My mama is convinced that we would be better off if she were dead.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my parent’s den, watching television with my daughter when suddenly, we heard a loud wail erupt from my parent’s room. We were both startled, but didn’t get up; the sound had become familiar. For the past several months, my mama has been prone to bouts of crying, which is strange, given that for most of my life, I’d rarely seen (or heard) her cry. Not when her parents died, or when she had a stillborn baby, (I was eleven at the time), or when she broke her ankle twice in the same place. She always carried her grief stoically and without comment.
My dad has always been the crier in our family. The first time I remember hearing him cry was when I was a kid. He had taken us, (I have a younger sister Angie), to see E.T. and I heard someone sniffling at the end of our row during the scene were E.T. is finally going home. I remember being shocked: My dad, crying at a movie about an ugly alien? No way! But years later, we cried together when we watched Dr. Zhivago. It was near the end of the movie, when Yuri finally sees Lara again as she is walking down a crowded street. He gets off the bus to stop her, and promptly has a heart attack and falls out. She never sees him reaching out for her on the street as he takes his last breath. It is one of the saddest scenes in movie history, and dad and I cried like colicky babies. I remember my mom laughing at us, “What are y’all crying about? It’s just a movie.” I also remember him crying at my Grandma Sis’s funeral, and when my mom broke her ankle for the second time. He also cried after mama’s stroke in 2012, and that is also when my mama began to cry.
She didn’t start the wailing until much later, probably around 2015. By this time, she’d had the stroke (which was mild, but left her unable to walk), been misdiagnosed with liver cancer, correctly diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and gained back a bit of the weight she’d lost in healthier times. She’s had diabetes since the early 1980s, so we were used to dealing with that, but these new afflictions left us weary, and my mama downtrodden and depressed.
When the most recent round of wailing started a couple of months ago, we thought it was because she was grieving over the death of her best friend Gloria, who had recently passed away from a rare form of cancer. I’d known Gloria most of my life, and I was more angry than sad that she was dead. She’d had a medical procedure that left her with limited cognitive abilities in the 1990s, so when she started complaining that she was ill, no one believed her until the cancer had metastasized and was terminal. But she loved “her Ann” and called my mama every day, even when she was in treatment. I knew that mama missed Gloria, and had taken her death hard.
That night, as we tried not to listen, I heard my mama say to my dad in gasps and starts as she tried to catch her breath, “It would have been better if I had died four years ago.”
My dad, in the softest voice his 6’5″, 250 pound frame can muster, responds, “Don’t you know how much it would hurt me if you were gone?” Mama stops crying for a minute, and then starts again, now upset that she’s hurt dad’s feelings. Dad continues to talk to her, although we can no longer hear what they are saying. I don’t want to hear anymore anyway. Eventually, she calms down. My daughter and I glance at each other briefly, and believing that things are now okay, we go back to watching our television show. Crisis averted.
Last week, my daughter sends me a text message saying that mama told Angie that she’s giving her all of her perfume. My heart rate quickens and I refuse to say what I’m thinking: “Is she trying to will herself to die?” My mama has been threatening to die on us for years, and we’ve reassured her that she’ll probably outlive us all. Now though, I’m not so sure. Does she really want to die? My mama is old school; she loves her perfume and when she could still wear them, high-heeled pumps. She believed in dressing up to go to the doctor, and a spritz or two of Estée Lauder Beautiful, or Ralph Lauren Romance was part of her daily ritual. When I was a kid, she used talcum powder too, (so did my grandmama), but that’s one habit we’ve gotten her to break. These days, Michele, the home health aide, gives her a little spray after she bathes her. Mama giving up her perfume is like Oprah giving up bread. As long as she’s alive, it’s not going to happen.
A few minutes after getting the text message, Angie calls me and tells me that yes, mama did offer her the perfume, but she refused to take it.
“Is mama really trying to will herself to die?”
“Girl, I don’t know. I think she’s just having a rough time right now.” Angie doesn’t sound too worried, so I relax. She’s the “complete meltdown in a crisis” type, so if she’s okay, then things can’t be that bad. Still, I’d had a moment of panic.
I’m the level-headed one in the family: able to make rational decisions under pressure, calm mama down when she is having a bad day, make sure everyone is fed and the house clean, (just call me Hazel), which is why they always call me when something is wrong. Up until recently, mama also thought I could help her walk, as if my mere presence could give her the strength to get up. This probably stems from her first round of physical therapy after the second broken ankle (or was it the first broken ankle?). I’d take her to therapy and walk around the track with her, encouraging her to keep going even when she didn’t feel like it. Perhaps my no-nonsense approach to her recovery had helped her then. The realization that maybe I’ve lost some of my super Black girl powers might be at the root of her wailing. I’ve known for a while that I can’t help mama walk this time, her legs are too weak and her ankles too brittle. She didn’t do well at physical therapy after the stroke. But she had hope. Ever since the stroke, she’s talked about the time when she would walk again, when she and dad would do the things they loved to do, like their wedding anniversary road trips. They’ve driven to Niagara Falls, along the Great Smokey Mountain Parkway, and even to Key West (I can’t believe they didn’t invite us to Key West!). Now, she seems to have lost hope, and although we all knew she would never walk again, (and sometimes tried to tell her), we always held on to the notion that she would regain some of her strength and at least be able to stand up.
“If she could just stand and pivot, we could do so much more,” Dad would say. Now, the goal is to just clear the bed for a few seconds.
My parents are both 71 years old, mama two weeks older than dad. I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that the elders in our family lived long, relatively healthy lives. My paternal grandmama and great-aunts lived well into their nineties, and my great-aunt Fancy is still living it up at 99 years old. She even calls to check on my parents. My mama’s side of the family lived well into their late eighties. It doesn’t seem feasible that either of my parents will pass away anytime soon, but I know that’s just denial talking. Mama’s grieving over the loss of her mobility is like reliving the past; we thought we’d dealt with it and made relative peace with her disabilities and health problems. In time, we hired someone to come in and help with mama’s baths and daily care, so dad doesn’t have to do everything by himself, although he still paints her nails himself. My daughter lives with them in Georgia, so even though she is dealing with her own health issues, she is able to cook and run errands for them.
When I think about it now though, mama didn’t seem to grieve at all after the stroke, or even after the congestive heart failure diagnosis. She accepted everything relatively quietly, as is her way. Even now, most days she is okay, except for the occasional wail, which I now believe is an outpouring of grief, or maybe anger. I don’t think she really wants to die, although I do believe that she has lost hope of ever walking again, or returning to the life of travel that she and my dad had hoped to continue in their retirement. I’m not sure why it has taken her so long to vocalize her emotions, or why that vocalization has taken this form. She hasn’t really been able to explain it. I guess it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that she is alive, surrounded by loving and devoted family and friends. I’m still a little startled when she cries, and I know that she’ll continue to have bad days. It’s okay; she’s still here, and perhaps her wailing is a way to remind us of that.