Saturday, November 1, 2014

Memoir: The Uncomfortable Sound of Grief

Remembering
Today is the 32nd anniversary of the death of my first born son.

He was killed by the hands of shame, rejection, and fear that gripped my parents after their perfect teenage daughter shattered their illusion of respectability.

The Backdrop
I was 16 when I was forced from my home to live with my father's relatives because my step-mother threatened to kill me.  Imagine my crime to cause her 9 years of constant hate and hazing - I look like my deceased mother, the wife of my father who died when I was 4 years old.

It was against the backdrop of her rant that I was literally pushed out the front door in Missouri and driven several states away to Michigan to live my life in safety.

Naive doesn't even begin to describe it.  I was not allowed to hang out with friends like my 13 year old daughter just did last night with her crew of friends.  We were not from Jefferson City and therefore not part of the inner inner circles.  My family separated us, otherized us, made us exceptional.  I was never allowed on Lincoln's campus because they feared the actions of college men on the local girls, I was a virgin.  Dating, parties, all that was out of the picture.

In my growing up, it was expected that I would go to Fisk, Tuskegee, or Philander Smith.  It was expected that I would be a virgin when I got married, after all, I was a theologian's daughter.  It was expected that I was cultured, well read, well mannered, well spoken.  I was all those things.  It made me stand out.  It marked me in 1980 when I landed in Benton Harbor surrounded by girls who were a little bit faster, even than those from Chocolate City who got to hang out on campus or go out on the Foot.  I thought those baby buggies they were pushing around were babysitting gigs - the only escape from my step-mother was my now 4 year babysitting gig.  What did I know?

When the acceptance of my first love turned into the freedom expression without protection, I became pregnant in senior year and we were scared. What did I know about birth control? That was a very taboo subject and in 1981-82, it was definitely not something we talked about.  Sex was shame in my family.  Even my cousin and his nurse wife were angry with me, despite their knowing we had stepped into the physical expresison of first love, what made them think keeping us apart was going to change anything? Why didn't they just get me the pill? Didn't they know that the family rejection and my boyfriend's acceptance was a stronger magnet?

I was sent home, alone, with just a bag, on a midnight train from Michigan to Missouri. Sent back to my father and step-mother in shame.  Didn't any of his brothers and sisters think about the irony of sending me back to the very house where they rescued me from near death? The things I think about all these years later as a mother.

My beloved son was born and I was promptly put out in my own apartment.  I had never lived alone, ever.  Why would they think I knew how to be alone at 18?

The boyfriend had already acquired a new girlfriend, this one white. To the young, one month is a long time. I guess the absence of my presence and the fickleness of youth was greater than me being hundreds of miles away pregnant with our first child.

The Shaming
When I was set up in my new apartment, I tried to play grownup. I was already a high school graduate, despite my father trying hard to keep me tucked away at home, I at least won the victory of no wearing an artificial cloak of propriety, I was no longer the virgin daughter, my sin obvious to all. Lincoln University was to be my Fisk, I was enrolled, I think, the grown ups in my life made those decisions for me, no one taught me how to drive or helped me figure out how to get from my apartment to the campus or who would care for my son. They just moved me as far away from my childhood home as possible and left me with my late mother's Social Security checks as income. They never called or checked up on me or even visited, I was to be forgotten. The same with my family in Michigan  There was no baby shower or welcome gifts for my son.  There was to be no mention of him.

Imagine my surprise when they were going back to Michigan for our family's annual summer at the lake. They invited me.  Of course, they invited me to stay with my best friend and not be anywhere near the family festivities, for that entire ten days, I never saw my cousins or aunts or uncles, my son was never welcomed into the illustrious Brent family.  The shunning was total.

It was on that trip that two things happened.

My ex-boyfriend met his son.

I met a guy, no, nothing physical happened, I was still deeply in love with my son's father, despite his white girlfriend and his impending move to the Navy.  He was my son's father and in my growing up, children were meant to be in marriage and I was shunned, marked with shame, never to date again.

The Promise Of Redemption
The boy I met eventually started calling and writing, accepting me, wanting my son and I as his family. Loneliness was gripping so I took the offer to be accepted.  He drove from Michigan to Missouri to visit me and convinced my 18 year old self to go back with him.

It was at that point that I did the most daring thing, I thought, that I had ever done - I ran away.

No one in my childhood town would talk to me, my classmates were off getting ready for college.  I did not grow up in an era of teenage pregnancy and certainly not among the respectable middle class of Jefferson City. There weren't "even" pregnant girls in Chocolate City, so I was very much alone.  The change to be respectable again, to have my father look at me again, to love me again. I ran away.

The fella promised me to protect me and my son, to take care of us.

I didn't know a nightmare would unfold.

When Jealousy Kills
I had the most crippling asthma ever, had spent most of my childhood in the hospital.  I guess that added to the sheltering of my life.  Entire months were spent in oxygen tents long before advances in medicine allowed an attack to be managed at home.  Looking back, I didn't know how much about life I didn't know.

I had very little dating experience and never knew that one man could be jealous of the child of another man.  My protector, as he promised to be, became increasingly demanding and jealous of my time  I still did not know how to drive and now securely away from my family, he was all I had.

There wasn't a place me to to go in those days before cell phones  There wasn't a family member for me to call and let me come live with them.  No, he hadn't beat me, there was just a feeling I had that perhaps this was not the best for me and my son.  I didn't know about psychological abuse and the isolation that happens when someone wants to control the life of their partner.  I was only 18 and in 1982, knew very little of the world.  All I knew is that I was no longer a virgin, I had a child outside wedlock, and I shamed the family name, I was to be hidden away, not seen, and not wanted.

My childhood asthma continued to be debilitating and I didn't know that it perhaps took a toll on a relationship that was on shaky ground.  Did my love for my son show too much or did he secretly think I still loved my son's father when he found the hidden picture I kept so my son would one day know what his birth father looked like.  Was it because he knew my parents rejected me? A thousand questions have coursed through my mind.  Why didn't my cousin, who told the young man that if he did anything to hurt me or my son, he would come after him, simply let me move back in with he and his wife, protected? When was 18 an adult?

In the middle of one of the most crippling asthma attacks, the fella who was supposed to be my cover, I thought, became the orchestrator of my nightmare.

On Halloween, a Sunday, he caused my son's death.

On Monday, November 1st, my son died.  It was the day he was seven months old.

I screamed and tried to run out of that room when the doctors came in to tell me.  I was barely 100 lbs. I remember arms holding me and lifting me and sitting me in a chair and the doctor telling me about my son going into shock. The nuns offering me hankerchiefs and a phone to call my family.

It was a Monday so daddy was at work.  I hadn't spoken to him in four months.  Funny, looking back as an adult, four months was like a lifetime.  I was 18 and called him to tell him that my son, his first born grandson was dead.

The days after my son's death unfolded in a fog.  There were police interviewing and examining evidence, there was the funeral home visit to make sure my son's body was properly dressed for the funeral.  There was finally family around at the repass but all of them stood on one side of the room and none of them would hold me, hug me, or even offer words of sympathy. None but one, my youngest aunt who had also lost her only son. She told me not to protect him, meaning the fell who killed my son.  In the fog, I kept thinking he couldn't possibly kill my baby, but she was the only one who reached into that confusion and spoke to me.

The days turned to weeks, my father and stepmother returned to Missouri, they did not let my younger brother come to the funeral because they were afraid of what he would do.  They never thought of me needing my brother, the only other person in that house that knew what we each endured growing up from our step-mother.  I needed him there.

My son was buried, No one seemed to know what to say to me, my cousin's wife came to me and took me to his coffin, just she and I, at his burial site.  She sat with me, I was still so numb.

What is it about a grieving mother that seems to either bring out those who refuse to acknowledge her pain or those who know to just be present?

The killer of my son was arrested the same night as his funeral.  My father and step-mother returned to Missouri, I stayed in my aunt's upstairs loft rooms for six months waiting for the person's trial and conviction.  Second-degree murder was reduced to voluntary manslaughter and he was sent to prison.

I got something that Mike Brown's mother is still waiting on, something that Jordan Davis' mother just received - justice for our lost sons.

When my son's killer was convicted, I made a decision I sometimes regret - I returned to Missouri. What is it about the familiar? I had no other place to go and my mother's family was distant to me at that time, thanks in part to their mistreatment of my father when mommy died.  Once my grandmother passed away, he pretty much cut contact, again, none of them thinking about the children, or maybe they thought they were doing the best for the children.

I returned to my father's home and my step-mother's home.

This time was a little different, I guess she decided not to haze me anymore.  She was kinder.  They left me alone, they were mostly gone to their pastorate in another city and provided the home with food.  I still didn't know how to drive and at 19, decided I wanted a job.

His Life Not in Vain
When I returned to Missouri, grieving over, I promised my son that his life would not be in vain.

I walked over five miles to the mall to get my first job, I enrolled in secretarial school.  My father told me to do that instead of going away to Fisk, Tuskegee, or Philander Smith.  I wish he had let me go away to school, I was still eligible for my late mother's social security and the pell grant, it would have been easier, maybe better, I never know the right answer to that.

Nichols Career Center in 1983. What a year, it was a year.  Can not believe it was only a year, looking back, I thought it was vast spans of time.  I graduated in 1984 and promptly started Lincoln University that fall and my first full-time job.  I had just turned 20 years old and they all treated me like a grown up, treated me so differently because I wasn't the "traditional college student."

One year melted into the next and I recruited some friends to help me drive, after I bought my first car.  I moved out of my parent's home and got my first apartment.  I allowed love to find me again, this time with a childhood friend who had loved me long before I knew.

Year after year, I never mentioned my son.  See, at my son's wake, when I was first presented with my son at his coffin, his curly hair peaking out of his cap, my step-mother came to me and put her arms around me.  She said, "Mommy is here, remember you are a Brent." I immediately pulled back the tears and knew the code word for how I was to comport myself in public. I was to be stoic, to not bring further shame upon the family, to bear my grief in dignity. Years later, in college, still not mentioning my son, I held onto that mention of our name, of the requirement to stand strong.

No Shame
One of the things I noticed that changed in my family was the ending of the shaming of girls who had a baby.

My cousin and his wife, maybe 15 years after Cory's death, were faced with the young pregnant niece of his wife.  They took her in, protected her, cared for her son while she finished school. She was not placed on a bus in the middle of the night, not hidden away from family events.  She was given a baby shower and a naming for her son.

Even my step-mother with her granddaughter, born a year after my son was born, became a teenager mother.  I was now an adult, a mother again, living far away and learned that my parents gave this teenage mother shelter, love, and protection.

Perhaps the tragedy of my son's death was that the adults in the room realized that when they shame a girl, shut her out, push her away, they leave her and her child vulnerable.  It is in that most tender moment of her life that she needs them the most.  I still hope the churches will change, especially the fundamental ones, and not push these women and their children aside.

Remembering Him Today
I think it was on my son's 24th birthday that we had the first birthday cake to celebrate him.  On his 25th, we released balloons.

The siblings that eventually came knew they had a big brother.  My son's baby picture, the only one I had, sat on our bookshelves.  They knew of him, but in also promising my son that his life would not be in vain, I also promised to not let anything happen to his younger siblings.  I wanted the best for them and tried to give them the best.

I am not perfect and my life has not been perfect.  I think a part of me will always be 19. I am still naive and still experienced a troubled couple marriages. I divorced after one year because I refused to be married and abused, refused to be physically harmed, refused to put my sons in danger of anyone harming them.

The Gift of Remembering
My husband of umpteen years has not always known what to say or do on April 1 or November 1. He is not Cory's birth father, he and I were in different places in 1982 and 1983, even yet, he continues to cover me in a grief that he can never understand. He has either been present or been silent. He has allowed me to grieve in whatever way I needed.

My daughters, Cory's little sisters, know of him and each year have helped me remember him. One year, they helped me scatter rose petals, helped me pick out a permanent bust, and this year, simply hugged me. They, along with my husband, joined me in my first public candlelight vigil, a space for mothers to grieve, cry, and wail. A space where no one told us to stop crying.  I remain thankful for the vision of the women clergy who made that happen.

The Respectability Politics
Over the years since Cory has died, many more women have lost their children to violence.

The man who killed my son went on to kill four more babies, even after being released from prison.  He is now deceased.  Is that justice? I'm not sure.

Since the beginning of the recording of black mother's grief, the mother is always on display.  In some circles, we are told not to display the indignity of our tears and the shattering sounds of our wail.  In others, we are told to hold onto our faith and simply pray, as if prayers alone will take away the pain and bring back our child.  In yet others, our lives are torn apart and examined, to indite us for the circumstances of our child's death, as if we were not the best mother we could have been.

Mamie Till Bradley to  Lesley McSpadden to me, we have all had parts of our tears captured in a very public way.  What did we do that our first born sons are no longer with us?

Telling His Story
In my Bible, there is witness after witness of God using the most imperfect beings for His purpose.

My daddy told me, when I was twenty-five and I was questioning why things happened to me (I had two more sons and was newly divorced), he kept reminding my that I was the stone the builder rejected, that there was a reason for it all. He told me God had a plan for me and would use my voice.  He told me to keep writing.

I still love the Lord.  I have been through every iteration of feeling like damaged goods for not being that virgin when I got married to shame for papering the walls with marriage certificates.  Divorce was also not something that we Brents did and when we did, it was for the most egregious circumstances, abuse was not talked about, but when I divorced, at least no one condemned me for it.

Years of my life went by with me feeling like I had a scarlet letter emblazoned across my forehead.  There were times I felt like I did not deserve to be fully loved and appreciated because I was the victim of the unspeakable, certainly something that did not happen in our circles.

My husband is the one who has both challenged me and encouraged me in living my full life.  He loved me through my past and into my future, he helped me raise my sons as our sons and never used my oldest son's death against me.  He simply was present.  I would never say he was perfect or that our almost nineteen years together have been perfect, I will say, that he has been excellent in the space of my tears.

When my second oldest son, the almost 28 year old, hit his life snag and faced a near death, he told me to "write your story, mama, you have to write it."

There was a part of me that thought I shouldn't tell this story, that no one would believe me, that they would look for spaces to assassinate my character.  My husband cautioned me about fifteen years ago to "guard your pearls."

He and I share a faith tradition that admonishes we atone for our sins, that we confess and move on.  That we bare our soul.  He and I have both been hurt and betrayed by doing that.  It was in the other side of that pain that he shared with me a bit of wisdom that I held onto.  He told me that "not everyone is mature enough to handle your story."

I am fifty years old now, I have lived to an age past a great many of my paternal relatives.  Of the adults who were in my life when I was that naive and scare young girl, only the aunt who gave me that piece of advice is still alive. There is no one to feel slandered if I mention their neglect of my soul and my care.  There are no more church elders to shame us because I dishonored the family name and station.  I am an elder now myself, truly a Mama Tayé.

What I Accomplished
I promised Cory that his death would not be in vain.

His youngest sibling shares being born on the 1st. Being the last, she has captured my last ten years of attention so that she can live.  In her and Cory's other siblings, I "did the best I could." My sacrifice continues to make sure they all live.

The older boys endured a working mom and a full-time student mom through the rest of my educational quest.  They followed me to graduate school and ever increasing corporate jobs.  They perhaps suffered a bit of me not being there when I was on my quest.  They did not know that I once said I would never have children after Cory was killed.  I am eternally grateful that the Almighty opened up my closed womb and filled me with five more children who each hold a piece of my soul and a bit of their big brother's sparkle in their eyes.

Feeling pain has made me keenly aware of another woman's pain.  I see the mother's who have been initiated into this unwanted sisterhood of children who have buried their sons and daughters.  We have a recognition and a comfort in being with someone who has been there.  Our children all matter.
I have written poetry, essays, book reviews. I have delivered speeches, traveled, and managed organizations.  In everything I do, the greatest thing I ever did was be a mom.

Ferguson and Mothers
The grieving of my son on this 32nd year of his death also fell in the middle of a collective community grieving for the many sons and daughters whose time on this earth ended through violence.

The initial vigil for one son, Mike Brown, whose untimely death was at the hands of a Ferguson Police officer, also opened the floodgate of wailing mothers who revealed the death of their child, There were mothers across my city and the nation who continue to mourn for their sons and daughters. So there was a Mother's March and then tonight, a candlelight vigil, to publicly mourn, and to be present.

We recognize a part in ourselves that demands that we be there for each other, that we also be there for the younger woman.

My work and role over the years has included advocacy for reproductive health care so that young, sexually active women, are not placed in a difficult position. Women are statistically more vulnerable for abuse when they are pregnant. Alternatively, if they are no longer with the father of their children, they and their children face the possibility of violence from their new partner.  It was after experiencing violence at the hands of my son's killer that I began to speak out more about the shaming of young women in the church and community that pushes them into the spaces of neglect, making them ripe for the predators.  Since 1982, there have been numerous stories, even in the St. Louis area, of a woman's child being hurt or harmed by a domestic partner not their father.  Since Cory died, one of the things I did with his younger siblings was to simply not date, not bring anyone into my home.  It was my goal to protect them with everything in me.  It is an exposing feeling to have to trust a caregiver, a church member, or a future partner with the most precious part of your soul.

Ferguson has also taught us the necessity of community, of the unveiling of a pain, to expose the systems that make violence possible.  It didn't matter if that violence was pre-drug war and pre-9/11 or if that violence was post-police state and post-private prisons.  The outcome of it is the same - shattered families and wailing mothers.

One of the things that came out of the days and days of public mourning was the need for change.  The call for justice reached to all the children whose light was snuffed out.  We began to see healing in each other and connecting together, to reach beyond the ugly cry of our private grief into the joint wail of a people who refuse to be silent again, to stand up and speak out for all our children so that none of us have to have another memorial.

The Uncomfortable Sound of Grief
When a parent, a community mourns, the sound is shattering.

It is impolite, it is the ugly cry.  The sounding of the bell clinging for every lost soul shatters the night's quiet.  It demands that we move away from our complacency and disregard for each other, to open our eyes and let the ears of our hearing be piqued to the pain of our fellow man.

There will never be a day of normal, the tears of a mother whose son was killed 32 years ago were just as fresh, just as painful, and just as ugly as the tears of a mother whose son was killed just 2 weeks ago in the midst of the Mike Brown protests. There will never be a normal as long as mothers have to explain why they are crying silent tears every year on the day their child died, why they wear sunglasses or why they stare off into space when something reminds them of that baby, for that lost one will always be their baby.
 
Life After Death
Cory's life mattered.  All the lives matter.  In the living after the death of our children, we mothers find meaning and purpose.

There were years that I allowed silence and not shaming my family to keep hidden the pain I carried in the deepness of my soul.  It was in speaking of my son and what happened that I took back my pearls, that I wore them around my neck as a reminder and testament of his life.  I now wear a Madonna necklace in memory of my son.

In finding meaning, I poured my heart into my children, fortunate to be at home with the last three.  I also mother many others and have opened my heart to those of other faiths and beliefs, recognizing the damage of religious dogma.  The Catholic side of me condemned divorce and birth control while the Baptist side of me condemned sex outside marriage.  In religious fundamentalism, I was steeped in shame and in spiritual freedom, I recognize the epistle of my life as a lesson for my daughters.

My Tears
The uncomfortable sound of my grief are a torrent of tears and in the tears there is a cleansing.

Living
I am far removed from the tentacles of the crippling demands of power and control over my life  My husband and I are settled into a knowing routine of each other's rhythm, our faults, and the comfortable side of being together longer than we have ever been with anyone else.  The children we raised together are all moving on with their dreams, none of them parents, the last two girls are assured of their independence and their voice.  We are at a place of making a difference in the city we call home.

It is in living and choosing to not be depressed, not be crazy, not be any of the things people in my family expected would be my fate, proving myself to be not as fragile as they thought. People who are my friends speak of my strength and in learning just a nuggest of my story, understand that my strength comes from a deep faith, a deep love, and a deep heart.

I choose to breathe every day, to keep his memorial in my home, to honor his life and speak his name.  Cory LaMont Brent. He was my son, my firstborn son.  I am his mother. And his life mattered.

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