My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.
“She’s gone,” he said.
Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.
When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.
The first person I dialed was my grandmother.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”
She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.
“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.
My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.
Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.
“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”
Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.
That Monday I swallowed my pain.
The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”
They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.
“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.
A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?
I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.
This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.