My mom stayed by Tom’s side every moment of his final year of AIDS related cancer and death. I was left to family, friends and finally back to the Pentecostal Homeless Shelter while she relocated to stay with him hours away at the big city hospital that would accept AIDS patients. We had stayed at the shelter before, and I had been a member of the church for years, but this was my first time staying there without my mom or Tom. I was only 10 and it was weird.
The rooms were all organized by color or theme. There was the blue room with curtains, bedspread, rugs, everything all blue. Or another room was cow print and everything had a cow on it or had that black and white splotty print. They put me in the pink room. I was more of a basketball girl than a frilly pink bedspread girl, but I had never slept in a decorated room before and the fanciness made me feel special. I never touched anything in that room though! My mama always taught me that “if you break it, you buy it.” At bedtime, I would pull back the blankets, slip in carefully and then climb out in the morning, pulling the blankets back up. I remember how tight the sheets felt when I squeezed myself in. I was so scared to mess anything up that I wouldn’t even loosen the sheets to make space for my body.
I don’t remember how long I stayed at the shelter or really almost anything at all from my time there. I followed the rules, did my share of the farm chores and kept my mouth shut. I remember the food though! Farm cooked meals were like nothing I had ever tasted before. Eggs and toast and juice every morning! Chicken and potatoes for dinner! After all of those years of hunger and food insecurity, it’s not all that surprising that I can still remember sitting at their table savoring every bite.
Sometimes the shelter was occupied by families that were picked up from cities and relocated to this place at the end of a dirt road. Can you imagine? The shelters are full and crowded and your living in some big city and this van pulls up with these sunburnt farmers who tell you that they will let you live in their shelter if you just praise Jesus each Sunday? That’s how it was for the Irish immigrant family with 5 babies and the grandma living with them and the goth kid who didn’t last too long with us. The preacher burned all his stuff in a heap in the yard and I sat in terror at the window watching.
If you could overlook that the farm was run by witch hunting Pentacostal missionaries with a house filled with transplanted homeless people from varies cities, it was a normal functioning farm. Cows. Chickens. Gardens. One night, the farmer invited me to witness a laboring cow. I stood there , crying in the dark, breathing in the unmistakable smell of hay, blood and manure and thought, “this is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.” The farmer named the calf “Crystal” in my honor.
One morning, the farmer/preacher’s wife came into my room. I liked her. She was kind and quiet and lovely. I still love grey hair on older women and I know it’s because she left such a mark on me. I thought she was the most beautiful woman alive when she would stand in front of us and sing in church with her sparkling silver hair swinging all the way down her back. (Women and girls at the farm were not allowed to cut their hair or wear pants.) Anyway, she came in and let me know that I was not going to school that day.
She put my one bag of belongings in her car, instructed me to sit in the back and drove us the couple of hours to the hospital. She informed me that my step dad was “gone” and we would be bringing my mom home. Then she was silent.
On that drive, without radio (we also weren’t allowed to watch TV or listen to music that wasn’t religious,) I had a lot of time to think. I was so happy that my mom was finally coming back to me. My mom. I felt the rock in the pit of my stomach. I missed her so much. I thought about how she cared for my step-dad, a man that had spent the past few years beating her almost to death. She washed his body. Cleaned his vomit, carried his weight when he got weak. Let him shower her in insults while she held his hand and guided him through the world when he lost his sight. I have never given it a lot of thought but maybe a small part of me was a little jealous that she gave him all of herself that year, and I was left to protect our secret from the rumors at school, fend off bullies in the shape of cousins, and grapple with my own fears and traumas in a place where everyone around me was rolling down the aisles and speaking in tongues. But I think even then I understood that my mom was doing the right thing. There was no one else that was going to help shoulder the weight of caring for a person dying from AIDS related illness. Not in 1995.
Who would do that for my mom when her time came? Would Tom have if the tables were turned? Shudder. I still can’t imagine how much worse life would have been if she had died first. Thank you mom. I know you pushed through for so long for me. Yes, for me. It would be me who would care for my mom at the end. I knew then that my mom was right that I was here to be her angel. To pull her out of the burning house and carry her to safety. There was an old man who came to church every Sunday at the shelter and his body was scarred from a house fire. He was all hunched over and even his fingers would no longer stand up straight. His voice was almost gone except when he sang “Amazing Grace!” that same song every Sunday. The preacher told me that the man had been trapped in a burning building and only when he cried out for the Lord, did he feel himself lifted and carried to safety. I was young and impressionable and The Pentacostals do not mess around with their storytelling, so I was completely buying into every word. In fact, I literally thought that God sent me to care for my mom just like the angel that saved the old man. I hoped I would be strong enough to hold her weight when the time came.
The hospital was hours away from our small town, and as we drove, I thought about Death. Death is so much bigger if you are a born again Christian than just the end of living in this physical world. It is eternity. Eternal Life or Eternal Hell. There was nothing more terrifying during that time period than the idea that my mom or I would end up separated for eternity. I already knew that she would die but the idea that our souls might not meet up in the afterlife was unbearable.
My mind would see-saw between both scenarios. Sometimes, I would imagine that my mom would be the one welcomed through the pearly gates. Sure, she had once lived a life of sin, but she was a good christian lady now. Then I would get nervous about my own standing because I had questions about religion and it seemed my questions were wrong. My inquiry into why our loving heavenly father would punish children born into families that believed in other Gods even if they lived a life of love and goodness was rewarded with a fast hard smack across my face. I thought, “Jesus loved all the little children…all the children of the world!” I wasn’t sure if God would allow a fierce believer with questions. Then my mom would chase me from one end of our trailer to the other with a knife drawn up ready to stab me for some minor unmemorable infraction and I would worry that oh no! Maybe it was her soul that was destined for hell. It was all complicated. I just kept my eyes on the skies and waited for the trumpets to sound the Judgment Day. Literally. I was delusional from living with these bedtime stories of resurrection.
I once witnessed the preacher, during a particularly rowdy tent revival ceremony, grab a girl about my age by the shoulders. His enormous farmer fingers dug into her shoulders and watching it, I couldn’t help but feel my own shoulders to make sure it wasn’t me. It was so vivid and still is to me. He was so red in the face, he was turning purple and he was shouting and spitting all over her. I couldn’t understand the words because he was “speaking in tongues” but this scene felt familiar. I imagined he was saying how she was an evil and dirty little girl and that the Devil was inside her. That would be what he was saying if he was my step-dad. Smack! He took those huge hands off her shoulders and grabbed ahold of her head and threw her hard backwards. I heard the Thwack as her body slammed into the ground. I always assumed I would be next. I always assumed they would see Satan in me, the questioner. I understood that they never corrected Tom for his violence because they knew he was just carrying out Gods work.
Snap. Back to reality. Back to the car ride to see my dead step-father. (I never got to see my dead father, who also died from AIDS) and pick up my dying mom.
The preacher’s wife was talking to me. We were at the hospital. Even when I put myself back in time to visit this memory, my mind watches the scene from the ceiling as if I am watching a movie of a little girl walking in to see death instead of being that little girl. I learned to leave my body quite young. Anyway, the hospital was big and scary and white everywhere and smelled like Disinfectant and death. But I didn’t know what death smelled like yet. Did I? Not human death. So many adult faces standing over me. And then! There! My mom! Through it all, there she was. But there was no time to be comforted yet. Right then, there were big decisions to be made. Tom’s body was still in there. In the hospital bed. They hadn’t moved him yet. Is that normal to leave a dead body in a hospital room for hours? Aren’t there protocols against such things? Had they kept his body there waiting…for me?
That was the big question. Did I want to go in and see Tom’s body? Did I want to say goodbye?
His mouth was stuck open. I could see the pain in his eyes still. I could see that he had been gasping for his last breath. It had not come for him. I did not say goodbye. I did not have anything to say to him. Or to anyone. I was not confused about where Tom would go. Tom who used every possible weapon against my mom and I. Guns, knives, fists, penis. We were never safe and now, Tom would never be safe from the fires of Hell. I wasn’t comforted by that. I didn’t want vengeance. I just wanted safety. For me. For my mom.
This is where I became very quiet. I talked so little that my mom got me into some counseling program, “Wrap Around Services.” The young student therapists that they would send out to the trailer could not get me to speak so they gave me a journal and they gave me an assignment to write. But I was not ready to write either. I was not ready to trust myself to tell any of this story. I knew that this is a dangerous story and I needed to be careful with how I let it out. There was still so much at stake. I still needed to protect my mother.
I am a little surprised that I don’t have more feelings around seeing Tom’s dead body. For a few years, I would see visions of him. Walking into the doctor’s office, at the grocery store or once I rolled over and saw him lying beside me in bed, mouth open, eyes staring right through me. But other than these ghostlike hauntings, he was just gone for me. I was mourning, but not for him. I didn’t even realize this fully until I sat down to write this.
I was grieving the years of torture that my mom and I endured. Looking back I realize, I was silent, not because my grief was so huge, but because if I couldn’t speak my truth and name my grief accurately then I wouldn’t speak of it at all. It was easier and more socially acceptable for a child to be grieving the death of her step-dad than to admit that I was finally gasping for air after so many years of holding my breath. How would the world have reacted if I told them I was processing the waves of trauma flooding over me as I realized what we had survived? If I admitted that when Tom first got sick, i prayed a thank you to God for giving us a break. It is taboo where I come from to speak ill of the dead, but I prefer that quote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” It took me another decade to hear that quote for the first time and another decade to take its advice.
Death is just a natural part of life. Unless your parents die from an epidemic fueled by hate oppression and government neglect. All of my parents died in their 30’s. I am definitely the kind of person who is always looking for the hope and the reason to be grateful and that is always woven into my stories. I don’t want to leave you with only trauma. I want you to know there was also love. My mother’s love for me pushed her to survive for 17 years with HIV. At the end there was no question if I would see her in death. She died in my arms with our fingers interlaced. At home.