It woke me Sunday morning at exactly 9:20 a.m.
It was supposed to be 8:20 a.m.
I am never ready.
I swiveled out and to the edge of my side of the bed and planted my feet on the floor, glancing longingly? Guiltily? Sadly? at my former stepfather’s large oil canvas of my mother hanging on the far wall.
Slathered in pastels and jewel tones, she is sitting on a rent-to-own sofa covered in itchy fabric. A floor lamp beside the sofa bathes her in unnatural light. She is pitched to her right, her long left leg crossed casually over her long right leg just like my Grandfather Edward Hill used to cross his even longer legs.
Her left arm is extended and her baseball-mitt sized piano-playing left hand rests on her left knee. Her right arm is up. Her elbow stabs the arm of the sofa. Her right hand cups her long chin, the chin she inherited directly from Grandmother Mary Alice and which was passed most noticeably to our sister, Devin.
Mom has a gaze.
Depending on my grief, sadness or ebullience at her death, it is sometimes a dead-on stare.
Sunday, March 10 — what would have been her 81st birthday depending on whom you ask — it was almost a wink.
“Happy birthday, Mom,” I said inside a long and loud sigh.
I was trying to wash my face and brush my teeth when I first started to sob.
It could very well have been the gospel music I put on and turned up loud. I grew up on all manners of gospel: country, quartet, spirituals, hymns, ballads, contemporary, urban.
I play gospel when I want to be with her again like when I was a girl.
I passed Saturday afternoons sitting in the living room floor of 513 S. Fourth St. in Hamilton listening to my mother play deejay, stacking records on the console record player while she cooked a Sunday feast.
Once she got the macaroni and cheese in the oven, the sweet potatoes under a blanket of spices, butter and sugar and the greens cleaned, torn, seasoned and simmering and the yeast rolls started on their slow first rise on top of the double oven my father had installed as part of the working-class Huxtable kitchen makeover he masterminded, she’d stop the records and sit at the piano on the other side of the kitchen wall.
On that bench she’d sit hunched over while she worked out arrangements for lead singers and the full choir at Israel Baptist Church on Seventh Street where she fought one of her many battles for respect and consideration.
Yet she played on.
She did a one-woman relay from the piano to the pots, pans and oven, tending our meal while simultaneously tending her gift.
Sheet music was open on the stand and she flipped the pages hastily and sometimes clumsily.
She was her own assistant.
Sometimes she was learning a James Cleveland or an Andre Crouch or a Walter Hawkins song “from the record,” as we used to say
The totality of her patience with tone-deaf singers, her sometimes thunderous and percussive piano power and her agility switching from the piano to the organ (a preference at funerals) all made her a favorite go-to for congregations of all stripes throughout the area.
What work ethic I have — especially the stamina and energy to plow through until the end — I got from her.
Our mother never stopped.
My three blood siblings and the four stepchildren she raised can all attest to the fact that she never stopped parenting us.
The day in April 2005 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she immediately told me to be sure to get her car and drive it because she knew my transportation situation was (and remains) dubious, at best.
When it became clear the Whipple Procedure would not save her and make her among the few who survive a few years with pancreatic cancer, she even held on long enough for us all to make it to her bedside Mother’s Day weekend 2005.
But it was another funeral that sounded mom’s knell.
Mattie Armstrong, Devin’s paternal grandmother, died in late March 2005 and the funeral was the first Saturday in April.
Mom was proud all her children showed up to pay respect to a woman who was her own contemporary and to show support for our youngest sister.
Afterward we all went to TGIF’s in Springdale.
Amid all the clowning we do when we are together, I looked at my mother.
She’d aged and I’d missed it.
I made a joke about how she was eating like a Roman slave.
She hadn’t been able to keep anything down.
Two days later she went to the doctor with severe stomach pain and the doctor sent her to the hospital.
She never came home.
A month later she was dead.
That’s a grandmother and a mother for my sister, within a month.
And here’s how the hours are marked for me.
By January I am wiped out, having survived another round of holidays without her.
I blink my way through Black History Month, bearing down for three speed rounds of heavy-handed dates.
March 10 is her birthday.
April 26 is mine.
On April 26, 2005, I walked into the Intensive Care Unit of Mercy Hospital to see her awake and laughing with Aunt Janice.
Despite being in a medically induced coma most of the month, she knew it was my 40th birthday.
“There’s my baby,” she said.
I came to her bedside and laid my head on her chest.
Mother’s Day that year she was gone.
At least now the nights are shorter.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: email@example.com