As She Lay Dying: A Letter to a Motherless Child

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The following is an excerpt from "To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss and Radical Hope" by IFYC alum Jennifer Bailey. Order the book here.

Watch the video above, or click here to listen to audio of Bailey's November 11 round table on the future of spiritual life with Harmeet Kaur Kamboj, Maya Williams, Mia Willis, and Byron Tyler Coles. 

As She Lay Dying
A Letter to a Motherless Child




The Rev. Jennifer Bailey

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who
loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels
nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither
height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to
separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37–39 (NIV)


“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home”

Negro Spiritual


Dear Beloved,

I know how badly it hurts. I am writing this letter to tell you that
grief, when fully embraced, is a journey with no discernable end.
It has hills and valleys.

When I was twenty-eight years old, my mama died after a fourteen-
year battle with cancer. For much of my adolescence and
young adulthood, the fear of death hovered like a looming fog
that threatened to block my ability to see anything and anyone
clearly. I always felt like I was just one text or phone call from
receiving the most devastating news of my life.

Even so, I acknowledge I was one of the lucky ones. Not every
parent-child relationship is defined by unconditional love. For
nearly three decades, I knew what it was like to be loved in spite
of my failures, misgivings, and mistakes. My mama was and
remains my best friend and closest confidante. When I feel lost,
I still call upon her spirit to accompany and guide me through,
and she always, always answers. Even four years after her transition,
there are still moments when I pick up the phone and
dial her number to share my latest bit of news or gossip before
realizing that she will not be on the other end.

I want to tell you about the last few months of my mother’s life
in hopes that it may alleviate some of the loneliness you may be
feeling and help you on your path to healing. As she lay dying,
writing became a sanctuary for me when words failed to take
shape in my mouth. What follows are words written at her bedside
during the last few months of her life.
* * *
Yesterday Mama told me she was afraid of dying. I listened
carefully while lying next to her in the hospital bed we received
from hospice. We placed the bed in the front room with the big
picture window. Sometimes when the sun peeks through the
lace curtains just right, her chocolate brown skin glows radiantly,
highlighting the curves of her nose. It is the same nose I
see every time I look in the mirror.

Growing up, this room was ornamental, not functional. The
white couches were my mother’s pride and joy, only to be sat
upon on Christmas mornings or when entertaining honored
guests. Over the past two months, this once uninhabited space
has become a sanctuary for sharing secrets. Against the gentle
murmur of her oxygen machine, we confess our deepest fears
and greatest hopes. Yet this is the first time either of us has
dared to speak the painful and obvious truth that lay before us:
My mom may very well be Superwoman, but immortal she is
not. Together, we cry.

When there are no words, tears may be the only prayers you
can utter.

There are times during this period when Mama asks for my
insights into the nature and will of God. It is a strange reminder
of the multiple identities I inhabit even in the midst of this
crisis. As a seminary-trained minister, I am supposed to be
well versed in matters of death and dying. Yet no amount of
training can prepare you for the moment when someone tells
you that the most important person in your life has weeks to
live. No class can teach you how to respond when your loved
one grimaces in pain but cannot find the words to tell you how
to help. When my own words escape me, and they often do,
my default is to turn to scripture and read aloud from verses
that sustained our kinfolk through the best and worst of times.
They are messy, imperfect words situated in the text of a sacred
book used by history to empower and destroy; to liberate and
oppress.

 

My theology lives in the tension of the “and.” I have not figured
out just yet the relationship between the Christianity I practice,
the politics I preach, the ethics I embody, and the Bible I
read.

The process of reconciling it all feels like a complicated
routine of mental gymnastics full of twists, turns, and plenty of
falls off of the balance beam. Yet, as I flip through the pages of
Mama’s Bible with its sticky notes and highlights, it is abundantly
clear to me what her relationship is to the text. During
the dark moments of her illness, in the midst of the chaos of
chemo, the word of God is her light of hope. So, when we have
conversations about things like forgiveness and the afterlife, I
try to find the passages in her Bible with the most notes in the
margins and pray God places on my lips the right thing to say,
if just for today.
* * *
Before I was a clergywoman, I was the daughter of a sick mother.
For as long as I can remember, my greatest fear was losing the
one who gave me life. I learned about her cancer diagnosis on
my fourteenth birthday. That morning my parents explained that
Mama would be going into the hospital for a procedure called
a lumpectomy to remove a tumor in her right breast. I cannot
remember now whether I chose to stay home alone that day or
if I did so at my parents’ request. Trauma has a way of collapsing
memories and nightmares into one. Sometime in the early
afternoon my friend Colleen and her mom brought over a small
round birthday cake, hoping to temper my shock. I had no idea
that Mama was sick. During the preceding weeks I had been preoccupied
with saying goodbye to the places and people that had
defined my childhood, as I was preparing to leave and start high
school in the big city. My dad accepted a position in his hometown
of Chicago several months before. Rather than uprooting
me in the middle of my eighth grade year, they decided that
my mom and I would stay behind to allow me to finish the year
surrounded by the landmarks of my childhood. Mama would stay
behind for a few months longer to prepare the house for sale
before joining us. The move would be a fresh start for our entire
family.

A week after my mother’s surgery, I would leave the bucolic
beauty of my small town to start high school under the heat
of Chicago’s bright lights. Prior to my mother’s diagnosis, the
decision for me to leave had been an easy one for my parents.
For all of its charms, my hometown was a difficult place for a
little Black girl to grow up. It is a place that resists change in the
name of tradition and where difference is a deficit rather than
strength. In a community that was 90 percent white, my family
stood out. I learned on the school playground that the politics of
race is a messy and violent business.

Chicago was my escape hatch from a school system that chewed
up and spit out Black kids from my community in juvenile courts
and teenage pregnancy centers. Today the city is alive in the
public imagination as an epicenter of urban violence. “Urban”
being a code word for Black and violence applied as a catch-all
phrase that emphasizes Black death at the hands of Black people
rather than illuminating the systemic oppression that has
brutalized and marginalized those same people for generations.
For me, Chicago, with its gifted schools and cultural institutions,
represented hope and opportunity. It never occurred to me
that my liberation would come at the cost of leaving my mama
behind.

While I begin to pick at the icing on my slice of birthday cake
with a fork, my mom is being put under anesthesia for the first
in a long series of surgeries and procedures. She carries that
folded list in her wallet between her driver’s license and her
AAA membership card. She jokingly refers to it as a record of her
missing body parts. Her uterus is gone. So is half of her thyroid.
I know that she keeps it close for the same reason she keeps a
memory book — dates and online passwords have not been as
easy to remember since the cancer spread to her brain. The scars
on her flesh tell the stories of organs removed and expectations
delayed. Yet even now she rarely complains.

For the life of me I cannot figure out if that trait is a virtue or a
hindrance.

So often Black women are denied full access to our
suffering. We are taught to suppress and bury it so that we can be
of service to others, as if attending to the fullness of our own human
experience is a vice.

Our strength suffocates us. If anything,
her yelps of pain today are a sign of just how frequently she concealed
her hurt in the past. Then she could grin and bear it. Now
she must rely on us to help relieve the sharp stabbing sensation
in her abdomen where the cancer is spreading.
Fourteen and a half years later, I can still remember how sweet
that birthday cake tasted. Sweetness is a trait that I have come
to associate with sickness. Pills crushed in applesauce. Nutritional
shakes consumed when nausea will not allow solid food
to digest. The only things Mama wants to eat these days are ice
cream and jelly beans.

As a child, her sweet tooth earned her the nickname Cookie.
In my family, the granting of nicknames is a sacred business.
They can often be more predictive of the course of a person’s
life journey than the name on their birth certificate. The story
goes that, as a toddler, Aunt Doll would often keep my mama
and her cousin Mae while their mothers were working. As Aunt
Doll rolled out the dough for morning biscuits, Mama would
stand up on a chair near the counter, helping spread the flour
then pinching off tiny pieces of the dough and sticking them in
her mouth. At a young age, she learned that the delicious parts
of life do not come without preparation and work. To this day,
thanks to Aunt Dolly, more people call Mama Cookie than her
given name Christine.

We brought Mama home from the hospital for the last time
on February 23, four days before her sixty-third birthday. That
morning the doctors had said there was nothing they could do
to stop the fluid from building on her lungs, so Mama demanded
we bring her home. Black mothers are willful creatures.
Stand in their way and there is usually hell to pay. Her decision
was not a surrender, but a declaration of independence. No
more poison being pumped into her body once a week. No more
doctors probing or nurses poking. No more hospital rooms. She
decided that her God, her body, and her desire to live would
guide the path ahead of her. She has been in the front room
ever since.

I’d never felt the full weight of what it means to be an only child
before these past few months. The night Mama began hospice
care I’d dreamt that our family home had been moved off of its
foundation. Like a dollhouse, the rooms remained intact. The
daily routines of life continued. Yet, the illusion of privacy was
shattered as the most intimate parts of our lives were exposed
and laid bare for public consumption. I awoke, knowing in my
gut that everything had changed. My mom is the solid ground
upon which our family unit was built. Her body is now telling her
that it can no longer hold the heaviness alone.

With deep gratitude, I have seen my family and community show
up for us. Her first week home things looked bleak. She moved
in and out of responsiveness and the hospice nurse told us to
prepare for the worst. Within forty-eight hours, my chosen and
biological family flew in from around the country to accompany
us. Those who could not come sent care packages, kind notes,
and made phone calls just to check in. Granny comes to stay for
weeks on end to take care of her baby girl. She gets very little
sleep when she is here and refuses to sleep anywhere but on the
couch beside Mama’s bed.

When the rooms are empty and I am alone with my thoughts,
exhaustion sets in. This is the first time since I left home for
college that I have lived with my parents for an extended period
of time. When I am weak, my humanity starts to show and I
long for my life back. I want to drink wine with my roommate
and plot our paths to take the world by storm. I want to go on
dates with my fiancé and do the mundane daily tasks that will
be the cornerstone of our life together. I want to make plans
with my friends that I can actually keep. Most of all, I want
to call my mom and tell her all the silly things about my day.
I want her to be healthy and well. I want things to be normal
again.

When I snap out of it, I remember that this image of normalcy
is a fantasy. Mama has been sick for half of my life. Until now,
it has been easy to ignore that reality. We flourished as a family
unit because of her determination to beat cancer by living. As
my play auntie Deborah says, “She teaches us how to fight.” Her
friends tell stories of her showing up to help them plan events
minutes after completing a chemo treatment. During the yearly
moves that became a hallmark of my twenties, she was always
right there with me—Chicago, Nashville, New York, and Washington,
D.C.— helping me pick out furniture and art to make
each temporary home my own.

I have no doubt that my mama will fight until the day her and
her God agree it is time for her to join the ancestors. Sometimes
that fight will be physical and at other times it will be spiritual.
This one thing I know to be true: I am blessed to have a mother
who loves me and whom I love. That is a gift I will never take for
granted. It is a gift worth the price of placing everything else in
my life on hold to accompany her at this stage of her journey.
So, until the time comes for us to say our final goodbye, I will lay
beside her sharing secrets, eating jelly beans, and being present
for her as she has always been present for me.

* * *
She died on Mother’s Day eve at 9:32 a.m. The sun was pouring
through the lace curtains surrounding the big picture window,
illuminating her chocolate skin as it always had. Granny had
stepped out of the room to take a telephone call. It was just
Mama and me. I put my head on her chest so that I could hear
her heartbeat. The nurse told me that hearing was one of the last
senses to go. So, during the pauses between her last few labored
breaths, I whispered “I love you” into her ear. She took in one
last gasp of air and the beating stopped.

She seemed at peace when she died. Her face had an eerie calm
about it. Her mouth was slightly ajar, but the muscles in her
face were relaxed. Someone suggested that we open the window
so that her spirit could be free to return to God. When I
was little, I told Mama that the beams of sunlight that peak
through the clouds on a perfect day were escalators ascending
to heaven. The thickness of her presence in the house in the
days that followed made me think that she was in no hurry to
make her way up that rotating staircase just yet. I think she
knew how much we needed to feel close to her. Granny went
home the day after she passed to spend some time alone with
her sorrow before the funeral. Daddy was too immobilized by
heartbreak to do anything but keep himself busy and clean the
house. It was left to me to make the arrangements for our celebration
of Mama’s life.

The days following the death of a loved one are a chaotic dance
of making plans and managing expectations. Decisions must be
made quickly and with authority, lest they become the casualty
to an unending stream of unsolicited feedback. The boldness
with which people freely express their opinions to the bereaved
is astounding. It is inevitable that the voices of those who were
least heard in the final days speak the loudest; their performance
of grief is the most theatrical. I took many long drives the
week after Mama’s death so that I could shout at the top of my
lungs what I could not utter in the face of family members and
well-meaning church folk.

When I decided to preach her eulogy, there were whispers.
They were divided into two camps. Those who were genuinely
worried about my well-being and those who simply thought I
was not capable of doing it. As a clergywoman, one of the first
things you learn is how to sniff out the putrid stench of sexism
from the pews. Most often, it attempts to coat itself in flowery
language and sweet gestures of false concern. In the case of
Mama’s eulogy their words sounded something like:

You wouldn’t want to be too emotional and take
the focus off of your mom.”
“Are you sure that you are strong enough? I don’t
know if you are strong enough and there is no
shame in that.”
“You and your mom were so close, so why don’t
you let one of the [male] preachers speak words of
comfort over you?”

The message behind their coded words was clear: “Leave this
task to the men, little girl.” Despite the resistance, I had the
sense that delivering Mama’s eulogy would be one of the most
important things I would do in my life. It was. Here is what I
said:

I had the opportunity to walk alongside my
mom these past three months, in the final
stretch of her journey. It was the greatest gift of
my life. In the process, the words of Stuart Scott
have echoed in my mind, “You beat cancer by
how you live.”

My mama lived with grace, resilience, and
courage, and in the process taught us all how to
fight. I am because she was. Like so many Black
women, her back was strong from carrying so
much weight and so many people. It is a reality
I both lament and celebrate—a bittersweet reminder
that for some women strength is not an
option, but it is a necessity for our survival.
And what of God? What of the promise of the
afterlife? I must confess that Christian tropes
about her being in a better place provide minimal
comfort in this moment. I have no doubt
they are true. I can feel her presence even as
her spirit has transitioned into its next phase. I
know she is surrounded by the love of the saints
who have preceded her in death. I am sure that
Uncle Phil, Aunt Doll, and Auntie Belinda are
helping her into her long white robe. I’d like to
think that my dear friend Josephine is excitedly
showing her around heaven. Yet, the words of
my tradition in which I find the greatest comfort
are these two: Jesus wept. It is a reminder
that my savior mourns alongside those who
mourn; that grief and lament are part of the
process.

I will miss my mom every day of my life. I will
miss the contours of her face, the creases of
her smile, and the furrow of her brow when she
was displeased. I will miss her laugh, which was
neither polite nor restrained, but bold and loud.
I will miss her cube steaks and gravy. I will miss
her phone greeting of “Hi, My Baby.” I will miss
the excitement of her voice when she found a
deal on sale. I will miss standing next to her in
worship as she uttered the tongues of angels
and unapologetically worshipped her God. I
will miss sharing secrets. I will miss her smell,
which I find myself searching for in blankets
that adorned her hospice bed.

I am hurting. It is a pain that pierces the very
depths of my self-understanding because I have
not known a world without her. Yet, in my hurt
I also rejoice, for she is no longer in pain. I feel
grateful for friends, family, and community that
surround me, lift me up, and love me hard.
Be at rest, my mama. It is time for God to enjoy
you.

* * *

Today, beloved, I am still searching for peace that alludes me.
There are so many conversations that I wish that I’d summoned
the courage to initiate in those last few months. Lingering
questions about Mama’s own journey into womanhood, lessons
she learned along the way, or things that she regretted. Instead,
I spent my time feeling—feeling overwhelmed, feeling confused,
feeling my heart break and remake itself over and over again.
Even as time propels me forward, the past keeps pulling me
back. When I close my eyes, I can see her last few breaths. I feel
her last heartbeat.

In her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the great Toni
Morrison reminded us that, “We die. That may be the meaning
of life.”

I have found that death is a misunderstood teacher. Her methods
are harsh and definitive. Yet, as the years have transpired, I have
found her to be one of the most consistent and compassionate
instructors of my life. Her lessons have taught me how to value
life and not to hold onto it too tightly.

So as you continue down the road of grief, remember that the
path you are treading is one that is unique to you. Nobody can
tell you how long it will be or the shape it will take. What I do
know is that, if you are open, it can and will transform you for
the better.

Love,
Cookie’s Baby Girl


"To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss, and Radical Hope" by the Rev. Jennifer Bailey is available now from Chalice Press.

 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.