I sat down, my hands trembled slightly as I reached for the phone. This was not a normal visit and all I ever wanted from her, from my childhood was one ounce of normalcy. I heard her voice on the other end of the receiver,
Hello mama, she said to me, her term of endearment ‘mama’ reverberated on my deaf ears.
Ma’ how did you get here? This is nothing like the other visiting room, I needed to know, the tone in my voice screamed that of an upset parent. Only, she was my parent and I her daughter. I was visiting her in jail, in a confined room, accompanied by an armed guard. This was our normal.
I didn’t expect an honest answer from her. She admitted to smoking cigarettes in an undesignated area which got her a “ticket” while she served a longer sentence of “attempt to distribute a controlled substance.” When I think of her, I remember her round face and full lips. I remember how rough her dark green jumpsuit was, the one which displayed, “Riverhead Correctional Facility” on the back, the roughness of the jumpsuit clung to my face as she pulled away from our hugs during our visits. I remember the heartiness of her laughter as she told a joke during one of our many visits. I miss the smell of her, it lingered on my skin long after our visit, a concoction of Newport 100s and Egyptian musk. She stood just a tad taller than my own five foot frame and with each hug hello and goodbye, the weight of her 200 pound self all but toppled me over. She let her entire arm rest on my shoulders and pulled me closer to her. Each time, as we pulled away, I affectionately squeezed her plump, caramel colored cheeks, her skin next to mine was both softer and carried a glow to it, a well kept woman my mother was even as a prisoner, than I with my lack of make-up and messy hair.
Protected by barbed wire, the jail rests on Eastern Long Island, an island nestled on the south shore of New York State. Large evergreen trees attempt to mask the sadness which lay behind the voluptuous and massive trees inside, my mother, at least for the time being, lives within the confines this jail. She is tucked away behind trees, barricaded by light grey cement walls, an eye-sore to anyone who drives by on Route 21. And when I do get the chance to drive by, I tell myself to look straight head and do not look to my right, at the jail. Each time I look.
I cannot help myself. With each visit, we are teased with the possibility of her leaving this jail. We are tortured by a hope as we walk across the lifeless grounds, for a visit with her, that this will be our last one here. I notice the grass is scattered with green specks of life as a solemn silence blankets us. We, the visitors push forward toward the double glass doors. The quiet chatter which exists as we approach the entrance is a reminder to us that we are not alone. There is a sense of understanding and a cold courtesy as we all hold the door open for the person behind us.
There we stood, my family and others, waiting in line to be checked-in by the guards at Riverhead Correctional Facility, waiting for my mother to change. No matter the season, no matter how chilly or warm the weather is, the routine is always the same, the process of entering the jail never changes. The feelings: sitting, sweating because of my nerves, scared because this is all new and angry at the one person I was not supposed to be angry at. I am there, as the daughter of a black woman, my mother the inmate. I am angry, numb and unwilling to turn around from this experience. I am unwilling to turn my back on my mother even though she has done so on me.
I stand there in front of three guards: a black man, black woman and a white woman. They are looking at me, reading my every eye movement and putting me in the same “box” as they do my mother. I must be: poor, uneducated, “ghetto,” and with a strong disregard for law enforcement. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.
I want to scream at them. I want to tell them that my only option in this life is to go to college. I want to yell, at the top of my lungs, “YOU are wrong. I am not like my mother. I will not end up here. I will not end up a statistic.” But I don’t. Instead, I continue to be silent, watching them just as hard as they are watching me. I am now even more nervous and scared about what may come.
I am with my grandparents, we are like the 3 Musketeers. We all stand about the same height and as we sign on our names on the line, admitting we are indeed visitors, we are different shades of love. My grandmother’s yellow skin and auburn blonde hair confuses people. She is Valerie’s mother, they would inquire. My grandfather’s dark chocolate skin made more sense to bystanders when they saw us all together, commenting about how strong our family genes were because we all resembled one another. No matter the color of our skin or how strong our facial features resembled that of the next, we were all obedient to the commands of the guards.
We were all there for different reasons, my grandparents and I. They love their daughter. I am indifferent towards her. They live their lives for her and as her parents, they tried to protect her, even from herself. They love her unconditionally and show her by picking up the broken pieces of her life. They have cared for the children she has birthed over the years. And as we stand there, waiting to sign our names on the line; I am angry. And in that moment, as I look around at other families, my anger turns to sadness. No, I am not alone. There are many other moms, dads, and children here with me, their loved one, their “inmate” has failed them too. How angry they must be?
I am more than angry that this is how I’d be spending my weekend. I am angry she has lied to me - again. I am angry she is not the mother I have dreamed of. I am angry about her situation, our situation. But after I leave, I will spend the remainder of my weekend figuring out what kind of lie I would share with my friends on Monday when I return to school.
Had I hung out with my best friend? Had I caught up on the latest school gossip? Perhaps even spent the weekend going apple picking? My perpetual thoughts allowed me to leave this moment, transcend from this hard, burned orange chair and fantasize. Thinking of what kind of lie to tell my friends allowed me to not think about what I am actually about to do.
I am still. I am observant. I am silent. I am anxious. I am curious. I am scared. I am following all orders by the guards. My grandparents have their driver’s licenses in hand and I, my school identification card. I show the guards, they inspect it and order us to sign our names in the box. I watch as my grandfather signs his name. He does it with the utmost patience and care. My breathe is suspended in my chest as I watch. I think to myself, Pop, why are you writing it so nicely and taking your time? No one cares here.
Through his actions and calm demeanor, he models the behavior of a father who truly loves his daughter. He still loves her. He loves her after she stole checks from him to buy drugs. After she broke into her own home to steal the things she bought to sell to get her next fix, he still loves her. He cares for her firstborn daughter when she could not and loves me, just as if I were his own child. He came to visit his daughter in jail. But the guards did not appreciate or respect his gesture as much as I had. He slowly signs his name each and every time we visit her.
We sit and wait for my mother’s last name to be called which seemed to take forever. I watch as children walk around, babies waddling with their heavy diapers navigating their movements. I wonder how long they will have to continue to spend their Saturday’s at a county jail; five months? six years? ten years? I did not know the answer but I hoped this too would be their last visit. I want the same for myself.
Each time my mother is arrested, she uses an alias and keeping track is difficult. I hope that that child, just learning to walk, will not need to keep track of his mothers’ names like I do. This time her last name of choice is her birth name, Randolph. We wait each time for a little over an hour until they get around to calling her name. By our third visit, I’d discover they call names in alphabetical order, depending on which inmate has visitors that day and not the order in which the visitors arrive.
Before we can go into the actual visiting area, there are three checkpoints we have to successfully get through before the visit can begin. We are all slow moving. Moving too quickly, we may miss a step and need to start all over, I thought. Slow moving, as if it’s our first visit, each and every time. We are sure to do the right thing. Here we are told to take off our earrings, belts, hairpins, if it has metal in it, it has to come off. Then we are all assigned a locker in which we can leave our valuables. The locker resembles that of a gym-room locker. The lockers have combination locks, more things for us to remember and after the visit we are able to retrieve the items left in the lockers. It only takes one visit to realize that we will never again wear hairpins, belts, shoes with metal or an under-wire bra to any of our future visits.
The metal detectors take any sense of normalcy I clung to away. Away went my innocence, my spark, my hope for change and for a different life. The metal detectors represent stepping into another life, into the life of a different person, a life that was not mine. The dreams I have for my life do not include the welcomed silence of successfully walking through a metal detector without it beeping. Yet, I had no choice in this moment. I had to successfully make it through the metal detectors to be given a chance to visit with my mother. The metal detectors would adequately check my body for concealed weapons or drugs. I do not have either. I do not beep. I successfully make it through the first metal detector.
Once through the metal detector, a guard would “wand” me. This meant that he takes a metal sensitive object and run it like a “T” over my body. First, he tells me to turn around. He then goes over my front and then my back and all the way down to my toes. My feet are bare, socks providing the only barrier between my skin and the tired floor. My shoes are waiting for me at the end of the conveyor belt. They wait for me to pick them up as the guard finishes his inspection of my body. My shoes are successfully cleared through the security check points. Once I am cleared by the wand check by the guard, I am allowed to pick up my shoes. A bench rests against the wall and gives me the ability to sit down while I put my shoes on. I hurriedly stuff each of my feet into their respective shoe to get into the next holding area. Once I am done putting on my shoes, we all wait. We wait as the rest of the visitors called in at the same time as we are, are finished putting on their shoes and cleared through the metal detectors. We enter into the holding gate as a unit.
The final checkpoint is the only thing standing between myself and the visit. I am placed into a holding area, all of us, standing still like statues and praying to feel less like a criminal and more like a temporary visitor. The holding area leads to another barred entrance where we wait yet again. With each change of gate, there is a loud clang, a buzz. The sound urges me to wake up, reminds me that, as if it were not clear enough; I am visiting my mother in jail. It is then that I hear the guard say, “Stick out your right hand,” and all visitors follow in unison. Our arms pressed against the cold metal of the gate, a little green stamp rolls over the top of our hands, protecting us from being mistaken as an inmate. The stamp resembles the kind of stamp I would get at a carnival, the kind that glows. Except at the carnival it differentiates between those who have paid and those who have not. Here at the jail, the stamp separates me, the visitor from the inmate, my mother.
We are no longer a unit and what had ensued as a battle between us and them is now a battle I must face alone. My grandparents and I cling as closely as we can while we wait to be released into the visiting area. To the guards, all of us standing between the gates are the family members living on the outside and are living a life of freedom as civilians. While they, our mothers, daughters, friends, sisters and aunts, are living behind bars. They are told when they can and cannot go to the bathroom. They are told when they have to shower, rise and get ready for the day. They are without their freedoms. It is a battle not easily won by either side, we, my grandparents and I, are all there fighting for what we wanted, to have my mother home. We did not want the collect phone calls. We did not want the taped boxes of “facility approved” foods and clothes to be sent to my mother. We want her back. We want her shipped to us without her addiction. We want a new and improved version of herself. But we wait. We wait for the gates to open and for my mother to change. At last, the bellowing sound of the buzzer marks the opening of the gates. As the gate opens, all of the visitors are instructed to find seating anywhere.
Two solid steel doors hold behind them the inmates waiting for their visits. My mother is one of them. Once they reach the point of being just behind that door, their bodies have already been checked. Each crevice is inspected for contraband, anything that could be given to the person they are visiting, anything the correctional facility deems “illegal” would not only bar their visit but may interrupt future visits. Nothing could be handed over from my mother to her family on a visit. Nothing could be given, by hand during the visit from my mother’s family to my mother, not a letter, not a kiss or any kind of box or present. All items, the clothes, the food, the soap, the letters we send all have to first be opened, inspected and scanned by guards.
Each letter I write her while she is at Riverhead Correctional Facility is read first by a guard. All of the feelings I hold towards my her, any shortcomings I want to share with her about myself, any achievements or failures, will first be ready by and known to a guard before it ever reaches my mother’s hands. I wonder if they laughed at my emotions? If they laughed at my mother? Did they make fun of me? Did they wonder if I too would end up in jail? My mother would receive my information, my feelings, my heart, second - after which ever guard would receive the mail.
Each and every visit, each time I see my mother at Riverhead Correctional Facility, she is always happy and never eludes to feelings of sadness. I can never figure out how she keeps a straight dry face. If I were ever in her shoes, for any reason, I would cry every time I see my family. But I am only the visitor, I never let myself cry. I never let myself feel any emotions that would admit the failures of my mother or the longing I have for her to be normal. I suspect she becomes numb after awhile to her chosen life and to her jail cell. During each visit, we all speak about the town’s news. We discuss the life she is leading in jail, her release and her children. We could greet with a kiss on the cheek and a brief hug upon her entrance into the visiting area.
On a visit my mother once told me she got in trouble for smoking cigarettes. There were designated areas in which an inmate could smoke and my mother violated that. To me, that was another sign that she had trouble following the rules and was not ready to be “outside.” If she had such troubles on the inside, what made her or me think that she could follow the rules on the outside? I suspected then that the true story was one that involved her getting into a fight with another female inmate. But this was her truth; she disobeyed the smoking rule and for this, our visit had to change.
We were in we were alone in a room, the walls seemed to cave in on me. There was a guard, my mother, myself and my very loud silence. I did not know what to say to her, how to address her, how to put aside my anger. I could not hold it in and told her how disappointed in her I was. Not only was I disappointed that she could not quit smoking but that she was essentially killing herself. I listed the reasons she was killing herself: the smoking and the not following the rules. During the visit, I heard no voices of other inmates catching up on each other’s day to day. I heard no laughter, no anguish, no words except for those that played in my head. I asked myself:
how did I get chosen for this life?
how did she become my mother?
why must I continue like this?
I have no answers. I have no answers. What I have, is an unwavering, undeniable and all forgiving love for this woman, wearing county greens, sitting in front of me cloaked with defeat. This visit is shorter than the others. We also have to communicate in a different way. This time it is through the stereotypical movie scene, where the inmate is talking through the telephone. She picks up the phone and begins to explain to me why this visit is so different. I notice that everything in the room is green and insanely clean. We are separated by glass, we are separated by your differences. I leave this visit and cry. My mother looks tired, worn out and ready for something, anything different than her current state of being. After this visit, I tell her I will never return to this place. I explain to her that I am done. I tell her I am finished with jail visiting rooms. I tell her that I cannot take seeing her like this any longer. After a full year of visiting her in the county jail; I let my emotions get the best of me in this one visit. I went to this visit alone. I went without my grandparents. My words start pouring out of me. They soak her with hurt and pain. I am ready to move on and start anew with my mother, to get a second chance. The defeat which showed on her face, tells me that she is ready for a new life too. Soon after this visit, she is released from jail and has served her time.
I had not fully understood her life or mine until I visited her in jail during her duration there. I then understood that she woke up to the bells and clangs of the jail gates. She woke to the sounds of other people coughing and the smell of their urine. I understood that our lives were very different and it was on my first visit with her, that I promised myself that no matter how hard my life became I would always have my family and never call jail home. For me, my grandparents and my mother’s brothers and sisters were my family and I knew I could call on them at any time for any reason. I promised myself on that first visit that I would never fall victim to a system that took away my pride, my freedoms or took me away from my children.
I understood then that I would never become a criminal. I would never be my mother, with an inmate identification number to separate me from the rest of the population. I woke up in a bed, far away from my mother, on Long Island, New York; with nothing more than hope that one-day she would live with me, with us, with the four children she gave birth to. I was wrong.
Instead, she lived in Riverhead Correctional Facility, a holding jail for inmates with a year or less. Instead, she lived in Bayview Correctional Facility, located in New York City, for what she told us, was a transitional jail, for women coming down from long prison sentences. Instead, she lived at Albion Correctional Facility, a prison, situated next to the Canadian border in upstate New York. She went to Albion Correctional Facility, a medium security prison after she was captured in a drug raid.
Blue, red, and white lights flashed as I turned onto the road. I’d arrived just before everyone began exiting the house. Green with a painted white roof, the house stood out because it was the only one on the left side of the road, the only one with a sandy driveway, a driveway which lacked concrete. This night, as I stood outside of the green house, I worried. The cool night’s air caught my tears midstream, as I wondered what the cops, who were inside were saying and doing to my mother. On this autumn night, the house on Vale Street was raided by the cops. Inside, my 4 months pregnant mother, the father of her child and really, her only true love, were handcuffed.
The cops decided to raid the house as it was suspected to be one in which drugs were being sold out of. My mother who had recently ended the relationship between her and my sister’s father, later told me that on that night she returned to pack her things up from the house and leave him. There relationship was a fierce one, a volatile one, one that began because of their similar lifestyles; they had an emotional connection which never truly ended or truly existed either. It existed in as much as they loved each other though they never courted.
However on that night as I stood on the rocky pavement to witness many familiar faces leave the green house, I wondered what would happen once they were placed into the big police vans. I wondered if my mother was scared. I wondered how, if at all, her unborn child would be effected. I wondered if I could endure more visits to the county jail. I wondered what we would tell my then, 9 year old brother about his mother this time which lie would satisfy his young heart?
She emerged through the front door, hands and feet shackled to the person behind and in front of her. They were all connected, because of their addictions, because of the chains and because the cops had the keys. I stood in the shadows, along with all of the other onlookers; my hope was to somehow make sense of what I was witnessing. The bright lights from the cop cars shown on the house, illuminating it more than the night’s sky could ever.
Next to me stood the brother of my mother’s boyfriend. In my ear, in a low tone, he spoke negatively about his brother, about his brother’s addiction and inadvertently about my mother. He saw my tears and reserved any deep cuts to my already bruised soul, for his brother and did not directly aim them at my mother. Though he knew I was smart, I knew he was also speaking about my mother.
THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE DOING IN THAT HOUSE.
IT WAS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON IN THAT HOUSE BUT IT WON’T BE ANYMORE.
MAYBE NOW, NOW THEY CAN GET HELP.
Eventually, all who were in the police vans would soon be inmates at the county jail, Riverhead Correctional Facility. The charges this time were heavy and complicated. She would need a lawyer. She would need strength. It would soon set in for her that her third child, under these circumstances, would be born in prison. Eventually, she decided to not go to trial, to take her chances and took a plea deal in the drug charge and was given three to six years in prison.
She spent approximately six months in the holding jail, a jail she was quite familiar with. Until her bed was ready at Albion Correctional Facility, to serve her sentence in upstate New York at a medium security prison, she spent her hours at Riverhead Correctional Facility. Only this time, her first time in prison, she would not be alone. My unborn sister would have no choice in the matter. She would be accompanying our mother to prison.
Unless there was a way to stop this and there was. I could. I could help. I could not however imagine my one and only sister relaying her birth story as one that included jail or prison. So, as a family, my grandparents, myself and my sister’s father, helped to bail my mother out of jail until after she gave birth. The bail money would not be returned. My sister’s entrance into this world would forever be changed simply because of my faith and my family’s faith in my mother. She would not become a fugitive and leave the state of New York. She would remain in the state until her next court date which was approximately 5 months after my sister’s birth. With the bail money paid, the paperwork processed, my mother was released.
Her release meant that she would not spend another pregnant, uncomfortable night in jail. She was let out and 3 or so months later, my sister was born. She came into the world quietly, and after a few moments of life, she began to cry. I listened the entire time, while my mother gave birth to my one and only sister. I would later discover, in some lie or truth, I am unsure which; my sister was born with alcohol in her system. My mother thought, and according to her story, if she used alcohol and could get herself admitted into a drug rehab, she would not need to return to jail and then to prison. She tried to evade the inevitable, her return to jail. Pregnant and close to her due date, my mother decided to drink alcohol, enough to warrant the state to take custody away from her.
Custody was temporarily given to my aunt, my mother’s sister. Custody was then transferred to my grandmother, and there, in Virginia, my sister and I lived, as a family. But at 5 months old, and never having lived with her mother and never would, my sister’s permanent home remained with my grandparents while my mother’s home was in prison. She traveled by bus after her summer in Riverhead jail, she traveled to upstate New York. We would visit her there only once. It is a visit, I will never forget and never want to endure again, for any reason.
Walking into a prison is not an experience easily forgotten. Once on the grounds, I sense the restrictions without having any immediately placed on me. I have an idea of what is to come because of my frequent and emotionally draining visits to the jail. This time, at least for me, it is different. It is the stereotypical prison and I am there to see my mother, for the first and only time which is not so stereotypical; daughter visits mother in jail.
It is a family affair, a long trip, a frustrating visit and a sad memory that I keep locked away. I get to see my mother in her comfortable place. I make it into the visiting area, after loud clangs, after confused looks from other families going to see loved ones and after checking my fears at the entrance gate. I make it to the visiting room, after wrong turns, after sweating myself into frustration, after annoyed responses from guards. I make it to the visiting room after being searched, after being checked, after leaving my valuables in the car, after leaving my secrecy back home on Long Island.
Wearing her greens, with a smile on her face, her hair done to perfection and an underlying sadness which became an unwelcome guest at our first prison visit together; she is there, in front of me. She greets me with a hug, sheltering me in the softness of her skin and the familiar smell of her deodorant. I hold on to the fleshy part of her upper arm, holding it as if it is my lifeline to saving her. As I release my grip, I wonder had she realized her mistakes? Was she a changed woman? Did she have regrets? All of these questions loom in my mind and go unasked, as we both utter a genuine “hello” accompanied by a smile. This visit is different than any other I have been to before. In this visit we are all in a big room, with no bars or plastic glass interrupting us. I have choices and this is something new. The choice to find a seat anywhere. The choice to get up without being stared down by guards.
Together we sit. We have the choice to choose between long brown tables or round circular tables. We have the choice to sit on chairs that move. Doing so, means that we will sit close enough to actually be present for the conversation. Sitting in those non-stationary chairs meant that we could sit knee to knee if we chose. But still there is an indescribable coldness about the room. It evokes sadness, a room filled with questions, questions unable to be answered. Why was my mother happier in prison than at home with her children? Why did she insist on committing the same crimes over and over again? Why was I there, at this visit, with my mother? I am there because I love her. I am there because I truly want to see for myself what the draw to prison is. I am there because I have my family with me. I know I am not alone even if I feel incredibly lonely.
It is at this visit, at Albion Correctional Facility that I begin to ask the why questions. Why did she not love me enough to stop? Why did her addictions take her over? Why didn’t she stay with my father? Why did she have babies and not take care of them, like other mothers? Inside these questions overflowed with a longing to be answered. I kept them hid, quiet, to keep all tensions low and all forms of any kind of happiness well and alive given the situation.
This visit is different because the reality that my mother is also a criminal begins to take hold. She is no longer my mom or the woman I often had to take care of. She is no longer the woman who is supposed to take care of me but a convict. This visit means to me that my mother could not be home for any holidays. It means to me that she chooses to live her life behind bars than at the stove making me breakfast before I leave for school. Every night before my mother closes her eyes, and drifts into a deep sleep, she listens to the sounds of bells ringing, strangers dreaming out loud and a fellow inmate sleeping one bunk above her.
This meant that my mother would not and could not tend to her baby who woke in the night wanting to be nurtured by her. It meant that my mother’s connection to me was based solely on biology and less on reality. She is not only unavailable for herself because of the predicament she put herself in but to us, her children. The physical distance, the emotional distance and the mental energy needed to keep up with her is exhausting.
My mother had a felony on her record instead of a colorful attendance record for my school PTA meetings, she had different substance related charges to show for her commitment to parenthood. Not just any felony, a Class D felony. For my mother, essentially the higher the letter the longer the time and the more serious it looks on your record. This record of hers, was not a high school diploma or college degree yet it would stay with her for the rest of her life.
I could never understand her addiction to cocaine or her addiction to money. I could never understand what the draw to her lifestyle was. I know that my mother has a strong desire to never be without. I know that my mother always wants to be able to give to others if they ever needed anything including money. If she had it, she wanted to give it, regardless of how it was obtained and in turn she did not present as the average addict.
But my mother was who she was and she did not provide excuses just reasons for her behaviors. My mother did not say she was sorry but admitted her faults. My mother did not work her hardest to be something she was not, she worked her hardest to be the only person she knew how to be. I could not change her just as she could not change me. But she never wanted me to change. She loved me for the imperfections in myself that I could not even see. And I wanted the things she did to change. I wanted the hurt and long nights spent without her to change. But the person she was, the hearty laugh, the never ending smile, the warm hugs; I never wanted to change any of that.
The most heart wrenching experience of all of my years of going to visit my mother was watching my sister call out for her. She did not call her mom but instead called her “Lisa” - just as she had heard the guards do. By the time she turned two years old, she knew what expect on a prison or jail visit. She knew that the end result would be, her seeing her mother and spending time together. She knew that once she arrived, that she had to be on her best behavior. She knew that the men and sometimes women, standing behind that desk had more authority than her Nanny or Poppy.
She knew once she made it successfully through the metal detectors she had to stretch out her arms. Next, she had to extend both of her arms up and straight out from her body, like the letter “T,” she knew all of this before she was able to read a book. She knew she had to use the bathroom before going to her visit because she was only allowed one diaper on her visit. If Poppy had money in his wallet, she would get candy, chips or some kind of junk food from the vending machine while she was visiting with her mother. She knew she would leave her visit with a stamp on her hand. She knew all of this before she figured out she had visited her mother in jail. She knew how to wait patiently for her mother to come down from her room for a visit with her. She knew that she was allowed to play with the other children but not allowed to run. She knew that her mommy would probably want her to read a book to her, so she could feel a little bit normal. She knew that her mommy would not be going home with her on that day. She knew what it was like to live without her mother and in her I saw shadows of myself.
I knew that my mother would not be coming home with me; at least not any time soon. I knew that my mother was as much of a child as her then nine year-old son and her two year-old daughter. I knew that she could not separate motherhood from her prison visits, to her they were the same. I knew that one day, she would figure out how the world worked outside of her barricades. What I did not know was if I would be around to see it all unfold. With each visit, a part of my soul was left with my mother, my hope, was that it would keep her warm and be a reminder of what she was missing out on.
Whether or not, if I miss something about my mother haunts me. I think about it over and over again. I do miss her. I miss her laugh. I miss her unconditional support of me. I miss her hugs. I miss her love. I miss the parts of our relationship which rested on the surface of our love. I miss the parts she let me understand about her. I miss her devotion, her emotional devotion to her family. I miss her loudness and the stances she took. She voiced her support or lack thereof in conversations as controversial as such familial issues like my sexuality or my taking temporary custody of my brother. I miss her off key singing and her daydreams.
I miss her. She was often ill with some ailment, the imagined kind and an actual ailment. She had asthma which crippled her and a constant cough, a dry cough often the result of her smoking instead of the weather. I suppose her asthma was also a result of her being overweight or maybe even her cocaine abuse. She called me one night, to take her to the hospital. She said she was not feeling well. I left the hospital that night expecting my mother to remain there for at least a couple of days. When I made my way back home from the dimly light emergency room, I prepared Jonathan for bed. Jonathan, the child I cared for as my own, was also my five month old half brother. I prepared him in his cottony soft blue onesie pajamas. I wanted him beside me that night, which I had generally not done as a rule, he was to sleep in his own bed and I in mine.
As temporary as those beds were, since we were staying with my great uncle until I could acquire savings and a steady job, he welcomed us in his home and he truly loved Jonathan. As I dressed him that night, I thought that if I were to raise him as I had intended, I did not want to keep him in bed with me each and every night. I wanted him to hold on to some idea of independence, even as an infant, and not become warped in the idea of being stuck next to me every single minute of the day. I let him sleep with me that night because I, selfishly so, wanted to be reminded that it was he and I in this journey. I wanted him to know that I would forever be his mother. So, I readied him and I for bed with this yearning. As I buttoned his last button, my phone rang. It was my mother, her voice on the other end of the receiver sounded worn and tired.
Her voice wanted something different and yearned for sincerity from me and a gentleness in emotion and tone that I was unsure I could provide. I asked her what happened, I asked her why she was leaving and if she was the one requesting to leave. She told me no. She told me they released her. She told me to come pick her up. I was not soft or nurturing or empathetic to her sickness or her situation but equally worn and tired. She asked me if I could come and get her to take her home, back to the halfway house, back to her temporary home. I said yes, I’ll be right there. I returned to the same hospital in which months before, I arrived to see her in the ICU post giving birth to Jonathan. I arrived back to the same hospital in which Jonathan was discharged from, in my arms, wearing his newly purchased blue winter coat. I picked up my mother on that March night. We drove her back to her house, the house she was mandated to be at because of the levels of cocaine found in her system and transferred to Jonathan at the time of his birth. This would be the home I would take Jonathan to on weekends to visit with his mother and get to know other recovering female addicts. On this night, Jonathan did not come with me to return his sickly mother home. He remained asleep in his crib, under the watchful eye of his great uncle. He stayed home that night as I returned his mother to a home miles away from his own. When we got there, after a 20 minute car ride, much of which was driven in silence, she thanked me.
She asked me if I was coming over that weekend, she asked me what my plans were, I hugged her, we said I love you, and she left the car. She walked up the stairs, slowly and seemed as though she were standing still because she was walking so slowly and seemed extremely tired. I waited there, looking at her from my car. I hoped that she made it in safely. In my mind, I hurried her body into the house so I could get home, so I could get back to sleep; my selfish qualities were shining as bright as the nights’ stars. My mother never came across to me, truly, as someone who was scared of anything, not even the night falling upon the sky or the danger that may have lurked outside. But as if she were a child, I waited for her to get safely into the house before I backed out of the driveway. Watching her go up the stairs, as slow as she made her way up, made my heart ache in pain. I became worried that this would be the last car ride we would take together. It was.
A few more days pass, the weekend came and went, and on that Monday, as I finished the last hours of a job I grew to despise, my mother called me. She pleaded with me to come by and take her heart monitor which was given to her by her cardiologist after the trip to the
emergency, back to him. She did not, as she told me, want the constant vibration of the device attached to her any longer. The device was meant to automatically call the ambulance should she not respond after a certain amount of time. If her heart stopped, the device would send a message to the cardiologist and to the ambulance and my mother’s life would be saved. She said she didn’t want it anymore. She begged me to come get it. I told her I would but on
that day, I did not. I did not go there to pick up the machine. I wanted her to be safe and stay alive, to me, the machine was keeping her alive. The cigarettes she smoked, Newport 100s, were aiding in her death. If I took the machine back, I too would aid her in her premature death. So, I ignored her phone call, ignored the conversation we had and she slept with the hum of the device for another night.
She called me again that Tuesday, she begged me to take it back. I succumbed to her requests and reluctantly picked up the device. I now pleaded with her to keep it, to keep it until she got better or quit smoking, which ever came first. I took the heavy white disc shaped vibrating device from her hands. I took it to my car and told her I’d deliver it to her cardiologist. I kept it in my car for a full week before I made my way to returning it. I kept it in my trunk and then called my mother each day requesting she put the device back on. She kept telling me no and that it was a hassle. I returned the device the subsequent Monday. That same week, on Thursday, April 5th, my mother called me. She asked me to come by and bring her mail to her once I had finished my work. I told her I would and that Jonathan and I may stay for a little while. She said ok, I am going to take a nap but call me before you come. I never got the chance.
Just as work ended and I picked up Jonathan from daycare, my phone rang. I expected it to be my mother inquiring, after her nap, about my coming over. It was, instead, her friend. She sounded sad; I asked her what was wrong. She said, Coco, there is a sheriff here at your mom’s house and he wants to talk to you. My nickname, Coco, was used by those who knew my mother and felt some odd connection to me. Coco was also a nickname used by my actual family too. I hesitantly awaited the “hello” from the sheriff. The tone of his voice sounded well, matter—of-fact and a tone of “been there done that.” He started firing questions at me, as if they were rubber bullets; he thought I would not be hurt by his words but I was. He asked me, in no particular order, if:
Your mother is a recovering addict, correct? yes
Your mother abused alcohol? no.her.drug.of.choice.is.crack.cocaine - I say.
Did your mother have any reason to ever harm herself? no, she would never.
At this point, I was still unsure of what exactly he needed to talk to me about. I was concerned about my mother’s safety but unaware of what I would soon be hearing. I thought, by his last question, that my mother did have many reasons to harm herself too many in fact to list for him but she would never actually kill herself. My assumptions took the driver’s seat and led me to believe that my mother was in some drug bust due to her inability to rid herself of her desire to make money. I waited for the next bullet to pierce my soul.
Do you know how to get to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital? Yes
Can you meet the ambulance there? Now?
Yes, now, the ambulance will meet you there. Sure, I say.
Our conversation both ended and began there. I knew, after I hit end on my cell phone, that my mother was dead. On April 5, 2007, I sat silently in my gray Passat wagon and drove to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital. In the backseat sat Jonathan, a silent companion in this journey to the hospital. I drove with a blank mind, focused solely on getting there and not yet prepared for what I was minutes away from experiencing. He with his infant toys hanging from his car seat, clanging as I methodically drove over each pot hole, he, I imagined, contemplated napping.
The green sign loomed in front of me, signaling me to get off of the expressway and make my way to the hospital. With each ambulance we passed, I wondered if she was in it. Was her body bouncing around, her mind as blank as ours, her heart scared, I wondered. We arrived to the hospital, we were the first, the only there awaiting her ambulance. I paced back and forth in the emergency room waiting area. Jonathan was now asleep. His car seat rested on the dull tan colored floor, his eyes did not move nor did his lips, he was peaceful. An ambulance whizzed by the window, backed into the appropriate parking space and my eyes became fixated on it. It could not be her ambulance, this ambulance did not have any lights on, any sirens blaring, any emergency room staff person running to open the doors of the ambulance. This could not be her ambulance, it was too quiet, something my mother never was.
I stepped, methodically, gingerly really, to the reception desk, gave my mother’s name and the departure place of the ambulance to inquire about its arrival. She said she had no such information at this time, none, nothing to tell me? Nothing? Where was my mother? HOW was my mother? Dead? Alive? As I turned my numb body away from her half-moon shaped desk, phones blaring in the background; I saw my eldest aunt’s large dark maroon SUV pull into the emergency room parking lot. She stepped out of her car, and quickened her pace as she entered into the hospital. As she made her way to the emergency room, that was when I realized. I realized while standing still in that waiting room on April 5, 2007, that my mother was gone from this earth forever. She died and I would never get to talk to her again. I would never get to know whether or not she would or could have changed her life. I never would know if she could have been a successful mother, not to me but to Jonathan. I never would know. But I knew then that my mother’s sister was worried, was upset and was entering the hospital just then. I asked her what happened and she asked me the same.
She entered, the nurse that is and came out from behind the light-blue double doors and said, “Are the relatives of Valerie Eleazer here?” I answered quickly, “Yes, I am here, we are here.” She then said that Valerie had arrived and if we could come back into the room. My aunt, as if I were a child, loudly instructed me to remain in the waiting area with my, well, with my brother. Just then, my aunt Kendra arrived. She wiped tears away from her face as she entered. I knew.
I knew before I was told.
My mother was dead. No one told, no one came to me and sat me down to say that she was dead. They didn’t have to. My aunt Kendra was crying. My other aunt, Wanda, whom I grew up calling Aunty Lady not only began to cry but she began to faint. Though her tone with me at one point became stern, her emotions overflowed onto the floor of the hospital room. The room in which my mother’s body rested, became the room where we all convened: Lady, myself, Lady’s boyfriend and two nurses. We stood in the room, together we were all joined by the pain of our reality, of our loss. My aunt’s screams and uncontrollable sobs offered her a bed, next to my mother, separated by a white hospital curtain.
Sucked out of my mother was her very being, her heart, blood, brain...all still, gone. My aunt’s pain unravelled in front of me. The sister she’d argued with for much of their lives was gone. The sister she partied with through their teens was gone. The sister who was pregnant with her first child at the same time she was gone. The sister she had saved from jail, from herself, from men, from her addiction was gone. My aunt’s pain was clear, my aunt’s regrets equally clear. My mother’s death came at a time in which she and Lady were going through growing pains of their own. I think her death meant that they would never reconcile.
My mother laid there with the white hospital blanket resting over her lower body. She laid there while her face and feet remained exposed, her fingertips a light shade of blue, darkening a shade deeper as I stood beside her. Her body was cold, her chest was still, her soul gone from her body but her spirit would live on in Jonathan. The tube that protruded from her lips; pushing her lower lip down, it was taped inside of her mouth, sucking the last bit of life out of her. What I knew then was that the paramedics tried to save her life. What I know now, is that she died months before she took her final breath. Her heart was broken. Her soul forever fractured from the self-inflicted pain. Her body a casualty in drug addicts drug war.
But standing bedside alone with her in that moment, was the closest I had felt to her in my entire life. In that moment, I was not the responsible one. I was not the one trying to keep her healthy. She was for once, doing the work from heaven. Her death meant for me that she could take care of me and of my three siblings from heaven, that I would not be responsible for them in her permanent absence or would I? She died just as she lived her life: alone. She died from more than a broken heart or unfulfilled dreams or from the reality that she caused us pain- the coroner indicated the cause of death as natural, arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease. No matter the cause, natural or unnatural, cocaine or clogged arteries; she was gone. All of her battles were fought, her words spoken, and her children walking the earth as her legacies.
She died still on parole. She died in early April. Before her death, April meant wonderful memories, memories from childhood of a brisk spring wind, the budding of flowers, the birth of the sun extending the daylight and the start of new life among the plants, trees and the human spirit. After her death, my spirit would forever be changed from happy memories to somber memories each subsequent April. She died in a foreign bed with strangers she had grown close to. They were her family, as dysfunctional as any “real” family could ever be. She died in a half way house, recovering from an addiction, four and a half months after giving birth to her son, the child who now calls me mommy.
Once word spread of her premature passing, the wake was planned and culminated, one block away from where she was arrested for the last time; the house in which she was still, even in her death, serving time for. At the wake, I was the last to speak. I walked to the microphone, floated really, to stand next to her casket. As I took the microphone, I glanced over at her and silently told myself not to stare at her body as I spoke. I pleaded with those sitting in the chairs in front of me, some already crying, some addicts, and some looking back at me with a tortured look on their faces; I pleaded with them to go home and remind those they love that they truly do love them. I asked them to not take those they truly love for granted because life is short. I informed them that no matter where my mother was in her journey, she always called me to tell me she loved me. I told them that I would miss her. I sat down. As I made my way to my seat, it all felt surreal, wrong even. My mother died at the age of forty-two and the next day, I would pack a rented minivan with members of my family whom my mother loved, my sister’s father, my infant son, my great-uncle and my paternal cousin and her children. We were on the road, driving to meet my mother’s body in Virginia.
Virginia was my mother’s burial place as decided by my grandmother. As I drove to Virginia, my mind focused on getting there and what was still left to experience before my mother’s committal into the ground that April, that I did not truly experience the drive. I did not partake in much of the conversation. I did not even need to console Jonathan as he was being cared for by Uncle Bubby, my mother’s uncle and my sister’s father. He was in good and genuine hands in the backseat of the white rental van. We drove the complete eight hours, hitting the road at 8am. As I drove, I remembered calling my grandmother after I’d confirmed that my mother was dead, after I’d waited in the emergency room with her body. I called my grandparents. My grandmother picked up the phone, she did not say hello - she screamed. She yelled into the phone, over the phone wires to ask me what happened to my mother? What happened Nikki; she repeated herself over and over again. Eventually, my grandfather picked up the phone, despair fueled his tone and he too asked me what happened. Relaying to them what I’d witnessed in seeing my mother, what I’d heard in speaking with the detective on the phone about her death, was not easy but I did it with a calm tone and with an open heart. They needed to hear it and relive the experience of knowing she had died with me. In that moment, standing in the parking lot of the hospital, I was not alone they were in many ways, right there with me.
At her funeral, my grandmother’s minister gave the sermon that day, reminded all of us that: “I never got the chance to meet Lisa but I know she was loved and is in a better place, with her Father. Her soul is at rest.” Years after her death, I wonder who in our family truly ever knew my mother. Maybe her favorite brother? Her favorite brother-in-law? Maybe her best friend? I know for sure it was not me. It was not my brother or my sister.
As we walked one by one out of the church, the rain began. It trickled down from the sky as a reminder that a new life would begin because the rain began to gently wash away the old. I solemnly walked to my mother’s gravesite, thinking that I’d hear my grandmother’s cries as she was burying her daughter, now she would be the mother of five instead of six. But instead, I heard the sobs of my aunt, my mother’s baby sister. I heard the gut wrenching screams. I saw the subdued tears of my cousin, the same cousin I came home with from the hospital with as an infant. I saw her father, all 6 feet of him, with his dark sunglasses on, trying hard to cover his pain.
I saw in the distance the child I’d now be responsible for mothering; I saw Jonathan. I inhaled and exhaled in unison with the silence that blanketed my mind. I sat down in my assigned chair, looking at my mother’s shiny casket. I listened and I closed my ears all at the same time. I was there staring at her grave, her final resting place, curious if what I was about to take on (parenting my brother, guiding my brother and sister, and loving them through their pain) would kill me too. I wondered if the situations I’d soon find myself in, would crush me but only time would tell.
After the last flower was placed on my mother’s grave and most eyes were dry, we headed over to her reads service. To me, this was unnecessary. I did not want to or have the energy to go and talk about my mother over food. I did not have the desire to go and indulge in food and look people in the eye, people who had known or some who did not, know my mother. I wanted to go and be with Jonathan only. I wanted to hang out with him and look into his infant eyes and pray. I needed to pray with him about our future and where we would end up. I knew wherever that place was, we’d be together.
Seeing her body laid in the casket for her wake was surreal. Even more so, was that I found the strength within me to stand up towards the end of the service and make my way to the microphone. It was there that my voice carried across the guests who were there to pay their last respects to my mother, some recovering addicts, family and friends. And I reminded them of one of the only legacies my mother left, aside from her children, was to tell all, no matter how much you have hurt them or how much you owe them whether that be emotionally, mentally, physically or monetarily; tell all whom you truly love that you love them. I told them because in that moment, of officially saying goodbye to my mother, I was reminded of how much she truly loved me.
We were in many ways best friends but I learned more about her from her autopsy report than from any conversation we ever had as mother and daughter. I learned about her heart, her organs, her reproductive system and her food intake. I was reminded of her life, led in solitude and with a subtle coldness with peaks of warmth has her only trusted companion. As I read over her autopsy report, this is what I learned: the report eluded to her having a weak heart. It could not know HOW emotionally fragile and wholly un-nurtured her heart truly was. It recorded only the self imposed failures of her drug use and her unhealthy food intake. It did not unveil her life without love, her empty heart of which should have been filled by the unconditional love of her family if she only let it or the filled from the love of her children, this it did not report.
It did not explicitly detail her heart attack at the age of 28, just after she gave birth to her second child. Her heart was apparently so weak then, that the cardiologist told her to dig herself a hole in the ground the next time she got the urge to smoke cocaine. He informed her that in this hole, she should lay her body down and then inhale the drugs because her heart would not survive the abuse she subjected it to. Her heart could not handle the abuse it endured by the men she invited into her life as they too left the same toxic residue just as the drugs did. It could not endure the tangled stressors of failed relationships and disastrous situations of custody battles with men she once loved, fighting for the children she may have loved more. Her weakened heart could not endure the confused emotions of her children. The incessant questioning of why she chose to be absent. Her vascular arteries weakened with each court paper filed, with each allegation of drug use, with each click of the set of handcuffs placed on her wrists.
But she did not listen. She did not listen to many people or to the whispers of her own heart. A lack of awareness in her actions against others, of her weathered soul, a soul which once was strong, her inability to recognize her own defeat, all led her to jail. We all were bystanders in her destructive path and though we loved her, we never really understood her motivation for being so distant. My mother was honest in time with me about many of the things she did but never this: why she did not have the courage or motivation to end her love affair with drugs. I never truly wanted answers from my mother until it became clear that she would indeed miss my high school graduation. I never held her accountable until the birth of my brother. I never let my anger towards her show until she gave birth to her fourth child.
I often asked myself if my pent up anger, released over the course of a few months, reflected back at me as I read her autopsy report. Had my anger aided in her death? Or had her years of bad choices and broken hearts finally killed her? I could not truly know the answers to these questions. As I turn each page of her autopsy report, I can only remember my mother as she presented herself to me and what I was told by my grandparents. She could tell me her deepest secrets and I could tell her mine. We could share intimate moments and it was in those moments that I thought we would one day be mother and daughter. We often found ourselves, partnered together in deep laughter, laughter which filled the core of our souls and the depths of our bellies. We laughed together at her imitations of our family members. We laughed in the car as one of us sang off key. She stood beside me as best she could and provided me with a defender even if I were the one at fault. She stood beside me and provided me with an ear to relinquish my fears and my worries. She stood bold in my anger towards her and she never once told me that my feelings were unwarranted.
She was a caring woman. She had an affinity towards her elders. During the times she entered the world of work, she gravitated towards the old and frail. She nurtured them, provided laughter and spunk, a smile was often all they ever needed. She smiled with them and for them, often when they were too weak to do so. She found work as a home health aide, working to clean the bodies, souls and bring vitality to many whose family left them. Perhaps she saw a reflection of herself in them. Perhaps she hoped that someone would show her the same gingerly care she showed her patients, the same love she sought from men and her family, she could provide for them even if it were sporadic.
My mother supported me as best she could, even in the haze which surrounded her from her drug use. She was always very much the woman who I could call on to confide in, cry with and who would allow me to be me. With her my soul could rest in understanding that she would never judge me because she knew how detrimental it was. She knew, that in the end, we were all the other had. We were for many years, an extremely strong family. Through the turbulence and the obstacles we faced, the knowledge that we would always face it together, kept us together.
My memories of her are often overshadowed by her physical absence in my life, her inability to let crack cocaine go. Even during the height of her drug use, the raspy voice, the dazed look, the tell-tale signs of her drug use; she tried to make herself available to me. She would call to talk to me, even if she only heard my voice for a minute or so. She would find me and stay, if only for an hour, so that her motherly soul could be fed. Her soul was kind, giving, understanding and full of life. She was a woman who gave of herself as she hoped others gave of themselves to her. She, as cliche as it sounds, would give the shirt off of her back. She would do the best she could, to be an upstanding friend. At times, this was her weakness. She would give people who took her kindness as means to take advantage of her.
I blame my mother for leaving us. For leaving the four wayward souls which walk this earth wanting a stability she could never provide. I blame my mother for never figuring out how to fight the demons of her addictions. I am angry with her for never showing me how good of a mother she could be. Yet, I love her just as much as I blame her for her wrongs. I love her for giving us life. I love her for always loving me. I love her for reasons I have yet to discover. As the days and nights pass her by, in her new home, in Cartersville, Virginia; I continue to walk my journey without her. I walk this life with the family she has left behind but with the memories I shared in with her. Our memories bonding at the county jail in Riverhead, New York and Albion Correctional Facility. Now, pieces of her soul live on in the four legacies she’s left behind. We are here, my brother, sister, and son to fill the shoes she never had the courage to even try on.