After my momma died, one of the hardest things for me was changing the contact name in my cell phone from Momma and Daddy to just Daddy. I was a typical rebellious teenager. My Mother and I fought what seemed to be constantly. Daddy always came to my rescue. It wasn’t until I had grown into a woman, married and a had a child of my own that my mother and I started to be friends again. During my teen years, I half paid attention while Momma tried to show my sister and me how to cook, sew and fix little things around the house. I regretted not paying attention. But my mother was my lifeline after I got married. I would always call her for recipes and advice on how to make things work. She always answered. I was a stay at home mom for a while, so most mornings began with a phone call to my new best friend. We’d chat about anything, mostly my daughter and the new things I was planning to try around the house. It felt good to have a “girlfriend” who knew me inside and out. I’ll never forget that morning when Momma called me and told me that she was bleeding from her mouth. I heard the words come from her mouth like an announcement. I stood in my kitchen frozen. I knew it was coming. She did too.
Momma had been diagnosed with cancer a year before I got married. She and daddy refused to tell us her prognosis. I think all of us knew that it wasn’t good from the start. From the moment I found out about her condition, everything felt rushed. I abandoned my plans for a big wedding and reception and opted for a small gathering with my immediate family. I showered my mom with little gifts I could afford, mostly homemade but she seemed to love them more. I knew she was dying. I didn’t want to think about it. I also didn’t want to be in denial.
The morning she told me about her bleeding, her voice was weaker than it had been the day before. Fear was in her voice. I needed to come to her rescue just as she had always come to mine. I dropped everything and took the four hour drive home. The second I walked into the house, I saw her sitting on the black leather couch, her body frail and slumped over, her eyes stained yellow. I knew it wouldn’t be long. She smiled weakly trying to disguise the pain. Momma was always the toughest woman I’d ever known. But even the fearless and tough Louvenia Powe could not beat cancer. Seeing her this way was a reality check for me. Momma was a human being too.
I wrapped my arms around her and ran my fingers across her balding head. She must have forgotten to put on her wig. Embarrassed, she asked my to hand her the hat next to me. I put it on for her just in time. My brother and sister came into the house next. Daddy followed them. He called us all into the kitchen away from Momma. I knew what the not-so-secret meeting was about. I took a deep breathe and composed myself. I decided to be the strong one, the one who wouldn’t fall apart, the one to pick up where my Momma was about to leave off.
Daddy hesitated. “Your Momma….” His lips trembled as he spoke. “The doctor told your momma that the cancer has spread. He gave her a year to live.” He paused and looked at all of us desperately. “That was a year ago.”
My sister instantly broke. She cried out. My brother tried to hold it together but his tears flooded his face. We were all crying. My poor little sister was the loudest. I held her and tried to calm her all the while I thought my own heart would burst.
“She’s here now. She’s here now. Don’t let her see you cry,” I whispered to her.
We all calmed down and filed back into the living room. My sister fell on her knees in front of momma, buried her head in momma’s lap and cried. Momma had no tears, she just rocked side to side and caressed my sister’s head. All of us quietly took turns in my mother’s arms. No one said a word. There were no words to say. We said our goodbyes in the language only a mother could understand.
We all spent the weekend at the house. We cooked and ate and watched old movies. It felt like the old days when we were children, spending the weekend at home. My husband brought my daughter down to spend time with momma. Her birthday was coming up on Tuesday. All of her brothers and sisters came to the house with cakes and food and gifts to celebrate. Momma was happy all day. She continued to take pain pills and seemed to be fine. She laughed and played with her granddaughter and her nieces and nephews. It was a good day.
The next day, my family went back to Birmingham for school and work. I didn’t have the heart to tell my seven-year-old what was going on, so I just told her that grandma was sick and to pray for her. She made her a get well card which momma held on to all weekend. Before they left, momma pulled my daughter close. It was another goodbye.
“You always remember what grandma told you,” she instructed. “No matter how..?”
“Big,” my daughter recited.
“No matter how..”
“No matter how.”
“Long. Grandma always loves me.”
I could have melted into a puddle of grief. Momma grabbed my daughter and squeezed her so tightly, I was convinced that the child was in pain. When they left, momma fell asleep on the couch. The next day, she was not the same.
Daddy tried to hold everything together around the house. Momma had been the bookkeeper, cook, and all for years. I helped him to sort of pay bills. Momma came walking out of her bedroom like a zombie, barely moving and staring straight ahead. Daddy had not paid attention and was more frustrated with trying to find a checkbook. Momma must have heard.
“It’s on the boat,” she mumbled, collapsing on the couch. “It’s over there on the boat.”
“What boat?” Daddy was confused. Momma was delirious from either the pain or the medication. Either way, the exchange was a bit comical, considering.
“Everything. I put it on the boat.” Momma closed her eyes.
Daddy scratched his head. “What is she talking about?”
“It’s probably the medicine, Daddy. Just appease her.” I turned to momma. “Okay Momma, we got it.”
“Tell Cecil there’s a hundred dollars in my sock drawer,” she said.
Daddy and I were perplexed. He jumped up and went into their bedroom. He came back out with the hundred dollar bill.
“I got it Venie.”
Momma was asleep again.
All day Momma would fall in and out of consciousness. Her friends came to visit. Some of them got to speak to her in a more lucid state, others did not. I would hide in my room every so often and cry. My Momma was no longer my Momma. Nothing she said made sense. Anger was building inside of me. I screamed at God for taking such a strong, courageous and loving woman and turning her into a helpless dying body. It wasn’t fair. My Mother and I had just started to be close again and now God was taking her. I cursed the cancer. I cursed the asbestos that gave it to her. I was too young to loose my mother. Who would help me raise my daughter? Who would I call for recipes?
I stormed out of my room and immediately stopped in my tracks when I reached her. She was on her back on the couch, her eyes closed and her lips slightly parted. My heart stopped. For a second, I thought she was gone and I didn’t get a chance to tell her that I loved her. Suddenly, she sat straight up. It startled me. I smiled and winked thankfully towards the ceiling at the Lord. I got on my knees in front of her. Her eyes seemed to beg me for relief. But she didn’t say a word. Then I realized that she had not screamed in pain all day, nor had she asked for a pain pill. It was the calm before the storm, I thought.
“Tina,” she said, her voice now barely a whisper.
“Don’t worry about me. Don’t worry about me.”
I shook my head, fighting tears. “I’m not worried, momma. You’re going to be fine.”
“I want you all to get my light blue dress with the white trim.”
“For what,” my voice trembling.
“To bury me in.”
“Momma, I don’t want to hear this. You’re not…”
“Just listen. I left all of you three big Bibles in your daddy’s movie room. Make sure Shug gets that coin collection.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said in a strong voice. Then like a baby, I broke down and sobbed. “I’m sorry momma! I’m so sorry! I love you!”
She patted my head but her touch was so light, I could barely feel her bony fingers on me.
Daddy took her to bed that night early. For some reason, I woke up just before daylight. It was Tuesday, March 16, Momma’s birthday. She was 49. I got out of bed and walked straight to their room. The light was on. Daddy was dressed. Momma was sitting on the edge of the bed half dressed and looking half asleep. I knew she had an appointment for chemotherapy, but it was far too early to leave.
“Your momma hadn’t slept all night. We need to go to the hospital.” Daddy looked like he wanted to jump off of a building. I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling. Daddy was a large man, a real tough guy. I had never seen him so helpless.
I hurried and grabbed a purple an orange stripped skirt and blouse, an outfit that momma had made for herself years ago. It was the easiest to dress her in. I slipped it on her. I called the ambulance. I called my Uncle Larry to help my dad carry Momma’s swollen body out of the house. She could no longer walk. Then I called my her best friend and told her what was going on. By the time the ambulance had made it to the house, all of our neighbors had formed a crowd outside.
In the corner alone, I watched with my arms folded as the paramedics loaded my mother onto the ambulance. They didn’t turn on the siren. They left with their lights flashing. My dad jumped in with them. I turned around to go back into the house. Everyone was staring at me pitifully. My momma’s friend hugged me.
“She’ll be fine. She’s just having a bad day that’s all.” I knew she was trying to comfort me. But it didn’t help.
“No, she’s dying,” I said icily. “Excuse me.”
I took a long bath. A part of me wanted it all to be over by the time I got to the hospital. I didn’t want to see my mother expire as I knew the hospital would put it. I knew it was over. So did everyone else. Even the paramedics didn’t bother to sound their siren. I prayed while I got dressed. I prayed that she was no longer in pain. I prayed for the strength to get through what was coming. Then I got into my car and sped to the hospital.
I don’t remember the exact time of her death. I do remember that it had been raining the night before. But after she died, the rain subsided. I remember crying and laughing at the same time as I watched the sun come out after the rain. It was poetic. Momma was in heaven and the storm was over.
“Go momma go!” I yelled out victoriously as I drove back to Birmingham to my family. She had made it. And just like she said, she was alright. I now would imagine that my Mother thought along the lines of Paul’s words to his students just before he was executed. These words are beautiful and comforting for those of us who love Him (Jesus Christ).
2 Timothy 4:6-8
6. For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7.I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: 8. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
I don’t recall a lot of things I did during the days following my mother’s death. My sister tells me that I planned the whole funeral because she couldn’t keep it together. I don’t remember. But I suppose that my prayer for strength was answered. It took months for me to come to terms with my mother’s passing. The pain was surreal. I kept that outfit that I dressed her in on that last day. It is a few sizes too big, but when I needed to feel close to her, I would put in on and wrap myself up in bed and pretend she was holding me. I hadn’t felt the need to do that in a while. The mourning is over. Now, I celebrate the life she lived and try to remember the things she taught me. I realized that I couldn’t pick up where my mother had left off. She is irreplaceable and there is no one in the world like her.
Thank you Momma.
Louvenia Powe (March 16, 1955-March 16, 2004)
A Song For Momma