She would sit down on the end of the couch near the television. I would lie on my side with my head at the opposite end. She would get her tray with her papers and her weed and roll a joint while I nestled my foot between her lower back and the couch. We’d watch Bob Ross paint a “happy little forest,” and make fun of his speech and his afro, but never his paintings. We liked his paintings. This was how my mother and I relaxed.
On the weekends she would wake up early to listen to her radio programs. She grew up in the 60s and 70s listening to more Marvin Gaye than Donnie Osmond, so Listening Back, an R&B program on TSU’s college station was her show of choice. She also liked an old-timey variety radio show on NPR called The Prairie Home Companion. If I were up we’d watch cartoons and eat Eggo waffles and dance to “She Dropped The Bomb On Me” by The Gap Band or whatever else the radio played.
Then she’d take a nap in the afternoon, falling asleep to some detective novel on cassette tape she’d borrowed with my library card. (She had accumulated insurmountable late fees on hers when our car broke down. I don’t live in Houston anymore, and I never really went to the library anyway.) She frowns in her sleep. I’ve told her. She says she doesn’t mind, says she doesn’t feel “frowny.” I would often lay with her and listen, picking up the story wherever it was. She would warn me: “Derek, if you can’t keep still you have to go away.” So I kept still.
Sometimes she’d ride her bicycle in the evening. The combination of night and the bike-rider’s breeze stifled Houston’s usual heat. Or she might walk. If I were with her, she would point and tell me the name of any flower we passed. “Those are snap dragons, and this is a gardenia. Smell that, Derek. Right out of the Earth, it smells like that.” Then she’d look both ways, and break off a clipping to plant in her own garden. “Don’t tell anyone,” she’d whisper, and we would ride off with urgency in our spokes.
By all accounts, her father was a brilliant man. He worked as an auto-mechanic for high-performance-race-car drivers. He designed and built his house from scratch. I was told he had an IQ above 180. There was also this yarn that he had been investigated for some crime, boat theft I believe, and had successfully lied to a lie detector. And that he made some historic grade on some entrance exam to some college. I don’t really believe any of the unsubstantiated things, but I met him and he was certainly bright. And a talented liar. Once, he convinced several lawyers, a doctor, and a judge that he had lead poisoning so he would be included in a class action settlement. They believed him, and he retired on that money. If he wanted a drug (usually Valium or Xanex) he would study the Physician’s Desk Reference and the symptoms that would cause a doctor to prescribe it. Then he would visit the doctor, and feign illness to obtain a prescription. This is how he sustained his many drug addictions.
My grandfather beat my mother and her younger brother. Not like “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” but angry, drunken, merciless blows that were meant to damage. Often she would be beaten awake from a deep sleep. She is still skittish today. He told my mother she was worthless and would never do anything but fuck up. She believed him for almost three decades. He kept drugs of all types in the house, and by the time my mother was 13, he was sending her to buy dope for him. Around then, she inherited addictions of her own—cigarettes, then marijuana, then heroine. (These days it’s methadone.) Shortly after that, she dropped out of the 7th grade. A few years later she lied about her age to enlist in the Navy and escape her father. On her first trip home she found a surprise: her father had sold all of her things. Even her roller-skates.
They didn’t talk much after that. Only a handful of times in my entire life. When she got the phone call saying he died of an overdose, she crumbled into tears and I kept wondering why she would cry for a man who hurt her so much.
When I was a child she worked as a secretary for a temp agency. She was good at what she did, and was often asked back or offered a job after her temporary assignments. But she never had any personal ambitions for her work. She worked to bring home extra money when we needed it. And since the need was sporadic so were the jobs.
When I got older, I found a job of my own, and spent my paychecks eating out. I no longer begged for random toys at the grocery store. I rarely went with her to buy groceries anymore. Occasionally I even washed my own clothes. With less of me to take care of, my mother passed the time in community college.
Every semester she’d register for two or three classes, whatever seemed interesting, and she would come home to tell me what she’d learned: “Did you know that there is a set amount of water in the universe? That’s what they said in my geography class.”
“Really? When did you learn that?”
“I dunno. Middle school?”
“Isn’t that cool? All the water on Earth is recycled over and over.”
She studied harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. Eight or nine hours a day she would sit in the den, reading textbooks and writing pages of notes. She would make As, join honors societies, and show me what a good student looked like. Without fail she attended classes in the fall, spring, and summer. For six years now she has been taking English, journalism, anthropology, sociology, and history, but rarely math or science. She has more than enough credits to graduate, but is still missing a few core requirements.
When I found out she had hepatitis C (the chronic and terminal version), I cried for a week. I told my best friend, “my Momma’s gunna die,” and he cried too. The doctors said that people can live for forty years with it, but we didn’t really know when she got it, and that she may have had it for as long as twenty or twenty-five years already without knowing. Luckily she didn’t drink so there was less chance of liver failure.
But really, there were only a few changes in our lives. She wasn’t sick, or at least I couldn’t tell. Occasionally, she said that her liver hurt. But we could still dance, and she could still go to school. Nevertheless she worried: “Make sure you don’t use my toothbrush. The doctor says hepatitis can live in the air for as much as ten hours.”
“Momma, why would I ever use your toothbrush?”
I moved away to school. And my cat died. My parents didn’t tell me until I came home for summer. They didn’t want me to mourn alone.
I came home a year later, and they had been hiding something else. She had rheumatoid arthritis. They told me that it was an immunodeficiency virus, like AIDS. Her body was attacking itself. Her joints ached and swelled up. A new one each day. Today, her ankles, and she can’t walk. Now her ankles are fine, but her hands are swollen, and she can’t lift the remote. Some days it was her back, and she couldn’t get out of bed. But she was tough, and we were seeing the doctors at the Veteran’s Hospital, and they were going to take care of her. “People live with it,” she tells me. She still went to school, still did my father’s laundry religiously. I left feeling everything was okay.
Months later I got a phone call from my father telling me they had misdiagnosed her before and that she had Lupus, not arthritis. He seemed optimistic, and the conversation was short, and Momma was being brave, and everything was going to be all right, but the medication was making her strange. All I knew about Lupus was that a comedian I liked got censored on the Tonight Show for making a joke about it. At school I made jokes about it too.
Thanksgiving has always been our favorite holiday, but this year I couldn’t make it home. I asked my parents if they could come up. Dad had to work, but Momma would make the trip. She walked in the door carrying a clothes hamper full of things she thought I might need, a random assortment of hand towels and comics that she obviously collected on her way out the door, just in case. “Do I seem different to you? Rounder?” She did. The medicine made her gain weight. Her face was different. The skin on her hands was dry and wrinkled. I was happy to see her. “I brought a pork loin and some onions and Oh! I love your place.”
“How’s your health, Momma?”
“I feel great. Really good today. Lemme wash your dishes. Let’s start cooking.” She wouldn’t stop moving, wouldn’t stop talking. “I’m sorry to talk too much. Lemme wash your dishes. I need to be doing something with my hands.”
After dinner, she asked me about my future: “So what’s the plan for you? What will you do after you graduate?”
“Well if I apply to grad—"
“Will you walk at the ceremony? When does Sean graduate? Will you go to his graduation?"
“Yeah I guess I will, but—”
“Where will you live after Sean graduates? Will you find another roommate?”
“Momma, calm down. You ask five questions before I get to answer one. What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry to talk too much.”
“It isn’t too much, just too fast. Are you okay? You seem different.”
“I’m okay. I am not different. I’ve always been like this.”
“No. You haven’t. Quit being defensive.”
“The medicine they give me, these steroids, they make me jumpy. I feel like I have to do something all the time. They make me feel strong and good, but I’m not myself.”
She wasn’t herself. It scared me. Her face showed happiness, but I could see fear and anxiety in her eyes. We talked about her illness, and how she had to drop all of her classes because the stress of school was making her sick. The words “severe,” “chronic,” and “terminal” meant more when she read them off of a doctor’s note. “I don’t think I’ll have to pay back my financial aid money. And there is an exemption that lets people with lupus not have to pay back their student loans. Isn’t that great?”
“No, you have to have lupus to be exempt.”
“Well, I already have lupus.”
We talked about death and how Grandma’s life was awful towards the end because she was so old and at least Momma wouldn’t have to go through that. She would die before her mind went. And I called my close friends when she was out of the room and cried.
The next morning, she was fine—normal, even. She was up before me, listening to her Al Green’s greatest hits CD, keeping time as she swept the kitchen floor. We went and ate breakfast and talked about hippies and soul music and Austin. I drove her around campus and her eyes lit up. “Aww look at that building. This is great. I’m jealous, Derek. I wish I could learn here.” We went home and watched the football game, and she yelled at the television like she does, and after she packed up we hugged, and I sang to her like I do. She never said so, but I think she skipped her medication that day.