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I had the great thrill, honor, and privilege eight years ago of acting as an escort for the beautiful ESSENCE Magazine editorial director Susan L. Taylor when she held a book signing at Media Play, where I was a book department manager, in Savannah, Georgia. To thank Ms. Taylor for coming to the store and for her many years of inspiring editorials, I presented her with several pages transcribed from my notebook, about my rude awakening to the demands of caregiving, hoping that these might provide her some measure of personal inspiration even as her writings had done the same for me. She graciously accepted my token of gratitude, and I left it at that.
I was therefore surprised several months later when I received a call from ESSENCE officials asking if I could get on a plane in July and fly to New York City for a photo shoot. “A photo what?! Who?! Me, Aberjhani?” Me indeed. I was informed that the photo was to accompany my “personal essay,” which they were calling THIS MOTHER’S SON, and that it would be included in their special 1997 November Men’s issue, entitled The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man. With the 2005 November issue now hitting the newsstands, and with my very fortunate consistent publication of poetry in ESSENCE this year, I felt it appropriate to acknowledge the 8th anniversary of the publication of This Mother’s Son by presenting here an excerpt from the extended version of the essay. It is accompanied by the original 1997 published photo (with graphic lettering by the editor) that was taken by none other than fashion photographer and videographer Barron Claiborne. A much-sought photographer, Claiborne’s subjects have included such notables as author and social activist Nikki Giovanni, Broadway diva Audra McDonald, musicians Maxwell and Angelique Kidjo, composer Philip Glass, rap-poet Tricky, members of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and many others.
The following excerpt picks up after I have woke in the middle of the night to find my mother, Mrs. WillieMae Griffin Lloyd, suffering from a diabetic seizure, notified my adult siblings of the situation, then rushed her in an ambulance to the hospital.
This Mother’s Son
I don’t know how much time passed or how often I fell down into hell before scrambling back to earth when I heard one of my sisters say: “Look who’s back!”
The door to my mother’s room was open and there she was propped up in bed as if her children and everything else around her was merely an extension of a dream she’d recently had. Someone motioned for me to enter and witness up-close the miracle of her well-being. And although WillieMae’s eyes were clearly now in focus and her ability to speak restored, I couldn’t move as close to her as the others. My fear and distrust were insidiously childish but also quite unyielding.
As was the reality of what I had witnessed earlier. The doctor explained to me that my mother had “bottomed out,” meaning her blood sugar had dropped to an extremely low level due to a failure to adhere to her proper eating schedule. Because she suffered from a severe case of diabetes requiring stronger-than-usual doses of insulin, when she ate was every bit as important as what she ate, and this time she had eaten too little during the previous evening hours. With the replacement of the necessary sugar and a balanced breakfast along with her normal morning insulin, it was almost as if nothing had happened. But only almost. My family was assured and comforted enough that three of them left while only I remained with one sister.
I felt as mindless as a clipped toenail and sat down to escape inside my silence. I pulled from my canvas bag the copy of Tying Rocks To Clouds, and opened it to an interview with Pir Vilayat Khan, a modern Sufi teacher. My gaze bounced repeatedly from the page to the wall to my mother, then back to the page. I read a statement from Vilayat Khan concerning relationships:
“There’s constraint in a relationship. There’s an involvement which is always at the cost of one’s freedom... One needs to understand how to accept an external form of constraint while maintaining freedom in the higher area’s of one’s being.”
Certainly the constraint which I had so often felt in my relationship with my mother involved not only fear of her death but the very real restrictions I had placed upon my personal life. They also involved the fact that of her nine adult children, I, the youngest, was perhaps the one with whom she could relate the least. And I suspected that much of our relationship, characterized more by mutual tolerance than communication or sharing, was in fact the troubling shadow of the bridge that once existed between her and my father. A man different from the deceased husband who had fathered her other children.
It was the same kind of shadow I had seen flickering on the walls of other more intimate relationships with black women. Too often there had been a poisonous psychic residue of encounters with fathers, former lovers, brothers, uncles, or neighbors that tainted the connections that followed. In the case of my mother and I, it made me wonder how much of what was negative between us was actually unfinished business between her and another. It made me wonder for how many black mothers and sons, sisters and brothers, lovers and friends, for how many might that be the painful case? It made me wonder how we might break such an enslaving chain of repeating trauma.
It puzzled me that she found it so difficult to recognize me as an individual unless I exhibited the more stereotypical traits assigned to southern black men. Sexual promiscuity, alcoholism, violence, or the practice of a traditional religion all (yes: understandably) made more sense to her than any pose I might strike as a so-called literary artist or metaphysical philosopher. The rural Georgia community from which she escaped as a young woman in the 1940s forged in her a personality wholly unlike my own, shaped by colleges and travels throughout this world during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Once, I had considered her my best friend, but that era ended, it seemed, at her unquestionable command.
So was I meditating upon Pir Vilayat Khan’s words when the examining doctor returned and announced that WillieMae was sufficiently recovered enough to go home. Within an hour, home is exactly where we were. I exhausted a considerable amount of mental energy trying to understand how Mom had appeared nearly dead just a few hours before but now sat in her padded recliner as if nothing at all had occurred. The pieces to my nerves were still scattered throughout the house and I could not still my anger at everyone else’s seeming nonchalance regarding what had happened.
I was considering ways to either firmly put my mind back together or temporarily demolish it completely when someone knocked at the screen door. An aged hoarse voice asked to speak with “that boy in there.”
I went outside onto the front porch. A slim elderly black man, carrying a cane in one hand and a closed umbrella in the other, greeted me. He looked an even six feet tall, close to my own six feet three inches, with coco brown skin and the dark murky gaze of an alien curious about human intentions. I didn’t expect the words he spoke:
“I seen what you did,” he said, and I wondered immediately what night he might have been peeping in my bedroom window. Damn. Then he continued, “I seen y’all this mornin’ with that lady in there. That’s your mama? I’m gon tell you somethin’. I had to do the same thing for my mama. You hear me?!”
He stared at me as if his were the eyes that adorned the Sphinx and his gaze yet scanning eons and witnessing the dubious doings of men and women. I didn’t notice when he curled one hand into a knotted fist and raised it but I did notice when he struck, not at all lightly, my shoulder, chest, arms and stomach. He continued striking me as he continued speaking:
“I know you got girls in that house,” referring this time to my very adult sisters, “but I wanted to talk to a boy! You know why? ‘Cause God told me to give black boys strength! That’s what I said, you ain’t nothin’ but a boy to me. How old is you? 20? 30?”
“I’m 38 sir.”
“You know how old I am? I’m more than one hundred years old! Look at my eyes boy! You see how I’m cryin’?! I’m cryin’ cause I done the same thing you doin’ right now: I took care’a my mama in her later years and God, He blessed me for it. Yes He did. He blessed me with my own house, with my son and with a woman who love me right now.”
At that point he smiled, but the tears remained on his face and I was mesmerized watching his features leap back and forth between sadness and joy, the bittersweetness of hard and good times remembered. The accumulated emotions of a hundred-plus African-American man standing on my porch beating strength into my more-than-weary soul.
“I’m more than one hundred years old. If I had money I’d put it in your hand boy ‘cause I’m proud of you. I live two houses down from yo’ house and you probably ain’t never seen me sittin’ on that porch, but I been watchin’ you. And I wanna thank you for what chu’ doin’? You understand what I’m sayin’? I want you to remember this moment, remember it days and weeks and years from now, and I want you to tell people what I’m tellin you today.”
Because he had not bothered to wipe away his tears while speaking to me, I did not wipe mine as I nodded yes to his words. The blows to my torso became softer and a fine trembling fluttered his lips. He said something about a kindness that supposedly resided in my eyes and I recalled broken pieces of southern folklore about elderly people having the spiritual ability to bless younger individuals with various talents and strengths of character. In the parlance of Sufi mysticism, it is similar to the concept of transmitting spiritual grace from teacher to disciple.
“See, you think you ain’t strong enough to do what chu gotta do. But you is. On the inside. You strong enough.”
He stopped striking me altogether. I took hold of his elbow and helped him down the five steps he had used his cane and umbrella to climb. He did not look back as he walked in the direction of his home and I was fully aware that although he hadn’t told me his name, I possessed an implacable blessed sense of precisely who he was, and now because of him, a similar sense of my self as well.
The day had begun with a level of pain and anguish that I have rarely experienced, yet it proposed to end with an acquisition of knowledge and personal power also rarely experienced. And that, I supposed, was as plausible an answer as any to why human beings suffer: that in the end we might attain grace.
© 22 October, 2005