As summer comes to a close, I reflect on the glorious sun under which Seattle has basked since May, the return to my irresistible characters in my novel, We Are the Love Gods, and the poignant losses that have accumulated in my life.
Earlier this month, I lost my dear friend, Nellie, who became the mother I lost when I was nineteen. But Nellie was more than a mother figure to me. At 85, she was a girlfriend much older than I, a true-blue “sistah” with whom I shared many heartaches, joys and disappointments — and gluttonous bouts of laughter.
Like most “gurl” friends, Nellie and I talked on the phone several times a week, sometimes for hours. We gabbed about everything, from exasperating “male tales” to family issues, local jazz personalities, and the quixotic, everyday stuff that amused us to no end.
When she was diagnosed more than three years ago with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a terminal, neurological disease, I learned that an increasing inability to speak would be among the symptoms that would manifest as her illness progressed. Indeed, as our friendship deepened, she slowly lost the facility to pronounce her consonants, which gradually gave way to an inability to form syllables, until, by spring, she could only wag her tongue in mute futility.
Through Nellie’s demise, I became one of three people in her life who could make out her garbled speech. (The others were her son, Jeffrey, and 19-year-old grandson, Tamir, who had temporarily relocated from Baltimore to help care for her.) Together, we traded off serving as Nellie’s translators. Eventually, though, I, too, lost the ability to understand her, which meant that our phone conversations became one-sided, with me giving her brief reports on various goings-on and sometimes making out a question or comment of hers.
During her final months, Nellie used a notepad to write down what she could during our visits (her eyesight failed as well). Between me deciphering a scrawled word or two and somehow intuiting her vocalizations, we were able to cover Michael Jackson’s death, my brother’s impending divorce, my latest Earshot Jazz magazine pieces, and my own upcoming jazz shows, among other news.
All this while her body, hooked up to an oxygen tank, wasted swiftly away.
Being with Nellie at her deathbed was an emotionally int
ense time for me — and very, very precious. How we rely on our physical forms to identify who we are as human beings! As Nellie’s body shut down in successive stages, her form became nearly unrecognizable. And yet in a ravaged body that her spirit would soon leave remained a strong, feisty woman who admonished me with a single, exhausted hand gesture to not tell too much (her home care nurse wanted to know who Nellie had been before the disease took hold), and one who clung to life with fierce, stubborn determination until she was ready to go. While “Taps” played over Senator Edward Kennedy’s burial ceremony on TV, I stayed close to Nellie’s side, singing to her, talking a little, crying a lot, and holding her hand. She would squeeze back with a strength that astonished me, and with a deep, abiding love that I will forever cherish.
Our relationships are the stuff of life. We become who we are through them, and who and how we love marks some of our highest experiences. The ineffable pain of grief is part of this long and arduous journey we take, whether we do so terror-filled, or, altogether helpless under its gargantuan spell, bow to the bliss that awaits us on the other side. This bliss, this terror, this pain — all this and more — are the exquisite, awe-inspiring reasons that compel me to write We Are the Love Gods.
I thank my life and the people in it for giving me infinite treasures to tell.