The last summer I had with Mom before she died was one of the best—and worst—times we had together. The best, because it was the last one I had with her and we were at our closest then; the worst, because it marks the time when I realized that she might die.
That summer (2002) was an incredibly humid one, even by Indiana standards. The heat made it even harder for her to breathe, and even with me carrying her oxygen tank for her, just a trip to the grocery store could wear her out. She didn’t complain—she would just sink into one of our kitchen chairs as soon as we’d get in the house, turn up the oxygen a notch, adjust, readjust that damn oxygen cord, and lean into the kitchen table. I’d get her a glass of ice water and learned quickly not to stare at her while she caught her breath. It upset her—not only because it must have hurt, not being able to breathe, but Mom hated being out of control. She always seemed annoyed (angry on a bad day) that her body wasn’t cooperating with her. Plus, it can’t be too fun having your teenage daughter stare at you with worry while you’re trying to catch your breath.
That’s not what I try to think about, though. Instead, I think about eating popsicles with her on the back porch. I think about driving us to Indy for our trips to Fazoli’s, Target, and the mall. I think about talking about how we’d go shopping in Chicago—minus the oxygen tank!—after she got her lung transplant.
I think about sitting on the back porch with her as she helped me pick my first semester of classes at IU—she was the one that picked out African American lit, the best class I had all through college. That first semester, I called Mom from the college bookstore and rattled off all the books on the syllabus. I remember that conversation so clearly. “You don’t need to buy all those,” she said. “Just take my copies from home when you’re back next.” And, like always, she knew exactly where they were on the shelf by memory. “Black Boy is upstairs, middle of the third shelf on the right. I’ll have your dad bring it down.”
We were just starting Black Boy when she died. Every time I’d look at my copy—her copy—and see “HAMM” scrawled in black marker on the side, I had to swallow the tears. I loved that book, though. For me, every book I read that semester was like having a conversation with my mom. It was comfort when I couldn’t be comforted. I’d devour the books, even more so the ones she’d given me, knowing she had read those same words. I tried to find her again in the pages.
Buying books every subsequent semester was the worst. I’d stare at my English courses’ syllabi with a stabbing feeling in my gut, wanting nothing more than to call Mom and hear her tell me what shelves the books I wouldn’t need to buy were on at home. Instead, I’d scoop up all the books in a hurry, telling myself maybe Mom had never read any of these.
These are the things I start thinking about when the 4th of July and her birthday start creeping near.
***Today really got me though. I was walking to lunch, listening to music, when Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” came on.
Suddenly I’m 18 again, driving my Neon with Mom in the passenger seat, oxygen tank at her feet. She hadn’t been feeling that well that day, but we were going to Indy anyway to go to Target. I’m spilling my guts to her about feeling betrayed by my best friend and my boyfriend, and she says, “You know what we need? We need our song.”
She grabs the pink CD and pushes it in the player, skipping to No.6. (We’d deemed it “our” song shortly after I got the Mary J. Blige CD, because we both loved it and Mom thought it had a good message for me, given what I was going through with my friends.)
We turn it up, loud, and Mom taps her fingers on her knees to the beat as we sing along. When Mary sings, “Why’d I play the fool/go through ups and downs/knowing all the time/you wouldn’t be around?” Mom looks at me and says, “Just remember that you’re not a fool just because you’ve been betrayed. Don’t ever feel bad for caring about someone. Never let someone make you feel stupid for being a good person.”
I’m 25 now, but I could still use some good mom advice like that these days. So today, as I was walking down a Chicago street, I listened to that song and pretended I was 18 again, singing along with my mom in my car, driving to Target.
The song ended, and I hit the back button on my iPod shuffle. I wanted a few more minutes with her.