For the next few months it was all wedding, all the time. No one ever talked to us about anything but the wedding. The backyard was in and the pergola was up. It was more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. The pergola was constructed of redwood, that Ali had flown in from California and was draped in honeysuckle and climbing rose vines with a wood and wrought iron chandelier hanging from the center. As an added birthday surprise to me, Ali had the words, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope. --Lady Bird Johnson-.” engraved across its threshold. The garden boasted winding paths of flagstone pavers lined by turkish veronica which led to a small water feature situated against a cut stone retaining wall. We’d bought a beautiful teak patio table that sat up to 12 people with the extenders, a stainless steel four burner grill and an outdoor fireplace. I loved my birthday backyard! We spent several summer nights entertaining our friends and families, Ali even hosted a few clients who were considering a revitalization project in a neighboring community. We were the picture of happiness -- Ali grilling and me pouring glasses of lemonade and sweet tea amidst the sweet, powdery scent of honeysuckle and climbing roses.
It was a muggy mid summer night when I took the call that changed my life. Ali yelled out to me from the kitchen door, as I sat reclining with my feet up and sipping a glass of ice cold prosecco. “Cam, come here Babe.” His voice was shaky and the look in his eyes really gave me concern. I walked over slowly and with each step worry set up in my heart, but Ali’s steady countenance kept my feet moving towards him. He covered the mic on the phone with a hand and whispered for me to come in and sit down. I followed his instruction and took the outreached phone.
“Is this Camisha Robbins.” An unfamiliar voice asked on the other end of the phone.
“This is Doctor Cousins at Grady Memorial Hospital. Your mother, Camilla Robbins was brought in tonight. She was struck by a car and has some pretty serious injuries.”
I couldn’t imagine Camilla being seriously injured. Heck, I couldn’t recall her even suffering from menstrual cramps, and if she did she was too prideful to let me see any sign of weakness in her. I found it nearly impossible to digest what the unfamiliar voice on the line was telling me. I lost my ability to speak and looked pleadingly to Ali. He came to my side and took the phone.
“Is Camilla alright.” I heard Ali ask, then he listened and nodded. My eyes were glued to his every motion. A weak smile came across his face and the frown lines above his brow softened.
“Oh thank God! Of course, of course. We’ll be there right away. Thank you, Doctor Cousins.” I jumped to my feet and grabbed my purse.
Ali and I were amidst the infamous Grady Regional Trauma Center chaos in less than twenty minutes. The Emergency room felt as if it were physically vibrating from the frenetic energy. We were surrounded by people bloodied and maimed, some were howling like wounded animals but all of us wore varying degrees of despair on our faces and in our dispositions. We walked over to the Reception Window where a saucy young woman, with purplish--blue hair, barely looked at us as she dismissively handed us a clipboard and told us to fill out the highlighted parts. I was starting to feel woozy. I think I was overwhelmed by all of the rushing around, the thick stench of alcohol and the chorus of wailing women. Ali stepped around me and said something to the young woman, that I couldn’t make out, but she took the clipboard from him and pointed us in another direction. After what seemed like a lifetime, a short, clean cut looking black man wearing a white lab coat shook Ali’s hand and then mine. I think he introduced himself as the doctor who we’d spoke to on the phone. We followed him down a hall lined with gurneys holding drunken men, gunshot victims and weary eyed elderly ladies. When we reached the room where Camilla was being held, she was unconscious and was wearing clear, plastic tubes in her nose and mouth. From underneath a turban of cotton gauze and bandages, I could see that one side of her face was grossly swollen, cut and bruised. Both of her arms were wrapped in the same thick white cotton gauze, which the doctor explained was done to cover burns on her arms. He said it looked like she was run over by the car and she’d used her arms to cover her face. She’d suffered a broken arm, a couple of broken ribs, and some moderate craniofacial damage, which would require a few surgeries in the near future. The EMT’s who arrived first, on the scene said the driver carried her out of the roadway and stayed with her until help arrived. I was grateful to hear that. I stood at my mother’s side, while Ali stepped out to speak to the doctor. He returned shortly and told me they’d be moving Camilla to a private room in a few hours and I’d be able to stay with her whenever I wanted. I mumbled a thank you to him, when I felt him close to me and him placing a hand on my shoulder. His touch unplugged the dam, freeing the tears I’d been successfully fighting back. “Oh, Baby. She’s going to be fine. Don’t cry.” Ali wrapped his arms around me and kept telling me that Camilla would be fine.
Camilla stayed in the hospital and unconscious for six long days. Oliver and Ali hardly ever left me alone. Lacey and the Robinsons came by to check on her. Aunt Katy B and Ulysses even came by while they were in the city for a church conference. On the seventh day she painfully opened her eyes and could hardly speak, once they’d removed the feeding tube from her throat. She groaned, a deep raspy groan, “Damn, I must look a mess.” She tried to muster a little laugh, but it hurt too much, and then she asked, “Did anyone call Carl.” I was glad I was alone with her when she came to, because I didn’t think I could bear the shame I would’ve felt had anyone else witnessed my mother awake from a coma to not even utter a hello, to me -- her only child. I rolled my eyes and she saw me. “Damn, girl I still can’t get a break with you.” She was taken over by a dry coughing fit. And I was happy she couldn’t finish the mean and selfish tirade, she was surely about to start. I’d been by her side for the past week and the first things she asks about are how she looks and had anyone called her latest boyfriend! A nurse came in and called for the doctor, she took Camilla’s vitals and handed me a small styrofoam cup filled with ice water to help Camilla drink. The thought of drowning her, shamelessly crossed my mind -- instead I lifted her head and held the cup to her dry, cracked lips and asked, “How’s that, mom? Did you get enough.” She grimaced and I couldn’t make out whether it was from the pain or directed at me in response to my sarcasm. I sat with her while she met with the doctor, but I’d made up my mind that it would be my last night there by her ungrateful side. No matter how much I loved her and wanted for her to change, it just wasn’t going to happen. Even at death’s door, Camilla was still just as selfish and vain as she’d always been, and unapologetically so. When we were alone again Camilla closed her eyes and took a deep breath, “Camisha, I saw my entire, miserable life past before my eyes when those headlights flashed in my face. And I knowed it was best that I tell you something that affects you as much now as it always did.” She motioned for me to come to her bedside. I rolled my eyes, because only God knew what cruel and crushing blow she wanted to deliver in retaliation for calling her, Mom, in front of the nurse. I begrudgingly obliged her and pulled the chair I’d been sitting in to her bedside. She took another deep breath and mumbled, “Damn, I could use a smoke.” Then she dropped her bomb, “Yo’ daddy wants to see you.” She lay there silently, waiting for my response. I didn’t know if she was being straight with me or messing with my head. I stood up and walked towards the window, that faced the frantic view of bustling traffic zipping around the Grady Curve of I--75 and I--85. “How do you know that, Camilla.” I asked as calmly as possible without turning to look into lying face her.
“He told me.”
“When.” I asked still watching the traffic outside of the window.
“The night he left your house.” She paused before adding, “on Thanksgiving night.”
The images of James DaCosta and Evangaline all came rushing back to me, making me weak in the knees. Her coat, the perfume I smelled when she hugged me. His eyes darting back and forth across my face and the way I kept catching him staring at me. That warm, funny woman had once wanted me. She had once wanted to raise me, as her own. They’d stayed together despite the betrayal of my conception. And Evangeline could have been my mother, instead of the monster that lay, bruised and battered in the hospital bed across from me. I held on to the dusty, steel window sill to steady myself. I sank to my knees and lowered myself to floor. “Camilla. Why.” Was all I could articulate, while I fought against the painful lump in my throat. So many questions swirled around my mind at once, that I couldn’t make sense of any one particular one from another.
“Camisha get up! Fuck! Talk to me. Now’s the time, Girl.”
I heard her, but the gall of her to curse me right now kept me glued to the floor beneath me. After a few minutes passed Camilla finally spoke again, .”Tell me the truth, Camisha Ann how bad do I look? Am I looking like the fucking elephant man.” Her persistence really ticked me off and I snapped at her, “Are you serious right now?! You could have been killed! You just told me that a man who I thought no longer existed does exist and wants to see me and all you can think about is how you look.”
She tried her best to yell at me but the pain of her dry throat would only allow a little more than a breathless shriek, “Get the fuck out of here! I don’t want your judgmental ass in here, gloating over me! Get the hell out!
I slowly got to my feet, walked over to her bed, leaned over and yelled in her face, “My pleasure, Mother.” I walked out with a showy wave and not as much as a hasty glance at her.
When I reached the security of my own space, I ran a hot bath and poured myself a glass of wine. I lowered myself into the sudsy water and had a good soulful cry. I had to stop letting that woman wreck me this way. I had to figure out whether or not what she’d told me about James was the truth. The phone rang, but I couldn’t reach it from the tub. I laid back into the warm water and closed my eyes again. The phone rang again, so this time I grabbed a towel, wrapped it around myself and carefully stepped out of the tub.
“Hey, Babe. Are you at home.”, hearing Ali’s voice on the line made me smile for the first time all day.
“Yeah. Camilla woke up. But, it didn’t go well.” I was starting to tell him about what she’d told me about James and about our fight, but he cut me off.
“Cami, Baby. Camilla had a blood clot and.” he stopped, but I could hear him breathing.
I slowly finished his sentence, “she didn’t make it.”
“She’s gone. Right.” I asked after Ali didn’t answer the first time.
For some odd reason I simply couldn’t conjure up another single tear, I couldn’t even get misty.
I heard Ali say, “I’m leaving the office now.” His voice brought me back to the present.
“Don’t. Just finish working, there’s nothing you can do here. We’ll see each other tomorrow. It’ll be the weekend.” I calmly replied. I told him that I loved him and ended the call.
I called Oliver and gave him the news -- he could cry.
I called Carl and oddly enough he said that he thought she’d just walked out on him. He said he hadn’t even tried to call her. They’d fought and she’d told him to kiss her ass as she walked out of the door with two bags and her purse. He too, could cry.
I kept replaying the last exchange between Camilla and I. I kept hearing her say, “Damn girl, I still can’t get a break with yo.”. I wondered if she was really gone or was she running some kind of scam. I imagined her charming the doctor into calling Ali to tell him that she’d died, all to screw with my head, because I’d yelled at her and called her, mother. Then I got very upset at her for pretending to be happy about mine and Ali’s wedding. I recalled her fake enthusiasm, “Oh yeah, Cami you can wear two dresses.” I imagined her having a nurse bring her a mirror to see her smashed up face and then jamming an IV needle into her wrists, killing herself, because she’d rather be dead than have her precious face scarred. I was so angry at her, but I just couldn’t muster a single tear. Then I was angry at myself for being such a crummy daughter. What kind of daughter couldn’t cry for her mother’s death? Camilla died on Friday, August the seventeenth, thirty days before I was to marry the love of my life, who she’d told me would never marry me or even introduce me to his pretty mama and his rich daddy.
Five days after Ali’s fateful phone call, I buried my mother in a tasteful, graveside service. Ali stood beside me along with Oliver, Lacey, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, Aunt Katy B and Ulysses and a few of her coworkers from the airport. Carl didn’t show up, neither did any of her other past lovers. The Thanksgiving Orphans were all there and all stood in line to shake my hand and give me hugs, but none of their condolences could break the ice that had built up, preventing me from crying. Even the anger had dissipated as I stood there watching the beautiful mahogany coffin being lowered into the ground, leaving nothing at all. I didn’t host a repast, but Oliver cooked a simple meal at my house for Ali’s family. I ate a small plate of roast chicken, green beans and smashed red potatoes, thanked everyone for coming and then retired to my bedroom. I crawled under the covers fully dressed, I’d only removed my heels and hat. I rocked myself to sleep and woke up thirteen hours later, beside Ali. He didn’t speak, he just took me in his arms and unleashed the tears. I cried and sobbed, until a terrible case of hiccups took over my body.
“I yelled at her.” I sobbed. “I didn’t tell her I loved her.” I cried and pounded my thighs. “How could you love someone like me? She was my mother. She gave birth to me. She kept me.” I was hysterical, and Ali just kept ahold of me. He didn’t say a word. I must have cried myself back to sleep, because Sunday came and went.
The smell of coffee woke me and struck a powerful image of Camilla standing at the kitchen counter, in my mind’s eye. I got up and stretched like a cat. I was still wearing pantyhose and the black dress I’d worn two days ago to Camilla’s funeral. My eyes stung and were dry and swollen. I went to the bathroom and got into the shower. I brushed my teeth and my hair, as I stood in the mirror, I heard Camilla’s voice asking, “How do I look.” I shook my head back and forth to release the memory of her bruised and swollen face from my mind and walked out to the kitchen.
“Hey, Babe.” Ali greeted me with a kiss on the forehead.
“What day is it.” I asked dryly. My throat hurt and felt like a desert, which reminded me of the way I reluctantly fed the ice chips to Camilla. I wondered, if I had known it would be the last time I would touch her, would I have been more gentle and genuine about the simple act of feeding her ice chips.
“It’s Monday.” He answered.
“Then, why aren’t you at work, Ali.” I asked as equally as dry.
“Babe, I’m not leaving you here alone. Not like this.” he was shaking his head, and pouring the steaming coffee into a second cup, for me.
“Ali, I’m fine. Really, I am.” I forced a little smile, but he wasn’t budging on his decision. I decided to lighten the mood.
“Did your mother order the flowers for the church? We’re less than thirty days away.” I tried to speak in a cheery tone. Ali looked at me, his face marred with confusion.
“Cami, we don’t have to do this. We can push the wedding.”
Anger shot up my spine.
“Push the wedding date, huh.” I seethed.
“Is that what you want to do, Ali? Push the wedding date.” Ali’s confusion visibly increased.
“Well, Cam, I just want what’s best for you.” He spoke very cautiously. “If you think the wedding will help you cope with your mom’s -.” he stopped short. “I’ll do whatever you want, Baby.”
I didn’t respond, I walked around the kitchen bar and hoisted myself on to one of the barstools.
“I should call her to find out about the flowers. Lacey thinks candles would be a nice touch, since the church is kind of dark. I think she’s right. She’s been a great help, hasn’t she.” I was craving a distraction, I just wanted to right my world, I needed some predictability, some routine.
“Yes, Babe. She has been. Let’s call Momma.”