Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Free at Last

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I am redeemed. I am the dutiful daughter carrying out her mother's wishes -- from scratching an itch she can't reach to bringing barbecue ribs to her hospice room in the middle of the afternoon. I am not the prodigal who went north to college and stayed north, selfishly leaving her devoted mother behind. I am selfless and loving and committed and concerned. A good daughter, a blessing to my mother. Everyone says so.

But like Joni Mitchell sang, nothing lasts for long.

Days turn into weeks, and throughout the summer, I establish a routine: twice daily visits to my mother in the hospice, in the morning and in the evening, with phone calls to the nurse in charge book-ending the visits. In between visits, I tend to my mother's employment, legal, and financial concerns, and to the remnants of my own life and work I have managed to bring with me via laptop. On the whiteboard in my mother's room, there is a weekly sign-up for loved ones who wish to sleep over with my mother so that she is never alone at night. There are so many who are willing to stay that I have to juggle them around to make room for myself.

But apparently all of this isn't enough in some people's estimation. I listen to their silences, read between the lines, and catch wisps of gossip, and it seems some people think I don't visit often enough or long enough when I do. After all, I'm never there during the two hours they visit (never mind the other 22 hours of possibility). I don't pray loud enough. I didn't buy my mother's burial dress early, like she asked me to. And on and on.

It seems they forget that we rang in the New Year, 2005, with the death of my grandmother, my mother's mother, my dear Nana. Nana died of colon cancer, in the same hospice center, the same floor where my mother has been placed.

It seems they forget that I am a mother, too. I miss my girls, and when I do see them in Jacksonville for a week or so at a time, I feel guilty about having them shuttled back and forth, especially in the midst of the divorce.

It seems they -- this tiny, nameless subset of family and friends -- underestimate how hard it is to watch the cancer announce itself in scabrous, blistery sores where my mother's left breast used to be and along the still-healing scars on her chest, side, and back from the radical mastectomy last year. Sores whose numbers appear to increase exponentially from one week to the next.

It seems they can't accept that I'm doing the best I can because they would do things differently, and presumably better, if they were in my place. But of course they aren't lining up to trade places with me.

Still . . . my mom's hospice room is a place for miracles, for the minor miracles my mother does not orchestrate but rather facilitates. Sometimes I fade into the background and overhear visitors confiding deep fears and regrets to my mother (about their marriages, their parenting, their futures). They are not looking for absolution but maybe just a connection or comfort. Perhaps these confessors leave feeling a little closer to God, given my mother's proximity to a life beyond this one. Whatever it is, it is not forgiveness that they seek or that my mother seeks to give. She just wants to have purpose, to help someone, to matter to someone. Still. I know how she feels.

I think about mattering to someone, and I decide not to give up on the institution of marriage, though my first one has ended. I think about how much I matter to my children and how much they matter to me. They are with their father while I'm away, and he makes the travel arrangements for them to visit me throughout the summer. I cannot thank him enough, knowing that most divorcing couples are not nearly as civilized -- much less as compassionate -- toward each other.

During one of the girls' visits, Taylor shares with a family friend (in my absence): "When Nana died, my mom fell apart. She couldn't even talk on the phone. I'm not going to fall apart when Grandma P.P. dies. Because she's going to heaven to be with God, right? But I'm still going to miss her a lot."

I may well fall apart again. But the difference is this: This time, I will face grief and heartache a free woman, free from estrangement with my mother and from the burden of other people's expectations. Cancer has shown me I don't have that kind of time. I wish it had come sooner and under different circumstances, for my mother's sake and for my own. I wish we had more time. I wish we knew then what we know now. But, better late than never, I am redeemed.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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