impulse/urge/thought was about 5 years ago. In joy and in sadness, I guess it’s always there.

My brain is wired to do things that don’t make sense. Sometimes I scour my brain trying to remember your email address, despite the fact that you’ve never had one. I wanted to call you to tell you that BB made the cheer squad and that Tyson performed at the Gene Kelly Awards, despite the fact that you’ve never met my children. We had a full-blown argument in my head when I moved to Maryland, though you had been gone almost eleven years by then. This is because you’re not really gone.

They always say the Devil is in the details, but Mama, it’s you. You’re everywhere. You’re in Shaun’s love for God and Kelly’s fighting spirit. You’re in the set of Chloe’s jaw when she realizes someone is trying her and she’s ready to let them know she ain’t the one or the two. You’re in the shape of Tyson’s finger and toenails. You’re in BB’s jawline and her elbows and knees when she dances. You’re in my compassion. And when the world is falling down around my ears and I want to crawl under my bed, YOU are right there saying, “Keep getting ready, Melanie,” because you know I have a goal. Right before you died, you said, “At least I know Melanie will be alright. And if Melanie is alright, the rest of the girls will be too.” So, I’m alright, Mama. I refuse to make a liar out of you.

I love you and I miss you, even though in a million ways, you’re still here. Today, rather than feeling sad, I’m basking in that blessing.