The first week of January 2014 St Louis, Missouri
It had to be the coldest January afternoon on record. The icy January wind; bulged with disrespect, pierced through my veins as my soul wept in graveyard silence. The car ride home was the most silence my mind had ever embraced. What a difference from the last four years of automatic motion, the constant go-go-go. What complete chaos my life had been.
I knew that day was coming, but denial was easier than admitting the bold-faced truth. It’s funny that I, of all people, had faith that God would spare her. Huh! God! Or the “higher power” or whatever you want to call Him. I thought He would allow her more time here on earth. After all, it would be for the benefit of His work, so she would say.
Sigh. “We’re home, honey.” Brian said.
I could hear his voice, but I couldn’t hear his words. It didn’t take much for me to snap back to reality the minute Brian opened my door to help me out of the car. My body was hit by the cruel, icy wind that generally swept St. Louis in mid-January.
“Can I get you a cup of hot tea, babe?” Brian asked while assisting me with my coat.
“I just need to lie down.” Suddenly weak, I walked slowly to the closest bedroom while Brian entertained the phone callers. I could not bear to talk or even hear my phone ringing. I knew that people intended no harm, all was just a humble response to customary obligations, but these calls would soon cut into my last nerve.
The last thing I wanted to hear at that tensed state was the predictable line, “we're sorry for the loss, they loved her, they are there for me and she will be missed, blah, blah, blah.” As potentially comforting their sincere condolences might have sounded, it was pretty detrimental to me in that state.
No one knows how much pain you go through at the loss of a loved one. I know I am guilty of it too. I was always uncomfortable at funerals, thinking I was saying comforting things. But truth be told, no amount of comforting is actually enough to comfort one who just lost a loved one. It’s true that you don’t know until you walk in the same shoes.
One of the perquisites that go along with being married to Brian is the comforting scent of security, stability, and protection I get to perceive every day. I needed no external force to tell me Brian had walked in, my nose had always been enough since our first date and always will be. I knew he was there because I could smell his cologne, even though the congestion in my nose.
He sat at my feet as I curled up in a fetal position in the bed. I could not stop crying—I just couldn’t. I’d been strong throughout the whole process. In that moment, I just wanted to bawl like a little baby, because nothing could stop my emotions and pain—not Brian, not my concerned family or friends.
He rubbed my back gently, with a hint of authenticity and I began to long for his gentle strokes of comfort. “How could this gesture feel so brand-new and real to me in my state of grief?” I thought to myself. This touched my emotions deeper. I can’t tell you the last time I felt Brian’s authentic touch the way I felt that day. The touch was encapsulated with calculated doses of emotional freedom, as though it was summer time.
“Babe,” Brian said softly. “Do you remember when we first met?”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. Through all my pain and tears, this man knew how to put a smile on my face. “You stalked me until I agreed to go out with you.” Brian couldn’t keep a serious face if he tried.
“What?” he hollered.
“You heard me, Mr. Stalker.”
“Well—Nandi, after twelve years of marriage, I guess my stalking paid off.”
Sigh. “You did something right.” I couldn’t help but mumble that.
I couldn’t believe it had been twelve years. They were not short years. They had more downs than ups. My feelings were reminders of those downs and ups, and my husband wouldn’t like it if he knew I thought so.
“I’m going to get into some comfortable clothes and let you rest.” Brian stood, kissed my forehead, and walked out.
I could feel him lingering at the door. My pain hurt him too. I knew he felt horrible because he couldn’t immediately fix it as he would like to, being the problem-solver by nature. When the door shut, my mind strolled back to total darkness. A part of me knew that the best thing for me to do was to think happy thoughts, but how do you emancipate yourself from mental slavery when you are combatting with such tragedy?
My mind felt like an out-of-control carousel. It fixated on one thought then another, then another, and then that thought went round and round. I tried to pray. Yes, if I was praying, that meant it was serious. But all I could think of was Brian and her, or her and Brian. My heart beat faster and faster. I squeezed my eyelids shut to wash out my thoughts, but the more I tried, the more I thought of the funeral. And when I tried not to think of the funeral, I thought of my personal loss.
My head felt heavier by the second. I was reaching meltdown stage at the worst possible moment, I wanted it all to disappear, so I could get back all the good memories of my life. Maybe the doctor’s diagnosis was correct...
When I think of Momma Jean’s love and passion for God, I have to wonder how she remained so faithful to God until her death. Her cancer came and went for almost four years, and right when we thought it was all gone, it came back with vengeance.
Momma Jean never smoked nor drank. She was a healthy-lifestyle activist. Her diagnosis of malignant cancer of the lungs was by far the most shocking news any of us had ever heard. What’s crazy is that the day she told me about it, she had no tears in her eyes. That woman was a strong warrior. I was the one she had to control. I wept so much that one would have thought I was the patient. I remember her soft, cuddling voice. “Don’t you worry, child. My God is able.”
Those were her favorite words. No matter how old I was, she still considered me a child. I guess some things never change.
A lot of unanswered questions went down six feet with Momma Jean—a lot of unanswered questions I was scared to ask. I never dwelt on the questions before she died, because I never wanted to be one of those children who grew up expecting a great outcome from the answers to my mother's past. For instance, I've never known who my biological father is—or was. I had many questions about my life, but ultimately, I wanted to know my father.
Never for one second did I consider asking Momma Jean who he was because she made me thirst for any sort of paternal influence, she was there for me in literally everything that I almost didn't remember my father wasn't in the picture.
She worked two hard jobs just to keep a roof over our heads and to make sure I made it to medical school. She never missed a day of work in her life. So, in the midst of it all, I didn’t want to disrespect her by bringing up a memory of her past, even though it was an important piece of who I was.
After I turned eighteen, I thought she’d tell me who my father was, but she didn’t. I fought with the thought of asking her until I was able to wrap my brain around the fact that, telling me was entirely of her own coinage. I couldn't force her, even though I wanted to.
The years came and went, and now she was six feet underground. She could never reveal to me the other half of my identity. All I knew was that we moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, from Shuqualak, Mississippi, when I was ten. I remember that myself. As for my childhood, it was interesting even though I never got to spend much time with Momma Jean.
She worked two jobs and went to school, so the neighborhood pretty much raised me after we moved to Illinois. Amazingly, in those days, you could trust the neighborhood to do such things. Everyone on my block was an aunt or uncle but were no blood relation. They were free to discipline me if I was out of line.
What's crazy is that I don't remember ever meeting a blood relative in East St. Louis. I never thought to dwell on it, as my neighborhood and church had plenty of play-uncles and play-aunts and cousins. I didn't have much to compare my childhood lifestyle too. I could not have told you what a "normal" childhood looked like.
My life changed after my sixteenth birthday. We moved from East St. Louis out to the county across the bridge—or across the river, as some folks would say—to Missouri. There we enjoyed an upgraded lifestyle. This new house had a working air conditioner and heat. I can’t help remembering what a big difference it made during the winters and summers. In time, we even owned a fancy “ice-box,” which I thought only the super-rich could afford. We'd never had one before. It took me a while to get used to the washer and dryer because in Mississippi and in East St. Louis, all we ever used was the washboard.
What’s funny about my growing-up years is that I never thought there was something called social upheaval. I never thought we were poor or without. Whatever I needed, Momma Jean got for me. What we didn’t have, I didn’t know about. Only when we moved into a completely different and diverse neighborhood did I realize how other people lived. That realization taught me a different perspective. We were poor when we lived on Tudor Avenue in East St. Louis, compared to our new upgrade.
By the time we moved, Momma Jean was finally done with her Ph.D. and had landed her dream job as a professor in the department of African-American studies at a local college. In a funny sense, I missed that little brick house in East St. Louis because it was my refuge from Mississippi. I missed the people who made up the neighborhood, although we had the smallest duplex on that street. Now my memories of Tudor Avenue, my friends, and my neighbors lay dominant in my head.
That neighborhood was what raised me not to forget the little white brick building we called church. Momma Jean wouldn’t let us skip a service, making sure she was always off work on Sundays. One time, she had a bad case of pneumonia, and the doctors tried unsuccessfully to place her on bedrest. We attended a church that Sunday, doctor or no doctor.
She had me later in life—in her second year of college. I got used to calling her Momma Jean because that’s what the neighborhood kids called her, and their mothers called her Sister Jean. She never stopped me from calling her Momma Jean.
Amidst all the tension, a part of me was pretty angry at this God she’d stayed loyal to. Another part of me feared I hadn’t done as much as I needed to do for her when she was in remission...
Thirty years earlier in Mississippi.
The year of my tenth birthday was sweltering hot, smack-dab in the middle of the Mississippi summer. I remember the sticky feeling of my sweat against my cotton clothing.
I awoke to Momma Jean and Lois going at it in a whispered argument. I pressed my ear against the thin, chipped wall to hear as much as I could, as I always did. But the harder I pressed my ear to the wall, the softer they whispered. I had grown accustomed to their bickering, usually over petty stuff.
I didn’t know what relation Lois was to Momma Jean, but I do know she was meaner than a three-legged dog. She was so mean that one needed not to spend a second with her before getting pissed; her smell was enough. I couldn’t tell how old she was, but back in those days, she could have well been as old as Methuselah. At least, that's what I thought in my young mind because she looked so archaic.
It must have been the thinning coarse gray hair, crafted wrinkles on her face, and the unattractive pronounced frown lines on her forehead, representing both a hard life and endurance. Or the fact that she was one of the founding mothers at our little brick church might have made me feel she was ancient. Either way, I was not too fond of Lois.
Lois had a stoic-stern face and a raspy, loud voice. She was always on the grouchy side. If she’d ever had a smile on her face, I must have missed it.
Whatever the case, she was related to Momma Jean closely, it seemed. She always told me to call her Lois or Miss West. Momma Jean never formally introduced us or acted for a second as if I needed to know who she was. She was just Lois West.
She took care of me when Momma was at work and school. Well, taking care of me is an exaggeration. But I can say Lois West did what she could to take care of me. I used to hear the neighborhood and church kids calling her Grandma L. One day, I called her Grandma L, just like the rest of the kids my age, and mind you, I called her Grandma L when she was cooking.
Boy! You would have thought I had insulted her.
She whirled around. “What did you call me, little girl?”
Her voice was so raspy, it terrified me. I looked down and whispered, “Grandma L.”
In an instant, she was across the room. She lifted my face, her palm tucked underneath my chin, and squeezed the nerve endings out of my cheeks. Her grip was so tight, I thought she’d surely dented my cheeks that day. I couldn’t help but tear up.
“Don’t you ever call me Grandma. You hear me, little girl?”
I couldn’t keep back my tears, and as she let go with no remorse, as usual, the back door opened. I knew it was Momma Jean. I was saved once again.
Full of hurt and pain, I bolted off toward Momma Jean. I didn’t let her so much as step in the door before I buried my head against her thighs, hugging her tight around her legs.
The rage on Momma Jean’s face was enough to set the Atlantic Ocean on fire. Her left eyebrow raised up, her jaws tightened, her nostrils flared with every breath, I’d never seen Momma that mad before. She kneeled to my level and whisked away my tears with her fingers and kissed my forehead and whispered in my ear as she hugged me tightly.
“It’s okay, baby.” Momma Jean’s voice was ever-soothing, it could ease any pain.
Then she stood and strode into the kitchen. Usually, Momma Jean commanded me to go to my room when these arguments erupted, but this time around, I trailed behind her.
“What is the meaning of this, Momma—I mean Lois.” Momma Jean clapped her hand over her mouth after her slip of the tongue.
Lois never turned around, but she continued to cook and hum.
I knew Momma Jean was upset after I saw her put her hands on her waist and if her complexion was any lighter she would have been red in the face with furry…momma’s chest danced rhythmically with every exhaled breath. She walked up to Lois and tugged her shoulder.
Lois spun around and pointed a steaming-hot wooden spoon, dripping red spaghetti sauce, an inch away from Momma. Even though Momma backed up quickly, Lois leaned into her and whisper-shouted at her. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but Momma stalked away, yelling, and Lois mumbled to herself like she always did.
Momma Jean grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the house. We went to our serene place, where we liked to go and hide out in such times—a little lake behind the church building. Whenever we went there, we always sat in the grass, and Momma talked to me as though I was an adult. She told me all her dreams and aspirations, and I listened because I knew she had no one else to talk to.
Our times at the lake were simple but priceless. My busy mom and I craved those times. The moment itself never lasted long, but the memory always stayed with me, even more so when Lois treated me meanly. Then I always took myself to my happy place with my Momma at the lake. Even now as an adult, I can’t figure out what I did to Lois that made her hate me so much.
The second week of January 2014, St. Louis, Missouri.
I couldn't help but cry since I was having a horrible nightmare.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Brian shook me fully awake.
I couldn’t talk. My tears had taken over my voice.
Brian reached for the nightstand on his side and turned on the light. I must have been fast asleep for a while because I did not remember falling asleep. The last thing I remembered was Brian handing me some Earl Gray and my over-the-counter sleeping pills. Everything after that was a mist until this horrible nightmare.
“I miss Momma so much. I want to go with you and the guys to clean out her house tomorrow.”
He hesitated. “We already discussed this and we agreed that it was best for you to stay home and rest.”
I fell back asleep then, not a word of fight in me.
The next morning, I awoke to an empty bed and the sounds of the microwave chime and ceramic plates clinking together. Surely Brian wasn’t in the kitchen making all that ruckus. He gave me no choice but to get out of bed. As I neared the kitchen, my nose told me he was making my favorite breakfast.
He stood at the stove, his back turned to me. I couldn’t resist embracing him from behind. When we sat at the table with my favorite omelet and French toast, I had a refreshed love for my husband that morning. Every now and then, this happened to me, but other times I just didn’t feel the love connection.
Momma loved him, but now that she was gone, would we stay married? She was the glue that kept Brian and me together. The old doubt came barreling back into my mind; did I marry him because Momma liked him or because I wanted to be married to him?
“Let’s pray.” Brian’s definition of saying grace was a morning prayer that included everyone and everything but the food. Most times, when it came time to eat, the food was as cold as ice.
“Amen.” After only a few seconds, Brian concluded the grace.
“Amen.” Wow! He must have read my thoughts. Either that, or he was in a hurry.
“I’ll be over at your Momma’s house all day, getting her stuff packed up so we can put the house on the market,” Brian said as he multitasked the meal to his mouth.
What did he mean? “Put her house on the market?”
He laid down his fork. “We already went over all this with your mother and her attorney, remember?”
The agitation in his voice made me more uptight. “I don’t remember agreeing to that.”
“Well if you hadn’t been so...” Brian caught himself and crammed more omelet into his mouth, probably because he knew the conversation would not go anywhere.
“If I hadn’t been so what?” For a man who didn’t like confrontation, he sure had a way that could work my nerves.
“You know what.” He shoved back his chair and threw his napkin onto his plate. On his way to the door, he kissed my forehead. “I’m heading over to Momma’s house. I’ll talk to you when I talk to you.”
Once again, he did what he liked to do most: flee the confrontation. That was fine, but one of us had to be the adult. I’d have to carry on. My appetite was gone after he left. I gathered up all the plates and placed them in the sink. The inner me knew that without Momma, I might lose Brian. The stronger me tried to act macho as if I didn't care. I'd put on a show for Momma all these years. Now it was my turn to gain freedom.
Later, that evening.
I lost the concept of time. It felt like I had been sitting in my bathtub for a very long time. I knew it was night time because the sky looked starless and was silky dark through the small curtain–less window. I could feel my fingertips pruning as I sat in the now semi-luke-warm-freestanding oval tub; the tub that took Brian three months to install because he claimed he wanted a sentiment of the house he grew up in and being the cheapskate, he is he took on the project.
What's crazy is I can't remember the last time I took a long bubble bath but at this moment and time it was all I needed as I enjoyed my bottle of wine and thought of Momma. I purposely grabbed Momma's boom box before I soaked myself in the tub because I discovered the radio had Etta James CD Tell Mamma and all I wanted in that moment was the first song of the Album on repeat. Etta James was Mommas Favorite Singer. I grew up listening to virtually all her records; when Momma wasn’t listening to Gospel music.
Growing up, Momma over-extended her helping hand to help me overcome my "condition" as she labeled it, and all I did was look into Momma's eyes and give her false assurance that I was not a drunk like she so convincingly thought.
This by far was one of the harshest winters I had experienced in St. Louis in a long time. Because of the snow, Brian had been working from home more than he liked. But no one could have predicted the forceful restrictions of Mother Nature.
Would I ever get over Momma? I still called her cell phone just to hear her voice, and I would give anything to have one more day with her. Brian didn't know that I had not deactivated her cell phone yet. It was the only thing I had left of her—my voice of reason all thirty-nine years of my life. If I took that away, I would have no other physical connection to her.
“Here’s your morning dose of herbal tea,” Brian said as he entered the bedroom.
I was glad to see he brought me some hot tea. He placed it on my nightstand and reminded me of my English college roommate, Patronella, who had introduced me to herbal tea. I, in turn, taught Brian so it could be to my advantage.
Brian sat on his side of the bed and kicked off his shoes.
“Looks like someone is trying to catch a nap on the job.”
“That’s easy when you’re your own boss.”
“True. How are the projects coming along?”
Sigh. “As best as they can.” Brian’s voice had a distressed tone.
“Honey, we need to hire some help for you. The business is growing and you’re working too much. The accountant already said we can afford to put at least two more architects on the payroll.”
“Yes, but we haven’t had time to put all the necessary information together for hiring. Besides, I want to use that payroll money to get our personal financial situation under control before I start hiring people.” He paused, gazing into space.
After several moments, I asked, “What’s on your mind?” I knew my husband’s face when he became focused in thought, as much as I have known him for twelve years I know that he would want to do anything in his power to save a penny….
He smiled. “I’m in awe of God. Do you remember when I started my business proposal?”
“I remember helping you draft it. I also remember all the people who were against you trying to start your own business.”
“And now those same people ask me for business advice.” Brian paused while he shook his head and had a gazed look. “I’m glad I stepped out in faith.”
“I am too.”
“You know, if it wasn’t for Momma Jean, I don’t think I would have been courageous enough to pursue my business. That Sunday night, when I told her about my idea, her eyes lit up and she just smiled. She said, ‘You better go on, boy!’”
Brian laughed before continuing. “I still remember her high-fiving me, then she went into a speech about entrepreneurship. She hyped it up so good that when I left there that night, I couldn’t stop talking about it all the way home.”
He scooted close to me. I couldn’t remember the last time Brian and I just sat around in bed, not thinking of the cares of the world. This moment was perfect and almost felt like my first few years of blissful marriage before the disturbances of life.
“I miss Momma.” Brian whispered as he squeezed my hand.
“I miss her too. She loved you like her own.”
“Yes, she did.” Brian caressed my hand and sat in silence.
I took another sip of my drink. “This tea is extremely good. What did you do differently?”
“I used the secret ingredient.”
“How do you feel this morning?”
I really didn't want to tell Brian that I felt like crap and I was terribly hungover because that would be inviting an argument that wouldn't turn out favorable. "Besides my head throbbing, I'm doing well. This tea is helping soothe me."
“Good. I thought maybe you would be hung over.”
It's that condescending tone that dug deep into my last nerve. "Don't start. It's too early in the morning for a lecture."
Brian sat straight up and faced me. “Why are you always on the fence?”
“I am not always on the fence.” It becomes so annoying when he tries to act like a board-certified psychologist and the advisor to all my life’s problems.
“Yeah? I don’t appreciate seeing my wife like that.”
The shame washing over me was more than I could handle. I knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t know what to do other than to play dumb. “Like what?”
“Look, I’m not going there with you.” Brian released his hand from the embrace and stood up.
“Good! Because I’m not in the mood.” The last thing I wanted to hear was his cautionary tales.
“I’ll be in the basement if you need me. We leave for service at five.” Brian slid on his house shoes.
“That’s too early.”
“Besides dealing with all that snow on the highway, I also have to unlock the doors, turn up the heat, and shovel the walks.” He started for the door. “I expect you to be ready.”
That quickly, he walked away from another confrontation. No one ever tells you the truth about marriage. Well, I take it back. Some divorced people have a lot of advice about marriage. There are books and classes and courses for married people, but at the end of the day, we should figure it out for ourselves. Then again, if someone had tried to teach me about the nitty-gritty of marriage, I would not have listened.
Brian came from a two-parent household, but I had known only one parent. I never had a father figure to look up to. Momma dated here and there, but I never really knew who the men were. Now that I’m grown, I understand that she kept them away until she felt secure enough in the relationship to introduce them to me.
I met only three of Momma’s men. The first one was Phillip. He entered our lives right around the time we moved to East St. Louis from Mississippi. It wasn’t hard for me to tell something was going on when Momma’s days seemed longer than usual. They happened late at night and Momma’s bedroom door would be closed. She usually left her door open, even if she was on the phone. I think she and Phillip dated for just a few months because it did not seem long before she was back to her normal routine. I never got the chance to know Phillip.
Mr. Kenny was my favorite among the three men in Momma’s life. I was about twelve years old when Mr. Kenny came around. Of course, as with the other men, I most likely was introduced to him after he and Momma had established something solid.
Mr. Kenny was tall. He had broad shoulders and looked like a bodybuilder. He had a full but neat beard, which he occasionally stroked when he talked. Mr. Kenny was not from the Midwest. I knew that because he had an accent unlike any I'd heard before.
When Mr. Kenny came into our lives, I thought he would be around for good. He used to pick me up from school. He made sure I did my homework and often helped me with it. If I wanted anything for school, he made sure I had it.
Mr. Kenny loved to talk. Sometimes when Momma had long days, he took me out to the local park on Fridays and talked to me about life. He was a smart man and viewed the world differently. It seemed as if everything in life was metaphorical to him, which went with his image. He seemed much older than Momma, but then again, grey hair doesn’t always symbolize age.
Mr. Kenny's love for Momma was so overt that one could easily tell. Sadly, about the time I got used to him spoiling me and Momma, he disappeared from our lives. I don't know who was more heartbroken; Momma or me. His absence was profoundly felt because he was the closest I ever had to a father.
How could someone come into someone else's life and give them hope and happiness, only to disappear without any acknowledgment? After Mr. Kenny, Momma didn’t date anyone, at least she never brought anyone around, until I was seventeen. Then she began seeing Dr. Larry Bentley. He was one of Momma’s professors, from what I garnered. I shied away from getting to know him because the last time I got close to one of Momma’s men, it turned out ugly, so the best thing to do was to keep distance.
He tried to form some kind of bond with me, but at that time, I was consumed with my own boy-crush drama. Besides, he wouldn’t stay around. The other two men had left us, so why give this professor a chance?
It didn’t help that he gave me a creepy vibe. He looked as if he had just stepped out of a 1970s hippy movie. I can never forget the tormenting smell of Brut. It was so strong, I could smell him a mile away. When I got home, I always knew if he had been in the house because of the lingering smell of his cologne.
His sense of humor was rather dry. I could clearly tell Momma was faking it when she laughed at his horrid jokes. Unlike the other two, he was short and scrawny-looking. He had a comb-over like no other. It always seemed as though he combed over three long strands of hair, and between those hair fibers, a silky and shiny scalp lay peeking through. His scalp was so shiny, you could almost read your future like a crystal ball. How could he be that much in denial about balding? His mustache was always discolored as though he was trying to cover his grays.
I didn’t understand what Momma saw in him. They seemed like opposites. But he stuck around through the rest of my high school and the first two years of college. One day, I came home in my junior year of college, and Dr. Bentley was history. Momma never spoke of him, so I didn’t ask. I never had a relationship with the man, so I couldn’t have cared less about his whereabouts.
On any other occasion, I would have had an outfit in mind. But every time we went to Brian’s church, I had to think hard and dig deep in my closet. He allowed me to be myself for the most part, but when it came to his church, he became somewhat of a fashion guru suddenly.
“Are you almost done, Nandi?” Brian hollered from the bottom of the staircase in the basement.
I can’t stand the feeling of being rushed…I knew what I was getting myself into when I gave that response. Within moments, he was going to pop into the bedroom, ready to go. Brian’s thing was getting ready hours ahead of time.
“What’s taking you so long?” he asked as he entered the bedroom.
“I’m finishing up.”
He ogled my slightly low-cut dress. “Are you wearing that to church?”
“I was planning on it.”
Brian gave a sarcastic laugh. “I know you have something else to wear.”
“Didn’t you see the dress I laid out on the chair?”
If Brian could have his way, he would have me dressing like a presidential first lady—not so like a Michelle Obama whose style I fancy but Brian would rather have me looking more like a back in the eighties presidential first lady that wore two-piece suits that looked to me like material from a curtain set.
“It’s the midweek service. I don’t feel comfortable getting too formal.”