Every morning when I wake up, one of the first things I see is a picture of my mother and me. Taken nearly 19 years ago on my wedding day, it is a picture of us at our best—at peace with each other. I usually don’t give the picture much thought, but now I stare at it daily.
At 5 a.m. on March 5, my mother, the only parent active in my life, died.
I knew the moment my phone rang that morning that my mother had made her transition into another world. I knew when I left her hospice room in Tampa four days earlier to return to Houston to care for my own family that I would never see her alive again.
At 44, I know this loss is part of what defines the sandwich generation. But that doesn’t make it any easier. At midlife, the milestones are mounting.
I am grieving over many things at once: losing my mother; leaving a 20-year journalism career to go into the ministry full time; seeing the church where I serve closed by Hurricane Ike. At the same time, I am raising my own two young children amid the pull of popular culture and racial prejudices. All these things challenge and shape my world.
Any one would be daunting on its own, and suddenly I’m facing these challenges at once. I can’t afford to break down.
My mother was found unconscious Feb. 14 after a brief, desperate call to 911. From the time I arrived in Tampa, everything was a succession of haunting revelations: the team of stoic doctors; the term “brain hypoxia”; the results of an EEG test (electroencephalogram) that showed “silence.” I remember the stranger in the hospital chapel praying for me. And I can’t forget the crying.
The prognosis was without hope. Doctors said she would never recover. There were decisions that needed to be made—decisions that I did not want to be mine but that became mine, as the oldest child. There were papers to sign: “do not resuscitate” orders. And then there was a funeral to plan. How can I be planning a funeral when just the other day I was a mother worried about my son being the only black kid in his second-grade classroom and my daughter idolizing Beyoncé?
This was too much, too soon, too overwhelming. In the 19 days since our mother was found unconscious, my sister and I would become motherless, left to understand our predicament alone. My 39-year-old sister would stand at our mother’s casket and declare: “Now you’ll have to be Momma.”
In my new career as a minister, I’m usually the one offering condolences or saying a prayer. But this time, a hospital chaplain stood in the place where I normally stand asking to do all those things. I was the parishioner, the wounded one.
During my mother’s hospital stay, I sat for hours looking down at her while the monitors overhead kept track of her vital signs. Her heart rate was good. Her blood pressure was good. So why can’t she just get up! This is the same woman who came back from ovarian cancer, abusive men and a general hard-luck life. I studied her in silence, thinking about how she awaited my debut into the world. And now I would be there as she made her exit. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Mother-daughter relationships are complicated, and ours was as complicated as they come. Raised in early childhood by my grandparents, I came to stay with my mother as a teenager. She was a young, single parent raising two girls. She had trouble paying the rent and keeping the utilities on. I tallied all her faults.
We struggle to be different from our mothers. We struggle to climb the corporate ladder. We struggle to provide greater opportunities for our kids. We struggle to keep it all together. When things go haywire, we ask ourselves, why? Why like this? Why now, when I have so much to mourn? I have gone to sleep with the question on my lips and have awaken in the middle of the night still pondering.
Now I am left to make my own transition from someone’s daughter to no one’s daughter.
Every time I look at the woman adjusting my wedding veil in that bedroom photo, sadness washes over me. She’s gone. There will be no more phone calls between us. No more arguments in which we vow never to speak again. No more hearing her “when I was a child” stories. No more calling to ask how to cook something (yet still managing to mess it up). Her journey of worrying about job security, raising confident children, finding fulfillment and gaining financial stability is over. Mine, however, continues, awaiting the next transition.
Salatheia Bryant-Honors is a former 20-year newspaper journalist turned full-time minister living in Houston, with her husband, Reginald, and two children.