By Shawn R. Jones
When I got to the hospital earlier today, hypnotized by the consistent beeping and whiteness of the corridor, I thought about every junkie who had lived on Ellington Street. About how they had huddled together in front of Vennie’s Store, scraping together pennies and how they had robbed folks with their faces, eyes so wild they didn’t have to beg for cash. Their sporadic movements had been so cartoonish and frightening that stray cats and dogs had clambered to the other side of the street. Once they had collected enough to get a fix, they nodded on their stoops and drooled in their own laps until they had become fixtures like unrepaired streetlamps. Walking down the hallway they had probably traveled at least once before their deaths, I read the sign above the double doors, Alcohol and Drug Treatment Unit. It was the second time in less than a year that my mom had checked herself into County Hospital. The woman at the front desk had handed me the visitor’s pass and told me my mother was in room 352.
This room is as cozy as I could make it. I put a flowered quilt on her bed and an arrangement of silk flowers in a vase on the dresser. There is really nothing else I can do for her other than try to convince her to stay here for as long as she needs to. The last time she was here, she left without being discharged, escaping at two a.m. with the catheter still in her arm. Easy access to her vein. She couldn’t resist. That’s why I’m here after visiting hours, making sure she doesn’t break out in the wee hours of the morning, for the first night at least. The crazy thing is, she checked herself in. It’s an on-going joke with the staff, how she once checked in and creeped out. Laughing helps them get through the roughest nights on the unit, I suppose. I wish they were in here laughing now, so I could camouflage my distorted face with laughter. Force a crooked smile. Mimic joy. The truth is, there is no one to share this pain with me, and I have been staring out the window for about an hour, afraid to turn around and look at my mother, who may or may not be breathing. She has been unclean for twenty years. It is amazing that she has been able to stay alive this long. Not one significant relapse into cleanliness.
When I first got to her room, I pulled back the white sheet to see how much was left of her and cried when I saw gnarled twigs instead of limbs with a gray patch of fuzz between them. I felt defeated. And although I know I can’t stop her from using, sometimes I still feel I am culpable for not being able to rescue her. However, even while carrying this guilt and pretending I am a survivor, I realize I must move forward with my own life, and that means turning away from everything I witnessed in my parents’ home on Ellington Street.
In our home on Ellington Street, rats, high on Raid, sashayed across the sage rug in the dust and twilight of our living room. Their pups played tag in the drop ceiling at night while I stayed awake on the top bunk, shaking from fear and cold. I never got a full night’s sleep in that house. Quiet was so much more threatening than sound, and sound is more poignant in my memory than sight. I can still hear the headboard slamming at 3 a.m. in the adjacent room where my mother sometimes shared a bed with my father and his two friends. My mother would like me to forget all that, but I am grown now and long gone from my parent’s house, yet my mother’s muffled meows still haunt me more deeply than the spirits on Ellington Street who couldn’t find rest.
We didn’t value rest in our house. We valued money because we never had enough of it. My parents needed money for drugs, food, and clothes, and in that order, too. Both my parents were strung out. They didn’t have the luxury of using a drug of their choice. They got high on whatever they could get for free, for cheap, or for trade. Free was never free, though. My mother and father slept with men and women for drugs. My mother even slept with her first cousin, at least once, to get a hit.
When she couldn’t get a hit, I helped her cope with the pain. In 10th grade, I missed a third of the school year because I stayed home to take care of her whenever she went through withdrawal. She would roll back and forth across her bed for hours, sweating and smelling worse than animal dung. You would think I would have become immune to it, but I never got used to her stench or the sight of her shriveled figure twisted in sheets in the middle of her bed. I hated going into her room or any other room but my own. All day in that house was like entering different chambers of hell.
The bathroom was the worst. The sink was clogged with grease and hair too thick for Drano, so I had to brush my teeth over the tub with a faucet I had to turn on with jagged pliers. Sometimes worms dangled and fell from the spigot instead of water and piled up on the metal strainer inside the drain hole. I either had to remove the worms or skip taking a bath. We didn’t have a shower, and I didn’t want to bathe with worms, so I removed them. I had this fear that they would crawl their way up mid bath if I had washed them down the drain, so I used to throw them in the bathroom trashcan or flush them down the toilet, but after feeling their soft bodies wiggle in my palms and hang from my fingers a dozen times, I felt guilty. I changed my ritual and carried them out back to the alley and left them in a balding patch of grass, hoping they would wiggle their way into the soil before a hungry finch came along.
There was a finch that lived in a nest above our backdoor, one or two on the streetlamp in the alleyway, and another that lived in Ms. Mable’s cracked flowerpot that sat on the brick wall between our rowhomes. Worms didn’t have much of a chance with predators nesting everywhere, but I figured they were safer outside. It was a rough life for anything living out back, though, because everything immediately outside our house was also in decline.
School was different, though. Unlike most of the high schools in the city, mine was brand-new, and it didn’t have bars on the first floor windows. Benches, trees, and green grass decorated its courtyard. Inside, it was warm, the water wasn’t rusty, and I got to eat breakfast and lunch for free. When I stayed home from school, I didn’t eat until Ms. Mable, knocked on my door, and gave me a plate with enough food on it for my mother and me. Embarrassed, I took it. Every time someone did something nice for me, I felt bad. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, though. I felt sorry for my parents, especially my mother.
My parents weren’t villains. My father spent most of his time in jail, so I barely got to know him. Close family members told me he had been using since he was fourteen. How could I have ever gotten to know him as a father? He had been an addict since he was a boy. I know my mother, though. My mother and I, despite her addiction, were close. She and I had developed a bond from my birth till I was nine years old that drugs couldn’t break. Once drugs became the focus of her life, I became a blur she would try to see through her addiction, a shadow she would try to hold. She kept staring and reaching, saying the right words with a voice that sounded more convincing than any other voice I had ever heard, but by the age of twelve, I knew better. I felt the only way drugs could destroy our relationship was if I let go. So even though I had become a shadow to her, she had become the focal point of my life, more tangible than she had ever been.
My priority was to recreate the woman who had played war, checkers, and Monopoly with me before bedtime. That was before we moved to the raggedy house on Ellington Street in Camden on my ninth birthday, December 10, 1979. Before Ellington Street, I used to hold her steady hand when we walked to the library through the rectangular streets of Atlantic City. On weekends, we used to walk to the tennis courts near our housing complex. Tennis was an elective she took in college. I used to run and collect the fuzzy green ball, so her game wouldn’t be interrupted. The tennis courts were at Soldier’s Home. It used to be a hub for black soldiers to meet after World War II. Our housing project, Stanley Homes Village, was built so black soldiers had a place to live when they came home after the war. When my family moved there in 1975, I was five years old. For poor people, Stanley Homes was one of the most desirable places to live in the city, a low-income housing community full of history. It was my mother who told me this. My mother who taught me reading, writing, and African American history. My mother who signed me up for vocal, dance, and piano lessons. It was my college-educated mother who had one tennis injury, took one too many pills, and sold her body to anybody to get high.
My father liked the new woman my mother had become. It was convenient for him to have someone to get high with right in our home, convenient for him to have someone to sell. Whenever my mother was clean, she put my father out. He would always come back, though, tempting her with a new drug, promising her a better high.
I remember this one night, twenty years ago. It was a night very similar to this one, twilight and bone cold, but the Camden streets didn’t look anything like the Camden below this hospital window. That was before gentrification. My mother had been clean for several weeks, maybe a few months. I was seventeen. Dusk was dirty. Trash and strange characters tripped down the block. Men and women with sunken cheeks and swollen hands drug-danced under the streetlight on the corner of Third and Ellington. Their laughs cracked through wind gusts, enticing the bored and lonely folks on the block who were trying to live right. It was the perfect night for mom to start using again. With the most depressed people on the block feigning happiness, she thought she was missing something in the house with me, checking math she had a difficult time figuring out. She erased her own writing so hard she ripped the white lined paper. She started counting on her fingers, crying. Her white tank top hung loosely on her collar bones.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll figure it out.” I reached in my bookbag. “I have a calculator. The teacher let me borrow hers for the week.” I searched through every front, side, and back pocket in the bag, remembering I promised Ms. Winslow I would bring her calculator back in good condition. “I must have left it in school on my desk.” After my search, I looked up and my mother was gone.
When my mother returned, I was sitting at the kitchen table. I heard my name rattle softly in the back of her throat. I knew she was standing in the middle of our dark dining room. I got up from the breakfast room table and peeked around the corner. She shifted her weight to one knee and lifted her arms, looking kind of scarecrow-ish. Her dirty wool hat sat crooked on top of a wig that had once been cut into an asymmetrical bob. I remember the Christmas my aunt gave her that hat and the wig. It was the first Christmas she had been clean in a long time. It made me so sad every time she wore the two together, looking so different than she did in the photo I saved from that year. Whenever someone would ask how my mother was doing, I would remember how she had looked in that picture, and then I would make up a fantastic story about how she was back in school, travelling, and working on the book she had always wanted to write. I considered it less of a lie and more of a prophecy. Folks on the block were always prophesizing. It was contagious. They believed they could speak what they wanted into existence, like a new car, better job, or good health.
I know the exact moment I stopped believing. Not in God, but in the belief that I could somehow speak my mother clean. It was the same night she stood in our dining room after selling Ms. Winslow’s calculator.
I gave her a scolding stare before speaking.
“Mom, where have you been?”
“Drowning, Baby. Drowning real real slow. The shit just keeps burning.”
Then she started gagging repeatedly until she hit the floor. She didn’t move. She looked like a pile of rags with a face. I prayed like I did every time I thought she was dying, but this time I prayed she would die, so I could mourn once and get it over with instead of mourning a few times a week for years like I had been. I had talked to Ms. Mable about it. She believed in God and always had something hopeful to say. Her favorite line was, God is a very present help. Maybe God was in her house, but I was convinced God wasn’t in ours. All God could do for me in that moment was let my mother die. I stood quietly over her and watched her twitch a few times. I had decided not to revive her if she went into cardiac arrest. I was just going to let her go for my sake and hers.
God, if you are here, please take her, I prayed to myself. Another twitch. She was more bug than human. She slowly tried to lean up on her elbow. I had the power to crack her bones between my heel and the floor or help her to her feet. I could have ended it that day and no one would have cared. No one would have investigated the death of a black junkie, and I knew freedom was what we both wanted. I stood over her thinking it was the best solution.
God if you are here, please take her. A cough and a twitch more violent than the first three.
“Die, Mom,” I cried softly. “Please, Mom, just die.”
She stopped moving. I fell to my knees, moaning and swaying, arms wrapped around my center. I looked up, knowing if she could, she would look down. I wiped my tears and smiled, hoping she would think I was a survivor, hoping she would think it was okay to leave me. I leaned forward and kissed her check. Rested my face on hers.
I rested there awhile before I realized she was still breathing. I couldn’t believe it. Scurrying to my feet, I hoisted her up, her armpits resting on my forearms. Wanting her to die, but also wanting her to live, I helped her to her feet. I just couldn’t stand watching her suffer with that monster running rampant through her body, greedy. Just so greedy and selfish, always keeping her somewhere between life and death. Once I realized the monster wasn’t going to let her go or take her completely, I decided I was going to do everything I could to make her as close to happy as she could get. Once I realized she was still breathing, I decided I was going to hold her up as long as I could, no matter what it required of me.
She could barely stand on her own. With her head angled toward the floor, I put her over my shoulder. She puked down my back like an infant. I undressed us both and carried her up the stairs, letting her hat and wig fall as I climbed the staircase. My mother was lighter than a toddler. It wasn’t a struggle to make it to the top. Relieved we had water and heat that day, I sat her on the toilet as I washed her warm vomit from the base of my neck. Then, I took the green bucket from under the sink, filled it with water, got in the tub, and poured it down my back, knowing I should have just laid her on the bathroom floor. I moved quickly, afraid she would fall off the toilet and hit her head on the edge of the porcelain tub like she had done so many times before, after shooting heroin in her groin. Next, I prepared the tub for my mother’s bath. I made bubbles with a drop of dish soap. She liked that. She smiled. I wiped her mouth, gave her a sip of water, and helped her get into the tub. I held her up to keep her from drowning.
“Mom, where’s dad?”
“I don’t know, but I feel better now.”
“Did you see him out there? Because every time you get clean, he comes back around. Was he on Third?”
“Yes.” She cupped her hands and threw water on her face. Her straightened hair crinkled around her hairline.
“Did he give you something?” We both needed someone to blame.
“Yeah.” She stared up at me. “I guess it was punishment for putting him out. I’m sorry, Lydia. I’m trying.”
“Mom,” I repeatedly cupped one hand and poured water on the top of her head until it puffed up and thickened like a sponge, “what did he give you?” I had learned what to do if she had too much of something. Give plenty of water for E and a cold shower and aspirin for cocaine.
“Gag?” I massaged her scalp, wondering why anyone would take a drug called Gag. “Mom, did you know it was called Gag?”
“I just wanted to get high,” she cried hard. “P-please, can you just go out and get me a little something? Just this one time to calm my nerves that’s all. I feel like I’m dying.” She leaned forward. Her spine looked like a long seed pod. The water browned under her.
“God, Mom, we can’t keep living like this.” I stood up, took a few breaths, and cried with her.
“Butchie’s probably still on the corner. There’s some money in my top drawer. You can give him all of it. Tell him I’ll pay him the rest later.”
Butchie was the dealer who sold drugs to strung out moms and dads, but then turned around and fed everybody on the block. He bought all the kids on our street school clothes and Christmas gifts, too. Anything they wanted. Then some of their parents would sell it all to buy more drugs from him. For years, I wondered why he got in the game. Everyone said he was a straight A student who could sing and play baseball. My cousin, Kelly, who grew up with Butchie, told me his mom had died from a crack overdose when he was eleven- years old, so he started selling drugs because he wanted everybody’s mom just as strung out as his was. I understood that feeling. There were times when I had hoped everyone’s parents were just as strung out as mine, too. I wasn’t even mad at Butchie for it. One person on our block was just as messed up as the next for different reasons. We were all losing, crying, and dying in the same space, so a few seconds of happiness was worth something, even if it wasn’t getting you anywhere in the end.
That night I wanted my mother to have that. Since she wasn’t going to die, I wanted her to be happy even if it were for five minutes. I drained the shit-water out of the tub, poured a bucket of fresh water down her body, and gave her the sheet from my bed. There were no towels in the house, dirty or clean. I walked down the hall, my head feeling lighter with each step. I put my finger through the door’s hole where a knob would have been and pulled her bedroom door open.
I can still see myself at seventeen, running up and down the streets, looking for Butchie with four dollars balled up in my hand. When I found Butchie, sitting in his black Mercedes with tinted windows, he smiled hard. “What you want, Girl?”
“What can I get for four dollars?”
“Four Dollars?! You got to be kidding me.”
“That’s all she has and,” I pulled a thick ring from my pocket, “her school ring.”
He looked down and turned his head to the side for a second. “Nobody don’t want no damn school ring.”
Butchie’s friend leaned over, looking at me from the passenger’s seat. “Your momma know better than that. That’s all you got, Sweet Berry, you and your fine self?”
“Man, shut the hell up. She jailbait.”
“Butchie, please.” I leaned in his car window. She’s hurting and she can barely walk. She can hardly sit up. She said she took something called Gag.”
“She ain’t get that shit from me.”
“You have something that can make her feel better?”
“Maybe, but you need at least $10. Where your daddy at?”
“In the house,” I lied. “He sent me out here to find you.”
“He ain’t got no money?”
I shook my head.
“That damn dope fiend ain’t got no money. She wasting our time, Butchie. Tell her to take her broke ass home. Roll the damn window up!”
Butchie was quiet for a moment. Then he reached under his seat and handed me a small pill. It was round and unassuming, the soft green of mint ice cream. Butchie shooed me and my four dollars away.
He had only been a few blocks away from my house. I stood on our front step, the pill pinched between my fingers and the seasick green coloring rubbing off on my skin. In my sweaty palm, it looked like a Skittle that had been sucked on and spit out. How had anything that small toppled my mother so easily? It had, though. I had seen them around the house before. In the palm of my mother’s hand. On the tip of her tongue.
I put the pill in the center of my palm and grinded my hand against the railing. I could feel the pill resisting and I pressed harder, the black paint chips and the chalky pill combining into ash. I wiped my hands on my pants, even the one that hadn’t had any pill dust on it. I knew she was going to inspect them thoroughly when I went upstairs, in disbelief that I hadn’t convinced Butchie to sell me at least a little something. I knew her script, the same lines we’d been saying when she asked for drugs or money. She would take my wrists in her hands and flip them back and forth. Her eyes would have that insatiable happiness that would switch into madness when she stared at my empty palms.
“Nothing?” she’d say, and I would nod, trying to match her disappointment. “Butchie ain’t loyal to nobody.” And I would hope she would read my silence as an agreement.
I don’t think the hospital staff even notices me standing here as still as the wall. They are busy attending to my mother. There is a steady beep coming from her heart monitor. I peek in after they yank the curtains close. I want to tell them to let her go. They are moving with such urgency like they are trying to save the life of a newborn baby, and I feel guilty for not feeling much of anything.
The nurse yells, “Clear!” and my mother’s body jumps as he places two paddles on her chest. I find myself silently rooting for the staff because they are working so hard, and I don’t want them to be disappointed. I don’t want them to share in this failure, so if she doesn’t make it, I know I will feel the need to console them. To tell them I know what it’s like to use every resource within reach but still feel like you’re losing.
The doctor says, “Let’s try again,” and repeats, “Clear!”
My mother’s body jerks, but then there is nothing.
I close the curtain, and even though I rehearsed this moment umpteen times, I don’t feel the overwhelming sadness I expected to feel. So far, the anticipation of her dying is much worse than her actual death. Tomorrow may bring something entirely different. Right now, my mind is full of clichés. I’m trying to process their meanings and determine their worth. There is one that keeps coming back to memory, You can’t help people who don’t help themselves.
I want it to be that easy. To say an expression that I can say as lightly as if telling someone the time of day, to let the words float out of me, dissolving into the air with my guilt. I want to feel wronged and sit in that feeling, soaking it inside of me. I want her to know that she could have helped herself, that this is her fault because how could she have expected me to save her? I know that if she had been in her right mind, she would have wanted me to love her from a distance without exhausting myself.
I still have memories of my mother when she was clear-eyed and focused, almost too attentive to me. At the city pool, she used to lay out the ground rules and she would eye every child in the pool as if assessing who was going to be the troublemaker for me.
“And if someone goes under?” she’d say.
“Get out,” I’d said.
Her finger would press against my chest bone. “That’s right,” she’d said. “We’re not in the business of saving people.”