Dear Issa M. Mas

I call this time my march to May. March to May. It’s a wild forest of grief that I have to go through every year. And every year I realize no matter how much people want to travel with me or assure me they’ll be “here for me”, they really can’t fully do that and they can’t even know how much they can’t. But this year Grief Thoughts came my way because someone (probably my mom) decided that it would be ok for me to have a flashlight this time. Well, actually it was a tweet by Deesha Philyaw but I’m sure my mom pushed my finger to scroll to it so I could grab what I needed for this hike. Can you tell metaphors are not my strongest suit? K. But I’ll try again later. Scratch that. Make it “and I’ll try again later.” One of my therapists is teaching me to replace some of the buts with ands. It’s a dialectic she says. And my ass has a PhD in rhetoric but (aht aht) and it was like I heard that for the first time when I started working with this counseling practice through my complicated grief.

My grief work started in 2016. I write about it. I write to writers about that and other things. I usually write to Stevie Wonder because…As. I have not sent any of those letters to him yet. I’m waiting for the right time. I put the “did you know that true love asks for nothing” lines on my mom’s headstone. And in one of those “Ugh! I’m so damn stupid!” (Thought 177) moments, I was frantically trying to correct the mistake of not getting his permission to use his all rights reserved material…on a head stone…in a Pittsburgh cemetery…under a bush…a flat stone…a flat stone that hosts those words in grooved letters that you can’t actually see unless I clean it and remove the Pittsburgh from its face. Mmmhmm, irrational. And I don’t care. I decided maybe I wasn’t going to keep doing the negative self talk – score one for team ‘moms treating ourselves better so our kiddos can treat themselves better’ – I’m with you. Anyway I tried to pull a letter together for him and like what do you say?

My mom died. I know they say when you write you should show not tell. I don’t know how to do that here. I could write that my beautiful chocolate bar of a daughter bounced home after school one spring day wrapped in a gloriously peculiar Pittsburgh sunshine, lilipadded her steps from our driveway past the house we lived in through our lopsided backyard to the smaller house on our lot, stepped carefully onto my mom’s  quiet porch, knocked, waited, keyed in, called to her Nana, looked into her Nan’s room and found her there dead. 

I could write that my tall as the sky personal superhero laid her sleek frame down in a cocoon of a room at the most tranquil edge of the property we mortgaged together just years before, turned on her tv via her new computer, folded her blankets like a wrap skirt, gave herself one last hug, closed her eyes and decided not to wake again. Alright. I can do a little editing before I send this to you. Last week I wrote something that made me cry so hard I just played solitaire for hours after sucking air and saying the word mindfulness over and over. I’m going to edit that thing cautiously. My cards are a mess.

I could write that my mother entered her final rest on May 11, 2016. I could write that God called my mother, Carolyn Ayesha Beverly Brinson, home just after Mother’s Day in 2016. I can almost see her making her lips do hospital corners and slapping the air down at that one. I could Faulkner maybe; my mother is a fish. Perhaps not so copy paste? My mother is a cardinal? Or perhaps something more literal. My mother is my heart. The heart is a hulking mass of mitochondria. She all up in there. It doesn’t matter how many flowers and candy I place around this text. My mom died. And I had to bury her. And I didn’t know how to do that. And I had never done it before. And I wanted to do something I thought she would have liked, something that would have made her smile, something she would have seen as appropriate for the KitKat grand daughter and her other grandchildren as well, something beautiful, something timeless. So I quoted Mr. Wonder. And every year when it is time to come back to that decision I make it again. The process starts now.

I’ll be 46 soon. You know what? I actually thought I was turning 45. My mom would have (this is where she and I would use the phrase “died laughing” and now I’m cackling because that shit is funny as hell and I know people who will be like “no, that’s not funny” and tell me to change it but when you grieve you know better than to waste any opportunity to laugh at something so) died laughing at me forgetting that I had already turned 45. One time she had a grand mal seizure in the middle of a Wendy’s a few days before my birthday. She was in there on the date and when I came to visit her we were just sitting in the room being quiet together when she looked up at the white board on the wall where they write the doctors and nurses names as well as other details. Like the date. She looked at the date through half her eyelids. Then all of a sudden she lit up so bright and said “It’s your birthday! Happy birthday boo boo.” Some years that memory makes me smile. Some years it pisses me off. I don’t know what it will turn out to be this year just yet. It’s just kind of hanging out trying to decide which way it’ll go. My point is that my birthday was special to that woman. The one year I thought she would miss it, she read it from that hospital bed and floored me. So it will start around tomorrow. People will start mentioning my birthday is coming and I’ll be acutely aware of her being gone. And I will unwillingly step into that forest.

It isn’t that it’s dark. It’s thick and there are no beaten paths. It doesn’t even feel like it’s on this planet. It’s a liquid forest. It will wash over me at times. And I will go into it anyway knowing all this. And I absolutely do go in thinking that maybe one of these years I’ll stay and everyone will be finally rid of me and my grieving. Thank you for sparing me the empty platitudes about it getting better. Thank you for the reminder about pain and how it can gaslight us. I will find something to hold onto. I will also hold onto your book. My therapist is going to be so proud of me for reading your book. She’ll tell me I took care of the baby. That’s what we call it when I need something and make a choice to give it to myself because I am taking care of a part of me that is in a state of complete vulnerability. We got it from a Mary J. Blige documentary. She’ll say I’m getting better at this each year. I won’t say she’s a quack but I will probably say something like “nope no I’m not. I’ll be right here next week don’t even try to tell me I’m getting better.”

Soon the next week will be April. My mom’s birthday was April 12th. I wish I had been half as attentive to her birthday as she was to mine. I wasn’t. I wish I had been half as attentive to her life as she was to mine. I could never. It’s a story for another time but, let me tell you Issa M. Mas, my mom decided to raise me and she gave it all she had. And she did a lot of it alone. She had help from time to time. My council of aunties is strong. One of her sista friends still texts me to see how I am. But 40 years (and running) she gave me completely true love. My therapist gave me new words for this when she pointed out to me that ours was a love story. She helped me see where I had loved my mom truly as well. It was ironic to me because we each spent so much time in our lives trying to be in love. We wanted true love partners for each other. We showed up to every wedding or cookout with a new bae. We showed out at every divorce or “gimme back my waffle iron” break up night. Loving. Being there. Writing this story. This is the part where I stress about how that last paragraph comes off. Like is it weird? Will people get it. So, thank you because in thought 119 you wrote that your father’s overwhelming love and devotion was both a blessing and a burden. And I nearly nodded my head clean off my neck and against the far wall. A love story like that comes with a lot of fucking responsibility to someone. And there were so many times when she was let down or didn’t understand what the hell I was doing. From English papers to living my sexuality out loud to unusual weight loss to eating pork, she had critiques on critiques. And now I am free. And all I want to do is go back in time and make sure she has a birthday cake every year.

Next up will be Mother’s Day or the day she died. Some years those days are one and the same. And now with your help I will get to that end of my march to May and I’ll be easy on myself if all I can say is fuck today or where the fuck is Calgon and why has that bitch not taken me away (Thought 82). May 11th will come and it will be the day my mom died. It will be the day someone told me this over the phone as I was walking to my car in the parking garage of the university that made me jump through hoops of fire to get a PhD that she would never see. I would let all the books and notes I had for my comprehensive exams that I was supposed to take that weekend fall down on the ground and I would fall right with them and drop the phone. And you know how many of the people at a Catholic university would stop their cars or stop walking to their cars and see if this melted Black woman needed help? Not a fucking one. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe God told them to leave me the fuck alone. I’ll never know. But I do know that this year as I head for that garage or forest or ocean or whatever metaphor works for this liminal not-quite-sure-if-I’ll-make-it space, I will carry your book with me. So since you wrote us this letter of a book brave like a man who went back into burning towers 4 times to save people he didn’t know, I figured I’d write you back and tell you I’m a little shaky but your rescue was right on time.

So I write letters to writers to process my grief and the entourage of emotions who always wanna roll with her. Writing to writers helps me to look more closely at her and see that she is love. And because she is love, I get to mend myself over and over again. Even if that looks like writing letters to writers and saying please see me. Even if only for a few minutes. Please. And sometimes that is risky. But life will indeed break us anyway. This year your book helped me choose that living. This year I have your 186 thoughts and that’s enough for every one of these sadhappyweirdcacklingsobbing moments between March and May.

Thank you so much,

Oh and hey readers who aren’t the author. You can get your own copy of Grief Thoughts at this link.

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