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Cover Story: While You Were Sleeping

The myth of Mom G, not just yet

By Kathy Y. Wilson · May 4th, 2005 · Cover Story
  Kathy and her Mom
Clarence Williams

Kathy and her Mom

My mother's held a death wish for the entire 40 years I've known her. Except for this one day. On my 40th birthday last week she smiled at me from her hospital bed, signaling a comeback and offering hope she wouldn't die. Not just yet.

It's not that she's actually wanted to die. It's more like she's anticipated death's imminence.

She was born dying.

Never Ed's and Mary's favorite, our mother (Mom G) was the do-gooder who stood tall in the gap, played organ at funerals and weddings pro bono, thwarted the unwanted pimp actions of battlecats and believed in three men, one of them Jesus.

And so during 71 years of devotion to the well-being of others -- mainly her four children -- in the words of a broken heart our mother is proud but tired and generally more disappointed than she's got a right to be.

All along, Heaven's been her goal. It's the "this Earth is not my home" refrain all God-obsessed black women sing theatrically and with longing.

Mom G's death lust is a running joke. When her grandchildren Ken Jr. (KJ), Kyler and then Kennedy were born, she riffed on old age so often that KJ, 10, now mimics her, carrying forth the second-generation production of the Mom G Follies.

"KJ, what does Mom G say when we ask her if she's coming to your basketball games?"

"If I'm still livin'," he says, parroting her weariness.

When, at 43, she gave birth to Devin, she said she wouldn't be around for her love child's high-school graduation and if, by the grace of God, she was alive she'd be an invalid. "You all are gonna have to push me down the aisle in a wheelchair."

She'd already proven herself a Superwoman, able to leap tall shortcomings in a single bound.

She worked shit jobs sometimes sick. And when she did lie down, it was never long.

She kept getting up.

I was almost 14 and Devin was a toddler on the back seat of the station wagon when Mom G had a heart attack driving from Hamilton to Springdale from a Sunday night church service. Drenched in sweat and defecation, she was steady. She calmly spoke to me.

"I'm having a heart attack," she said, like she was ordering dinner.

"What should I do?"

"Stay calm. We're almost home."

"Pull over, Mom! Pull over!" We passed gas stations and houses.

At her townhouse, she honked to alert my stepfather and brothers inside. The car lurched gently across the curb onto the sidewalk.

Wires, tubes and machines sprouted off her body the next time I saw her.

She came home and soon after nursed me for weeks while I battled pneumonia. By then she'd regaled us with tales of her tuberculosis and convalescence in the state sanitarium in West Virginia. Even then, I imagined her strong, willing herself back to health.

Either before or after the tuberculosis, she worked at the sanitarium. She was attacked by a patient -- knocked cold when the crazy woman pushed her to the ground, slamming a metal bed on top of her.

This is my favorite story. In it, I fantasize my mother shaking it off and then retaliating like Sofia in The Color Purple when the white woman slaps Sofia across the face for defying her.

Mom G is not Sofia, however, and she didn't draw up her fist and flatten the lunatic. Orderlies rushed in as Mom G lay limp on the floor.

It's this romanticism of Mom G's strength and resilience, despite the truth, that's lulled me into the mythic shade of her long shadow. In reality, when she wasn't telling us she was going to die she was telling us -- and showing us -- she was sick and tired.

And the signals came disguised as news of the non-stop deaths of her contemporaries and long-ago Liberty School classmates. Recently, she's been on her way to or returning from funerals of folks she's known a lifetime.

We went to Miss Mattie's funeral on April 2. She was Mom G's girl. They were old-school broads and survivors, different in texture yet similar in constitution.

I think Mom G saw clearly her own mortality. And it was real, not some externalized sanctified play-act.

Mom G herself was sick. She looked small after the funeral, but she reveled in our fellowship and clowned right along with us.

By Monday she was in excruciating pain. Tuesday she was in the hospital undergoing tests, sonograms and CAT scans.

For a week we made uncertain pilgrimages to the hospital.

She longed to get back home to her sofa, game shows and Judging Amy reruns. Cancer said no.

As I counted the five family members dead from cancer across 15 years, I ignored the possibilities of who's next.

"I love you, dear," was the last thing she said to me the day before her April 13 surgery. The Whipple Procedure -- named for Dr. Alan O. Whipple, who first described it 70 years ago -- removed her gallbladder, lower bile duct and the head of her pancreas.

I never saw firsthand the post-operative times she was alert and responsive. Until April 25, the day before my birthday.

We'd been called to the hospital around 2 a.m. April 23 during the tail end of my birthday party. Something terrible had gone wrong. We prepared for the worst.

At one point, we discussed the specifics of her wishes. She never wanted life via a ventilator.

"I do not want to be hooked up to machines. Nooo sir-ree," she said all our lives. "I do not want to be a burden, and no one's gonna be looking at me drooling. Uh-uh."

Overwrought and overwhelmed, we kept vigil, took turns and prayed specifically. Some parts of her worked better than others.

The morning of April 25, I gave her permission to go.

"If you're tired," I whispered in her right ear, "you can go. You did a good job, and we'll be alright." That last part was a lie.

By that night, she was responding again to pain.

Alone together, she stirred. Grimacing and squirming, she reached drunkenly to pull the ventilator hose from her mouth. I alerted the nurses. I left that night hope-filled.

I returned the afternoon of April 26, my birthday.

Counting down the room numbers in the Intensive Care Unit eases entrance into the unknown. There's uncertainty the closer I get to her.

The surgeon exited as I turned into her room. I couldn't read his expression, and my heart jumped. What now?

As soon as I stepped in, Mom G's eyes met mine. She smiled in recognition.

"Mom!" I leapt up and down and across the room to her bedside, clasping her hand and kneeling on my right knee seemingly all at once. I cried so suddenly I didn't know I was.

"Are you back, Mom?"

"Yes, dear."

This is not a myth. ©



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