"Bearing Witness"

Bernestine Singley © 1996


I look at Desiree. “The last place I want to be is around a sick momma.”

“I know what you mean.” She shrugs sympathetically.

“Oh, well, the universe puts us in the places where we need to be. But….” A heavy sigh. Soon talk of food and what lies ahead sends sorrow scurrying.

We have gathered, six women friends and I, to catch up after seven years apart. As night turns day and day turns night again, bared souls skitter across the hot skillet of confession. Jubilant, weeping, anxious, hopeful, fearful, fragile warrior sisters of steel.

Stories tumble over each other until, without warning, they crash into the clock and it is time to leave.

Desiree and I climb into Patricia’s car for the ride across town. My head resting against the window, I force myself not to think about her mom waiting at the other end, fresh from major surgery, hooked up to an oxygen tank, a metal tree with tubes for stems and leaves of plastic bags. I wonder if the smells, the sights and sounds trumpeting human frailty feel less terrifying when you are, like Pat, a surgeon, and your mother is in your house, her life in your hands.

Mommas can die. Odessa, my momma, is dead. I could not save her. This is not a truth of which I want to be reminded even two years after the fact. So I wrap myself in the rhythm of my girlfriends' voices, a medley of laughter and sighs. I am comforted and protected.

I love these women, my found sisters, one in from Brooklyn by way of Baltimore, the other a South Central Los Angeles transplant to Chicago’s Hyde Park. Our chattering cocoon speeds through the light-sprinkled night, navigating tight tunnels of frozen snow chunks flying by in a blur.

I am thirsty for Chicago's skyline. This urban hunk of a city bears no resemblance to the world-class wannabe I flew in from, back where bubble-headed bottle blondes spit shin tinsel pretensions and tower over their tiny men in prissy boots and cartoon cowboy hats.

Sated by my quick fix from the grit and grime of winter, I snuggle down for a cozy doze. On cue, sorrow slips into that space between sleep and dreaming and snatches me back to consciousness.

Sick momma. Oh, God, I don’t want to see a sick momma. I don’t want to smell a sick momma. I don’t want to hear a sick momma. I want Pat’s momma to get up.

I have seen a sick momma before. My momma was sick. And then she died.

I was stunned. For months. I walked around in a daze of denial until one morning I couldn’t stand up quite as straight as usual. The next day, I was bent over further still. By the fourth day, I was crawling around on my hands and knees. I couldn’t stand up at all.

The doctors pulled and stretched. Moist heat, electrodes, mechanical contraptions lifted my body first this way then that, day after day.

Finally, at home one day, I unfolded myself gingerly onto the floor and rolled to one side. That was a mistake. A torrent of water gushed from my eyes. Rivers of snot bubbled from my nose. I was suffocating in water. What to do?

In a few days, I stood straight enough to board a plane. Warmed by the Jamaican sun, soothed by the ocean, basking in the generous love of the blessing who is my husband, gradually I stood taller and taller until one day, I was no longer bent and twisted by grief.

For two years, I have kept a wide stride. But now, as Pat whips the jeep into the exit lane, I am scared.
Dear God, please don’t let Pat’s momma drop me to the floor again.

At the door, we are immediately enveloped in the unbridled excitement and instant love of children for company.

Jacqueline, five going on twenty-five, and I fall in love on sight. Victoria, seven, and Desiree stake their mutual claims. Jay, nine and full of male wisdom, stays out of sight, wisely wary of being swept away by this circle of loud women.

The girls lead us to the third floor. On the second floor landing, I keep my head averted. Pat’s sick momma is nearby. No one has told me this, but what my skin knows needs no confirmation.

The next morning, on my way downstairs, I pause on the second floor landing. The silence of sickness hangs as heavy as wet brocade drapes. A door ahead and off to the left is ajar, hiding her. When that thought clears, somehow I am standing in the entry, staring at her.

My heartbeat stuffs my ears. I see a leg partially covered by a beautiful fluffy comforter sprinkled with tiny blue flowers. Sunlight fills the room. Immobile, I close my eyes and listen. And stop breathing.

At the housekeeper’s footsteps, I tip, barefeet, down to the first floor landing. I barely have the strength to lace my boots and stumble out the front door.

Several hours later when I return, Jacqueline greets me at the front door all smiles and 5-year old jumping. I practice the words under my breath until I’m finally able to casually inquire, “So, how’s Grandma today?”

“Not too good.” She eyes me wisely, concerned.

As we climb the stairs to the second landing, I try again. “Do you think we should check on Grandma?” She answers by promptly skipping into the room. Again, the doorsill stills my feet.

Her moaning rattle shortens my breath and pulls me forward. I’ve heard this sound before.

At the head of the bed, Jacqueline flutters kisses across her Grandma’s forehead. Then there I am, rubbing Grandma's leg, the same one still partially uncovered. I practice the words inside my head a long time before I let them out.

“Mrs. Boatright, can I get you anything?”

“That’s okay, baby. Thank you for asking. I’m fine.” Her clear, strong voice rising up off the bed startles me and shoos off my dread.

“C’mon, Jacqueline, let’s let Grandma get some rest.”

Jacqueline giggles promises of our return, then grabs my hand and pulls me downstairs behind her. The next time I see her, it is hours later, on our way to the airport. Buckled in her car seat in the back, Jacqueline is book-ended by an exercise mat and my carry-on bag.

While Pat and I do our best to talk over her head, Jacqueline leans forward to play with her mom’s earring. She caresses first Pat’s face, then mine. Without warning, she strains forward and kisses us both. Then she settles back, smug with the love she has bestowed.

“Momma believes she’s going to die,” Pat whispers from the side of her mouth.

“Mommas know when they’re going to die,” I whisper back. “And you know what? You can’t keep them here once they’ve decided to go.”

Pat’s wide eyes glisten as she recounts a premonition from a month earlier, a sign, she thought, of her momma’s impending death.

I remember my own remarkably similar experience. The tearful torrent that swept in from nowhere one cloudless, sky blue day and forced me off the road. A month later, Odessa was dead.

I think back to this morning's moaning rattle, but I keep this to myself.

At home the next day, a ten-hour nap pins me down past dusk. Sick mommas and dead mommas can wear you out. Finally, I drag myself awake and call Pat.

“Girl, Momma died a little while ago." She says this with her medical doctor's voice, the one that is calm and matter-of-fact.

Choking sobs follow swiftly, rushing out to greet me. There. Where I am supposed to be.