Children of the African diaspora are broken. Yes, you, my darling. Scattered bits, held together with pain and glue. We travel through this life, carrying generations’ worth of hope and desire to survive, and spend so little time thriving. That is not our fault. The world we live in has been built for the explicit purpose of exterminating us. So, we are surviving instead of thriving,and sometimes this world makes us forget how to be soft enough to love and be loved. Throughout all of this, it is the sisterhood of Black women that has kept us going.
My mother is the oldest of nine children. Her own mother, the youngest of three daughters, moved North from the Carolinas at the age of 19, days after marrying my grandfather in 1955. They left their families and all they knew. Eventually, my grandfather’s family moved north, too. My mom had two aunts nearby and two left in the South. During her summer visits to the South Carolina auntsas a child, my mom bonded tightly with her cousin, Barbara, who is a few years older than her. She has told me that, as the oldest of nine, Barbara is the closest thing she’s had to a big sister. I know the feeling of needing a big sister to talk to, to celebrate with, and to have your back. I know that my mom has been that person for her younger sisters. This year, my mom lost her last sister-friend.
About ten years ago, Sarah passed away at 50 from a heart attack. Sarah, my older sister’s godmother. Sarah, who was beautiful, with a sandy brown dye job, and who I see whenever I look at Jenifer Lewis with her tits and sass. I loved Sarah most of all because despite how exuberant, funny, and extroverted she was, she left my shy ass alone. As a child who always hid when company came (okay, I may still hide when company comes), she said her hellos and never summoned me to ask why I was so shy. Sarah died in 2008. I attended her funeral and the church was packed. Standing room only, every seat from wall to wall, even in the balcony. It dawned on me early in the service that these people all loved Sarah this much. Each person had known parts of her, each person, blessed by her. Each person’s life a little dimmer for the loss of her light.
Two years ago, Ms. Nicki passed away. Her name was Adrian Nicolette and we called her Nicki. She too, beautiful and silly. I felt like she was my mom’s kid sister, a few years younger and the kindness with which my mother handled her was special. In high school, my friend Shana and I watched Gilmore Girls together on the phone. And you know what? Every week, we had to get off the phone, just in time for the theme song because Ms. Nicki would call and she and my mom would sing the song together, say “I love you” and then hang up.
If you’re out on the road
Feeling lonely and so cold
All you’ve got to do is call my name and I’ll be there
On the next train
Where you lead
I will follow
That you tell me to
If you need (if you need)
Me to be with you
I will follow
Where you lead
Aside from this, my greatest memory about Ms. Nicki is when she pestered me to allow her to buy me headshots so that I could audition for to be a model. I aint never had a single damn thought about becoming a model, but she was set and intent on affirming me, my Blackness and the beauty of my skin. She called me her Ajabean because she said I just looked like one. One day, in middle school, I answered the phone and she asked me if she could be my godmother.
This past winter, my mother’s remaining childhood friend, Ms. Debbie suddenly fell ill. My mom called me at work to say that she was going to say her final goodbye to her. She had no idea that she was hospitalized. To say that this was hard on her would be an understatement. Ms. Debbie was a public school teacher. I remembered her visits, her phone calls, her 1,000 mile a minute speaking voice. She was probably my mom’s best friend and now she is gone too.
In April, my mom had a surgery scheduled to remove a cyst from her kidney. She has had a number of surgeries in the past six years, but for this one, something told me to take a day off work. I sat and waited and waited, long after her surgery was over to see her. When I was finally allowed to visit her, I learned that when the surgeon went in, they were unable to remove the growth completely and made the decision to remove the whole kidney, a nephrectomy.
My mother was in pain. I had never seen her in so much discomfort. Moms have a way of hiding pain… I know this, I’ve done this. She was so very human and fragile. We spoke for a few short minutes and then I left. The next day, I visited her after work. She was in a lot better shape, able to talk and walk, albeit slowly, around her room. I was able to breathe, after not realizing I had been holding my breath. The next week or so after she was discharged was pretty hard on her. I watched her try to adjust, walking with a cane to balance herself following the weight shift of losing an organ she’d had since she was an embryo. But not only did I watch her, I spoke with her. She spoke with me.
Mothers are often in pain. We keep very many secrets. Not so much that we don’t trust others with our truths, but sometimes things feel too heavy to share with our children. Sometimes we don’t want to inconvenience them. We want to be their soft place, we don’t want to ask them to be strong for us. But the trouble is, sometimes, secrets make things harder on our children.
Black women in particular, keep so many damn secrets. We don’t talk about sex or menstruation, but we tell our daughters to keep their legs closed under dresses and skirt. We tell them to not be fast, to keep their heads in books and stop chasing boys. We tell our daughters to pray their problems away. We tell them family secrets stay inside the house. We don’t talk about challenging whiteness and patriarchy. But none of this shit is helpful. It doesn’t teach our daughters how to heal or grow. It teaches them to shrink and not to blossom like the beautiful and strong flowers they are.
It’s taken me a really long time to see that a lot of the dysfunction we have as a community comes from the fact that our parents do in fact, see us as delicate and that they want to callous us to protect those soft parts from the world. It doesn’t help us though. It hardens us, shrinks us, limits us from being free. So when my mother started talking to me about her feelings, her thoughts on aging, her mortality, her health, her mental health, I listened. She told me she received calls from her elders, women who had lost and struggled and who had wanted to help her heal. Who wanted to give her the secrets of survival as she moved on into this next chapter of her life. I sat at her feet and listened as she explained the feeling of a shift between being the big sister/mama of everyone, the mule for everyone, and becoming the baby girl, the niece, the daughter, the student. As she sought counsel from people who have been where she was. She spoke about now being in the position to accept these lessons and this love, that she might not have been able to 20 years ago. She is traveling into a new phase of sisterhood, of accepting love and strength from other women, who offer a different kind of love and support. She watches me with my friends and encourages me to lean on them, to accept their love and to return it.
She told me that she was so grateful to be able see the need to share these feelings and thoughts with her adult daughters now, so that we start to find ourselves traveling the same roads, we know how to traverse the terrain. There are many things in life that we cannot anticipate, but this gift of being open and honest about hardships with your adult children is a true gift, to your children and to yourself.
My mom is the strongest person I know. Our relationship has not always been perfect, so I can’t sit and tell you that she’s always been my hero, but she is today. My mother is continually growing, healing herself, healing others, learning, challenging herself to be better, and learning to spoil her damn self. She deserves it. I realized this year just how precious she is. How much I need her, how much I love her, and that regardless of how super she is in my eyes, she is also quite human. I’ll hold her tight as long as I have her on this side.
Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.