For Us That Choose to Live When The Certainty of Death Is Not Enough:
Reflections on Dreams and Nightmares
May 13, 2018
Note: All italicized quotes are poetry from the collection Black Mermaids: Anniversary Edition.
I became a mother four days before my 17th birthday. My son Julian lived 17 years and nearly three weeks. Today is his first otherworldly birthday - 18 and on Mother's Day. Julian and I were born in the same hospital - a sprawling urban health care campus where they no longer deliver babies. He was nearly the last round of children born there. When I was a child, living on the other side of town in public housing, the hospital and surrounding neighborhoods seemed epic in proportion. However, we have lived directly across the street for 14 years and it has come to feel ordinary - a block never quite large enough to hold my son. A few weeks ago someone carved “RIP JUJU” into the hospital’s newly laid sidewalk, now a permanent reminder to all that pass.
“I became a mother four days before my 17th birthday
I have been holding my breath ever since.”
I often marvel at the things that seemed of large magnitude when I was not yet "grown." Motherhood being one of them. I was extremely scared and discouraged when I realized that I would be having son. I had not witnessed a lot of girls like me triumphant in the ways I desired even without the added obstacle of teenage motherhood. I became so down and ashamed, I stopped attending high school. Julian was born a few weeks before the end of my junior year. I didn't even have a name for my jaundiced baby. My friend, our labor 24 hours apart, suggested the name Julian. It was perfect. A few summer school courses later and I was a senior – graduating with the same class of students I started with.
I would come to share nicknames, a birthday season, personality traits, hopes, dreams and disappointments with my son.
Julian was always an outgoing child. He learned how to use the telephone around the age of four and would collect phone numbers of family members and friends. When we were in social settings, it was not uncommon for Julian to leave with new invitations for outings and friends. He seemed to be genuinely interested in people and could easily connect with others. He was a curious and entrepreneurial-spirited child. He did not like school for school’s sake and was mostly content to avoid it altogether if possible. In 10thgrade, he transitioned from the cyber charter school he had been attending to the same high school I graduated from. The transition had been smoother than I anticipated but it would be short-lived. A concussion sidelined his football ambitions his first year on the team and he never quite seemed comfortable fulfilling his promising athletic destiny. That’s what scared me the most; he had been a natural talent on the football field. He played since he was five years old. I would attend his practices often laid out on a blanket completing my coursework towards my undergraduate degree.
“In the deep
you’d breaststroke beyond
in the distance
when you were a few days old
you would forget to breathe
son tell me
what’s the air like in heaven”
On May 30, 2017 my worst nightmare materialized. It was my daughter that first received word – a text message from a peer. I will never forget the sound of panic in her voice. I had just picked up his dirty clothes and Jordan’s from the bathroom floor earlier that day. Several phone calls later and I am trying to make sense of it all. Strangers. A fight. Facebook drama. Gunshot wound to the arm. Now I am driving with my mother and sister in the car and I pull over near the closest hospital as my sister has made multiple unsuccessful phone calls to find where he is. Weeks later, when I am unable to drive, I would come to understand that the new onset of anxiety related to driving was directly correlated to this moment.
“Now let the circle be broken for Black boys crying
over the drained corpses of one another. Real tears
swelled in his eyes, erupting on his bright face for twelve
year old Tamir Rice. My child fourteen knew he was two
years too late for empathy. His baby face not an
insulation against the destruction awaiting him”
–After Julian: Who Will Revere Empathetic Black Boys
The most devastating thing I’ve ever heard came from a Black woman physician. She would proceed to calmly correct the misinformation I had received. The so-called gunshot wound to the arm had actually been a bullet to my son’s baby face. A violent intruder that wrecked his spine and vital arteries to his brain. “Irreparable injuries.” Time made permanent my belief that something was gravely wrong. My family and I were held captive to time; too much had lapsed for anything favorable to be on the other side of the hour hands.
In watching movies, you get a sense for how the news may be delivered. I went to the movies three times to see Fruitvale Station– the movie about the murder of Oscar Grant. Julian and I went together on one occasion. We both cried, like he cried for Trayvon and later for Tamir Rice and the kids from our community that had died too soon. Like he cried for the little girls that lived near us that died in a house fire; I can’t shake the calm horror about his face or the smell of destruction coming from his clothes - filling our living room. While watching Fruitvale Station each time, I wondered how I could become so invested in a favorable outcome when I knew precisely how the story would end. How could I allow my hope to be lulled from its sensible place?
“Smell like you cannot
conceal the stench of grief weeping through your favorite
denim shirt – lost for weeks, sending you into a
neat panic. Feel like sleeping at the hospital for
days, camped out in the open waiting room air under
too bright fluorescent lights. Family in communion
over a full cooler. Feels how it looks in movies.”
–After Julian: White Henny
There was not a time when my son faced a significant challenge that he didn't leave with me. When he didn't sit on the passenger side of the SUV that I joked he would never drive. Rarely did we ride in silence because I needed to know if he understood how he was breaking my heart and scaring me over the fate of his future. He even called me selfish before. We fought a lot. I tried to assure him that my interest in his success wasn't rooted in any embarrassment as most parents face challenges in raising their children. I would routinely confront him about his potential. He'd start telling me he had a plan. In hindsight I was more hurt than anything, that he'd shield his dreams from me. I thought I had given him the game, the ability to set into motion one's goals. How to build something from nothing but he wouldn't talk to me. Did he think me incapable of appreciating it? Did he simply offer limited context to pacify my larger worry?
“Not tall enough to see over his own experiences
How did he learn to knock everything
From the top shelf with is anger”
This time he would not leave with me. He had journeyed beyond where I could reach him. He wouldn't need anything from me. Not rides, not money, not comfort. I had already been slowly unraveling as my teenaged children no longer needed me in the ways that I had come to understand. I simply was not prepared for the shifting of my role as a mother. Parents do not change at the rate their children experience growth. Their wants had become more complex, inconsistent and contingent on unpredictable terms we each held hostage in negotiations. Parenting while Black feels like a constant tightrope –trying to find the needed nurturing and accountability for our children in a world that does not favor them. Many of us have been conditioned to be unyielding in our child-rearing lest we look complicit in their destruction in a world that sees their childhoods as dispensable, their dreams disposable.
I needed Julian to still need me – to give me a sign of how I could remedy this situation.
The language of death is compacted to provide comfort to the living. Passed away. Transitioned. No longer with us. I once misinterpreted a cousin’s phone call about my great-aunt’s death when he said she “went home.” I thought she literally had returned to her apartment surrounded by her favorite photographs and assorted turtle figurines. There is a part of me that does not want to minimize the reality of my son's violent and painful departure from this world. Hearing the extent of his injuries crushed me. I felt my insides cave, forcing the air out of my lungs. My legs threw in the towel – sending me to the canvas of the small hospital conference room. I was no longer on the ropes; I had been knocked out and hope had exited the ring.
Is a pyramid scheme
there is no closure
a mother’s world ripped open
that will never scab over”
– After Reek: A Trilogy
I was frightened of seeing Julian, I simply did not think I was strong enough to bear witness to his body. It had been hours and I finally was able to see him – his hands bagged – his body evidence. They were pumping air into him. He would never regain the ability to breathe on his own. I would come to lose count of the number of people that wanted to visit the hospital. I did not turn anyone away. A normally private person, my openness in this moment surprised me. Led by intuition, it simply felt like the necessary thing to do. To allow family, friends and classmates to visit. In their presence, I would hear of physiological reactions from Julian - their interpretation that restoration was still possible. I had no such opportunity to experience what they spoke of. Even when I read to him one of our favorite books, Tikki Tikki Tembo - the story of a favored first born son and the baby brother that must speak his brothers great long name to save him. Why was I not made a witness to these movements? This is something I still struggle with. Was he mad at me? Did he know that such signs would confuse me? Or was I simply looking for answers in a place governed by the unknown.
“Black woman healer tending to my son—and yet, still.”
–After Julian: Freedom is Wasted on the Dead
Upon returning home, I would have the most vivid dreams and disturbing nightmares. I would see the faces of people whom I had no intimate connection with beyond being connected socially with someone they knew. I have yet to tell people how they or their loved ones appeared in my dreams. Despite these dreams and nightmares, Julian has not visited me in this dimension. For months, I could still smell him in our house. I often think of the ordinariness people are supposed to resume after suffering an irreparable loss. School was ending the week of Julian’s death. My daughter was starting her first summer job. My youngest son starting summer camp; I would often pick him up with tears in my eyes. Bills still needed to be paid. However, remaining disconnected from work and creativity were no longer serving me. I needed a gradual return to normalcy but completely removing myself from routine was counter to my healing.
On one of my first full days home, I received a letter from Domestic Relations - the cellophane window wielding its disruption. Julian’s father's child support case would be closed because “the child had passed away.” I was startled by the matter-of-fact manner of the written communication. On an already difficult day, I received a reminder that my son was no longer here. In that moment I cried because he wanted nothing more than to have his father freed from prison. I was sure our discussions of his father seeing him graduate from high school were not futile. To date, his father still is not free. The doctors, his aunt and I in conference with him via telephone to discuss end of life decisions for Julian. I write this as another one of his son’s fights for his life. Remind me of what fairness is in a world where destruction remains disproportionate.
Julian knew firsthand the effects of mass incarceration beyond his own lived experience. With the help of a mentor he had recently prepared a speech on the subject for a local Rotary contest. When I learned of the documentary “13th” and upon inquiring about his familiarity, he had already watched it. I deeply miss being able to have complex conversations with him. Julian always spoke his mind and fiercely believed in the concept fairness and did not have a problem telling you when he thought he was being mistreated whether on the football field or at work.
does not flinch
as he tempts
the dried over wound
he reveals the pink agate beneath the scab
When he hears his father’s voice
after the automatic prompt
instructs him to press ‘5’
his heart opens
but never fully closes
an archaeological dig of yearning
a deep wound
where their relationship should be”
– Pickin’ Scabs
The end of this month will mark a year without Julian. A year that has passed too quickly. I was not yet prepared to acknowledge the adjustments my loved ones have made to try and resume normalcy. I have made rationalizations that it might be easier if his first birthday we acknowledge in his earthly absence wasn’t on Mother’s Day. If he wasn’t supposed to graduate high school and attend the prom this year. A few days ago, I could not suppress the pain when I rode past the man-made lake near our house where prom-goers from all over convene to take pictures. The moment leaving me drenched in the oily salt of my tears, thegrief forming a dam in my throat.
“Grief makes me keep score
Counting every injury
And calling it mourning” – Loss
I know there aren’t enough of “ifs” in the universe that would make my son’s premature death more bearable. It is the imagining of his final moments – did he suffer? It is mourning his unrealized potential – what all was he supposed to become? I’ve been writing about premature Black death for a long time. It was never supposed to be my son yet I knew it could always be my son. Julian was my first baby – a dreamer with a wandering spirit. A child that asked me to take him to Bora Bora using my flight benefits while wanting to go to Job Corps. He believed in fairness. When I experienced my third layoff in a row he told me we were done with jobs at that income level. I laughed at the time because he thought he could advise me on such manners but ultimately he was telling me to quit settling. And so I have decided that I am no longer trying to grow roots in infertile soil. No more delaying of dreams in a world saturated with nightmares.
My son’s tragic death made it plain for me how fleeting life is. We know death is a certainty; none of us will escape it. However, for many of us, life will give us an abundance of space to fill with reasons why we should not be defiant in the face of destruction. Reasons why we should settle comfortably into a half-lived existence. Julian’s earthly absence has made my choices exceptionally clear – either I renew my commitment to living daily or I offer myself as a sacrifice to grief. I am unwilling to do the latter. And so I choose to live.
my son will forever remain seventeen”
–After Julian: Who Will Revere Empathetic Black Boys