I love to sleep. I’m really good at it and it’s one of my favorite things to do. When I want to cut off for the night (or nap in the middle of the day!), I can be asleep 15 minutes after I lie down and draw the curtains. That’s just a preface to say, it’s really unusual for me to have any trouble falling asleep, and because of that, I’m usually not sleepy in the middle of the day since I get 7 or 8 hours at night without any problem. This past Thursday after lunch however, I was exhausted. I was sitting straight up on the couch nodding off, and since I didn’t have anything else to do, I just decided to lie down and take a nap. Travis would be home later and he would want to watch Drag Race, so I’d be fresh and awake and alert and primed to laugh at jokes that aren’t that funny. I fell asleep for almost three hours. Three! When I shouldn’t have even been sleepy.
Later that night, I was getting ready for bed at my usual time, but of course I wasn’t tired, because I’d had a three hour nap in the afternoon. While I was brushing my teeth, my cousin Lisa called me, but I let it roll over to voicemail and I text that I would call her back in a few minutes, after I was done with my skincare routine and putting my hair up. She text back: It’s urgent. Call me.
That’s never good. An urgent call from family you don’t speak to regularly means somebody is dead or dying. I know those calls. I was at a rooftop party in Astoria when my brother-in-law called me and said my mom was being flown to a nearby hospital, and she was dead the next day. I was at dinner on the Upper West Side when my dad called and said my sister had died suddenly on vacation. So, a cousin from my dad’s side of the family with an urgent call at 11pm on a weeknight meant my dad must be dying.
I rinsed the toothpaste out of my mouth and called her. My cousin Lisa didn’t have any details, but my dad and Linda had been in a head-on car collision, and Lisa was calling to give me Tracey’s phone number for more details. Linda is my step-mother and Tracey is her daughter/my step-sister, but I still don’t think of them as step-family. More on that later.
I called Tracey and it didn’t sound good. A car had crossed the center line and hit them head on. My dad was driving and took the worst of the impact, so they were flying him to a nearby hospital. Linda was on her way to the same hospital in an ambulance. Tracey gave me as much as EMS had given her when they called from the scene, but she would call me with more information as soon as she got to the hospital.
That three hour nap I’d taken earlier in the day was prescient. Obviously there wouldn’t be any sleeping for awhile, because the last time I had a parent flown to the hospital, they didn’t make it.
My parents were bowlers, and I don’t mean just a Thursday Night League bowler you might see on a sitcom. Bowling was our family hobby. It’s what we did after church, what we did if we went out to dinner, what we did on vacation. Most of the time it was why we went on vacation in the first place because they would enter tournaments all over the country as an excuse to road trip and see the US. I missed weeks of school every year on the road with Mom & Dad going to bowling tournaments, some of them for me and some for my parents. My mom and dad both bowled in singles, in doubles together, and on a team of 4 or 5. My dad had his men’s team (I still remember all of their names) and my mom had her women’s team (who were all like aunties to me) and Miss Linda (as I knew her growing up) was on the women’s team with my mom. If there was a women’s doubles category, my mom and Miss Linda were paired. For mixed teams, Miss Linda was there with my mom and dad and dad’s best friend Burke.
When Tracey told me they had been on the way home from the bowling alley, I smiled because of course they would be. Why else would two old Black people in the rural South be out that late on a weeknight? My mom didn’t love bowling as much as my dad did. She had a very slow roll that my dad used to make fun of incessantly, and she wasn’t as consistent during a tournament. She might completely bulldoze over the competition or she might tank. It depended on her mood and which way the wind was blowing. Plus, my mom liked to grow her nails long, and sometimes bowling would damage them. Miss Linda was a force though and she was one of the few women in the league who could go toe to toe with the men. In the few years leading up to my mom’s passing, she bowled less and less. She’d still go and enter the team category, but for mixed doubles, Miss Linda bowled with my dad a lot of the time.
Tracey is very calm on the phone and she reminded me of my sister Leslie. (I’m sorry about all these L-names. I didn’t realize until typing it out just now but it’s Cousin Lisa, Stepmom Linda, and Sister Leslie.) She and my sister were about the same age growing up — way older than I was. They were both off to college while Sesame Street was watching me nap, and I think they both worked at the same pharmacy on summer breaks. Tracey is still a pharmacist. My sister eventually ended up in NICU.
Before Leslie died, she was the one who was calm in a crisis. I’m the baby so I don’t have to be calm. Her upbringing had been so much different from mine because my parents were young and struggling when she was coming up. They were old and stable when I got here. I didn’t have stressed out parents who were yelling about things. I had old parents who said “meh” a lot and indulged me in anything I wanted. So it was Leslie’s job to be calm and talk to doctors and tell us what was happening. Before, it was my sister Leslie telling me about my mom. Now it was my step-sister Tracey telling me about my step-mom and dad. To me they’ve always been my mom’s friend Miss Linda and my sister’s friend Tracey, but talking to her on the phone really solidified that this is family.
Tracey gave me updates as the night went on, and with each call, I relaxed a little more. I learned that his scans didn’t show any internal injuries. His head was fine. Nothing was wrong with his spine. In a head-on collision, those are what you worry about most, but Dad didn’t have any of that. What he did have were multiple breaks in his limbs, a lot of surgeries to get through, and a lengthy recovery ahead. Linda was pretty banged up too, but nothing catastrophic. These two old people made it through with broken bones. The next day, Tracey sent me screenshots she took while Dad and Linda were facetiming. From the neck up, they looked fine — just old and grumpy, which I can very much relate to. He’s been in and out of surgery over the holiday weekend and what he really wants is some independence from that hospital bed. When I talked to him yesterday, he cussed a few times because he can’t roll over.
He’s not completely out of the woods. Some of his breaks were so severe the bones came through the skin, so they’re watching for infection. Blood clots have been an issue and he has some more surgeries scheduled this week, but all of this is so far removed from what I pictured Thursday night when I got another urgent phone call. I didn’t expect him to be talking shit and telling the doctors how to do their job.
He’s back in surgery today so my focus is all over the place, as it has been all weekend, because I can’t be down there right away. I haven’t worked in forever, our rent went up without a third roommate, and I spent all my money to create a calm home environment for myself to recover from the PTSD that evil spawn left me with. I probably wouldn’t have bought an expensive dining table last month if I’d known my dad would have two broken arms and two broken legs, but his sisters are half an hour away and they’re taking care of him. When I go down and cook for him in a couple of weeks, it’ll be the first time we haven’t gone bowling on a visit, but I’ll find him a new hobby. Maybe I’ll teach him how to bake something! Or maybe I shouldn’t press my luck with too many miracles back to back…
A Lesson Before Dying
Parents are people, and they don’t have all the answers either.
I was the absolute nosiest child in all of South Carolina.
My parents weren’t the typical Southern Christian Black Conservative parents of the 80s in many ways. On the outside, they didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and went to church multiple times a week. I didn’t realize it until I was much older, but inside our house they were more progressive in the way they thought about family and the roles we play. There was no Man’s Work or Woman’s Work in our house really. My mom cut grass, because she liked to be outside. My dad did most of the laundry, because he liked to fold and iron clothes on Sundays watching sports.
As for me, I didn’t really get treated like a child who should be seen and not heard. I watched the news with my parents every night, so if they were talking about missiles in Iraq over dinner and I had something to say, they let me say it. Other parents left their kids at home when they went out to dinner with their friends, but mine took me along. I usually brought a book to read, but I was always eavesdropping, and on the car ride back to the house, they treated me like an equal third in the gossip.
I was the nosiest child in all of South Carolina because my parents loved to gossip and let me participate. Being nosey also meant I was a snoop and I was always going through my sister’s stuff. She was already out of the house, in college, and married hundreds of miles away, but you know how it is when you’re first starting out. You leave a lot of stuff at home in your old bedroom, and I felt it was my right, as a nosey child and younger brother, to go through all that stuff. I stole her CDs, tried on her heels and her prom dress, read her diaries from high school, and I also borrowed her books.
Shel Silverstein was my first favorite author. I don’t remember how I came across him, but I had read a lot of his stuff by second grade and A Light In The Attic was the first hardcover book I ever owned.
My sister kept most of her CD collection (she had multiple 300-disc binders because she bought new music every Tuesday) in a big trunk that also had some of her college books. I saw a book that reminded me of Shel Silverstein.
Obviously these books have nothing to do with each other and looking at them as an adult, it’s so strange that I would link them at all. Maybe I thought the house by Shel looked like a drawing of the house by Ernest. Whatever the reason that I’ve forgotten decades later, I still remember thinking of Shel when I took the book and started reading it.
Without giving away the entire plot of A Lesson Before Dying if you haven’t read it, it’s a story about race in Louisiana in the 1940s. A Black man is on trial for capital murder, and his white defense lawyer argues against the death penalty by comparing the accused to a hog: there’s no point in executing such a stupid, simple beast incapable of higher thought. It would be a waste of the state’s time and resources since the accused could no better plan a murder/robbery than a pig could. He was sentenced to death and the rest of the book mostly consists of conversations between the convict and a Black teacher who has been tasked with helping this man understand his humanity so he can walk to the electric chair as a man.
It’s very light reading for a seven-year-old!
I don’t know what I thought the first time I read it, because I’ve read it too many times since. I was about two-thirds through before my mom took it upon herself to read the book jacket. She’d seen me with the book, but she always saw me reading stuff. She used to drop me off at the library while she ran errands and she never much bothered with what I might be reading. But she read the book jacket and took it away from me because of the subject matter. She said it was way too mature (which it was), but I told her I wanted to know how it ended. I tried to negotiate when she said no, and in the end she decided we’d finish it together so we could discuss it and she could explain it to me.
You can’t explain all the nuances of racism to a second grader. You can barely explain the nuances of racism to an adult white person. It’s just something you have to live, but she did her best. The next year, we read it again, and I knew a little more. We read it again the next year, and we had more things to discuss. We read A Lesson Before Dying seven or eight times before I went off to boarding school. Ernest J. Gaines was the third author I could call a favorite (in the interim, I had discovered the trashy pulp fiction of Stuart Woods, which was full of guns and polite descriptions of oral sex, but my mom never read any of those book jackets).
Years pass. Life goes on. Our relationships with our parents change. After I was outed to my mom in middle school, ours was irreparably damaged and I lost my best friend forever. I spent the next ten years or so watching her descend further into Christian Desperation around why I couldn’t shake my homosexual demons, so I just gave up and stopped speaking to her. I didn’t deserve the guilt trip she laid on me every time I called to check on her from my home in NYC, so the last time I called her for her birthday over a decade ago, I made the decision it would be the last time I would speak to her until she came to her senses. When my birthday rolled around, my sister convinced me to at least reach out to her by e-mail and really explain to her how I was feeling, so I did that. I didn’t get a response, but I hadn’t expected one.
My mom died suddenly a few weeks after I sent my birthday e-mail. I was having dinner with a friend when my brother-in-law called to say she had been flown by helicopter to the nearest metropolitan hospital. She was dead before my flight arrived. The next couple of weeks were mostly spent making sure my dad was okay (my mom was the second wife he’d lost), and making sure he had access to all of her financials and password-locked accounts. In the sent folder of her e-mail account, there was one to me. My mom didn’t reply to the birthday e-mail I’d sent her, but after it sat in her inbox for a few days, she typed up a brand new one and sent it to me. I never got it because she sent it to an e-mail address that I don’t check anymore. I opened it and the first line said “I’m sorry…” so I started crying and closed the message. Later I printed it out and took it back with me to New York where it sat in a notebook that I opened once a year to try to finish it. It took me years and years of therapy to actually be able to read it, but I finally did. I can tell it was just as hard for her to write as it was for me to read.
That was much later though. And you might be wondering what this has to do with Ernest J. Gaines. I flew back to New York, “I’m sorry…” e-mail in tow, and one of my best friends randomly decided we should get tattoos. I’d wanted one before and never made the commitment because I wasn’t sure what to get, but I finally knew. I dug out an old birthday card my mom had sent, and I took it with me to a tattoo shop in the East Village with my friend. I asked the guy if he had a script that looked close to her handwriting, and he did. And this was my first tattoo:
Everyone says it looks like “a leckon” which it does, but I didn’t want it touched up, because her handwriting was imperfect too. She was imperfect. She did the best she could with the lessons that had been taught to her in the church, but when I read that she was sorry, I knew she had learned one more lesson before dying. It would be years before I could get past the first line of her e-mail, but I saw all I needed. I didn’t get to talk to her about it, but when I look down, I see her handwriting of my favorite book as a child, back when our relationship was idyllic and progressive and gossipy. I remember the lessons she taught me every year about being a Black man, and I’m happy to have known her.
(*This post was inspired by a tweet that asked “What is a work of fiction (novel, comic, TV show, movie, what have you) that changed the way you thought about the real world?” I hadn’t thought anything about race at all before A Lesson Before Dying so it pretty much served as my first introduction to injustice and inhumanity.)
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