On her last birthday here, my mama, brown-skinned and big boned, sat propped upon a throne of white pillows, her presence reigning over her illness and her stubbornness denying her body’s desire to quit. A symphony of blinking lights and beeping machines brought her back to life for one more dance. She, the strongest black woman, and me, her seed, fought over green beans. Her fragility moonlighting as stubbornness guided my hands to the fork for bites of flavorless vegetables.
“You’ve gotta eat, mom,” I said. What I meant was “you gotta live, mom.”
She opens her mouth to eat, to curse the kitchen and cook and nurse for the blandness, to refuse to do it again. We strike a deal for the strawberry shortcake birthday dessert. She finishes the beans. Or rather she eats 5 and I finish them. I sing. She smiles and waits for her shortcake which she also hates.
There are no flowers allowed in the intensive care unit where mama eats her last birthday cake. I guess they figure that folks will get them on their way out — either in arms or on coffins. Someone sends ma flowers that day but she never sees them. I don’t like flowers but I love them for her.
Just like my mama on her last birthday, flowers are already on their way out. Flowers, like everyone we will love in this life, are only temporary but they are beautiful and radiant and so we love them anyway. I have been scared to love since my mama died because I know every love I hold is just a bouquet wilting away in my arms. I am afraid that loving another will leave me with the thorns of grief that hurt more than any other pain I have experienced. For twenty years, I held my mama in my arms and watched her give away petals to friends and family and community and illness. I watched as she watered herself with the love of others and laughs and medications and surgeries and us. She called me and my sister her sunshine. I barely passed biology but i know about photosynthesis and I think ma meant we kept her alive. I just wish I could have shone brighter to sustain her breathing for just a few moments longer.
Flowers are never meant to last forever which is why I have always hated them. Love is never meant to last forever which is why I have always resisted it.
My mama loved jazz music and so I loved jazz music. Mama loved that I loved jazz and loved that we loved it differently. She, loving the versatility of the grooves she danced to in our basement and me, enamored by the riffs and the theory behind it. Mama listened to jazz. I studied it. Together our love was a duet of admiration for an art form that don’t make much sense to anyone except those who love it dearly. I have been trying to study my love and grief for my mama since she danced her way to death. But like jazz, it seems like life and death are a prescriptive improvisation really only mastered by its creator. Five years has taught me to embrace this love and grief like drummers sit comfortably in the pocket. Five years of study has taught me that like jazz, love is best played with those who love as hard as you do, those who can feel both the most beautiful ballad and the deepest beat in their souls, those who stay until the end of the concert, mesmerized by the arpeggios of this thing called life. Five years has taught me that sometimes the most majestic of tunes are simply meant for dancing, for grooving, for loving.
Like listening to your favorite jazz tune, loving someone requires a commitment to embracing grief, knowing that all songs are just beautiful bouquets we must learn to appreciate knowing that eventually their final notes will fall.
happy birthday, mom.
our song is still playing.