Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


The following column is the fifth and final installment in a series. In the four previous installments, Day . . . Break, Free at Last, Letting Go, and Postscript the author chronicled the final months of her mother's fight against breast cancer, and her readjustment to life and motherhood back in Pittsburgh after spending the summer of 2005 in her hometown. In this installment, the author faces an unexpected turn of events.

November 2005

Thanksgiving in Vegas: my resolution to have fun before the end of 2005 which is hands-down the worst year of my life. And Vegas does not disappoint. With dancing, decadence, and 15-minutes of audience participation fame in a slightly risqué Vegas show -- I don't want what happens in Vegas to stay in Vegas. I leave the hedonism and bright lights, but I am taking my laughter back home with me.

On the return trip, a friend and I are stranded in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport overnight. As far as post-Thanksgiving air travel goes, it could be worse. Confirmed on the first flight out the next morning, we are sleeping on cots beneath too-thin blankets, when my half-sister Trice calls at 4AM to tell me our father has had a massive stroke and is on life support. Trice is an RN, but all she can tell me is that it's "touch and go." Later, the doctors tell us that the bleeding at my father's brain was so severe, he was likely brain dead upon arrival. It is nearly two weeks before my stepmother makes the difficult decision to have the ventilator disconnected.

My father and I were not on speaking terms before the summer of 2005. My parents had never married, and my mother struggled, financially and emotionally to raise me by herself. My father had been primarily a source of pain in my life. Early on, he did not want to be a father, and later, he had no idea how to be a good one. My experiences with him over the years left me hurt, rejected, confused, and angry.

When my father learned that my mother was dying -- like most everyone, he knew before I did -- he asked my mother if there was anything he could do for her. She asked him to make things right with me. When she could finally bring herself to tell me her prognosis, my mother made the same request of me: "Please make peace with your daddy." My father and I agreed to honor my mother's wishes, though there was no conversation with him about it or memorable reconciliation moment. He came to the hospital the day before my mother was transferred to hospice, and I simply allowed him in again.

My father visited my mother regularly at hospice and served as a witness to the signing of her will. On Sundays while I was in Jacksonville during the final months of my mother's life, I had a standing invitation to his house for breakfast. He would fry fish, and serve it with grits and homemade biscuits. Sometimes, my stepmother's spirited family, who never treated me like I was anything but kin, would join us, along with one or more of my half-sisters and their kids.

My sisters would tease me, the oldest, for being the only one that called him, "Daddy." It's the only thing I'd ever called him. After junior high, I called him nothing at all because I was too furious at his apathy where I was concerned to address him so intimately.

My sisters called him by his first name, or "Snap," the nickname everyone else called him. When I said goodbye to him in the ICU, I said, "Daddy..." and I told him that I loved him. A complicated, wistful kind of love, but a love nonetheless.

December 2005

Friends and family call and email me. Again. "Your grandmother, your mother, and your one year?" Everyone comments on what a difficult year I've had. But even those who rarely swear and usually resist hyperbole choose "shitty" and "horrible" and "absolute worst" over "difficult." You know you're in a bad way when your high-priced divorce attorney with a reputation for handing abusive husbands their balls, emails you to ask, full of maternal concern: "Are you okay?"

Typically, when people inquire about my well-being and comment on this year, I simply agree that my life indeed ran aground. In the wry way I've perfected as a form of surrender to forces beyond my control, I mutter, "2006 cannot get here fast enough" or "2005 can end any day now, and that would be fine with me." I add that overall I'm Okay. And to head off their warnings not to "hold it all in", I say that I cry when I need to cry, even my children have seen me cry and we talk about it; I ignore my phone when I'm not up to talking; and generally, I let myself feel what I feel.

July 2006

I take comfort in my writing, but not in the way I was expected to. "Write," people told me soon after my mother died, "it'll be good therapy." What I found, however, was that actually seeing a therapist is good therapy. Still, writing has been a grounding of sorts for me, a reminder that I have goals and potential -- a life -- beyond this dark time. Writing fiction, which I rarely get a chance to do, affords me escapism with a purpose -- a reveling in possibilities unfettered by reality, an exploration of conflict and pain that is not my own. I do not write happy little fiction. My stories teach me that hope and healing don't always come early or in neat packages.

There are days when I enjoy an inexplicable peace. I can laugh, be irreverent, and create. Days when I can just be another newly divorced mom of two, freelance writer, trying to start a business and pay the bills and sell two houses in another state and volunteer at her older daughter's school.

Last year impacted how I live and how I write similarly: I am now more concise, more direct, better able to see what needs to be pared away -- and less afraid to do the paring.

The tragedies of last year -- the loss of my loved ones and of my marriage -- have led me to question my own existence and relevance. I was not created to suffer; none of us were. Suffering will come -- has come -- but it's not my job to tend to it. Endure it, perhaps. Grieve, of course. Overcome it, no doubt. But dwell on it, never. Still, I have not ruled out a stay of indeterminate length at some place where the staff wears white, and where they make you leave your nail file at home.

That, or Vegas again.

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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Deesha, this is so moving, and beautiful, and poignant and powerful. And Yes. WRITE.
Thanks, Susan. All the best to you...
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