My First Experience with Determination
My First Experience with Determination
“Of course, I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”
—Audre Lorde, Author, and Activist
They looked like skyscrapers to me. But instead of feeling a sense of awe, I felt tiny and insignificant. Even on a warm spring day, the shadows created by the building would block out the sun, a reminder of how dark and cold life could become here.
After school in the Spring of 1993, as I was walking home through my project complex, I came to the edge of a small, dusty dirt and clay field where all the neighborhood kids played.
I stopped and scanned the wide-open field we had made into our playground, and noticed a woman sitting in the gold-colored dirt, wearing what looked like a light-blue-and-white hospital gown. As I approached her, what struck me most wasn’t that it was incredibly strange for her to be almost naked, hot, and lethargic while sitting on the bare, unforgiving ground. It was that this woman had physical features I recognized in my mom and aunts. She was Latino, not Black, which was very out of place for me to see in the projects. Up to this point, I had never seen any other Latin person here who was not related to me.
She wasn’t wearing shoes and didn’t appear to be wearing much else but the gown. No more than eighty pounds, and only skeleton frame of a woman. Her arms and legs were covered in open sores, and her busy fingers picked invisible scabs off her legs. Her sunken eyes were dazed and blackened, staring into an abyss of space and a time long ago, perhaps one that wasn’t so dark, desperate, and hot. The sun blazed relentlessly on her, a cool occasional breeze her fleeting savior.
By the fourth grade, I knew what a drug addict looked like. Still, a sense of urgency flooded me as I rushed upstairs and burst into the kitchen to tell my mother a Spanish lady was sitting in the dirt next to our building, wearing a blue sheet. Immediately, a look of concern and acknowledgment flashed across my mom’s eyes, and she hurried downstairs. I followed as fast as I could down the many flights of stairs, past the drug dealers standing in the lobby, the neighborhood kids scattering when we reached the field. Shockingly, my mom recognized this shell of a woman calling her Naomi within seconds.
Visibly shaken, she gently scooped up Naomi into her arms, not concerned about any of the sores on her delicate frame, and carried her back through the field and project complex, back to our home. I could see the determination in my mother’s eyes as she carried Naomi through the complex, staring ahead as if on a solo mission. Around us, people were chatting, staring, and pointing. Why isn’t anyone offering my mom help? I thought as I worked to stay near her hip to provide any support that I could.
Imagine huge rows and rows of 12 story buildings with the ability to house thousands of people, but the inability to maintain basic human services for those people. Everyone threw away their trash daily or weekly, but there was nowhere for it to go. Without consistent trash collection, people threw bags of trash and loose items into the stairwells, out the windows, into every open space they could. The stairwells constantly smelled like urine and rotting food, and the filth made the stairs sticky and slippery at times. Added to the dim lighting in the stairwells that would flicker on and off unpredictably, and stay off predictably, it wasn’t uncommon to walk in complete and treacherous darkness to make it to the next flight. It was the only way to get to our apartment, a daunting journey on our passage to safety.
Undeterred, my mom carried Naomi in her arms through the trash and darkness, up seven flights of stairs, and laid her on our couch. That was the first time I recognized my mom as both being super strong and extremely delicate at the same time, but it wouldn’t be the last.
My mom took care of Naomi day in and day out, feeding her, bathing her, and changing her, as we learned more about her condition. In the coming days, my mother uncomfortably but very candidly explained that Naomi had been using and injecting drugs in Philadelphia and came in contact with HIV a few years earlier.
“HIV? What is HIV?” I asked.
My mother swiftly replied, “HIV is what happens when you don’t take care of yourself. Be careful who you hang out with.” Her response didn’t make sense to me but I had a feeling that I should not or could not explore that answer any further. Especially after my mother’s follow-up directive: “You’re a child so stay in a child’s place,” her go-to response when I asked “Why?” one too many times or butted into grown folks’ business or conversations.
Because of shame, by the time Naomi got visibly sick, she had severed her connections to our family and moved away from us all. Now, as she laid on our couch, and after a few doctors’ visits foretelling of her fate, our family warned my mom. “She shouldn’t be in your house. She’s going to get you guys sick.” And “Be careful with your boys,” they said. But Mom wouldn’t hear any of it. She gave Naomi her own set of utensils, her own plate, and anything else to lessen the contact, and she bleached everything non-stop.
During those first few days, Mom educated my brother and me about HIV and AIDS, explaining as best she could how you could get it, and how you cannot. She told us “not to judge someone or treat them badly just because they’re sick,” that everyone needs the love of someone else, and that those with HIV or who are sick simply need more love.
I could tell my mom was afraid at times, often sitting with Naomi’s head in her lap as she gently rubbed it. She did everything she could to let my aunt know that she was loved and worthy, regardless of the path she’d taken in life.
My mom showed me pictures of Naomi when she was younger, sharing stories about how she was always so proud of her long, black, beautifully thick hair, and how they would always sneak away, being the two oldest kids. Now I watched as my mom combed Naomi’s few remaining hairs every day and put it up in a child’s barrette like they were little girls all over again.
Naomi was still not able to communicate. She could look at us, turn her head toward us, and occasionally sigh. Some days I sat on the couch just watching her, as her breath would get heavier, not understanding the reality of what was happening.
I remember looking into her eyes and wondering what she was experiencing, and what she might want to say if she could. Her steady stares with her hollowed, darkened-out eyes scared me, her desperate look of longing forever etched in my memory. Today, I still wonder if she was thinking of her own kids. Was she comforted by seeing our new lives just beginning? Or was her heartbreaking because of how much she missed her own children?
Three weeks into her stay with us, her breathing became labored and I could hear the intense rattle of her body barely clinging to life. At two o’clock one morning, I was abruptly awakened by my mom screeching and moaning—a haunting, primal sound like no other.
My brother and I ran into the living room and saw our uncle crying, supporting himself against the wall. Naomi had just exhaled her last breath while cradled in my mother’s arms.
My mom was now rocking our aunt’s broken body, holding her, mourning in a way that scared me, as I have never seen my mom, my protector, my everything, in this way, grieving as only a caregiver can. It frightened me to see the pain that love had caused.
Still being a caretaker, my mom rubbed lavender oil over Naomi’s forehead and lips to keep her skin moisturized. Then she combed her hair one last time, almost in a ritualistic way, as if to honor their bond and say goodbye.
The funeral caretaker showed up alone, with no one to help him, so my uncle helped. The few relatives who were in our home took my mom away. Then my uncle and the coroner carried Naomi’s body down the same stairs she’d traveled up three weeks earlier in my mother’s arms.
We’ll never know how she made the trek to our apartment wearing nothing but a hospital gown. Perhaps it was divine guidance leading her to us in the hopes that she’d be recognized—that even in her lowest moments she’d find a safe space to be seen, accepted, and loved.
Although her departure was incredibly sad, her arrival planted a seed in me that foretold a story of hope, courage, determination, and the need to search for and create safe spaces in unlikely places.