Staring at my computer right now. It’s not talking to me today.
If I had a moment
To live my life again…
There were good times.
“Alright, my baby…” she’d say when calling me to the table for dinner. Two pots of greens on the stove – one with okra, one tiny one without – because I didn’t like okra. I never had to eat what I didn’t like. She’d make extra or she cooked something different – for me.
“Okay, my baby…” you want to play a game tonight?”
And then, when I was older, it was “My Lady”. I was thrilled to be her lady. I felt grown up and appreciated. Her words; “my baby”, “my lady”, made me feel loved.
She was the cab driver, boiler operator, madam, cook, Bingo operator (for the benefit of the church), apartment building manager/troubleshooter, reader, healer, seer, teacher, speaker, gambler and, most precious of all, mother that reigned supreme in my life.
This gun-toting, indolent whirl of angst, brilliance, dance, power, God, spirit and, yes, sometimes hatred, would spit fire as easily as she would kiss. Her emotions – her power, sat on the tip of her tongue impatient to anchor and destroy a new target. There was no mercy. Once incurred her anger was alive, sharp and dedicated to the absolute destruction of whomever had awakened it. She reveled in it. She’d seen death. Maybe she’d killed someone. Maybe; the thought haunted her. She’d survived knife attacks, shoot outs, home invasions, armed robberies; and understood that life at every moment was a fragile gift.
She carried a pearl-handled .38. This is the gun she taught me to shoot when I was 11. We’d go to the furnace room and fire into the coals that were stacked on the floor. They formed a kind of lop-sided triangle of rolling black stones. She taught me about ricochet, noise, and hot flying cartridge shells. She taught me to never fear a gun. This gun was her favorite, but after it was stolen she chose a snub-nosed .38 to replace it.
I watched her perform miracles (really) and wondered how God could work through this cold, angry woman.
But there were those moments when she was afraid or in love, or worse even, hurt. I marveled at her softness then. Vulnerability was foreign to her; frightening to her, but she didn’t try to mask it. She would dive in and find a remedy. She knew the answer would come – if not today then certainly tomorrow. She’d find her way out. Her susceptibility was beautiful – made her beautiful – made her transcendent. Not in the sense of God – no, no. I mean that the love at those times was great, so soft and welcoming that it overpowered everything else. It was pure. Being in her presence was enough; truly sufficient. Nothing else existed. In this place my heart rested. So I kind of understood why everyone loved her so. There was that goodness, that softness, that intelligence about her that would not be denied.
She was God’s child. Like David.
She lived a long time; longer than her friends and almost all of her family. Everyone relied on her for everything – when she let them. “I ain’t goin’ out there. I said I would, but I ain’t”, she’d say. Or, “I don’ give a d– what you want. S—, the devil want s– too, but he ain’ gon git it.” Or my personal favorite (one of them anyway) “As long as you s— between two legs…”. They seemed crasSs to me then, bur now that she’s gone; now that I can’t hear her anymore, they seem funny and completely unanswerable; wholly sufficient to her desired message.
She got older and shifted to just being plain angry. Alzheimers made her angry. Her ability to do columns of math in her head deserted her; her ability to think clearly and quickly escaped. There was no more “Don’t try me. I can think rings around you. I know where you goin’ before you even start.” It was true once, but no more – which frustrated her. This woman, this builder of things and people, could no longer find her her way home, so she told me she was ready to go.
She’d been tired before. Arthritis ate away the vertebrae in her neck. Emphysema clogged her lungs. Cancer invaded the brain and the lungs. Her bowels locked, resulting in severe constipation. High blood pressure caused her nose to bleed, and her to pass out. Lymphomas grew throughout her body. Medications did not help. Trips to the hospital resulted in temporary relief. But she fought back. She knew death was coming and occasionally invited him in; but then she would fight back. She had to stay, she said, for me. Her battle extended from the physical to the spiritual; she began to fight everyone as she out distanced the final act – she would stay. But then she fell, breaking her hip. The pain was great. Her disappointment in life unconquerable. She warned me.
Then she left me. A couple of days before she passed I sat in the hospital room and watched her play with her visions. I watched her smile for the first time in ages. I saw her determination to slip away.
This woman and one other I know willed themselves to die. She, first, willed herself to live, then later willed herself to die. Her choice; not doctors, nor family and friends; not death. Her choice.
There is another. Another woman who, born on the edge of slavery knew suffering. She, too, was a fighter. She preferred to fight people (particularly policemen) more than anything else. She too was a woman of God. She was humorous, alive, devilish. I met her when I was a pre-teen.
She came to live with us because she was old and living alone on a hill in Alabama. She still carried her laundry down the hill and to the laundry on her head; she brought her groceries home the same way – on her head, but up the hill. She lived in a house with a wood burning stove and an outside potty. None of her children visited or ensured her safety. So to Detroit she came.
I didn’t recognize anything about her. I didn’t know what to think of her; I only knew what I had heard. So I settled on not thinking or feeling anything at all. She was just there. But time changed all that.
We shared a bedroom, she and I, sleeping on twin beds on opposing sides of the room. I slowly became responsible for her comfort, which I didn’t mind at all. She felt right. That’s the only way I can explain it. She felt right. So I made her bed, put her clothes away. That was all she needed. A clean bed and clean clothes.
I remember sitting at the dinner table with instructions to not let her eat until the table was fully set. And she needed to be watched because she was ill equipped (toothless) to chew some of the things on the table (corn on the cob, for instance). But she was hungry and she liked corn on the cob, so every time Betty’s back was turned she’d grab a cob and bite into it. Winking at me she’d put it back on the platter and hide her hands under the table. Innocent. Laughing eyes. Gumming the kernels so fast I thought surely she’d choke. Betty entered the room with the bowl of greens, saying to just let her get the cornbread and everybody could eat- after we blessed the table. Granny waited, hands in lap holding a pork chop she’d slipped off the table – staring at me and gumming, gumming the biscuit she’d grabbed and bitten into while Betty was still in the kitchen. I couldn’t help it – I lost it, which caused my stepfather who was sitting across the table from me to lose it too.
Betty figured out what happened and, well – what could she do? She cleaned up Granny’s lap and sat us all down to eat. She laughed a little too. Who wouldn’t?
Granny crawled into bed with me many nights (she was older, and having bladder problems so she’d wet her bed). I’d scoot close to the wall, she’d rest an arm over me and back to sleep we’d both go. There was at least one night that went slightly differently, though. I was dreaming of rain, my umbrella and wet rain boots. I wondered why the rain was so warm. I saw myself kicking the rain puddles away as I enjoyed the falling water, and admiring the umbrella as it barely kept me dry. Why? How was I getting wet? The rain suddenly turned cold around me and seemed to be soaking me through. I wakened. Granny wakened, too. We were both drowning in a pool of water swiftly overtaking the bed – and us.
I jumped. Granny jumped. She stood there in a soaking wet white nightgown, red skin glowing, wooley white hair atop her head, flat to the side she slept on, angled toward the ceiling. She shouted I’d peed on her. I’d wet the bed. Ooooh, Granny!! I got her back onto her bed, told her to wait there. I changed my bed, then changed her bed (it was less wet than mine – much less wet)- then I got us washed and changed into clean and dry bed clothes. She laughed at me “You dun wet da’ bed”. “Goodnight Granny”. We assumed our positions; me facing the wall, her behind me with one arm thrown across my waist. We slept. From that moment she was mine – Granny.
A few years later I was pregnant. She was in the nursing home because she had attacked Betty. No one told her about the pregnancy. She reached out from her wheelchair, rubbed my belly and said, “Po lil ol’ thang. He sick, but he gon’ be alright. He gon’ be alright”. I had a boy. He was sick. And forty years later, after a terrible struggle, he is alright.
They tied her to the wheel chair because she would hit her roommate and wouldn’t stay out of the bed of the man across the hall from her. He was her boyfriend, she said. He didn’t know who she was, he just wished she’d stay out of his bed. She would hit him when he didn’t respond appropriately to her advances. “Help!!” the staff would hear him call. “Somebody come get her! Get her outta here.” So they strapped her to her chair. That didn’t stop her, though. She’d just take it with her. We’d visit and the staff and residents would be in an uproar. Sometimes we’d hear her – and the chair – clump, clumping along the halls trying to get to the old man or the roommate who wouldn’t clean herself up. “You stankin’ B—” she’d say as she hit the lady in the head (or whatever body part she could reach after being tied to the chair). She’d kick the lady. She didn’t like dirt or smells. At eighty-odd years old, she could spot a thread on the carpet. She’d pick it up, put it in her pocket and then forget it. Sometimes she’d talk to it, though; telling it to stay right there.
She liked brown liquor so we’d sneak her whiskey and bourbon. The doctor finally determined there was no reason to withhold her liquor, she was old enough to enjoy her life; so we openly brought the bottles to her. The staff told us when she needed more. Grammy rewarded us by smacking her lips and a loud, elongated, throaty “Ahhhhhhh.”
To end their own misery, the nursing home staff tied her to her bed. Padded shackles held her arms and, eventually her legs in place.
The end began with her wails to be released; pulling at the ties. Less than two weeks later she was gone. They said it was pneumonia. Betty said it was her will. I believe Betty. Why wouldn’t I?
One’s death informed the other’s life. Betty was terrified of being placed in a nursing home. The hospital could not care for her; she fought, she cursed and hit everyone. The nurse called – she was being discharged, her behavior was disruptive, combative. She had to go. I found a nursing home near me and the hospital discharged her to that facility. She fought harder. She ran away. She wouldn’t eat their food. She would face death; but not here, not on these terms. Finally, she was discharged to an Adult Facility. She did slightly better there, but still had problems. She found a boyfriend there and told the other ladies to watch themselves; after all, she could take their men any time she wanted. She pulled up her dress to show him, and them, her legs. “You don’ know who you messin’ with. S—-.”
But then she fell, broke her hip. It was time. Under her terms. In her way.
Two women who liked their lives, who did not want to be controlled no matter the course or the reason. Two women who created the circumstances and the rode consequences of the lives they were given.
They decided for themselves when and how. If you have to live, if you have to die, why not choose; why not measure the full weight of both and charge – full steam – without shame… with God?