Losing My Mom Taught Me How To Grieve For America

Every single day since she died, I have wished for my mother back. But I’m glad she won’t be here to witness the next four years, and that she gave me what I need to get through them.

I have a hidden talent: I am excellent at coping with grief. I have all these little tricks to handle trauma. I take walks for hours, until I can’t tell which is more exhausted, my legs or my brain. When the weather’s good, I hit tennis balls against a wall. I make a mean Manhattan. I look at pictures of weird animals online. I journal. I cry during blockbusters. (Turns out you can cry through any movie if you’re sad enough!) I whack off to vintage gay porn, where the stars still have all their body hair. I’m a great baker, and my chocolate chip brownies turn out every single time. All of these minor methods came in handy the week Trump won.

I learned from the best. My mom, like many single black women with jobs to keep and children to feed, knew what it meant to cope because this country gave her no other option. She grew up poor in Jim Crow Virginia, 25 miles outside of Charlottesville. She rarely talked about this time in her life, apart from mundane anecdotes that starred her brothers and sister. I’m not sure why she never spoke about those years, other than the obvious: Life in a racial caste system was painful and dehumanizing, and she had moved on. Taking her lead, I never asked about her childhood, and my chance to learn more has come and gone. My mom died eight years ago, a month before I turned 20.

My mom knew what it meant to cope because this country gave her no other option. 

I was home for summer vacation after my sophomore year at college. The summer before, mom had started to flag on the long walks I sometimes took with her. She said she was tired. I had seen her look tired before — she was on her feet teaching most days — but I’d never heard her admit it. I drove with her to get some tests done and several days later, the day before my birthday dinner, we learned she had stage 4 colorectal cancer. I remember taking the oncologist aside, asking him about her odds, the way people do on TV. Fifty-fifty for her to eke out just one more year, less than a 5% chance of reaching five. My mom was 53 when she received her diagnosis. She didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. She ate well. She exercised every day. But there was a history of cancer in our family, and wedded to this was pure and unfortunate luck.

I wanted to drop out of college. I wanted to do something, anything. She wanted to go back to work in the fall, right after her second round of chemo. She wanted the most aggressive treatment, experimental pills, tests, procedures, you name it — anything to improve her miserable chance of survival. Most of all, she wanted me to stay in school. She wanted me to be happy, and she said — I still can’t believe she said this — “I don’t want to make things any harder for you.”

I remember I was heating up some chicken broth for her. She had asked for something to eat. Food for her meant something unsalted, with the consistency of soup, a touch hotter than lukewarm, so as not to burn the sores coating her throat. It was just after 1 a.m. when I started preparing the broth. When you’re caring for people who are terminally ill, especially those in excruciating pain, as my mom was, you learn how little the hours of the day matter; time falls under the sway of medication tables, fluid absorption, pain management, sponge baths. Nights were better for her. She would grow lucid enough to manage the briefest chit-chat, though nowhere near the warm composure that had complemented her work as a special ed teacher so well. This request for broth made me think, partly because I was exhausted — not nearly as tired as she was, but tired all the same — that she might be feeling a bit better, who knows, maybe much better. Stranger things happen. I used a basting thermometer to make sure the soup wouldn’t scald. I put the bowl on a tray with a glass of water and a smaller glass of milk, carrying it off to her room.

I found her with her eyes shut. She often fell asleep on me, sometimes in the middle of conversations, and I took a few seconds to admire the peaceful slackness of her mouth. Most nights she got about three or four hours, so I hesitated to wake her. Still, she had asked for food, and I didn’t want this chance to vanish come morning.

“I hope it’s not too hot,” I announced.

She didn’t answer. I put the tray down, leaned over her bed and tried to stir her. Then I grew still, terribly quiet, hoping in my silence I would hear her faint, ragged breaths. Eventually I placed a finger below her nostrils, and waited.

“I love you,” I said.

I kept repeating it, but I don’t think she heard me.

For 3,094 days, every single day since she died, I have wanted my mom back on this earth with me. For guidance, for a few words of support, for one of her amazing dirty jokes, for her many opinions on Six Feet Under, for a friendly ear, a second pair of eyes, a good kick in the ass. But I was glad I couldn’t call her on election night — satisfied, even happy that she couldn’t witness what had transpired.

I know that the results wouldn’t have surprised her. She had predicted a few months before she died that President Obama would be savaged by the press and the opposition. “Of course he’ll get dragged through the mud,” she said. I mentioned something about young people finally getting excited after the long, dark Bush saga of God and terror and daddy issues. “We’ll see what happens,” she said.

What grounds for hope could I offer, other than some vague exclamations about progress? The civil rights leaders of her time were discredited, surveilled, harassed, and blackmailed, when they weren’t getting jailed, beaten, or assassinated. Black men and women were denied housing, employment, freedom of movement, rights to land, access to credit, the ability to marry people from other races. The list goes on and on and on. Obama did win, but that doesn’t mean my mom was wrong.

I watched Trump win this year and relived the same stupefying dread I felt as I realized my mom had passed, and I was left with a tray of useless soup and a stumpy glass of milk. But at least with her death came the relief that the unimaginable pain she had suffered was over. With Trump, I fear that this pain has only just begun in earnest.

I’m glad my mom isn’t here to see these brutal particularities, that she doesn’t have to explain them to her students.

Already, we’ve seen more than 700 reported incidents of hate speech and harassment across the country in the week since the election. A white man threatened to light a Muslim woman on fire for not removing her hijab; “whites only” and “colored” signs appeared above water fountains in a Jacksonville school. Again, I’m glad my mom isn’t here to see these brutal particularities, that she doesn’t have to explain them to her students.

In the rush to make sense of the election, many have called for liberal Americans to understand the pain and anxiety the so-called white working class must have suffered for them to pull the lever on Trump. I hear it, and I wonder: When will we center the love, fear, and pain of black women in America? How about trans people? Muslim children? Folks with disabilities? Indigenous people? Undocumented families? I’m all for empathy, but it feels hollow when America yet again privileges white pain and white life over the lives of the men and women who stand to lose the most.

Anyone who says he knows what will happen over the next four years is full of shit. But we do know that the House, the Senate, and the presidency will soon fall under Republican control. Trump’s most senior White House adviser will be Steve Bannon, a favorite of the anti-Semitic, white nationalist “alt-right” movement. Trump’s pick for attorney general is Senator Jeff Sessions, who was denied a federal judgeship after testimony that he used the word nigger to refer to another politician, and “joked” that he was fine with the KKK — until he discovered some of them smoked pot. The Christian conservative wing of the GOP is ascendant again with Mike Pence as its standard bearer, a man who has repeatedly spoken and worked against equal rights for LGBT Americans. Again, I wonder: How do I “work across the aisle” with a party that believes my queerness is a sick aberration?

I rattle off these worries knowing I am very, very lucky, swaddled in various layers of suburban, middle-class, college-educated, fair-skinned, straight-seeming privilege. But my long, curly hair and thoroughly Latino name set me apart in St. Louis, where I recently started grad school and know very few people.

The second day I moved here, I bought a car. It was an all-day affair, and early on, while I was out on a test drive, my salesman — I’ll call him Rich — asked me, “Where are you from?”

I’ve always liked saying “America” to this question, a question I’ve had to answer for as long as I can remember. But that merely delays the inevitable “no, where are you from from?” So I told Rich I was black, Latino, and Polish.

He told me how great it was that I was continuing my education. He wished more people “like me” would follow my lead. Then he brought up Black Lives Matter, called the protesters misguided troublemakers, up to no good. He longed for the halcyon days of his St. Louis youth in the ’70s, when whites and blacks got along. This didn’t gel with the little I knew about St. Louis’s profoundly segregated neighborhoods and school system. But I had hours more of Rich for company, I was new to the city, and I just wanted to buy a used Hyundai.

Eventually, he asked me what I thought about the protesters, if I agreed with their methods. A pause. I told him that I don’t discuss politics with strangers. The car grew silent.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” she says, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” I wish her words weren’t so timely and necessary, that I didn’t have to justify myself to white impositions. I wish that the grief I feel today for my country didn’t summon my old grief for my mom. I’m afraid I’m asking for too much.

It would be easy to dwell on the pain I feel, to do nothing but bathe myself in it.

But I cope. I have my minor methods. I walk for hours in Forest Park. The trees have turned, and many of them still bear their brilliant leaves. Some days still reach the 60s, and I can get away with tying my sweatshirt around my waist and wandering around in a T-shirt. I want to retreat inside these carefully administrated woods, their harmonious reds, yellows, oranges, and browns. It would be easy to dwell on the pain I feel, to do nothing but bathe myself in it. A small, self-destructive part of me begs to stray from one of the wide dirt paths and never return to the real world.

But then I walk some more. I remember all the calls and messages of support I’ve sent and received since the election. This small, simple thing, checking in on the people I love, has done more to neuter my anxiety and give me hope than anything else the past few weeks. I think of my mom, who carved out a life for herself and for me in a country that considered her inferior. I think of the joy she found in teaching, a joy that no one could take from her. I remember that the last students she taught are now high school freshmen. I think of high schoolers across the country, including in St. Louis, staging walkouts to protest the hatred that Trump’s campaign and victory have made a space for.

After eight years I still ache with grief when I think about my mom, and I know that much of this grief will never leave me. But neither will the resilience that I inherited from her. I will thrive and love out in the open. I will fight for my life, for the lives of the people I love, and for all the black, brown, and queer people whose basic human rights may be under siege in the coming months. I know how to fight, because I learned from the best.

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