Sunday, May 11, 2014

Remembering Mama

On this day-one set aside to honor our mothers-I think of mine. Rereading this piece I wrote while employed at the Post-Dispatch gave me measures of sorrow and comfort. Hope you enjoy. 

"Mother's passing": Finality of words proved stunning 

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"I'll see you tomorrow, Bug."

When she was in a good mood, she called me Junior, Junebug or simply . . . Bug. When she was upset, I was called by my father's name. The day before her operation, she called me Bug. She was feeling good.

My mother, Evalena Brown, had been in the hospital for eight weeks. What started as complications from diabetes spiraled into a multitude of other life-threatening problems. To the surprise of her doctors, she battled her way back from each threat.

Mama was scheduled for surgery on Wednesday last week to repair a defective valve in her heart. The tests looked good, and the doctors felt confident about her operation and recovery. The day before the surgery, she told my sister that the "cute surgeon took her breath away." She was her old self. She was strong. She was in a good mood. She called me Bug.

"Your mother's passing."

Those words seemed foreign. "Mother" and "passing" wouldn't register in my mind. The operation was moved up five hours. No one in my family was notified until it was already under way.

After arriving at the hospital, we were ushered into the intensive care unit. A lunch tray outside my mother's door contradicted the doctor's ominous prediction. She was supposed to be eating, not "passing." The words made no sense.

"Do something!" my heart pleaded.

But there was nothing to be done. The operation had been successful, but her blood wouldn't cooperate. It was too thin. It wouldn't clot. My mother left strict orders based on her religious belief: no blood transfusions. She held fast to her convictions. But that was little comfort. She was "passing," and there was nothing anyone could do.

Mama was 68 and she was gone.

At least six people I know have lost a parent recently. If I had known this pain, this emptiness, I would have said more than, "I'm sorry." I would have offered a shoulder, held a hand or tried to tend a broken spirit.

Pain is expected. What's unexpected is the foggy feeling of disconnect. My life's quilt now has a gaping hole in the center. My knees buckle when the words, "Mama's gone," echo in my mind.

Images vividly come to me. I see Mama's nut-brown hand making me a malted at the drugstore where she worked. Mama's friends remember her as a "stylish dresser." I recall the hats, how she loved her colorful hats. She also loved to dance. We kids had to be careful walking into a room when one of Mama's favorite tunes was playing. When the mood struck, she'd grab whoever was near for an impromptu dance. I remember how she rocked to B.B. King's guitar and swooned to Johnny Taylor's jukebox blues.

My fondest memory is the day I came home for lunch with a busted lip. Mama didn't ask who did it. She didn't send me back to school. She just hugged me, and we spent the rest of the day together. I'd gladly trade a busted lip for another day like that.

Evalena Brown had 11 children. She married and stood by a man addicted to alcohol. She shouldered all the responsibilities of parenthood. Some assumed that ours was a family of poverty. In reality, our home was one of laughter, good food, music and contentment. Mama made it that way.

I am in awe of how she managed. She didn't believe in giving up or giving in. By example, she taught us to take what we have and make it better. With a bag of beans, cornmeal and flour, she'd make a meal. If there was sugar, there was dessert. Mama remembered and created our favorite dishes. She supported our individual dreams at the same time.

I wonder if she knew she was passing. A few weeks ago, she told my sister she was at peace. Over the years, Mama and I were at odds over things I've written. In our last conversations, she spoke only of being proud.

Maybe Mama really did know. Maybe she just wanted to let me know it was OK. Maybe that's why she called me Bug.