Friday, July 8th, 2022
Thank you so much for hearing me out and letting me vent yesterday! I have to admit, as challenging as it was to express what I was going through, it helped out tremendously in the grand scope of things. I guess I didn’t realize how much I needed this outlet, Mama. It’s like I’ve gotten too used to not having you around and I mean…I don’t know. Like I said yesterday, I’ve been putting this off for years. For that, I owe you and myself an apology.
Today I woke up in a better mood, Mama. But trust and believe…I’m still over it. And your soul is the strongest energy I’m connected to that I can fully trust with my emotions like this. Mama, I miss you so much. For the most part, it feels like you’re the only one who can truly understand my eternal grief.
I say ‘for the most part’ because, honestly, I’ve felt the love and protection from many others that I’ve considered ‘ministering angels’ throughout life without you. Ministering angels who I know in my heart were sent by you or God.
Yesterday, as I finished my ranting session about the water, I gathered myself and took a deep breath. I told myself I needed to be strong and deal with the outage like a man. And I tried to do exactly that, Mama. I know that men should never be sensitive or emotional about life struggles. That’s how we’re raised in society – and our family bloodline created the same atmosphere. That’s no secret.
Yeah, I was triggered yesterday and my PTSD was getting the best of me. But still, after I finished bleeding out my feelings and opening up…I didn’t feel strong AT ALL, Mama. I felt weak as hell, especially as I sat on the toilet proofreading what I had typed out to you. I felt anxiety and shame – telling myself that I should’ve just sucked it up and bottled my feelings in, like I normally do in these situations.
But Mama, I was over it and I had to reach out. I’m glad I did, because I know you heard me. I know you heard me because as I sat on the toilet with nervousness about how much water I’d have to use to flush the toilet…suddenly, out the blue, I received a wellness text message from Mama Sodamade.
Mama Sodamade is my mother-in-law who I’m absolutely sure doubles as one of the ministering angels sent to watch over me. Yesterday, she somehow felt my spirit and reached out to check on me. She sent a prayer and words of encouragement to remind me that God is not done with me yet – and I needed to feel that energy more than you know, Mama. I’ve known for a while now that you and God work through her, and I am beyond thankful.
At the same time, Mama, I’ve always wondered how you would feel about me showing love, honor, and respect to another woman as a mother figure. Yesterday, as I read Mama Sodamade’s text prayer, I was reminded of earlier days in life when this used to weigh on my heart extremely heavily. Let’s go back to that summer of ’92…
As the summer was coming to an end, I was dealing with anxiety and embarrassment heading into my 8th grade year at Blewett Middle School. On one hand, I had developed a sense of comfort in my ‘new’ school, because for the first time in a long time, I would be returning to the same school I was enrolled in the year before. I had a couple of good friends at Blewett, and I was finally starting to feel somewhat included. But on the other hand, I also recognized that part of the reason I was feeling accepted was because some of the teasing and bullying had died down with kids getting used to having me around.
I feared all of that would be reversed if word got out about our fire station water supply situation. So I was a nervous wreck the closer we got to the end of August…feelings I kept to myself internally. I think deep down inside, I was hoping for some miracle to happen to change our scenario before school started.
Well, we both know that didn’t happen. We went into the school year the same way we started the summer off – without running water. After a few weeks, though, some of my anxiety went away. Most of the kids in my classes weren’t from our neighborhood, so they didn’t know what was going on when we went home. Other than my friends Marcus and Terrance, none of my other classmates had that type of personal access to me.
Do you remember my friend Terrance, Mama? I know you didn’t approve of our friendship for some reason. I remember us falling out about him later that school year, and you and I never revisited that conversation because well…God called you home. Remind me to give you my thoughts about Terrance later, because that’s something else I need to open up with you about. For now, let me stick to the real point of today’s rant.
By the time we got to mid-September, my 8th grade year was actually going great. Time at school was always therapeutic for me…I’m sure you always knew that, Mama. My love for learning and knowledge was entirely from your early influence as my first teacher. I never told you this, but I used to be jealous that I couldn’t be an actual student in one of your classes growing up. As I got older, I understood that you were in behavioral disability teaching, and that I wouldn’t have qualified as a student. But still…how cool would that have been? You were, after all, my original learning guide. I’ve always felt like I continued to be a step ahead of my peers because of your experience in the field of education – you set the tone for me to be a scholar early on.
So as we got into the fall season, I was feeling that burst of energy from school again…and it helped me bury the trauma we were enduring at home after classes. But also around this time, my body started going through those changes associated with puberty. My voice was cracking and I was growing pubic hair. As versed as I was in science and anatomy, as a young 13-year-old kid growing up without a true father figure, it was still difficult for me to process the chemical changes happening in my body. I think that had a lot to do with the constant conflict you and I started having that year.
By September, it seemed like we were always fighting, Mama! I remember feeling like everything I said or did could easily agitate you out the blue. At one point, I started to feel like you didn’t really like me as your son anymore. I mean, I know you loved me. But now that I was a teenager, I think my personality and character shaping up started to truly remind you of how much different of a young man I was in comparison to your younger brothers, my uncles.
I gotta be honest, Mama. At this young age, this both confused and angered me. Uncle Ricky, Darrick, and Terrell were street niggas – with two of the three being in and out of prison most of their lives. You knew who your brothers were long before I was thought of. And when I was a toddler, I remember how Darrick and Terrell used to rough me up and try to get me into boxing, their God-given talent and gift. And Mama…if you remember…you used to SNAP on them when they tried that mess with me. You used to tell them how your son wasn’t gon be no street thug…you used to scream about how you wanted something different for me. So, by the time I was a young teenager, it was confusing when you used to cuss me out for being afraid to fight! I didn’t understand why you used to come down on me so hard when other kids were bullying me and I didn’t use violence as a first resort. You used to call me soft. A punk. You talked so bad to me, Mama.
You used to especially come down on me when Shauntay and I got into fights. Talked about how I was ‘quick to put my hands on my little sister but scared when it came to them niggas outside’. I agree that the message and intent was authentic in those instances. But I still gave you lip over it because of the ‘quick to put my hands on her part’. I know you didn’t know it at the time as much as you know now – but Mama, your daughter was a certified gangsta – even at that young age of 9 during the early fall of ’92. I never thought I was quick to put hands on her because I remember how much restraint I use to have with her; I remember how much I fought internally with myself before getting physical with Shauntay. I was never quick about it – I only took it there when I couldn’t hold back anymore. Shauntay was a trip at that age, Mama. And while you were always focused on making sure our uncles didn’t influence me to be a hoodlum…you never paid enough attention to them doing the same with Shauntay as a youngling.
Don’t take any of this the wrong way, because it’s not something I hold against you. I just need you to know how it made me feel at that time, Mama. Gang culture was prominent in Saint Louis in ’92, and my focus was on school – which is the path YOU sent me on. I resented the comments you made about me as Shauntay’s big brother. I resented the way you felt about me being afraid to be as aggressive with boys in the streets my age, because as afraid as I was to stand up to the school bullies and neighborhood troublemakers, whenever someone was picking on Shauntay, I would run blindly into a fight knowing I didn’t have hands. I felt misunderstood by you as an 8th grader, and I’ve never been able to speak about it.
I know I got off track, but I promise there’s a purpose to me bringing all of this up and it’ll make sense later. I just needed to paint the picture of all the different layers I was dealing with that fall, and the conflict that was steadily brewing with you played a big factor in everything. School was going better than expected, but with no running water and family feuding, home still didn’t feel like home. John living in the apartment with us caused daily turmoil. You knew Shauntay and I couldn’t stand him and he was such a big, dominant monster to all of us in that small unit. But for some reason, he had this crazy hold over you, Mama. You always seemed to take his side or defend him no matter what Shantay or I told you about how he treated us. I’m sure that just added to the reasons you and I started to clash that September.
Then, to add to the fire, Auntie Stephanie suddenly showed up at our apartment with her 1-year-old daughter, our cousin Nu-Nu. Stephanie was your younger sister and Grandma Flo’s second child. Of course, the two of you had always been close at the hip. Y’all went to high school AND college together. I remember Auntie Stephanie being around a lot in my younger years, before you and Pops separated and before her first 3 kids were taken by the state of Missouri for negligence.
So in the fall of ’92, Auntie’s 4th child was a few months older than Dominique, our new little brother. Auntie Stephanie shared the same stubbornness and toxic relationship with Grandma Flo as you did, Mama. For that reason, she had fallen out with Grandma Flo and now needed a place for her and Nu-Nu to stay for a while. The 3-bedroom apartment that felt like a new start for you, me, and Shauntay suddenly turned into a small cramped up space with 6 people living there.
This brought added pressure to the weight on my young shoulders. Not so much because of the crowded space – I mean, that wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s just that this was supposed to be a new start for us, Mama, with the foundation being you kicking the crack habit. Remember…that was how we ended up in this duplex of our own in the first place, right? You found out you were pregnant with Dominique and checked into the Grace Hill detox program. This apartment situation was supposed to be like a graduation gift symbolizing progress…right?
Well first John moved in, and now Auntie Stephanie! And I know John was your boyfriend and Stephanie was your sister…but…John and Stephanie were also longtime smoking partners of yours, Mama. I know Shauntay and I were too young to have that type of conversation with you back then…but Mama, you know by now that we knew the stuff y’all were into. We were already worried about John pressuring you to go back to the pipe. When Auntie Stephanie showed up, we felt like it was just a waiting game at that point.
After a couple of weeks, Shauntay and I did notice a slight change in your behavior. But honestly, we couldn’t quite tell if you were hitting the pipe again, Mama. We noticed how you would hang out with John and Stephanie (and sometimes other adult company) in the living room…and we knew y’all were drinking and smoking weed. We knew John and Stephanie were smoking crack, but for some reason, we couldn’t really confirm if you had relapsed. The thing is, though, it didn’t really matter.
It didn’t matter because now that you had a house full of folks kicking it daily again, that meant that Shauntay and I had to look after the two babies pretty much the entire time we were home from school. We changed their diapers, fed them, bathed them, put them to sleep. All in a small apartment with no running water. It became habit and routine for us, almost like chores. This further added to my defiant teenage attitude and our mother/son conflict. I was over it before it even got started, Mama.
Then the nightmare went to a new level of horror. A few days after Shauntay’s 10th birthday in October, you told us that you had been having severe back pains and needed to go to the hospital for some meds. We thought you’d be home that same night, but then Auntie Stephanie told us they were keeping you overnight to run some tests. That overnight stay turned into weeks. The weeks turned into months.
Luckily, Auntie Stephanie had moved in with us and was there to look after the kids. John mysteriously disappeared after you went to the hospital and we never saw him again. If Auntie hadn’t moved in the month prior, you going to the hospital would’ve been even more of a disaster. I mean yeah, Shauntay and I were still doing most of the housework with the constant trips to the fire station faucet and looking after Dominique and Nu-Nu. But neither of us knew how to cook or handle the real adult duties. Auntie at least made sure Shauntay and I were fed and safe.
By November, though, I was over it. I started demanding answers from Auntie Stephanie about why you were in the hospital so long, why we hadn’t seen you in a month. We were tired of going to the fire station to talk to you over the payphone, Mama. The whole situation felt off…and we didn’t know how to express it correctly, but we missed your presence at home. It also seemed like now that you weren’t around, Auntie Stephanie expected Shauntay and I to look after the babies even more. We’d come home from school some days and the babies hadn’t eaten all day…as if Auntie was seriously waiting on us to get there. Toilets would be unflushed because she didn’t feel like going to the fire station for water. This used to infuriate me and now that you weren’t around – it was me and Stephanie getting into it all the time.
Me and Auntie got into it so much that I stopped coming straight home from school, as I started hanging out with Terrance at the corner stores, playing arcade games for hours. When we ran out of quarters, we would walk to the gas station and ask to pump folks’ gas for spare change. Playing arcade games turned into my new escape and perfect excuse to not come home. Auntie Stephanie caught on quickly when Shauntay would come home without me, telling Auntie I ran to the store after walking her home. So of course, we started falling out over that.
December came around. The temperature started dropping outside and now the fire station faucet wasn’t the fix it used to be during summer and fall. Besides the fact that it was damn near freezing cold outside in that alleyway, the temperature dropping meant that sometimes the faucet pipe could be frozen. I don’t know if you thought about this while you were in the hospital, because I can’t say I was even thinking about it in real time. I remember us adjusting to the winter season. I remember Auntie having us double and triple our efforts on the faucet trips when we were at home.
But then one day we came home to find out that the slumlord owner of our building had truly went missing and abandoned the property. There wasn’t any news headlines or rumors speaking on his disappearance. It was just the domino effect of what happens when a property owner neglects to handle his affairs. During the summer, the water company turned the water off. The gas was already off because of our delinquent payment status. But then in December, they cut the electric off in the building. No one had seen or heard from the landlord in months, and as far as the utility companies were concerned, these units were vacant.
Well, Mama, we both know they weren’t vacant. Auntie Stephanie told us to immediately bundle up Dominique and Nu-Nu and we all walked across the alley to the fire station to use the payphone. Auntie called you in the hospital to tell you what was going on, and I remember her telling you that there’s no way she could stay there with all these kids and no electricity. Before she even gave her suggestion, I knew what was coming. Auntie Stephanie was thinking the same thing Shauntay and I were: we need to go back to Grandma Flo’s.
To this day, without me being on the phone with you, I still don’t know how you actually responded to Auntie Stephanie when she recommended that. But judging how the conversation only lasted a few more minutes before she hung up to call Grandma, I imagine you didn’t curse her out too badly. But I also imagine you didn’t just agree without a fight. Getting clean and finding your own place to get back on your feet was very important to you, Mama. I knew that then and I know that now. I know it had to be difficult to let your pride go and humble yourself enough to send us all back to Grandma Flo’s home. I even remember Shauntay and I asking Auntie if she was sure you said you were ok with it. We knew how much tension and ego existed between you and Grandma Flo, Mama. And now that I’m old enough to truly process it – it all makes perfect sense. After all, Grandma Flo had you as her firstborn at the age of 13 – the same age I now was during this winter of ’92. Looking back on it, your mother was young enough to be your older sister. There’s no wonder why y’all had such an ego-driven relationship. I get it now.
But anyway, all of this led to the 5 of us catching a ride back to Grandma Flo’s house on the west side of the Lou. This meant that Shauntay and I would have to catch the public bus transit back downtown to school every morning, but you taught me how to get around on the bus before I was 10. So that wasn’t a big deal. Plus…us being back at Grandma Flo’s meant running water, gas for the heat, electricity for the cable tv, and a stable phone line. For the first few nights, we were so happy to be out of the nightmare that we almost forgot that you had been in the hospital for almost two months. We almost forgot that Shauntay and I had no idea what was even going on…and that nobody had talked to us about it yet. Honestly, we didn’t even realize that there was ‘something that needed to be talked about’. We were just relieved to be outta that hellhole.
It wasn’t until the third week of December, a couple of days after Dominique celebrated his first birthday milestone, that they finally told us we were going to the hospital to see you. But the way we found out we were going for a visit was a shocker. We came home from school one day to find Grandma Flo’s house filled with folks from our daddy’s side of the family. Grandma Dottie, Auntie Michelle and her son Brandon, Uncle Butch and his wife Aunt Fleurette, along with Pops were all in the kitchen waiting on me and Shauntay to get home. We immediately lit up with joy, as we hadn’t seen this side of the family in over a year!!
But we also knew that you and Pops didn’t get along, and the separation and divorce had gotten ugly. You made it known to both sides of the family that he wasn’t allowed to be around us in any way and you’d even fallen out with some of his side the last time you allowed us to go to Kansas City for a family reunion, after they allowed him to spend a few hours with us against your wishes. So when we seen him in Grandma Flo’s kitchen…we kind of cringed, thinking ‘uh oh, Mama won’t like this.’
The cringe was only short lived though, Mama. We really missed Pops and were super happy to see him again! We just felt like whatever was gonna happen was just gonna happen and we’d deal with it later. We gave Pops and the rest of the family the biggest hugs as they told us they all had driven up from Kansas City to take us to go see you in the hospital. I just remember being so happy and full of life that day.
On the ride to the hospital the next day, I started to feel nervous. Shauntay could sense it, as she was also feeling anxiety. We both started wondering how you would react to seeing us walk in with Pops, after all the restrictions over the last few years. Surprisingly though, when we all walked into your room, you seemed happy to see us all. You had some gifts for Dominique’s birthday, and he crawled around on the bed playing with his new toys while we all shared love and laughs.
I remember you looked different that day, Mama. Your hair was in straight cornrows, which I had never seen on you. You looked skinnier, which was hard to notice since you were always thin your whole life. But I did notice that you had lost some weight since being in the hospital. I didn’t think about it too much in the moment; I was just excited to see you again. I wasn’t thinking about our recent tension before you went away…and I wasn’t thinking about the nightmare we had just gone through over the last year and change. For those few minutes where both sides of the family were all in the room again, life just felt content enough to enjoy the magical moment.
Then you asked for everybody besides Grandma Flo, Grandma Dottie, and Pops to leave you in the room with your children. They all immediately complied and that’s when the mood changed. You started to tell me and Shauntay why you had been in the hospital so long, finally letting us in on the truth of the situation. You had gone in for back pains and they ran tests to discover that you had stomach cancer. The cancer had spread from your stomach to your back, causing the severe pain that sent you in for medicine and relief. You told us that they didn’t know how long you had left and that you were starting chemotherapy the next day.
As Shauntay and I sat there speechless, you handed me some brochures and told us that you didn’t want us to worry. Mama, how were we supposed to do that? Like…seriously? We were instantly in shock and caught completely off guard. But then, before we could absorb what was being said, you turned to Pops and said, ‘if anything happens to me, I want my kids to stay with my mother here in Saint Louis so she can finish raising them’.
Of course, Pops didn’t like that. With tears in his eyes, he responded with ‘Angie, no. These are my kids, my babies. They should be with their daddy! Don’t do this to me.’
That set you off. You then started going off about how you would turn over in your grave about ‘some other woman taking care of your kids’. You started cursing and snapping on everyone in the room as they tried to calm you down. Then y’all made me and Shauntay take Dominique out of the room into the hallway with the rest of the family so y’all could finish arguing.
When we walked out of the room, I remember my hearing going numb. I remember walking to the end of the hallway, towards a window. I stared outside at the snow-covered city in disbelief. I remember Shauntay crying, and Auntie Michelle and Aunt Fleurette hugging her. I remember Cousin Brandon trying to cheer me up, but I don’t think he knew what we had just been told. After months in a homeless shelter for crack-addict mothers and living without running water and gas for nearly half a year…we were just told our mother had stomach cancer.
Mama, I was devastated. I was angry. Angry at you for keeping us in the dark for two months…and angry at the family for doing the same. I was angry at God for putting us through this. Why was this happening? Had I truly been showing ungratefulness as a son? Did I really need this type of lesson right now? My soul felt crushed.
I don’t even remember us going back in the room after that. You and Pops were in there arguing for a while before he stormed out. The energy in the car on the ride home told me at least one thing I could be sure of, though: you had made it clear to everyone in that room that me and Shauntay were staying in Saint Louis with Grandma Flo no matter how anyone else felt…
A little over a month later, you were gone, Mama. February 6th, 1993 to be exact…just six days after I turned 14.
I’m trembling as I recall these events. But I’m pushing through, because we never got to have these conversations. I never got to truly understand how you could have been feeling…or how scary of a thought process that must’ve been for you at the age of 38. All I can go off of are these blurry memories of how I remember it.
And what I remember the most is your tone of voice, your facial expression, and your sternness when you told Pops, Grandma Flo, and Grandma Dottie that you didn’t want ‘some other woman raising your kids when you passed away’.
We know that they didn’t honor your last wish, Mama. We know that after the funeral, they told us that regardless of what you said in the hospital, we were being sent to Kansas City to live with Pops and his new family after school ended for the year. And we know that in addition to Pops’ girlfriend Neicy helping raise us – throughout life there have been countless other women serving as mother figures for me, Shauntay, AND Dominique.
I want you to know that this was something that haunted me for years. I felt guilty, I felt ashamed, I felt dishonorable throughout life about this. So I’ve always wondered if you were mad at any of us because of it. I can still hear the viciousness in your voice when you gave everyone your explicit orders. Shauntay and I both rebelled heavily against Neicy over it. We both rejected true motherly love from others over the years, still afraid of getting in trouble with you, even in death.
It wasn’t until recently that I reevaluated my emotions on this. As an adult, I realized that, starting with the motherly care Auntie Stephanie gave us while you were in the hospital, there have been numerous ministering angels to help finish the job you couldn’t in raising us. It wasn’t until recently that I started to feel that maybe at some point when you reached heaven – your feelings behind this changed. Because when I truly think about the entire journey…it takes a village.
In my mind and heart, today I believe that you hand-picked certain ministering angels to help be here for us. It took me a while to see it because all I kept hearing was your final wish. All of this is painful to revisit, but I think it’s necessary for both you and me to know how I felt about it.
You left us, but we weren’t left alone, Mama. And I honestly don’t know where we would be without the village, even to this day. Have I interpreted this wrong, Mama? Are you indeed turning over in your grave about it?? If so, please forgive me, Mama. Everything just happened so fast.
But do you at least understand now, Mama? I sure hope so…