I was four years old when my mother died and, yet, I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a vital part of my everyday life. I’d be lying if I said I remember the soft contours of her heart-shaped face, or the way the sun reflected gold in her amber eyes. I don’t even remember the snort in her laughter when she’d won an argument and walk away. But, it would be a bigger lie if I said I don’t remember her at all: I do remember…I remember much!
I remember the soft nasal tone of her husky voice and the many ways her eyes would say I love you without her lips ever uttering a word. I remember the warm, soothing touch of her lotion-soft hands and the sweet smell of roses whenever she walked by, and her special love for black walnut ice cream, drenched in molasses or dark Karo syrup. But, there is so much more of my mother to remember than her silky-soft touch and weird taste in foods, like her passion and zeal, and unrelenting courage…like the illness that tested her courage with pain.
I remember the many trials of my mother’s illness and the tiredness that drained her day by day—the hateful disease that stole her life, and the maliciously slow path it took to do it. My mother wasn’t graced to die all at once; instead, she was diminished in body parts and stages, with the glimmer of light fading from her eyes and a distant stare that all but replaced it. Her illustrious mane of flaxen curls became likened to blanched and brittle straw; the citric scent that had once imbued it gave way to the smell of old medicine and sweat.
But, what I remember most is my mother’s voice and the hollow sound of her calling my name; the dark echo of sadness and inflection of loss that overshadowed her voice every time she called it….
“Gelibean! Honey, where are you? Gelibean! Come here!”
Momma could barely speak above a whisper; yet, I always heard her—loud and clear—no matter where I was or how softly she called me. I would race through the house at break-neck speed, not wanting her to wear out her voice (which had become increasingly raspy and strained), and would stop just short of jumping on the bed into her weak—but waiting—outstretched arms.
I would climb up on the bed, being ever so careful not to shake it, and snuggle up to her, close and tight, unconsciously drinking in the stale and subtle stench of her dying flesh that Auntie Rose had attempted to freshen with the soft scent of Rose Petals toilet water, or one of momma’s favorite talcum powders or perfumes.
In all the years that have passed and gone, with memories hidden in the shadows of dreams, I still remember that ubiquitous smell: The sweetened stench of perfumed decay. Yet, as I envision her smile often clouded by tears—that spark in her eyes struggling fiercely to remain—I choose to find comfort in the memory of that smell, and in the memory of the warm, fragile body that gave it.
Momma used to gather my small body in her skeletal arms and crush me in the folds of them. She would hold me so tight that it would seem my breath was being snuffed right out of me, but I never struggled to get away. I realized that as much as I was afraid of her holding me so tight, she was just as afraid of letting me go. I remember thinking if she kept holding me like that, so tight to her chest, it would one day cave in and her bones would break, and it would be my fault for wanting—and allowing—her to hold me so close in the first place. But as time went on, I began to realize something more, something that confused me and made me ashamed: I realized I was becoming afraid…afraid of my own mother! And, that frightened me more than anything!
My fears were the kind that only a young child would have…the kind that an adult could never imagine or dream of, but to one so small—and, especially, bright—those fears were the very sum of possibilities.
The problem was…I was afraid my mother would die with me still in her arms and no one would be able to pry me out, or that if she died holding me, I might smother and die with her and no one would know that I had died. I was even more afraid that if she looked into my eyes long enough—hard enough, and deep enough—she would know just how afraid I was, and she’d be hurt because I was afraid of her.
Momma must have sensed all of my fears or, maybe, my fears were no different than her own for she, soon, started holding me—not quite as tight—reassuring me of her eternal love!
Once again, momma’s arms became my haven of comfort, a place where the world felt safe and warm. Her promises were the rock that I learned to stand on until that day when I’d be strong enough to stand on my own.
A week before my mother passed, she found me sitting at the foot of her bed, sobbing and crying as though the whole world was crashing in around me and coming to an end. A world was coming to an end…my world! My world as I had known it with momma and Uncle Reesie and Auntie Rose and Mama Louise and Tyler and Sara Paris. None of these people mattered anymore if momma wasn’t going to be there to enjoy them with me, and she wasn’t…I knew she wasn’t.
Even I could see how weak she was—so feebly fragile and so deathly frail. Yet, like everyone else, I couldn’t imagine losing her. I couldn’t imagine the day when she would no longer be there…no longer holding my hand or drying my tears, or making all that was wrong with my world right, again! The very thought of it was more than my four-year-old heart could bear, and so I sat there—at the foot of her bed—lost in the anguish of my own sorrow and pain, crying until I couldn’t cry anymore.
Momma’s sleep was not to be disturbed…I knew it, everybody knew it! It was the one law that Uncle Reesie laid down and was determined to carry out. Even the grand Grand Myra was no exception to this rule; neither was Auntie Rose, and neither was I. Momma’s restlessness rendered her very little rest as it was, her sleep being measured and fitful, at best. Yet, there I was at the foot of her bed, crying…secretly willing her to awaken and comfort me.
“Angelica…sweetie, is that you? I can’t see you, honey. Are you there?”
I pretended not to be there…not to hear momma calling. I pretended to be invisible at the foot of her bed. I hadn’t meant to disturb her—really I hadn’t, but my whole world was being disturbed (and slowly unraveling) and there was nothing anyone could do to change it.
I watched—peeking at her over the foot of the bed—as she made a courageous attempt to sit up, exhausting herself in the painful process. I could, clearly, hear the strain of alarm in her voice, though there was a dangerously low reserve of voice left. “Please, Gelibean…come here to momma. Tell momma…why are you crying like that?”
Momma’s voice, though already weak, became even weaker from laboring with those few words. I couldn’t help but wonder—in the way that a four year old would wonder—how many more words she would get to say before she wouldn’t have anymore words at all. I knew that I had to do something to keep her from talking; yet—God, help me—I was afraid for her to stop.
Slowly, I walked around to my mother’s side of the bed and lifted my face up to hers. I, then, did something I’d never done before: I looked straight into her eyes and lied. “I-sh-shut my finger in that u-ugly door,” I whimpered, while lifting my finger for her to kiss. It was what she’d always done when I’d hurt myself…she’d try to kiss the hurt away. Only, this time, there was no hurt other than that which was piercing my heart. She couldn’t kiss my heart where the hurt really was, so I allowed my mother to kiss my finger…I allowed my mother to kiss a lie!
An hour would pass before I would stop crying, before I’d lock the pain away…deep inside. I had cried for the fear that was tormenting my heart…for the loneliness that I could not escape, I had cried for a mother that was slowly fading, and I had cried, even harder, for the kiss of a lie!
It was a cold, brisk day on the brink of a new year that I awoke with a surreal feeling of dreaminess, and an unsettling feeling of unnatural calm. I wasn’t sure if I was still asleep or half awake as I climbed out of my bed and placed my feet on a floor that felt too warm to the touch. I couldn’t understand why the floor wasn’t cold to my feet as always, and with the exuberant innocence of one barely four, I found myself excited with the simple pleasure of being able to walk barefooted...of not having to wear any socks or slippers.
It would be a moment longer before I would be able to adjust my eyes to the fierce brightness that enveloped the room, and focus my sight on a lady dressed in the most dazzling white, standing directly to the right of my bed. I was amazed that I could see her and, yet, see right through her at the same time. I was even more amazed that the glorious brightness that engulfed my room—and the radiance of warmth that filled it seemed to emanate directly from her and settle on everything that encompassed her space. Even the dust mites danced on the electrically charged air, shimmering with the brilliance of silver and gold.
“Are you an Angel?” I asked, barely able to hear my own voice, knowing that something extraordinary was happening without fully understanding what…or why. “Did you come all the way from Heaven? Did you come from heaven to see me?”
The Lady in White, almost as tall as the ceiling was high, looked at me with the same bemusement that I looked at her, only there was this fire that seemed to dance in the depths of her mercurial eyes—eyes that seemed to have a life of their own. Momma would have called them mischievous eyes—eyes that get into too much stuff!
I immediately lost myself in those multifaceted eyes and became engulfed with awareness that those eyes had seen everything and would, indeed, see even more.
I was taken aback by a profound feeling that the Lady in White could see everything that was going on, not just in my little world, but in the whole wide world…all at once! Neither was it lost on me that she was able to see everything at the same time that she was looking directly into my eyes. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew.
If eyes are truly windows to one’s soul, then her soul was endless in its wisdom and depth…in its knowledge of things, both, past…and to come.
The Lady in White never opened her mouth to speak and, yet, I clearly heard the words, “Follow me,” in a whisper as musical as the words were firm, and then she was gone…simply, disappeared.
In that moment, I knew exactly where I would find her and, suddenly, I knew exactly why she had come. She had come because it was time…it time for my mother to go home with God.
Momma’s face was no longer the face of my mother, but a shrunken shadow of what her face had once been. But, like most children, my eyes adjusted quickly to shadows, and beyond the shadows to see the beauty within.
It was no secret to me that my mother was dying, it seemed I had known it all of my life. She had done all that she could to prepare me for it; still I wasn’t quite prepared as I entered her room.
“Momma…you got light in you,” I said, as I ran towards her bed, pondering the glow that surrounded her face, and the light that danced in her unusually bright eyes.
I climbed unto momma’s bed and placed my head on her sunken chest. I immediately felt a tingle of energy tickling my scalp; making little crackling sounds in my hair, while tap-dancing up and down my spine.
The luminous light in the far corner of her room was shining so brightly that everything in the room took on an unearthly glow. And, though I was not privileged to see the Lady in White again, I somehow knew that she was in the midst of that brilliant light, and that momma would soon be going into it.
I turned my attention from the light towards momma and—now barely able to find my own voice—began whispering, “Momma, are you going to die? Are you going to die…today?”
Momma lifted my head from her sunken chest, and took my face in her weak and flaccid hands. “What kind of question is that, Gelibean?” she asked, with a slight twinkle of a smile in her eyes, while the bones in her hands pressed slightly against my face. “What kind of out-in-the-left-field ballpark question is that?”
Looking at me more intently and seeing the longing for an answer in my eyes, momma put on her more serious face and sighed. “Angelica…no one ever truly dies…you know that. They simply move on to another place, a more beautiful place…a place where there’s no pain…no hurt…no sickness…no death.”
“Do all people go there, momma? Is that where I’m going…when I get old and die?”
“Who’s old,” Momma asked, with that twinkle in her eye! “Look…honey…I don’t know about all people, all I know is…that’s where the good people go. And you, my sweetest of sweets, are one of the goodest people I know!” Momma pulled me closer and nuzzled my cheek, pouring all the love in the world into that one small act of affection.
Stepping back, just a little, I once again looked up into her face…hoping my face looked as serious as any adult’s. “Momma,” I whispered, “is that where you’re going? Are you going to heaven to live with God?”
Momma looked straight into my eyes without wavering—without the faintest hint of sadness or fear. “Tell me, Gelibean…what do you think? Tell me what you feel in your heart.”
This was all my fault. Asking all those stupid questions. I wanted to act like a grown-up and ask questions like a grown-up, and now I didn’t want to be a grown-up anymore. I wanted to be a little girl: My momma’s little girl. Full of laughter and giggles and tickles and funny stories like she always told. And I wanted her to laugh and giggle with me. But, it seemed her laughter was all dried up, and had been for a long time, now.
I stole one last glance at the brilliant light in the far corner of momma’s room…and without a doubt I knew…I knew the answer to the question I had asked.
“You will, momma,” I whispered in her ear. “I know you will. You will go to heaven with God!”
Momma continued to smile that ambivalent smile as her gleaming eyes poured deep into mine. I was flooded with the profound feeling of one being lifted high above the clouds and soaring through the universe. I could no longer feel the weight of my body or limbs, just an airy sensation that felt dream-like and strange.
“Momma,” I whispered, “where are we going? Are we going…? Are we going to heaven…today?”
Momma probably would have laughed if she hadn’t been so weak. Instead, she looked towards the far corner of the room, where the light was now exploding and pulsating (as though she’d known it was there all along), and slowly looked back at me and smiled, again. “Not you, my Gelibean,” she said ever so softly. “Not you, my sweetie. Not you…today.”
Momma took my small hands and kissed the palms of them. “Enough about heaven and all that stuff,” she said, “how about we play our special game?”
Momma had made up a ‘Who loves you’ game when I was just a baby, and we would always play it when she or I was sad or feeling low. It was the one way we knew to comfort one another, and so to answer the pleading in her eyes, I looked down at our hands (interlocked together), attempted a smile, and nodded my head.
“Who loves you, Gelibean?” Momma asked. This was how we started our game. “Who loves you more than anything?”
“You do…you do!” I responded, knowing that these were the magic words.
“And who’s always going to love you, my Gelibean? Even when the sun stops turning all the grapes to raisins, and the roses start smelling like daffodils?”
I clapped my hands and answered, beaming, “You are…you are my sweetest Momma! You’re going to love me always!”
I fell across momma’s bed in playful laughter! She, too, managed a weak laugh that abruptly broke into a wheezing cough! At this point I didn’t really want to play anymore, but at the same time I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want momma to get any sicker, yet I enjoyed it so much when she played our game. She played so little with me these days; in fact, these days she did little more than sleep.
It was her decision to continue on and so we played a little while longer….
“And who’s going to always be the sweetest jellybean girl…more than all the jellybeans in the whole wide world?”
“I AM! I AM!” I shouted with excitement! “I’M THE SWEETEST JELLYBEAN GIRL!”
“And…who’s going to be with you, always and forever…forever and ever and ever and ever?” Momma’s voice was becoming a mere croak of a whisper; but, still…so full of tenderness…of promise…of hope.
I opened my mouth to say, ‘You are,’ but nothing came out. No words, no voice, no sound…nothing. Suddenly, I found myself overwhelmed by a discomforting quiet as palpable as any living force. It pervaded the room like a warm hushed wind before the onslaught of a summer storm. All I could do was look down at my hands; no more clapping, no more games.
In the time it takes a cloud to overcast the sun and proceed to send forth a chilling rain, a nervous jitter began to form in the pit of my stomach, and warm tears began to trickle down my face. I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting my mother, but neither could I say the words that she so desperately wanted me to say. “G-God is,” I attempted to answer. “GOD IS!” I managed to scream, forcing out the words as I slowly began to back away.
Momma, almost falling from her bed, reached out and gently caught hold of my hand. With great tenderness, she lifted my face towards hers. “Who else, Gelibean?” Momma insisted. “Who else is going to be with you forever?”
I stared past my mother, not wanting to answer…not wanting to tell another lie! I knew what I was supposed to say…of course, I knew. After all, we’d only played this game a hundred times! It was her and my special game, but I didn’t want to play it anymore, not when momma knew she was dying…not when I knew the game would die along with her!
Frowning my face to make it look as fierce as I could, I began to scream with all my might, hoping that everyone in the whole house would hear me.
“NOBODY IS! NO…STUPID…BODY!”
Momma, suddenly—without any help at all—sit straight up and stared at me. But, I continued to have my tantrum; not caring, even, if I woke the dead!
“NOBODY is going to be with me FOREVER because EVERY STUPID BODY is going to DIE…and I’m going to be BY MY STUPID SELF…and NOBODY is going to BE WITH ME! NOT GOD…NOT TYLER…NOT YOU! NOT NOBODY!
Having emptied and exhausted myself with my tirade, I flopped to the floor beside by mother’s bed…feeling lost, and totally deflated.
For the first time since my mother had taken a turn for the worse, I had voiced (and acknowledged) my greatest fear…that of my own mortality…and everyone else around me.
If momma was dying, and, Tyler, my best friend—a little kid just like me—was sick (and getting sicker by the day), where did that leave me? What would become of me? Would I, too, someday—all of a sudden, for no reason at all—become sick like momma…weak like momma…look like momma? Was I doomed to succumb to some terrible sickness that would reduce me to a hollow shell of my normal self and take me away from those I love?
Would I, eventually, lose everybody to sickness and death? Would I, eventually, be left all alone in this world just to remember those who were, but are no more? Is that the way it was meant to be…love and family for a little while and, then, POOF, you’re all alone? This wasn’t right! I was just a little girl, for God’s sake! How could I possibly be expected to live on in this world without my mother? I didn’t want this…I didn’t ask for this…this wasn’t right…THIS WASN’T FAIR!
I scampered down from my mother’s bed, falling almost headfirst to the floor, and ran—as fast as I could—from her room, barely missing the bedroom door. I was so afraid of losing her—of losing everyone, terrified at the thought of being left alone, that I ran, aimlessly, down the long corridors of our house, without the faintest clue of where I was headed! I just wanted to run and run and run…until there was no where left to run to; only, to run and run and run, some more!
I was so angry with momma for being so sick for so long, and for not trying not to die. How could she just lie there and wait for death like Snow White waiting for some handsome prince? I knew all about it! She’d read it to me. Now, she was doing the same thing, only Snow White’s prince woke her up. Who was going to wake up momma?
I wanted to tear out my eyes and never cry another tear for her…never say another prayer for her, since she just wanted to lie there and die! Yet, I couldn’t help myself, crying was the only thing I could do. I sure couldn’t save her and I sure couldn’t make death go away! Oh, how I loved my mother…how I loved her so very much!
I must have screamed and cried myself into a frenzy of pure exhaustion, for I was soon curled up and sound asleep under my weeping willow tree—the pink ribbon still tied to a branch, waving proudly to announce my birth. It had always been my special place…my place of quiet and solitude…a special place just for me.
Uncle Reesie would have known where to look and find me, and so he did—he must have—because when I opened my eyes, I was right back in my mother’s arms, safe and feeling secure, again.
It was now dark and momma was sound asleep but, even in her sleep, I knew she was aware that I nestled close beside her; and I knew that, somehow, it gave her a special sense of security as well.
I kissed momma on her hollow cheek and adjusted my head in the crook of her arm. There would be another time for anger, fear, and crocodile tears, and maybe even enough time to say, Goodbye. But, now, was not the time, and so I slept…peacefully.
I don’t pretend momma is alive anymore. I know she isn’t. I watched her die. I watched her fade away—breath-by-breath, strength-by-strength, day-by-day—until she barely appeared to be with us at all. It was like watching the very essence of life being sucked away; slowly diminishing like the fragrance of a rare and precious flower, until the only thing left was the memory of a fragrance that had—long ago—lost its ability to tantalize the most acute of senses. But, even, a memory can prove to be more potent than that which the memory preserves: This was so true of my mother.
It was the very beginning of New Year’s Day that my mother and I danced our sacred dance of goodbyes. We danced away the cares of this world for one brief moment and, once again, enjoyed the union of just us.
In her bed, with my arms tucked around her neck, our bodies swayed in unison to the sound of a distant music that only we could hear…only we could feel. It was music from the halls of eternity, music of angels that must have spanned universes to reach us for this fragile moment. Then, as quickly and quietly as it had come, like a snowflake melting on a warm gentle breeze, I sensed her music fading away.
Momma opened her eyes…slowly…searching—looking over my face—looking for me. I was right there in her arms, still clinging to the frame of her body in dance and praying that the angel would give us just a moment more. But, I was losing ground and I knew it. It was but a matter of time before my momma would succumb to the dance of eternal sleep, never to dance with me again.
A calm so tranquil and so sweet as to be almost otherworldly descended upon the room and permeated the air. I was filled with awe at the transition that my mother was making, while everyone around me—with bitter sorrow—wept. Maybe, they didn’t understand that death was just the beginning, but I did…momma had told me. It had taken me a while to understand what momma had been trying so hard to explain to me, but in the end…well, I think I was beginning to understand.
Momma had told me that death—it was the easy part, it was living that was so hard. She often said people feared it because it forced them to move beyond that which is known to that which is unknown, and it was the not knowing that made people fear it so. But, she wasn’t the least bit afraid, she wasn’t afraid of anything! She had hurt so hard for so long that she welcomed the release from such relentless pain. She wanted to just fly away like a butterfly and leave the old cocoon behind.
Momma often said Reese and I were the only reason she hung on so dearly to life, but in the end her pain was what helped us to let her go. I wanted to see her smile again instead of grimacing in unbearable pain; hear her laugh out loud instead of in that hoarse, raspy whisper of a tormented grunt. She could do neither on this side of life, but she could do it all if we’d just let her go.
I could see the light of her eyes growing steadily dim, as she fought to hold on to the last breath of life. “Angelica…look…can you see them? Can you see them…over there…in the corner…by the light?”
The questions were asked, but no answers came; the room, itself, had become entombed with silence. The quiet—a palpable force in the air, too hushed for my tender heart to comprehend—frightened me. The electrical currents of unspoken words charged the atmosphere with the shock of an unrecoverable loss. And for no reason that I could understand, I suddenly felt the urge to cry.
“Are you alright, momma?” I whispered, putting my face close to hers. Momma, are you alright?”
I needed so badly for momma to see me. I needed her to know that I was still there. “Can you see me, momma? Momma? Please…open your eyes…please, momma, see me.”
Momma opened her eyes, briefly, on that New Year’s Day, while our inaudible music played, faintly. She spoke haltingly—in brief splashes of words—determined, even then, to comfort me. “Remember…the butterfly, Gelibean. We…like the caterpillar…leave cocoon…butterfly…fly away.”
Momma started coughing uncontrollably, hungrily gasping for breaths of air and, yet, she still refused to let go. I tried to think of what I could do to help her, but nothing came to mind. And, then, I remembered our little poem, the one about the butterfly; the one she’d written about dying…and death.
I rested my small face on her sunken cheek and spoke ever so softly into her ear:
“ We leave the cocoon like the butterfly,
We spread our wings…and away we fly.”
Momma shifted slightly, snuggling me closer to her body and, in the brittle whisper of one fighting for air, she joined me in the last two verses of the poem she’d written and spoken to me so many times…
“In…this life (momma searches for air)…there are…no goodbyes… For…No One…(a tear escapes her eye though, now, she smiles)…
NO ONE (she repeats…her eyes searching mine)…
Ever…(she gasp for one last breath…and whispers)…Truly Dies.”And, then—smiling the most serene of smiles—momma closed her eyes and died.