Silence had been our ritual when Mama was drinking. It was only the two of us in our Sugar Hill apartment, and I had grown used to the quiet and her closed bedroom door. If her door was ajar, I would stand silently and watch her from behind while she sat on the edge of her queen–sized bed, smoking cigarettes, sipping vodka and staring at the picture on her nightstand, that married man she had always loved. He had died earlier that year, and Mama was sadder than usual. Sometimes she would just stare out her window, which looked ridiculous since her window faced a brick wall. Other nights, I heard her sobbing real loud behind her door. Then the room would go silent. Nancy Wilson or Billie Holiday would usually be moaning real low in the background on Mama’s cassette player. Her room would be lit with a dim light or sometimes no light at all, so Mama was just a silhouette, her ponytail pulled tight against her scalp. Even in the dark room, she was gorgeous.
On those nights when Mama passed out, I would clean up after her and tuck her in. I crushed her lit cigarettes and threw the ashes in our toilet. I emptied open bottles of Smirnoff, or cans of beer, and hid the unopened cans deep in the back of our closets, so Mama couldn’t find them. Somehow, she would always find them. I’d pull Mama onto her bed, using all my little girl strength to first lift one dangling leg onto the bed, then the other. Then I’d cover her up with her favorite purple knitted blanket, so she wouldn’t get cold. Next, I’d kiss Mama’s cheek goodnight and whisper, just like she did for me when she tucked me in, “Sleep tight, don’t let those bedbugs bite.” I’d usually sit for a while and watch how peaceful she looked. I couldn’t wait until my real Mama returned to me in the morning.
When the rest of our apartment was wrapped in silence, I would retreat to my bedroom and play with my dollhouse and my huge collection of dolls. Mama always went out of her way to get me identical dolls, one white and one matching black doll. All my friends thought I was real spoiled because my dolls filled the top of my dresser and spread out across my bed. Since my dad was half–Italian and half–black, Mama said she felt I should have dolls that reflected all the parts of me. Even though she and Papa had broken up when I was four years old, Mama seemed to think having black and white dolls was real important. Anyhow, those dolls were my friends and kept me company in our quiet little apartment, while Mama disappeared behind her bedroom door.
Half awake and still groggy from sleep, I run from our bedroom into the living room to answer my phone. It’s 5:35 a.m. on a Tuesday morning; my partner, Norma Jean, and I are quick to pick up our phones at odd hours, as both our moms are now elderly and sick. 9th Floor Hospice shows up on my caller I.D., and Mr. Khan, a hospice supervisor, is on the other end. “Ms. Juliet. Oh, Ms. Juliet, I am so very sorry to have to tell you that your mother just passed away. She died peacefully in her sleep. We were checking on her every half hour through the night, and when we just checked on her less than ten minutes ago, we realized she took her last breath. She went peacefully, Ms. Juliet. Please take comfort in that,” he offers. I slide off my sofa onto the cold wood floor and begin to sob those heavy cries you can’t control. Norma Jean holds me as I rock my body back and forth, still holding the phone. I pull myself together for a moment and tell Mr. Khan we will get to hospice right after we drop our son off at his middle school. Mr. Kahn assures me he will leave Mama in her room, so the family can say our goodbyes. Feeling like a lost and lonely child, I hang up the phone, fold myself into a tight ball in the corner of our living room, my arms wrapped around my knees. I rock back and forth on the wood floor, pushing my body against a cool wall.
I spent the evening before visiting Mama in her hospice room. This has been our ritual for a year. Her only child, I would visit her as much as I could, though it never felt like enough time. Last night, Mama was weaker than usual; she usually sipped whatever liquid treats I brought her, with great enthusiasm, using a bendy straw. Often, like a child, she would scream, “More, more. I want more!” and I would comply, eager to make her happy. It had been almost a year since she had been put on a liquid diet, and I was glad she could still find some pleasure in her limited food choices. I noticed, the night before she died, that Mama didn’t seem to have enough strength to sip liquid through her straw up into her mouth. So I became her personal cheering squad. “C’mon Mama just sip! Use your tongue and suck it all up, Mama! You can do it! It’s your favorite strawberry yogurt smoothie,” I urged, my voice upbeat and enthusiastic, hoping she would react to my positive energy. She tried to sip the liquid, her cheeks sucked in like a little kid with a too–thick milkshake and a straw. Maybe I just wanted to imagine she was trying.
Norma Jean and I go to the front desk and a floor supervisor who we have never met before greets us. I’m in a fog that morning and the names of new staff I meet throughout the day disappear from my memory. The supervisor expresses her condolences, walks with us to Mama’s room, and opens her door. Mama’s body is covered from head to toe in a white plastic zippered body bag. My sadness immediately turns to anger and shock. I tell the supervisor that Mr. Khan had promised earlier that morning that Mama’s body would remain uncovered until the family got to say our goodbyes. There is no reason for Mama to be wrapped up like that! I want to scream at the thought of Mama suffocating in a white plastic zipped bag. She apologizes and then suddenly, without warning, unzips the plastic and pulls it halfway down, from the tip of Mama’s head to her belly. There is no time to prepare for the jarring sight. All I can do is close my eyes and bawl at the sight of Mama’s frail, skeletal frame on the gurney while Norma Jean holds me close.
At last, the supervisor leaves us alone in Mama’s hospice room, with its antiseptic smell. The white plastic sheet, now folded down, exposes half of Mama’s body, rail thin, cheeks sunken in, and hair pulled tight against her scalp in a ponytail. Mama’s gray hair glistens against sunlight; her breasts, once full and voluptuous, dangle down the side of her body. I am looking at a stranger’s body, someone who is more skeleton than skin, a year of liquid diet, exposed on that gurney. Mama’s mouth is slightly open, stuck in a sweet semi–smile, as if she had drifted off to sleep daydreaming about Adam, her long gone, not–so–secret lover. My love, Norma Jean, steps a few feet away, promising me she will be just on the other side of the closed door. Once the door to the room is closed, Mama and I are finally alone together. It is only now that I let myself go back to that childhood memory.
It was winter, a crisp blue day. The sun flickered against Mama’s empty topaz–colored pill bottles, and the air was heavy with secrets. Mama stretched out, stone–still on our powder blue sofa. Her signature ponytail––her jet black hair against her flawless brown skin––her lips, a full pout of ruby red. She had on her favorite fitted dashiki: Brown, gold, red and green African patterns, a kaleidoscope of colors with fitted polyester bell–bottom pants. Even dead, Mama was stunning. She was almost as pretty as she had been in all the pictures, self–portraits, and framed magazine covers that lined our walls. Mama was still a diva in death. Her body looked as if it were stuck to the plastic that covered our pale blue sofa. I wondered how I would be able to peel her off our sofa. I breathed hard, like there was no air left in our tiny Sugar Hill apartment. I was seven years old.
I just knew Mama was dead as soon as I got home from school and saw her lifeless body. No matter how much I tugged and pulled at Mama’s limp body, this time she refused to respond. I tried my usual routine: Ice–cold water from our bathroom–– filled in a Dixie cup––splashed against Mama’s face. That usually woke her up. This time Mama didn’t budge, no matter how hard I tried. I held my cheek close to her lips, waiting to feel her warm breath, like so many times before, after a night of drinking Smirnoff and smoking Salem menthols. I didn’t feel the warm breath that usually signaled life. I screamed as loud as my little girl voice could yell: “MOMMY!!! PLEASE, MOMMY, PLEASE! Wake Up!” But still only silence. No snoring. Just nothingness. I ran and knocked on a neighbor’s door, but there was no answer from Ms. Bessie Mae’s apartment. I remembered I had learned in school to dial 9-1-1 if there was an emergency, so I ran back inside, went to my bedroom and dialed the pink push–button phone by my bed, my slender little fingers, trembling, managed to dial the number and give the phone operator on the other end our Sugar Hill address.
Strangers in navy blue uniforms showed up at our door soon after. Later, I would learn they were called EMT’s. They were gentle with me. “Where is your mother little girl? What is your name?” they asked, as they ran through our tiny apartment to the front where Mama was spread out dead on the living room sofa. “Juliet,” I answered, then whispered into the air, “Is Mama dead?” No one heard me. They were all busy trying to bring Mama back to life. I heard their words floating around our living room. Find her pulse. Cute kid. What a pity. Looks like she OD’d. All their words were swirling around me, and I sat on the floor in a corner, crisscrossed–apple–sauce, watching them try to find Mama’s pulse.
Inside, I knew how sad Mama had been. I knew Mama lost herself in Smirnoff, especially on weekends, because she was so sad. I knew Mama missed modeling on runways and being on all those glossy magazine covers, because that’s all she ever talked about some days. I knew being a Mama wasn’t glamorous. I knew it was all my fault. I also knew that all that I had in the world was attached to Mama. I knew instinctively why Mama’s pill bottles, sitting on her dresser, were empty that day. But nobody asked me what I knew, because when you are a child, you don’t know anything but how to tuck a secret in, and watch and wait and whisper under your breath please come back. And you know, even when you are seven, and don’t understand the word pulse, that it’s a very good thing when they find it.
“We found the pulse!” someone shouted. One of the men in uniform bent down to make eye contact with me and whispered gently in my ear, “Baby girl, we found your Mama’s pulse. Little Juliet, she’s gonna be alright, chile.” I rocked myself back and forth in that tiny little bit of corner, so happy that they had found that thing they called a pulse.
Soon after, I went down the block to stay with Grandma Pearl for the next month. Nobody talked about what happened to Mama during that time. Everybody just said Mama was a little sick and the doctors were making sure she got better. When Mama got better, she and I returned back home to our Sugar Hill apartment and buried our secret. We never talked about Mama trying to hurt herself. Nobody was supposed to know that Mama almost lost her pulse.
Years later, when I was a teenager, I asked Grandma Pearl about my memory, those empty pill bottles and Mama wanting to die. A part of me sometimes wondered if I had made up that memory since nobody in our family ever talked about it. Nobody. When I finally tried to talk about it with Grandma Pearl, she said, “Your Mama lived, and she’s alive. That’s all you need to know, child.” Grandma’s words dismissed my memory. I could see the anger in her face and the hurt, and a part of me was scared that if I asked Mama about it she would start drinking again. I was so happy that she had stopped drinking since I had started high school. So I left that memory buried there in the past until Mama died.
Our Sugar Hill living room, all those years ago, was filled with sunlight — a beam of light so bright that you could see particles of dust floating in front of your eyes. I could get lost in the specs floating around the room if I truly let myself go.
Mama used to say I was too serious, too grown. I spent so much time alone in my room, and Mama used to urge me to invite my friends over to play. Tasha and NeeNee, my friends from down the block, usually wanted to come over and play with all my dolls after we got out from school. Sometimes, if I knew Mama was upstairs drunk, I would lie when we met in the courtyard of my building and say “Mama don’t feel well today.” Or “She got a bad cold.” Or “She got a headache.” Or “I got chores to do.” Some days, if I was really lonely, I would let them come upstairs to our apartment and play. Inevitably, Mama would come out of her room and say in her boisterous voice, words all slurred, “How y’all feeling today girlllls?” A part of me would cringe inside, worried that Tasha and NeeNee would start laughing at how silly Mama sounded with her slurred words, but they would just say “Hi, Ms. Ruth,” and then get back to cornrowing my dolls’ hair. I never did tell them about what Mama was doing behind her closed bedroom door, and they never asked.
Mama didn’t really cook much, so I did a lot of running around for us both. I’d go to our local Chinese restaurant over on 148th and St. Nicholas and order Mama’s favorite, chicken chow mein, and my favorite, shrimp with lobster sauce. The sauce was a greyish white gelatin, and I’d pick out every last green pea. Sometimes after Mama ate a good meal, she would get herself together, sober up, and come out of her room to watch T.V. with me. I’d make our favorite snack for T.V. nights: Bologna, American guvment cheese, and sour dill pickles, all cut in cute even square pieces that I arranged on a big blue and white glass plate with saltines. Those were my favorite nights with Mama, watching All in the Family, and we were almost like a normal family on T.V. night.
When Mama was alive, she would always say, “Baby girl, you got to let go and let God.” So tonight I say goodbye, Mama. Goodbye, powder blue sofa wrapped in plastic. Let me rip that plastic off now. We can exhale. Goodbye, empty amber–toned pill bottles. It’s time to let sun reflect through you, you little prism of gold bottles. Goodbye, sad girl sitting in a corner while EMTs talk about you like you’re not even there. You cute, pigtailed baby girl. Let it all out now. Breathe out, baby girl. It’s okay to cry if you’re scared. It’s okay if you are tired of being strong for other folks. It’s okay if you are tired of sitting stone–still in a corner, while folks search for signs of life. Rip off that sweet little mask covering your face, baby girl. Lay it down, stomp it, or throw it against a pale green wall. It’s okay to show those ugly secrets. Let them breathe. You got to heal now. Break the liquor bottles you tried to hide from Mama all those years. Let them shatter into a million pieces. Let them go, child. Let it all go. Say goodbye, Mama. Say I love you. I still love you, Mama.