Today, Easter Sunday morning, 2010, I am going to see the woman who carried me in her stomach for seven and a half months, then delivered me—first, to the incubator, then to my foster mother, Mary Birdsong—and I will try to call her Mother.
The lot behind The Pines is full, and for just a moment I’m so relieved I shout, Praise Him!—but only in my head. I can backtrack to Trinity, wait till Sunday school is over and sneak into worship. But, as if it’s on autopilot, the Lincoln pulls into an open space on the street. Closing my eyes, I again see, clear as Trinity’s steeple, Jesus as he stood in the glow of the angel nightlight at the foot of my bed last Tuesday. My Lord of Hosts stood there, big as life, in his blue and maroon velvet robe—so soft!—reaching out his hand in the friendliest way.
“Your mother,” the Master said. “Go to her.”
I never did get back to sleep. I called Carl in Seattle on Wednesday, and my big brother agrees it would be good for me and good for her. Maybe he knows best; after all, she raised him.
Forgive me, Lord. All I can think of right now is how I’d be skeptical of anyone who told me they had such a vision. I blush with shame right here in my deceased husband’s Towne Car, and my hands are sweaty on the wheel. You’re a selfish woman, Sophora. How can you call yourself a Christian? But then I remember Merle saying, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, Soph. It’s certainty. When you’re not certain, then you’re operating on faith.” Opening my eyes, I say it aloud: “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.”
I dab my eyes with a tissue. Oh, honey, why did you have to go before me? I look around and see not a soul on the street before adding, “Bless you, my Barnabus. I will try to have faith today.”
I stare up at the old hospital-now-nursing home. Then I haul myself out of the car, take three steps and go back. I have forgotten the donuts Carl said to take her—Carl who visits her as often as he can, considering his work took him to California; Carl who had his own vision in the rain, stink and mud of Vietnam and decided to get in touch with the little sister he’d hardly known. Bless his heart, he’s stayed in touch with me ever since.
He said be sure to take her the white-powdered ones or she’ll be mad. Let her. When did she ever care about what I wanted? All I know is she had a mental break-down in her twenties, another in her forties, hospitalization for a while, then a series of private assisted-living arrangements until Carl finally put her here. That was fourteen years ago—and this is my first visit despite living in the same West Virginia town with her. Not a soul at Trinity Methodist knows she exists. Why not, Sophora? That voice is Merle’s, asking me now what my sweet husband never asked me in life, not after the first time when I’d screamed, cried and consigned her to the devil. Sweet Merle, raised by agnostics, who never said a bad word about anyone.
I reach out to the parking meter to steady myself. Like that, I’m back on my knees in that horrible bathroom (the only place in that house where I could be alone), crying till I thought I might pass out. It was my tenth birthday—I’d made up a story in my head that my momma, my real momma, would attend a birthday so important. I knew better than to let it slip, but I did, just as my foster mother slapped down in front of me a piece of her pound cake that was tougher than the cube steak she made on special occasions. She leaned down close to my ear and whispered, her breath warm and sour, “Your momma’s dead as far as you’re concerned.”
And I hated her—not the woman who required silence and obedience and “no sniveling, ever.” No, I hated the woman who put me here and never came back to get me.
Moving forward again, I take smaller steps. Should I go back home? But in my mind’s eyes, I see my Lord’s eyes, sad as that surgeon who said that awful thing to me last year. My master’s hand is still outstretched, so I take it for a sign and walk on.
I enter the basement level, just like Carl said I should, and there’s the sign-in book. I’m tempted to ignore it, but my big brother made a big to-do about it; “Lets them know that she’s not been abandoned.” Abandoned. Well, we won’t go there, will we? Mary Birdsong was no prize, but I almost never envied Carl for living with our real mother. I visited them once. Cockroaches and dust-bunnies. I knew why we were there; Mary Birdsong needed her to sign a paper. I knew my mother was signing me away, even though my guardian didn’t tell me in so many words. Now I sign my name so they’ll know (whoever they are): Sophora Brown Lawson. Her name, the woman upstairs. And the time: 10:17. I’ll be out of here well before church starts.
Aged residents line the narrow corridor, some in wheelchairs. I imagine Carl, smiling and glad-handing like the insurance salesman that he still is, when he used to visit us every Thanksgiving, him and Merle talking business and swapping sports scores in the den while I made the meal. Now I eat out on every holiday, usually alone.
Keeping my eyes straight ahead, I follow the signs to the elevator, pleased to find the hallway so bright and clean. No one speaks to me nor I to them, though I feel their eyes on me. I imagine Jesus among lepers. They touch that maroon robe as he passes through them as he would a field of withered flowers. He neither stops nor acknowledges any individual but does smile, his blue eyes bright with purpose. The poor, the lame, the elderly and the Alzheimered are always with you, but the Son of Man must go away.
Then comes a voice in my head, and, sure as the world, it’s Merle’s, saying, “It’s not the Lord that’s aloof from these folks’ suffering; it’s you, Sophora Lawson.” It hits me so hard that I take a breath and stop in front of a woman so slight I’m sure I could carry her up three flights. Her mouth is drawn like a purse and one side sags (stroke?). I bend and touch her arm. There’s no more flesh on it than a chicken wing.
“How are you today, hon?” I ask, smiling, less like the Jesus in my head than Carl, with his actuarials and annuities. She squints at me, as if assessing, then says, her tongue working empty gums. “You’re a angel!”
I blush—the last thing I want is attention, but it does please me. “Oh, sweetie, it may be Easter Sunday”—I’m aware now that I’m speaking to all the lined-up ones—“but I’m no angel, not even close.”
Now she’s pointing, the bluish finger trembling. “You’re the angel o’ death.”
I stand back up so fast, I nearly knock over a tiny man with a cane in my haste to make it to the elevator without stumbling. When the bell dings for the third floor, I come to—or come back from where I’d gone for several seconds. The little woman’s “angel ‘o death” took me back to Mary Birdsong’s Apostolic Church, where I’d never been comfortable, where shouting, crying, endless testifying and what I’d call dancing went on, along with sermons shouted at the congregation about devils as real as burglars and kidnappers, demons whose only purpose was to catch you in their talons—“one slip is all they need”—and hurl you into hell for eternity. Mary Birdsong was still warm in her grave when I moved my membership to Merle’s church, where I stayed for thirteen years before finding a new home at Trinity after he died.
The hallway is empty and well-lit with prints of oil paintings on the wall: scenes of fields, barnyards, creeks, rivers and mountains—all that’s denied to these residents now. I poke my head into the lounge—empty—with a large flat-screen, games, bookcase full of books and board games. A gray-haired woman grins back from the opposite wall. I return her smile before I realize it’s my own reflection in a gilt-edged mirror.
Now the woman in the mirror is frowning, looking old as Methuselah. They are the eyes of shame, making me feel Mary Birdsong’s scalding gaze: for not paying attention, for asking too many questions, for laughing and giggling with Karen Hightower from next door. She shouted, “You girls have diarrhea of the mouth!” from the kitchen one day when we were cutting out paper-dolls in my room. Karen turned red as blood and got real quiet. I hung my head and didn’t look up for the longest time. My only friend left soon afterward and never came back. Now I close my eyes in prayer.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” I say. “Forgive me for being so selfish and ungrateful. Mary Birdsong took me in, although she was poor and had little enough to give her own two sons. Thank you for the roof over my head. We never had plenty, but we had enough.”
Not of everything. Keeping my eyes closed, I continue, trying for calmness. “And forgive me for denying all these years that the woman inside these walls is my mother. Oh, I’ve known—known and chose to mostly deny it till you came to remind me.”
But why now? Is it that I can’t otherwise call myself Christian? No. I just can’t stand to lose anybody else. I know—it doesn’t make sense if you never had them in the first place—but there it is, Lord. You understand.
I watch my eyes until they turn back to normal sad, or not even that—just dull, like somebody shopping for clothes for a school child. Shall we think about the babies you never bore, Sophora, your selfishness? But not even that old tune gets a rise from me today. Sorry, Lord, but I don’t have to enjoy doing your will. (At this point in our relationship, He’s heard everything and can take it.) I turn and head down the hallway, where Carl told me to go.
Standing outside her door, I stare, horrified, at the photo beneath her name. She was a stunning beauty in high school (Mary Birdsong kept those pictures to torture me, studying my face for signs of grief whenever she’d get them out). I’m considering fleeing when I hear someone coming. When I turn, I see a black woman standing in front of the next room holding a pile of linens. Feeling ridiculous, I wave at her before knocking. The loud voice from within the room startles me. “Come in!” I glance back down the hall, but the housekeeper’s disappeared. Taking a deep breath, I open the door.
She sits perched on the edge of her bed, looking both better and worse than the photo: elfin, frail, shrunk. But her eyes are alight. Who or what is she waiting for?
“Hi!” She gives me a toothless, too-friendly smile—she surely doesn’t recognize me. I grin back. I could so easily pretend to be somebody else, say a few words and leave. (But He’d know.)
“Hello, there,” I reply, stalling. “How are you?”
She pats the bed beside her. Her dark eyes are alert, although Carl said they overmedicate her to the point of drooling sometimes. Not today.
After closing the door, I lower myself to the bed gently—am I afraid it’ll collapse with my extra fifteen extra pounds since my hysterectomy? Insanely, I think it’s me that might break, as if I’m inside her body. She is even frailer than the woman in the wheelchair downstairs, making me feel like a whale beside her. Her white hair is pitifully thin, showing her pink scalp, and blue veins are visible beneath the skin of her forehead. Her fingers, when she squeezes mine, are so cold that I imagine gnarly bird feet. The sunlit room is stifling. She continues to smile at me. Okay, Jesus, you can take it from here. Then I remember the donuts.
Reaching into my canvas bag, I pull them out. “Look what I brought you.” Her face doesn’t change—did I get the right kind? “They’re white-powdered. Carl says you like—”
She grabs the box and begins furiously tearing at it. I consider helping her but wonder if she might bite me, or growl if I did. She rips off an end panel and shakes one of the big white ovals onto the flowered lap of her smock, scattering snowy powder. Seizing it, she lifts it to her mouth and takes a huge bite, chews and swallows quickly, then takes another. She doesn’t slow down till it’s gone, and she starts on another. At first I’m shocked, then humbled. Surely sweet things are not so scarce here. Does my bringing them make them special?
I resist the urge to wipe white powder off her chin and nose. It makes me imagine her as a little girl (Mary gave me one of her baby pictures—I tore it up to spite her.) What had her life been like, really, since then? Nervous breakdown. Those two words, oft repeated by Mary Birdsong like something unholy, always sounded like a jail door clanging shut. I shuddered in my soul, thinking there was nothing worse. Until now. A fly on the wall above us, I see myself, heavy woman on the verge of old age. I’m seeing this place as a real hospital once again, and I see that surgeon stroking my hand, smiling as if speaking to a child. Don’t worry; we’ll clean you out good.
My mouth is opening to say no when she thrusts a half-donut under my nose, so close I can smell the fried dough and sugar. I have not eaten a donut—or potato chip or French fry or fish stick for…I can’t recall. Her eyes flash a challenge. The disgusting thing is now so close to my mouth, I taste the sugar on my lips without licking. Will you break bread or not? (Jesus or Merle speaking?)
She is retreating inside herself, I see, shoulders rising ever so slightly, turtling within to the place she was before I entered. I don’t want her to go, and I see I’ve got only seconds before she’s what Carl calls “Zombieville.”
“Mmm, good,” I say and take the box, reach in and tweeze out another one of the disgusting things. She groans softly as I bring it slowly toward her mouth, but she doesn’t open for it.
“I’m Sophora Brown Lawson,” I say, “your daughter. It’s Easter and I want to give you this. Please eat it.”
She just stares. No sign of recognition, her friendliness gone. I lower my hand to my lap. “I don’t want anything from you. I’ve only come to—” This ought to be good. “I’ve come to show you that I’m fine, that everything is so…” Fine? Bravo, Sophora.
I can’t say any more. My throat has turned into fever blisters. Heat blazes in my cheeks. Oh, how I wish you’d been there, I want to say, when I almost died from whooping cough or the time that nail went through my foot (“Walk it off,” Mary B. said while both her boys laughed); or when I asked Larry Newcomer to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance and he just walked away. I could have used you to talk to when I got my period that day and she screamed at me for bloodying her sheets, when Karen Hightower started leaving before I did to walk to school with Jody Baker.
I have to glance away for a moment, so I won’t cry. When I turn back, I see her hand slowly rising toward me. Her stare has become unnerving. I can’t imagine what she sees. She begins to stroke my cheek exactly as if I were a new-born preemie, a tiny spark that might ember out completely if you breathe on it too hard. I realize I’m holding my breath and start to exhale when the door opens and there stands the housekeeper bearing her bundle of linens. Her eyes go wide, but she recovers quickly. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I’ll just come back when—”
“Please come in,” I say, turning to see if the woman’s presence changes anything, but my mother is just staring at me, oblivious to the interruption. I see the housekeeper’s eyes take in my mother’s chin and lips dusted with powder, the mangled box, her messy dress. But I will not succumb to shame. I take her cold hand between my two warm ones.
“Mama’s hungry, and I’m feeding her.”
“Now ain’t that somethin’.” Humming, the woman squeezes past and enters the bathroom. My mother’s mouth opens, eyes widen. She’s almost panting, trying to speak. I wait.
My heart thumps loudly in my ears. I’m not sure I’ve heard it right till she says it again.
“Mama,” I whisper back then louder, not caring if the woman in the bathroom hears us.
My mother is grinning now, and we sit in friendly silence till the housekeeper has gone and I’ve given up on trying to sneak into church. The table is laid before you now.
She fumbles a donut out of the box, slowly reaches it to my lips. I open, she gently slides it in an inch and I bite down, detonating sugar nukes all through my mouth. I chew, swallow and am about to speak, but I never hear what I would’ve said, because she’s holding the nub of dough against my mouth again. This time my lips graze her fingers, and before she pulls back I smell (and taste) perfumed soap. And something else, something bitter, almost musky, and I find myself liking it way better than the cottony confection. I close my eyes. If her scent were liquid, I would drink it down to its dregs.
Ed Davis has immersed himself in writing and contemplative practices since retiring from college teaching. Time of the Light, a poetry collection, was released by Main Street Rag Press in 2013. His latest novel, The Psalms of Israel Jones (West Virginia University Press 2014), won the Hackney Award for an unpublished novel in 2010. Many of his stories, essays and poems have appeared in anthologies and journals such as Leaping Clear, Metafore, Hawaii Pacific Review, and Bacopa Literary Review. He lives with his wife in the bucolic village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he bikes, hikes, meditates and reads religiously.
Photo Credit: “Mini powdered donuts” by Jimmy Cardosi, Flickr.com.