This has been a rough year for my family. But even with my financial difficulties and writing struggles, teaching, looking for additional work, my wife in grad school and Noah turning seven, nothing compares to what my mother’s gone through in the past few months. In July, my only sister Sarai passed away at twenty-seven after a lifelong struggle with sickle-cell anemia. Earlier this month, my grandmother — my mother’s mother — died after a battle with cancer and dementia at the age of eighty-three.
That’s difficult enough, to lose your only daughter and your mother three months apart. It became a hardship almost immediately. Neither my sister nor my mother made any preparations for Sarai’s death, funeral or burial. “It cost too much,” my mother said after I asked about next steps the morning Sarai passed. It took three days’ worth of work to get Sarai’s afterlife arrangements done. In the case of my mother’s-side grandmother, they were never close. My mother had been back to Bradley, Arkansas to visit her father and mother only two times since she left for the Bronx and Mount Vernon in ’66. Once in the summer of ’69, when she was pregnant with me. The other was in ’04.
Because my mother married and remarried at an early age, I’ve had a front-row seat for watching her in her twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. My mother has always avoided looking back in her life, reflecting on her mistakes or triumphs, or talking about anything that matters other than God. But one thing that was obvious to me when I went home to 616 and Mount Vernon to help with my late sister’s funeral and cremation arrangements was the sense of regret that I could feel coming out of her body. It wasn’t just grief, mourning, the rage that I’ve seen and felt when others dear to me have died. No, there was a sense of deep, repressed regret, about all the things that could’ve and should’ve happened, but never did.
I heard that same sense of missed opportunity in my mother’s voice a few weeks ago, after my mother called to let me know that my grandmother had passed. I’d only met my grandmother once, when I made arrangements during what I called “my Southern poverty tour” as part of my social justice fellowship job to visit Shreveport, Louisiana and Bradley, Arkansas. So while I didn’t feel much for the woman, I did feel for my mother.
I felt for her because unlike my mother, I’ve said everything that I could’ve left unsaid to her years ago. The family intervention (see “The Intervention,” January 21, 2008) I orchestrated nearly nine years ago. All of the arguments we had when I was growing up. My PhD graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon in ’97. My I love you’s to her now.
I may regret that our relationship isn’t closer, but at least I know why. I certainly regret how I’ve said some of the things I’ve said to my mother over the years, but not the meaning of my words. The only serious regret I have now is not being in a financial position to do more for my mother than I have over the past quarter-century, to make some aspects of her life easier. Still, all I can wish for her is a Happy Birthday, or at least, a day in which she can find peace. Hopefully, one birthday, she’ll have both.