HUGGING STACEY ABRAMS
I am hugging Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for Governor of Georgia, the first African American woman to get that nomination in history, after hearing her speak in Savannah at the Longshoremen’s Union on April 14th, 2018. She is not just hugging me but holding me and I am sobbing. This is because it is my mother’s birthday, my mother who died suddenly and tragically two months before. My mother who had, for the first time in her 72 years, started actively campaigning, inspired by this woman. Abrams is giving me the space, the time, the love to grieve in her arms and I can feel it to the bottom of my soul.
When I got the phone call from my sister on Tuesday afternoon, February 27th, I had just picked my daughter up from school. It was an ordinary day of course, up until this call. A good day even as I had been meeting with my students, young women who were preparing to give courageous personal talks at the Women in the Arts symposium I was co-organizing. I was having a great semester teaching. When I answered the phone and my sister said “Mom was hit by a car.” “What?!!!” I cried out, alarming my 12 year old daughter. This moment is like hitting a wall, or going through it into an alternate universe, never to return again. I thought to myself, how can this be, maybe it just bumped her, maybe it just hit her leg or arm? I was overcome with the feeling of helplessness, hearing of events unfolding from afar, visualizing them, trying to coax the outcome with my mind. Powerless.
A few minutes later, I was talking to her friend who was with her when it happened. Aimee is a gentle soul and tried to deliver the details to me with great care. They were walking together and crossing a busy street at the walk signal when an elderly driver took a left and hit her straight on. I quickly understood that it was very serious. After hearing the details, it sounded unsurvivable. She had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. No one she knew was able to see her. I braced myself, chest clenched so tight I could hardly breathe. A couple of hours later, after several dire reports, my husband called to tell me she passed away, hopefully protected from pain by her shock and medication. I repeated her name and rocked, my father at my side and my daughter holding my head and kissing it “mommy, mama, mommy.”
In my chest is a piece of lead, black and dense, and yet it is also somehow completely empty. Losing my mom in this way I was submerged instantly into the cruelty and mystery of this world. I have no idea how to be with this pain, but I have to constantly. There is something violent in any death, it seems to me, wrenching something out of our very hands we never want to lose--we cannot imagine losing, even when we’ve lost it. I am an echo chamber of bottomless ache. The seen world appears like a dream, and I am more convinced than ever that it is. The permanent physical loss of her is altering me in a way that changes everything. In my mind there is a slide show of visions, her body, waddling down the hallway with pajamas on, her hands resting on one another, gently, tentatively, the freckles on her neck. The most familiar thick veined soft hands. Nothing could be more familiar. Where is she?
Not seeing it coming, not getting to say goodbye has been a defining part of this experience, as is the randomness of her death. It’s as if we were sitting in a room talking, and I walked out to use the bathroom, and someone handed you a box of my ashes a minute later. She was stolen from us, from life. . I’ve been told that goodbyes, even when you get them, are never tidy, and I believe it. But there are things that I imagine none of us speak until we are at someone's death bed. Things I perhaps couldn’t have seen before. Things she deserved to hear and know. Now in the wake of her loss, when what really matters is all I can think about. We are here and then we are gone, a point of obsession for me my whole life. What to do with this, how to live, how to let this transmute me into something fuller, realer, more whole? I am compelled to tell her story, as it must not only mirror the story of so many women, but also the current moment of awakening. In many ways, just like the rest of society, I did not value her and her strengths enough in her lifetime. How much of what women do and offer are at the root of all the good in this world, and are yet their stories are unappreciated, unrecognized, unseen?
None of the loves and longings driving me throughout my life could possibly have the heft, the resonance, the spiritual grandeur as the love between me and my mother. I see now more clearly than ever, but for much of my life, it was obscured to me. Or maybe it hadn’t become that, yet. Our mother-daughter dance had a grand arc, played out on a everyday scale, as things do. When I look back on it, my mom and I in many ways, grew up together.
My mom was raised in the 50’s in Memphis,TN with the requisite distant, disapproving father, who did his part in undermining his kids’ sense of self-worth. He had no interest in children, and only slightly more in women, as entertainment or decoration. Her mother was her lifeline. Although I didn’t know my grandmother, the impression is of a brash, funny, can-do lady, who spoke her mind and held her own, within her limited world. My mom was her favorite and she knew it. She admired her mother, idolized her, held onto her love for survival, swimming in the sea of a lonely dysfunctional home life. My grandmother had arterial disease and started having health problems and surgeries young. My mother took care of her for years throughout her teens, her formative years spent enduring this ongoing stress and anticipating her impending loss.
At the age of 24, shortly after my mom was married, my grandmother had a serious stroke. While at the hospital waiting for update on her condition my mom took a pregnancy test to discover she was expecting me. She wrote recently about her concern that her overwhelming grief shaped me in utero. My grandmother and I did a dosido of her fading and my coming into being, her death coming only months after my birth. She had greatly diminished mental capacity from the stroke and wasn’t really able to experience becoming a grandmother. That moment being lost to my mom was crushing. My mom was newly married to my father, who she hadn’t known for very long, on a whirlwind journey of emotions in uncharted territory. But becoming a mother was a true lifelong dream of hers, and it brought her so much joy. The Jewish concept of nachas, of the pride and happiness you get from your children’s lives, was defining to her identity. She spent every waking moment with me, and I was probably a sponge for the sorrow, fretting, love and hope that swirled around us.
When at the age of six I started asking my mother questions about death, if she was going to die one day, and if I was going to die, she was caught off guard, to say the least. I was putting the pieces together, and vividly remember trying to understand this impending ultimate goodbye that awaits all of us. When she told me yes, she was and I was, but not for a long long time, I became inconsolable. I remember standing next to her while she took a bath, watching her try to appear at ease, her skin glistening, explaining how some people believe we would be reincarnated as an animal, like a cow. This idea that I would come back, fully myself, away from everybody I knew, in the body of a cow, was truly awful. It also made me feel sure there was no consolation to be had. She felt helpless in that tub I’m sure--how many of us learn to be with this truth or just avoid it our whole lives? I could not stop crying. Grown up behavior mystified me even more with this insight, and I felt very alienated. I wondered: How could it be that everything people do and say isn’t a direct response to the knowledge of death? Isn’t it a call to be right her right now, fully and courageously? My personality in many ways was defined by this search for recognition. And yet, in my childhood world I saw no sign of it around me.
Having lost her beloved mother, she knew very well the reality of loss, and its unfathomable size and acute pain. My need to understand and be real, and her need for distraction as a means of survival, drove a wedge between us. Ironically, I believe this was in no small part because of how very similar we were: Emotional, tuned in, finding life breathtaking and overwhelming. Neither of us ever really could play it cool. It took us years, decades even, to traverse that distance.
Although I always felt part of my family, and I always knew I was loved, I reluctantly, sorrowfully, wrote my mom off at some point in my youth as a source of acceptance and connection. I sought it elsewhere. Music, comedy, soccer, eventually friendship too, although that took some time. And she, unhappy in her marriage from nearly the beginning, sought refuge in mothering the four of us, staying busy, busy, busy, making lists and checking them off, and later, becoming an entrepreneur. She ended up looking back with regret about her lack of presence throughout our childhoods.
My mom had boundless energy, was undaunted by big projects and had a joyful optimism taking them on, even if her vision was often of the short attention span variety. At the time she seemed girlish to me and flighty, and it made me want to write off everything girlish. But it was these ingredients that allowed her to create a thriving business that was centered around her passion: making sure children were valued and taken care of while their parents were away. It embodied so many of her strengths, however difficult it was for me to see at the time. She and my father ran the business together, and it would not have been successful without their partnership. When it came to conflict, he thought faster and more manipulatively. I stood up to him on her behalf often, and longed for her to be able to stand up for herself. Looking back I value the strength and skill it took for her to move into the next moment; to always find something to hope for and look forward to; to dust off, pick up and move on when she felt belittled and discouraged by her partner.
It wasn’t her intention to “find herself” through her business pursuits, but over time as she amassed colleagues, experience, and confidence, her self knowledge grew. She hung her hat on the quality of her caregivers, which she trained, the care they provided, and the sense of community she created between her employees. Among her peers she was known for her warmth and generosity. She wanted to be the effortless socialite that she perceived her mother to be, but she wasn’t. Instead she was all heart and intention. Now I am so endeared by her inability to pull off social slickness. It was awkward for me to watch, especially as a teenager--the jokes that were timed wrong, the foot in the mouth. But her sincere good will and desire to pass along good feelings is what came across in any interaction, to anyone who paid attention. And that is how she really won people over, and found the ones worth winning.
The more she connected to herself, and with the help of distance and time, we were slowly able to see and appreciate each other better. I spent a lot of my young adulthood stumbling, having many passions but not knowing my place, my value. My parents were worried, and weren’t sure how to believe in me, which didn’t help. There were moments sprinkled throughout the years when she showed she was clearly tuned in, getting me, encouraging me on this path that she didn’t understand the end game of. When I had my MFA thesis exhibit and my parents walked into a room of my paintings from images from childhood birthday parties, it was a revelation for them. Things started to make some sense from the outside. My mom said “You cannot make something beautiful unless you are beautiful.” From a woman whose definition of beauty had been so externally focused my whole life, so defined by others, it was a moment I was thirsty for and sustained me for some time, even though I wanted more.
The more she moved into herself, the more opening there was for our connection to take root and show up in our relationship. She slipped up sometimes, but worked hard to show me that her judgment of me had been based on long-standing beliefs and values that she had come to question. Her concern and distance had shifted into admiration. I became more of a confidante for her, a source of reflection and support. Several years ago she called to tell me she was not buying a new house with my Dad, but instead moving into her own place in Decatur. It was a vaguish move towards separation, and I understood. I hope I was a bit of an anchor for her as she made these courageous choices that went against her upbringing, her earnest intentions in marriage, her difficulty in standing up for herself.
She started a true renaissance in her life. She gained personal space, and an opportunity to stretch out and spread her wings like never before. Now retired, instead of filling every moment of her time, she stopped to enjoy, joined clubs, started writing, took classes. The stillness taught her more than anything, and there was much reflection and reckoning. She travelled to see her kids and grandkids constantly, and made a point of being present and appreciating each one. She went to hear music and really listened. I could see the awe on her face as she told me about these moments. She started writing a memoir, seeing her life for the first time in many ways, with a few pieces about our relationship. We would meet and have heart to heart conversations, and she often laid bare her concerns for family members, regrets about parenting me and her marriage, her appreciation of my art, her joy in my recent marriage, her admiration of my path. On a recent Facetime call, I opened it to see her smiling with her whole face, all love, radiating. Looking at me as only a mother could. I had started to accept this transformation, opening bit by bit, after many years of caution.
The current political climate had her very depressed. Like so many of us, she found it shocking and uprooting to see hateful words and deeds done by those in power, and supported by many others. My mom was the perfect student of 50’s and believed on some level that the world and its institutions are to be trusted.. It was almost impossible for her to comprehend corruption, because it was based on choices she herself would never have made. Reflecting on her goodness, not as a matter of principle, but just as a part of her nature, makes me miss her so much. As the song says “I never thought for a moment, that human life could be so cheap.” This was the state of her dismay.
She shared with me how the Black Lives Matter movement really had an impact on her. She spent her adult life working with African American women as co-workers and employees; as our teachers, bosses and friends. It would have never occurred to her to judge someone on the color of their skin. But after the BLM movement she saw that this wasn’t enough---that she had never really put herself in the shoes of these friends. This humility and a willingness to open when being personally challenged, was a remarkable strength of my mother. The #metoo movement resonated with her and helped her to share her own stories that she never knew she had a right to be angry about. I was concerned with her singular, if understandable, obsession with these heavy things, reading the headlines all day long. I suggested that instead of just getting depressed with her face in her screen, maybe she could take some time and volunteer towards something she believed in.
It is not surprising to me, all these things considered, that Stacey Abrams was who my mom chose to volunteer for. Independently of her, I also had been drawn to Abrams, and her potential to be the first female African American Governor of not only of Georgia but in the country. When I found out my mom was hosting a house party for her, I felt so proud of her. Standing in her power, on the clarity of her intention, I saw a video of my mom speak in an impassioned way about Stacey Abrams. Watching the video (below) initially, the sound muted, I felt her message without hearing her words: “We need women to lead, we need Black people to lead, I speak from what I know, and what I know is real and profound.” Two days after this event, my mom left this world.
I wish I had told her, outright, my pride in all these things of hers. My recognition of the often lonely path she took towards inhabiting all that she was and could be. The pain of her loss burns out all my wasted thoughts, the kind that interfere with intention, and bring me more fully into this moment as her final gift to me and what I can offer this world.
At the Stacey Abrams event in Savannah, I was moved. Her speech didn’t paint a picture of perfection about herself, her family, or her career, but of willingness and humanity. She spoke about her recently incarcerated brother Walter who struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, and her lack of shame about him was obvious. She spoke of the small daily things her parents did that set character deep into her family’s ways. She was a wonderful storyteller in the way she wove her history, her convictions and her knowledge into a tapestry of possibility. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time she gave the talk, but her way of being with her words brought it to life.
At the meet and greet afterwards, when it was my turn to greet Ms. Abrams, I felt myself welling up. It felt like destiny to have this event on my mom’s birthday, a day I had no idea what to do with. Seeing her ahead, I thought, look at this glowing woman in front of me standing tall, steady, and so there. I introduced myself and she immediately knew who I was, and my mother’s work for her campaign. She remembered meeting my sister, knew my uncle. I came in for a hug, collapsing, and she caught me--instantly, effortlessly, and held a space for me to grieve within. Her embrace was so solid and yet so warm and nurturing. As she held me, she told me that my family was in her prayers every night. I found myself needing her, like in her body was the secret to enduring the impossible, and coming out the other side not only intact but shining. She didn’t owe me this, if anything I owed her, for the courage and vision to run against odds. To face the cruelty of hate and judgement on the daily. But she was there for me like we women do for each other, for the human race, ready to give of her strength, shelter and provide.
I thanked her for running, for following her head and her heart. I want to feel the birthing of a new era, for women, for Black Americans, for those too-long marginalized, and for my mom, based on the love and connection we are all capable of, that defines the best in humanity. I want to see the wings of this country spread, to include the cumulative wisdom and strength of what women know. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my mom, but I felt her and the love she instilled in this embrace. One that continues to grow, see, open. The bountiful strong arms of the mother. I wondered which other gubernatorial candidates or politicians could have held me this way? Thank you for being there for me, and for my mom Stacey Abrams, for giving us hope, and something to believe in.