My Mom, Vivienne Young
1. As many of you already know, I started blogging years before VSB was born. (Very quick backstory: A decade or so ago, my cousin-–already a popular blogger and web designer—offered to build a page for me. I agreed.) During that time, I became familiar with dozens of different bloggers; some good, some bad, some fascinating and interesting, some fascinatingly uninteresting. I also developed favorites—people whose blogs became must-reads for me. One of these favorites even became a close friend and business partner.
Yet, there was one blogger whose writing style and sense of humor made her my favorite of my favorites. Her blog name was Vinabeans, she still tweets pretty regularly, and I’m certain she has no idea I was that big of a fan of hers.
I started reading her in 2005 (I think). But, that’s not important. (Well, it’s not important in today’s context.)
What is important is why I stopped.
In one of her blog entries, she revealed that her mom had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And, because of my own fear of the death of either of my parents, I couldn’t read her blog anymore. I was scared to death. Where before I’d looked forward to each of her posts, just seeing her name on my AOL friends list made me anxious.
(What happened with Vina’s blog wasn’t unique. I did a similar thing when first watching Crooklyn. After the narrator’s mom dies, I stopped watching. This happened 15 years ago. I still haven’t finished watching it. Losing one of my parents has been such a resonate fear that I couldn’t even deal with fictional people losing fictional parents.)
In the month or so before my mom’s death—when it became apparent she didn’t have much time left—I wasn’t able to sleep at night. I mean, I’d sleep, but I’d wake up every two hours or so, restless and sore from heartburn, and I’d jump online for a couple hours and surf until I couldn’t fight sleep anymore. After a couple weeks of that—and after sleepwalking through work every morning—I started self-medicating, taking an Advil before bed and washing it down with a swig of honey Jack. This “worked.”
It has been 10 days since my mom died. This has also been my best 10 day stretch of sleep all year. Part of me realizes this is due to the fact that I’m not worried about her anymore. I’m no longer obsessing about her health, her treatment, her spirit, and her level of comfort. There’s no more hurt about her hurt; no more wondering if today will be the day I get the 5:47 am phone call from my dad telling me something I know he’s going to have to eventually tell me.
Also, there is a comfort in being forced to face one of your greatest fears. When there is no more running from it, no more avoiding blog entries about it, no more turning the channel whenever something that reminds you of it happens to be on TV, no more anything you can do to stop it from happening, it provides a surreal, almost perverse peace, and you’re shocked into submitting to it.
2. I’ve been staring at my monitor for 15 minutes or so, trying to think of an eloquent and/or irreverent way to say what I’m about to say. It is (obviously) not working, but this may be a good thing. My inability to articulate how awestruck I am about all the love and support my family and I have received likely just proves that I am, in fact, awestruck by…
A) The campaign started by Iyanna Holmes to send flowers from VSB to my mom’s funeral and donate money to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America in her name…and the fact that you all mobilized to raise over $1,200 in less than two days.
B) The overwhelming support from Panama and Liz—who sent their own floral arrangement and have been checking on me to the point of (slight) overbearance.
C) The staff at EBONY.com, who’ve gone above and beyond to do what they can to support and comfort me during this time.
D) The love from two of my oldest and closest friends. One wasn’t able to make it because he’s currently coaching a basketball team in Luxembourg, so he wrote a heartfelt essay for my mom that his mom read at my mom’s wake. The other didn’t find out about my mom’s passing until Wednesday, but immediately drove up from North Carolina to be there Thursday and Friday.
E) The (admittedly unexpected) flowers from Single Black Male. The “unexpectedness” isn’t because of any type of rivalry or animosity anything. Instead, it just was not something I was expecting to see, and I am thankful for and appreciative of that gesture.
F) The expected but still awesome support from my giant family and friends.
G) The hundreds of people who’ve texted, emailed, voicemailed, tweeted, commented, liked, and even blogged their support.
When considering all of this, I can’t help but think of the way I bailed on Vina, and I feel shitty about that. If she reads this, I want to apologize to her. Not for being scared, but for not reading and not at least attempting to give her the type of spiritual support she needed.
3. While checking and responding to email last week, a friend saw that I was online, and sent me a Gchat asking how I was doing.
“hey dude. you okay?”
“i am. how are you?”
“i’m well. glad to hear.”
“thanks for asking”
“you’re like the superman of emotions. lol. steel.”
“why do you say that?”
“you just seem very strong emotionally. i’d be on the floor. for like the last several months. and especially this week. at least i think i would.”
“no you wouldnt be. you’d be busy making sure all of your mom’s final arrangements were in order. fielding calls from family, etc. basically, the stuff that needs to get done. obviously it’s tough. but it has to be done. and we all find it in ourselves to do it”
Last night, another friend sent me a text saying “you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” Despite my well-documented distaste for inspirational messages, I have to recognize the truth of that one.
Obviously, people are going to handle grief differently. I won’t say there is no such thing as a “wrong” way to do it. Because there is. But, most of us get it right because, well, we have to. And, if you have other family members who need you to be there for them, you don’t really have much of a choice.
(This doesn’t mean that I haven’t broken down. Repeatedly. This also doesn’t mean that I haven’t needed people to be there for me. Although the support mentioned earlier has been great, I don’t know where I’d be now without my girlfriend—who has been everything for me throughout all of this—and God.)
Also—and this is going to sound odd, but I need to say it anyway—this is supposed to happen. No, my mom wasn’t supposed to die at 60 from lung cancer, but parents are supposed to pass while their children are still alive. This is the way life is supposed to work, and you only hope that you’re lucky enough to have spent a substantial amount of time on Earth with them.
With that in mind—and knowing that, while it hurts, losing a parent isn’t the same as losing your life partner and soulmate (which is what my dad is going through right now)—being “strong” isn’t even really a choice as much as it’s a consequence.
4. For the last couple of months, I’d been preparing myself for what I wanted to say at my mom’s funeral. Initially, the plan was to write it and read it to her while she was still lucid enough to understand it, but her health plummeted so quickly in the last couple of weeks that I wasn’t able to do it. Also, I don’t know. My mom was positive till the end, and I just didn’t really want to speak to her about something that was so final.
So, I wrote much of it in my head, and waited until the day of the wake to put it on paper.
Here’s what I said.
Although she was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, my mom actually first got sick in the fall of 2008. After numerous hospital stays—and a couple very serious scares—it was discovered that she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition she’d have to deal with for the rest of her life.
In the five years between this discovery and her passing, my mom was treated at and admitted to numerous area hospitals. Shadyside. Montefiore. Presbyterian. Hillman. St. Margaret’s Canterbury. West Penn. This made us—my dad, my sister, and I—de facto hospital tourists. Basically, if you ever wanted to know which area hospital has the best food options for visitors (Hillman), the best food options for patients (St. Margaret’s , the best rooms (Canterbury), the best parking situation (St. Margaret’s again), the nicest staff (a tie between Hillman and Canterbury), the oldest Black men working at the front desk (Hillman), or the best looking nurses (Shadyside), I’m the person to ask.
Anyway, I’m bringing this all up because of a situation that happened at least once at each of these hospitals. I’d go to my mom’s floor. But, because her room was recently moved—-or because I have a tendency to forget things—I wouldn’t know exactly which room she was in. So, I’d go to the nurse’s station and stand around with my most confused looking face until one of them asked if I needed help.
“Yeah, I’m looking for my mom, Vivienne Young.”
“Oh wow! You’re Mrs. Young’s son? Your mom is such a sweet woman. We love her so much!!! Just yesterday, while I was checking her oxygen levels, she noticed that I seemed a little down. After a bit of prodding, she finally got me to admit that I had a little fight with my boyfriend. Nothing major, but it did have an effect on my spirit that morning. After I told her that, we talked about relationships for 10 minutes, and she gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. Oh, and when you see her, tell her I tried the baked chicken marinade she told me about, and it was great!”
“Umm. You still haven’t told me what room she’s in”
I realize that having fond memories of your mom isn’t an uncommon thing. Everyone loves their mom. (Well, mostly everyone.) Tony Soprano cried when his mom died—and she tried to kill him! And, although I’m no history buff, I’m sure Hitler loved his mom too.
What made my mom unique is that while everyone loves their mom, not everyone has a mom who everyone loves. This was Vivienne Young, Everyone who was lucky enough to know her, loved her.
Now, when trying to encapsulate my mom’s life, there’s so much I can talk about—so much I can say—that it may even be easier to just talk about all the things I won’t talk about.
I will not talk about her spirit, and how she never stopped living. Even in her last weeks, as her health began to worsen, she still dressed like she was set to appear on the cover of Vogue, she still made plans that were months away even though she knew she only had weeks left, and she still worried about other people. Friends and family would visit my mom, intending to cheer her up but noticeably saddened by her health, and they’d leave inspired, emboldened, and even…happy.
(And, speaking of her clothes, well, I’ll just say this. You can have your Kerry Washington’s, your Halle Berry’s, and your Rihanna’s. I’ll take Vivienne Young’s wardrobe and sense of style, and I’ll beat yours eight times out of 10. It is not a game with my mom’s closet and bracelet game. Seriously, I started to type that my mom was the Lebron James of fashion, but Lebron James is actually the Vivienne Young of basketball.)
I will not talk about the not-so-secret “secret” handshake we shared. I’m not sure when exactly it started (or why), but I know we’d been doing it for as long as I can remember, and I know everyone who has seen us interact has seen us do it. So it wasn’t a secret. But it was a secret. I know this doesn’t make any sense, but it did to us.
I will not talk about the fact that I never liked her eggs. Her French toast was so good that, whenever I eat any other French toast, it feels like I’m cheating on it. Her spaghetti—and the Italian accent she and my dad would adopt whenever it was for dinner—made me feel like I was an extra in a deleted scene from the Godfather. Her fried chicken, Thanksgiving dinners, roast beef, pork chops and macaroni and cheese never were not on point. (I know that was a double negative, but bare with me.)
But I never liked her eggs. I didn’t exactly dislike them. I still ate them. But—and I guess the secret is out now—I like to make breakfast sandwiches with my food. She thought it was because I just loved sandwiches. I did it because it was the only way I could eat all of the eggs.
Anyway, I won’t be talking about that.
I also won’t talk about the fact that—although my sister may not have known this—my mom was very, very proud of her, and sincerely considered my sister to be her hero. That same spirit I spoke of earlier lives on inside of her and I want her and everyone else to know that.
I won’t talk about the fact that she’s the reason why I am not married…yet. Well, lemme rephrase that. My parents—who met on a blind date, btw—are the reason why I’m not married yet. After growing up in our household, and seeing how devoted to, in love with, and—most importantly—in like with each other they were, while I’ve dated some great women, I wasn’t ready to fully commit to someone until I was completely sure I’d be able to replicate that.
Fortunately, I have finally found that, and I’m very happy they got the chance to get close to each other before she passed.
Instead, I’m going to talk about silver linings.
My mom was sick for a year. Selfishly, that gave us an opportunity to brace ourselves. Her extended illness also gave people an opportunity who loved and appreciated her to spend time with her in the last year. I’m certain all of the love, support, and prayers she received helped her outlive her initial prognosis.
But, getting back to the bracing ourselves point. Not everyone will get that opportunity to make sure that they spend a few final moments with their loved ones, and if my mom’s life has taught me anything it’s that life is too tenuous, precious, short, and final to take the people we love for granted.
So, as you remember my mom and the legacy she left behind, please make sure the people you love and appreciate know that you love and appreciate them. The cousins you’ve been “meaning to call,” the friends you feel like you’re growing away from, the aunt whose emails you take weeks to answer, the sibling you wish you were closer to, don’t wait another day to fix something that may not be able to be fixed tomorrow.
Like I said before, everyone loved my mom, and the best way to honor a woman everyone loved is to make sure everyone you love knows exactly how you feel.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)