Five Years Since

Dear Mom:

It has been five years since we said goodbye, that word you hate, the one that still gets stuck in my throat.

There are days when it feels like it was last week and days when it feels like a decade has gone by.

This is, usually, a season of joy and reclamation, of hibernation and reflection. I want to forget my loneliness and grief, but in some ways, trying to forget it feels like forgetting you and I can’t.

The number five makes me think of you for so many reasons.

I was five when I was leaving foster care, remember, and you tried to bring me a gift of green plastic jewelry to my pre-school in Philly but the guards took you away because you weren’t allowed to see me because you were the reason I was in foster care on account of the burning me with a straightening comb. They did leave your gift, which I wish I still had, but which time and too many moves took away from me.

When I see five dollar bills, I think of the jubilant look on your face when you would find money on the street – something that has never happened to me once in New York, not ever, not since you were alive.

And I think of the Christmas Day five years ago when I knew it would be the last time I got to hold your hand. My heart breaks for any daughter who survives her mother who has to write a sentence like that, who has to reflect on surviving the person who bore her, who taught her how to live, or who at the very least tried. The trying, itself, is not so easy.

The grief is not so much because I needed you to be my mother, although we all need one. I had given up on that part. I knew it was hard for you, harder than most. It was that I wanted our story to be so much happier. I wanted us to get to the good part together. I did not want to get to the good part alone.

You were so proud of me, of my writing. You modeled shine theory before I knew it would be a thing. You did not talk about an after you were gone and so there’s a way in which I was not ready for that emptiness. It was as if you would keep on living, cheering.

I still view my solitude as a gift. It is the way of an INFJ, an ambivert with a book addiction, enamored of the characters that wake me up and nudge me to my computer or notebook. But it has an edge to it that has lonely, Marguerite-sized craters into which my spirit falls.

Loneliness kills. There is research and data and I have read it, horrified, desperately afraid. Because I am used to having something urgent to worry about, when there is nothing — and there really aren’t that many things like this that come up anymore now that you and Dad are gone —  I worry about the lethal nature of my loneliness. My heavy heart is one that only I carry, being the only child of you and him. It is my unique burden to be missing you in this particular way, without someone to remember with me what it was like to laugh in the midst of our darkness and to cry out in the midst of our shared pain.

Even being the only keeper of our memories has not hardened me, not the way I have wished for over the years, as you can see. I have avoided writing about you now for weeks, if not months, knowing that it would feel like ripping open a wound and pouring salt water into it by the gallons. I was not wrong, but that wasn’t the full truth of the thing.

We spent so many cold winters without in New York City, in the Bronx especially, including that very first one in 1984, when we were mugged crossing a bridge from Harlem to go to the Roberto Clemente shelter. But Mommy, I have more than enough now. Enough space, enough time, enough food, enough warmth.

As alone as I feel in my grief and my missing of you sometimes, I am deeply and widely loved by people who are so gifted and dynamic and sweet. They fill in the gaps. They remind me that you would want deep belly laughs for me in this season and all the others, the laugh you gave me which is one of my most prize inheritances, the one that jolts people awake, that clings to ceilings, that rattles the nerves of those who only know the end of this story, but not the beginning, not the middle, none of the transitions.

This big complex heart of mine receives and mirrors back the joy of those who know what to do with it. I have more than enough, enough to give back, to give away, so that I don’t have to hoard. It is not enough to fill the void of a mother. It is not enough to keep me from crying over missing you. It may never be. Maybe that is the point.

But the gift of missing you is that it helps me to remember that is what the depth of love is. That when someone you cherish, who has shaped you and touched you is gone, you weep because they have had an impact. Sometimes the gift of someone’s love is in the way they reach you where no one ever has and maybe never will.

Merry Christmas. I’m going to be with our beloved family.

Yes, I will tell them you love them.

Better: I will do my best to keep showing them.

Love always,

Your baby girl.

Advertisements

For The Motherless or Unmothered

mom and dad

Mom & Dad & Me & Mom

I live at the center of an odd emotional Venn diagram that falls around this time each spring. I learned of my father’s suicide on Earth Day in 2010. My mother died from cervical cancer in early 2012.

It is my mother who I miss most because insofar as I knew either of my parents, I knew her or tried to and she sometimes let me.

I am a word person but I increasingly love numbers as I get older. They are specific and neat. They offer a clarity words can obscure.

It has been five years since I commemorated Mother’s Day without my mother’s physical presence, without her outside voice shouting at me on the phone to wish her a happy mother’s day, or the arrival of a card she’d sent to me as if to say, “This is how you send a Mother’s Day card…see?”

It has been five months since I moved home to the Bronx, the place I left because my mother was here, insistent and ever-present and manic in a way that made it difficult to be close.

Before I returned, it had been 17 years since I had been a New Yorker. Every day that I was away, I missed being here: The noise, the dirt, the crowds. The possibility, the energy the light pollution that shames darkness and makes visible stars seem like survivors.

I left poor and afraid, following pragmatic versions of my dreams to Texas and the West. I came back successful by some measures, with enough experience to give back what the world had given to me, still battling survivor’s guilt and impostor syndrome, writing through it in this new, shiny life of freedom.

Continue reading

Opening Gifts

There is almost nothing now that I want or need that I do not have. The gratitude I have for that is deepened and underscored by your absence.

During seasons like this I wonder what you would have made of abundance. I like to imagine that where you are you know what it is to revel, to be of good cheer, to adorn yourself with fine raiment and tinsel and reindeer antlers. I am hoping that there is some good Donny Hathaway playing, followed by Stevie Wonder since I know you favor sharp shifts in emotional altitude, for your spirit to slink then soar.  I know you are drinking egg nog, but I wonder what you’re spiking it with.

Three years to the day, I said goodbye to you and, for the last time, you corrected me. You wanted me to say See you later because you hated that word goodbye so much. I’m not much of a fan of it myself.

You are the person who knew me best in the world and that may never change. This is the year I let myself rest in the reality of that and surrendered the need to change for the sake of anyone else. You were such a good model, just like my sister, of self-possession and strength. I have no idea what took me so long.

It feels like so much time has passed since you left and, at the same time, like time only kept picking up speed. Since then, I discovered how hiding from myself and others prevents real love and joy from finding me. I learned that sometimes missing the chaotic parts of us makes me seek out insanity that I only tolerate as a placeholder for the memories we survived. Gradually and then, all at once, I remembered that my life goes on — or it can — if I let it. I realized that I do not have to suffer or tolerate because I know I can handle it. Strength is neither shield nor sponge. It is a pose and a position and mostly, a choice.

You know that saying about time healing all wounds? I don’t know if I believe it. I think time gives you space from what maimed your heart so that if you can’t keep yourself from being wounded again, at least you have perspective on how to grieve with honor, while loving and living. Love and loss are not mutually exclusive.

This was the year that all of the cheerleading you offered me reached a fever pitch in the back of my mind and played like an anthem in the background of my daily life. This was the year I heard all the things you tried to tell me. This was the year that I believed that I was worthy of the big, broad blanket of love for me you unfurled and let hang from your shoulders like a superhero as long as I tried to know you. This was the year that I understood that it is ok to just miss the reality of you and the tangible motherly things you shared: that laugh, that smile, the long unfiltered list of impossible dreams that you were always ready to recite like the rosary you cherished.

This is the year that I can finally wrap gifts again for the ones I love and listen to Christmas songs and sing along. The tears are willful and come when they want, but I don’t fight like I did before. I let the sadness in for tea and whatever comfort food I can find so that it can have some space to be. I learned, too, this year, that after awhile, sadness politely will excuse itself and leave me to my efforts to celebrate the season, whatever season it is or whatever the season wants to be. This, too, is a gift.

Learning to be Big

I left work completely devastated and in a lot of emotional pain.

I was in a season of severe self-doubt, mired in worry. This was about business, about a professional transition, but it was more than that. I was feeling like I was doing something and I had done something that is all too familiar and damaging to my writing life.

I was in so much pain because I was trying to be small.

As it usually does, it took my best friend’s observation to get me to stop with the ugly crying and chest heaving.

“You are always trying to be small and I don’t understand it,” she said. “But literally nothing about you is small.”

Nothing about me is small.

I have a big laugh, a big smile. I have big feet, a big heart, and a big gift.

This is obvious to so many people, but until now, it has not been at all obvious to me. I don’t take these things for granted as much as I have been so busy thinking of other things that I haven’t allowed myself space to think about this.

My first thought was of Marianne Williamson, because this quote has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. It was my dear friend Portia, when we were pen pals (remember those?) 20 years ago who transcribed it in her remarkably beautiful penmanship in purple ink:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

These are nice words and I like them and I loved to read them. I read them many times over the years. Each time, I felt the recognition of their truth but I didn’t  own being a child of God. Not really. I talked about it. I wanted desperately to believe it. But I also wanted to hide my lamp under a bushel, even if Scripture is pretty plain about why that’s not a good Standard Operating Procedure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. When I was a kid, I was literally smaller. Well, thinner. But I longed to have girth and heft, to be seen, to be a force like my mother, who was physically solid, strong.

The thing about visibility for women, for black women and girls, is that when you are seen, you are also a target. My bookish nerd brain decided, once in the Bronx, where most of us are invisible by default, and again when I entered the workforce, that the best way to keep from being a target of anything was to shrink.

This is where being mildly introverted comes in handy. It allowed me to fold myself and my personality up and tuck it quietly between the pages of a book. This presents to others as a feminine virtue, I think, as modesty and humility. Perhaps I also have some of that, but primarily, this was about survival.

Because God has a sense of humor, my height was always the main inconvenience on this front. Except for the random times when they were lining us up in reverse size order during elementary school — once a year! — I was the last or second to last person in a size order line.

Always visible from the front.

Always subject to someone’s question about my nonexistent basketball-playing ability.

Never ready for the attention.

I think some of this comes from not being used to having things. I wonder if that’s why it has taken so long to accept and to grow into the power of presence that my height has given me or the gift of writing. After all, the natural reaction to being unaccustomed to having things is to give them away.

I gave my power and gifts away in so many ways as a girl and a younger woman that it is impossible to recount them all, and merciless to try. The main reason I wanted to shrink is because of a feeling of deep guilt about succeeding in my life where my mother had failed. She wanted so much for her dreams to come to fruition she repeated them daily until she got sick. She chased them until she decided she was ready to move on to the ultimate dream.

I carried, while Mom was alive, this feeling of both wanting her to have everything that I earned and knowing that I needed to keep what was mine. She had raised me, she had given me this wellspring of compassion and empathy — for all of the difficulty that had come with it. Someone should compensate her for the hard life she had lived, I thought, even though I realized that some of the hard living was her choice.

She said she was jealous and that she wanted me to soar. What I took from those two statements was a rejection of anything I did because she couldn’t have the things she wanted most.

So to believe in my own expansion or expansiveness felt like a betrayal of her. Our mother is the beacon whose every word and action sets our moral and emotional compass. I found myself longing to move out from under my discomfort by undermining and sabotaging myself. Becoming flat. Quiet. Discreet. It seemed there could be only one big woman between us.

I let her be the sun and the sky. I was content to be a shadow, even a few years after her death.

The weird thing about grief is that it can set off in you a series of unconscious reactions. When you lose your footing, when you lose ground, the first thing God sends you is a reminder of what is familiar. You can chose to cling to the blanket or toss it aside for more discomfort in order to grow.

I clung to the blanket. I met people who reminded me so much of my mother; they displayed her ambivalence about how I should be in the world more than anything else. It happened in friendships, new and old, that had run their course for too long. It happened at work and in love, when I was least aware of how my playing small was at the core of so much suffering.

They assured me in one breath that they could nurture me and help me shine. In another, they helped me sabotage myself with manipulation and envy. Even when I was trying so desperately to be small, I was still, apparently, a threat.

It took falling apart in my best friend’s kitchen for me remember myself, to begin to see myself as others see me.

It has always been unfortunately comfortable for me to feel as though my success as a writer has come at the expense and inconvenience of others; That by becoming bigger, becoming my full self, unfolding the fullness of God’s gift to me, I would somehow be stepping on someone else, taking more than I am worthy to have. Being what the world often tells black women we are: Too big for my own britches.

It turns out that I have, in this way, been my own worst enemy. I’m forgiving myself for that, for the fact that I have never really loved myself enough to believe that it is enough to believe in my own expansion.

It is enough to give yourself permission to divest yourself of the opinions and reactions and feelings of others. You can feel and be as limitless as the horizon if you are willing to allow yourself to have all that you are capable of having and become all you are capable of becoming.

I am stepping into the big shoes that have always been mine to fill, at least I am working toward that. Life is too short to settle for a corner, for a side part, a dark shadow. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and it’s what I’ve seen. It is scary but beautiful and necessary to stand in the light or — even better — to become a brighter sun.