Welcome to My Breakdown
Mom and me at Easter on my block, across the street from my house.
MOM DIED in the middle of the night in her bedroom downstairs in my house. She was eighty-four and had been in hospice care. The night she died, our dog Charlie came up to our room barking and barking at one thirty in the morning. I was bleary-eyed and didn’t want to budge. But his barking was adamant, so I
got up and turned on the light, thinking he might be hurt. I picked him up, ran my hand through his fur, held him up, and looked under his body. There was no sign of anything amiss, so I went back to sleep, and eventually he stopped barking.
At 6 a.m. I went to check on Mom. I’d had a feeling of dread the moment I’d opened my eyes, and I was afraid to go and see.
I had asked Cliff to go with me.
“What’s that?” he said groggily.
“I think Mom is gone. I need you to come with me downstairs.”
“Okay, just let me go to the bathroom.”
He took longer than I could wait. I was simultaneously afraid and compelled to go and see my mother. I rushed down the stairs to the room we’d outfitted for her after her heart got so weak she’d moved in with us six weeks earlier. As I entered the room, I saw that she was turned onto her right side in the hospital bed I’d rented for her, the exact position that she’d been in when I’d tucked her in the night before. I went over and touched her shoulder; it felt hard. I leaned over to look at her face. It was frozen, with her mouth wide open. Her expression was a frown, not peaceful, which led me to think that she’d fought off death. As sick as she was and as much as she’d been praying to Jesus to take her, she’d still tried to resist at the end.
Cliff had come downstairs after me and was watching from the doorway. He saw my shoulders jerking and my head moving toward the inside of my hands, and he came to me, turned me around, and held me. I was surprised at that moment that I hadn’t completely fallen apart. I was crying, but not the deep, guttural, primal sobs that would come moments later.
When a hospice patient dies, the protocol is that you are to call the hospice people immediately. I called my dad first. I couldn’t have done it any other way. My mom had come to stay with us only
temporarily, above my father’s objections that he could take care of her. But after my mother’s last stint in the hospital following a fall, we realized my father needed a break. When I called to tell him she was gone, he didn’t speak for a moment and then quietly said, “I’ll be there in a little while.”
He came dressed in a suit and tie. It was March 24, 2009, a chilly spring morning, and he was wearing his trench overcoat and a Borsalino hat, the kind men of a certain age still wear. He came in and we hugged as we always do. He went into the room where Mom lay and looked at her. When he leaned over to kiss her on her open mouth and said, “Good-bye, sweetheart,” I lost it. I went into the dining room and opened my mouth in a scream. At first nothing came out. I remember holding my mouth open, saliva coating the corners, running down my chin and onto my neck before a sound came that I hope never to hear again.
When I called hospice around 7 a.m., our regular nurse, Joe, wasn’t on duty.
“We’ll send Sister Angela,” they said.
I thought, Catholic?
“She’s a nun.”
My mother wasn’t Catholic, but I was too weak to protest.
Sister Angela was White, with wind-burned skin. She arrived dressed in jeans and purple polar fleece, and she greeted me with a warm, Southern Black church hug. She called the funeral home and then went into my mom’s room to attend to her and write down the approximate time and cause of death. I didn’t know the time, but I told her about Charlie’s insistent early morning barking. “The dogs always know,” she said. She put in Mom’s dentures, closed her mouth, removed her diaper, and washed her up. Cliff and I were sitting in the living room. Our son, Ford, then eight years old, was still asleep, but Baldwin, who was fourteen, was up and moving
around upstairs. It was nearing time for her to leave for school. We ushered her out the door without telling her that Grandma had died. I’m not sure why I made that decision then—perhaps my grief was so much I couldn’t yet bear hers—but I would make the same one today. Baldwin and my mother had been very close. The Grandma she’d known was the one who had come three days a week to babysit her for the first two years of her life, the one who believed the sun rose and set in Baldwin’s eyes, who sewed outfits for her Barbies, who always brought her and Ford her famous applesauce or apple pie when she came to visit. But during my mother’s illness, Baldwin became wary of her. She wouldn’t go into her room unless I was there; she hated to see her grandmother so reduced. I can only think that it was all too much for her.
Mom beaming at Baldwin, July 1996.
Ford, on the other hand, only remembered his Grandma as old and frail. He wasn’t afraid and would go into her room by himself every morning. He’d say “Mornin’, Grandma,” and every night, “Night, Grandma.”
Whenever my mother saw him, she’d smile and say, “Hey, good-lookin’.” She always called him that.
Ford and Mom on her birthday; his is three days later.
For years before this final break in my world, I’d been only showing up in pieces. I had my mommy friends, with whom I’d talk only about our kids, and I’d put away my ambitious writer self. With my writer friends, it was easier to show up more fully, but when I stopped writing, I felt as if I no longer had anything to contribute. My gym friends were on the light side; I showed up not as a writer or a mother, just as someone who worked out alongside them and maybe went for coffee afterward. I functioned by being propped up and medicated by materialism and escapism—dopamine bursts coming from shopping; intense cardio to ease the sadness; and vodka or wine to keep me from feeling too much. I wanted to be numb.
I’d been holding myself back, taking only shallow breaths. My surroundings were shiny, impressive—the house, the car, the country club that I’d never wanted to join and hardly ever went to. I had
turned into someone I couldn’t figure out, a bored, lonely suburban wife and mother whose writing career had inexplicably stalled. I had no role models for this life, no road maps to follow. Where were the creative, sensitive women who were making a living while married and raising kids in the suburbs and who were also Black and proud? I felt lost. I was lost.
When I’d had my mom, I could talk to her about these things. She knew me better than anyone did, and to the end, she saw me whole. And even though my life, as it had become, was as foreign to her as eating meat on Friday, she understood me and knew the core of me was the same. And as long as she held that vision of me, I could shelter in that reflection and hold the idea of myself as whole, too. Now that she was gone, the vision had shattered. I felt as if all that was left of me was Clara’s broken daughter, searching for home.
It didn’t help that I knew my mother would want me to be tougher than this. I had grown up hearing stories about Clara and her six sisters, mostly about what hell-raisers they were, especially my aunt Eva and aunt Thelma. Legend had it that Aunt Eva, upon overhearing a woman on a Jersey Shore boardwalk call her a slut, jumped on that woman, beating her so ferociously that several men were required to pull her off. Then there was the time Aunt Thelma chased one of her brothers-in-law down the street, threatening to kick his ass in retaliation for his shooting her sister. My uncle was still holding the gun, but he knew to run from Aunt Thelma.
Another afternoon, Aunt Eva and my mother were in my aunt’s new car with my dad at the wheel, on the way home from a Brooklyn Dodgers game. When their car was tapped from behind, Aunt Eva and my mother jumped out, ready to beat down the man trying to apologize that his car had “simply rolled.” My kindhearted father, knowing what his wife and her sister were capable of, had to
talk them out of hurting the man. After some coaxing, the sisters relented and got back in the car. My aunt was many months pregnant at the time.
My head was filled with stories like these, tales I overheard as the petticoated child who was always hanging on to her mother’s skirt tail. I loved being with my mother, and she loved being with her sisters. In addition to the seven girls, there were four boys. All the girls were proud of being tough, mean, take-no-mess women. They thrilled (and scared) me because they were pretty and pressed, and they could drink and play cards with abandon.
Aunt Thelma; cousin Eddie, holding my brother Larry; and Mom, circa 1943.
But it was clear to me, even at five years old, that I was not like these women. I was more like my father. I enjoyed retreating into the comfort of my own bedroom, where I could spend hours creating fantasies. Alone there, I didn’t have to worry about hiding my tears when my feelings were hurt, or maybe when I was just touched by a kindness, like my friend Louie’s letting me have his turn jumping rope. My aunts tolerated me, but not silently. They let me know that “all that cryin’ and carryin’ on” just was not normal. “She spoiled,” they’d
say to my mother as I sobbed quietly over some ache or other. As the aunts held court around the kitchen table, instructing their sister Clara on how to toughen me up, my mother would simply hold me, pat my back, and pretend I wasn’t crying. Every night when I said my prayers, I would beg God to take away my tears. I was so ashamed of myself.
In a culture where Black women are expected to be tough, hands on hips, wielding words like knives, I had often wondered where I fit in. Much later I began to understand that my aunts’ unsentimental toughness was merely a posture, adopted for their survival. The story of my mother’s family is the story of many Black families in the early part of the last century. They came from a sharecropping background in Little Mountain, South Carolina, and Summit, Georgia. My grandmother’s first husband was killed in a well accident when she was pregnant with her second child, a boy born “slow” whom we knew as Hap. Some speculated that Hap’s intellectual challenges had been caused by trauma in the womb. My grandmother was pretty and light-skinned, and I only say that because it was what attracted her second husband, my coal-colored grandfather, as well as a lot of other male attention, which made Grandpa Charlie violent. “My father was mean, just the meanest thing you’d ever seen in your life,” my mother used to say. “He used to tell us if someone hits you, you make sure you kill ’em.”
My grandmother had eleven children with him, and when he died, she moved the eight younger ones north, joining the older children, who had jobs by then. The move was supposed to make life easier, but things didn’t quite go that way. Early pregnancies, bad marriages, and limited opportunity made my aunts bitter, forcing them to rely on no one but themselves. So they worked extra jobs to send us to a better life, took care of grandchildren long after their best child-rearing days, and watched their own
dreams slip away like dandelion dust as their insides hardened to stone.
Some of their daughters would grow up to have better lives, but things still weren’t easy. As Black women, we weren’t likely to have much of a financial cushion should we fall down. Most of us were still a couple of paychecks away from poverty, so we had to be as competent, resilient, clear eyed, and strong as our mothers were. But did we also have to be as tough as old leather, as sharp-tongued and mean as my aunts had always insisted I should be?
Not long before my mother got sick, I asked her about my grandmother, who died before I was born. She told me that despite her hardships, my grandmother had been a tender woman. “Mama had that mean husband,” she said, “but you know what she would do? On Sunday mornings, she’d let it all out in church.” My mother’s voice trailed off, and I pictured my grandmother standing up in her A.M.E. Church, arms outstretched, knowing someone or something would be there to lift her up, that there was always a place where her pain and suffering would be understood. That, I realized, is why my grandmother always knew she would survive. She knew that when it came right down to it, a strong Black woman could also be tender. Now, reeling in the aftermath of my mother’s death, I clung to that idea for dear life.