feature image via shutterstock.com
What sometimes happens in my temporary living arrangement is that my mother will in some way find my daughter delightful. And in finding my daughter delightful, she will thank me for my decision to keep her. It bothers me, but everything bothers me these days. To have a dead father who was your best friend is to be an exposed nerve, hypersensitive to pain and numb to joy. I wonder if the years will cover my nerves in thicker skin, if people will ever remind me of those terrible first months of my pregnancy without pissing me off.
I’ve received five years of gratitude and I’ve never given a straight, “You’re welcome.” Instead, I jump back into the mind of the girlish woman I was at 28, the one who didn’t know enough about the consequences for unacceptable motherhood to plunge headfirst into the fire. It has taken me much longer than my mother to see the gift of my own naiveté.
You are 23 and home for Christmas. You have not begun to unpack your knapsack, so you think yourself a star. Untouched and untouchable, the favored daughter of a just God. When your father announces his terminal illness, you ponder the irony of dumping Jesus on his birthday. The bad things/ good people conundrum is too much weight for your fledgling relationship.
You are 23 and a Type A over-achiever. You treat your father’s news as a rumor for a pop quiz. You don’t want to be caught off guard, so you begin to actively practice grief. Having never lost more than a wallet, you believe grief is clinging so as not to forget.
You are 23 and still think your body a valuable commodity. You wonder if you can trade it for your father’s. You draw nigh to Prosperity Gospel Jesus (PGJ), an ATM machine who gives miracles in exchange for fundamentalist applications of scripture. You throw away your box of dildos, swear off premarital sex, become an ordained minister, and expect a miracle.
By the time I met my daughter’s father, I’d trained my brain to vacillate dangerously between blind faith and death grip love. He could have been any tall man. He could have had any background and I would have gladly become his proselyte. In those limbo days before my father died, I joined cults, collectives, and identitarian sects. I lived for conversion, grateful to throw my faith into anything other than the certainty of death come soon.
My parents had developed a different relationship with faith. Having faced the pre-Obama healthcare industry with terminal illness, and having dropped their son off at the lion’s den (my PGJ-influenced conception of the prison industrial complex), they’d lost faith in this country’s ability to do right by bodies it did not value.
When the faint pink line tentatively appeared like my brother’s ex-girlfriend on visitation day, I had to decide whether to become such a body. In a hormonal moment of clarity, I saw my daughter’s father for who he was. Just a man not unlike Jesus — father of many, provider for few.
By the time you are 28, you have been grief cramming for five years. You are emotionally exhausted from anticipating death and the faint pink line seems like a promise. The list of things you don’t know about the life ahead is a temporary fence around your desire to parent. The fence holds even when, on your first trip home after the pink line, your father hugs you in the kitchen as if you are the spoiled thing you smell.
My family and I stand in the kitchen as the funeral service workers wheel my father’s body out of my childhood room, the only room that had space for his hospice bed. I lunge screaming at the zipped bag. My grandmother holds me for the first time in years, whispering the same mantras that have helped her through all of her many losses. “God knows what He’s doing,” she says, pressing me into the table so the men can pass us by.
I scream, “He made a mistake!” grateful for the scrape of my voice against my throat. My father has been dead for an hour and I haven’t cried. My raw throat is a reminder that I can feel. That I didn’t die with my father while we were holding hands. I don’t even think about disrespect, about the rule that you never raise your voice at an elder. I don’t give a damn about blasphemy or the spectacle I’ve become, lunging at a body that no longer houses my dad.
This scene is a gift that only families like mine can appreciate — families that rehash trauma over Sunday dinner, flooding the moments we’ve survived with light and laughter. “Remember when you cussed Granny out?” my brother will ask years later, bending the truth into a funnier frame.
Sometimes, my mother’s gratitude feels like trite faith — a “God knows what he’s doing” to keep me from lunging at the once-was or could-have-been shell of my childless self. Only now, I see how my whole family was lunging at this gone girl — the one who could have retained her status as a daughter of promise, the one who may have married a man like my father and bought a house. People who loved that version of me said hurtful, demeaning things in the first few months of my pregnancy.
It is only in the wake of my own loss that I see my decision for what it was — a double homicide that stole both that girl and the myth that made her. Because if American meritocracy were more than myth, how could all of the things I’d accomplished be destabilized by one decision? If meritocracy were more than myth, wouldn’t I “deserve” to bounce back? Isn’t all the hysteria over Black women’s reproduction and parenting really a death grip on mythology? The myth was already riddled with disease, but it is hard to conceive of death as relief while clinging to contrived memories about the way things were.
Clinging only prolongs the phase of grief that seems cruel: moving forward.
Days after the first anniversary of my father’s death, I called a psychic. I needed to know if my father was angry with me for the ways I’d disappointed him with my desire. I’d “come out” three times in as many years: a “bad boy,” a baby, and a first girlfriend. What if disappointment had crumbled his resolve and made him susceptible to the cancer that reached his brain? I cried openly on a bench in my university’s courtyard, unaware of the way unacceptably mothering had already thickened my skin against the glares.
“Let all of that go,” the psychic said. “Spirits are free from all that human stuff. Your dad is jumping up and down, saying something about a birthday.”
His birthday is in July. He died in April. I said nothing, not wanting to give up any information that would ruin the façade of communication that I needed to be real.
Not missing a beat, she said, “On the other side, the ones we love think of death anniversaries as birthdays. We think of it as the day we lost them, but they think of it as their birth into freedom.”
When my mother thanks me for walking into the fire, does she know that I couldn’t see? That I was directed by desire that grew stronger in the flames licking at my skin? Whether she knows it or not, her gratitude is neither pardon nor apology. Neither are necessary anymore. Her gratitude invites me to meditate on freedom, scope of power, and all the ways the universe responds to me when I close my eyes and follow desire to her core.