Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dianna Hardy: August 7, 1942 – September 6, 2002

      When I started this blog, I vowed to myself that it’d be honest and uncensored. Flaws and all. But not a diary. Wouldn’t have all my personal hanging out. So I ask patience as I betray my own crayola-scrawled edict.
      The past several weeks have been very difficult, as the same stretch of time has been for the last few years. Like clockwork, I start sinking into a deep funk in the weeks leading up to my mother’s birthday (August 7th) and don’t seem able to pull myself out of it until a few weeks after the day of her death (September 6th). At this point, I’m not sure how much of that is due to me actually psyching myself into a depression and how much of it is still active grief. Regardless, the effect is the same.
      My mother died of breast cancer after a fourteen year battle. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer two years later, following her own years-long illness. Also on my mother’s side of the family: an aunt is currently fighting breast cancer, another aunt is in remission (knock wood) and as I write this, an uncle is scheduled to undergo surgery for the return of his cancer. A sixteen-year-old relative is having a biopsy done in two weeks. Sometimes it feels like I’m in a Freddy Krueger movie, with cancer being the slashing fiend killing off my family.
      It’s when trying to describe the depth and width of grief that you understand the utter impotence of language. How to capture that feeling of walking down the street, ensconced in your thoughts, when a snatch of music or a whiff of perfume shakes loose a memory that triggers grief and your knees buckle and you have to catch yourself from falling? How to explain how a song or a film that your now-dead loved one never even heard or saw makes you think of them so strongly that tears spring to your eyes? And how do you convey the sadness that wafts over you, rolling in from out of nowhere, blanketing you, draining you, years after the fact? Or trying to explain how, with all the time that has passed, there are still days when it feels like that very first moment you got the news… Hits you like a slow bullet.
      I was a mama’s boy. No doubt. My grandmother used to tell me how, even as a baby, I would quietly stare into my mother’s eyes, how my mother would hold me for hours and we’d just look at each other. Apparently, everyone – especially her own family – was shocked at what a good mother she was. As a young boy, one of my favorite stories was the one about my very first medical check-up. My 24-year-old mother handed me, still wrapped in my blanket, to the doctor and he whipped the blanket off. Apparently his office was very cold and I immediately went a shade of blue. My mother became hysterical and had to be escorted out of the exam room by the nurse. Years and years later, she’d still get tears of anger when describing the incident: “Just snatched that blanket off my baby!” she’d say with indignation.
      When she was younger, her (six) siblings dubbed her the evil one. As a teenager, she was called “Snake” by the neighborhood boys because she was so cold to them. My mother was exceptionally beautiful. (I know: All men and boys think that about their moms. Most of them are deluded, though. I’m serious. Men used to literally walk into walls from staring at her. My own father used to gaze at her with such adoration... as though he couldn’t quite believe his luck.) A long time ago, as a young man armed with a little Psych 101, I realized that the truth about my mother was that she was actually very insecure, that the coldness so many thought they saw in her was a protective covering. She had a haughty and aloof demeanor when she felt unsure, and a clipped manner of speaking (which I inherited / absorbed) that could come off as dismissiveness. She, like my sister and I, stuttered when especially flustered. But once you got to know her… well, she still had her diva moments but she was giving and generous to a fault.
      My aunts used to joke that when they found out she was pregnant, they thought, “Oh, that poor baby.” But she surprised them. To this day they still speak in wonder at what a devoted mother she was. My sister and I were hugged all the time, read to, listened to. Always encouraged. And very strongly disciplined. (All it took was that side-eye glance, accompanied by tightened lips… but belts and switches were not alien to our asses.) But I just remember – even when being angry with her, or knowing that she was angry with me – knowing that I was loved. Knowing that I was wanted. Nothing ever broke that connection. That is the most amazing gift to give a child, and the only one that really matters.
      My mother’s best friend was Ann, mentioned in a previous posting in which I noted that they were like sisters. They were always together or on the phone. Enviably close. Since my mother died, I’ve only spoken to Ann once or twice. She says it’s too painful, that I remind her too much of my mother. I wish I could talk to her but there’s a part of me (and I know this will sound weird) but there’s a part of me that really appreciates the depth of Ann’s emotion. Her need for that distance. It (perversely?) comforts me to know that someone else loved my mother that deeply.

These are some memories I have of my mom:

      Late one night, our play uncle, Uncle George, a flaming, FLAMING queen was visiting from Detroit. My sister and I were supposed to be asleep, and she was. But the laughter from down the hall, the clink of ice in glasses and the snippets of ribald conversation had me wide awake, eavesdropping. Ann, George and my mother were in the kitchen and George was holding court. It was only years later that I realized exactly what the convo was about and how Ann and my mother (straight up fag hags, no doubt) were trying to clarify some things. I clearly remember Ann saying, “Okay, so you’re bent over the chair, and then what?” And I guess George demonstrated something because my mother howled with laughter and couldn’t catch her breath. I remember her laughter.

      My mother loved music. It was always played in our house and she was amused to see me – as a young boy – reading liner notes and the backs of album covers, trying to figure out when Motown stopped stamping “Detroit, MI” on the back cover fine print and started putting “Los Angeles, CA.” I spent hours memorizing producers and songwriters, cross-referencing their credits across albums. Sometimes, she’d play an album and just sit and quietly stare. Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson (“Guess who I saw today, my dear…”) Once, when I was a teenager, my Uncle Richard (blood uncle, not play) came across me sitting in my grandmother’s living room, listening to music, sitting and staring absently. “You’re just like your mother,” he laughed. “When we were growing up, she did the same thing.” That made me smile.

      When I was about 9 or 10, we had a neighbor named Esther who was a few years younger. Esther was one of those kids who’d make even teachers pick on her. Something about her was so clammy and needy and deeply off-putting. Sort of how I imagine Corinne Bailey Rae was as a child. (And I love Ms. Rae, but let’s be real…) All the neighborhood kids picked on Esther. It was just what you did. My sister and I joined in. It was fun. Until the day our mother heard us and called us inside. She was beyond furious. She gave a lecture about how cowardly it was to pick on those who were weaker than you, about how pathetic it was to join the crowd in doing foulness. And she made us invite Esther over to play, issuing threats we knew would be made good if she ever heard us torturing that child again. I think Esther’s annoying ass must have even worked my mother’s nerves, though, because after that one visit we never had to invite her back. But we did have to be nice to her.

      My mother combing and braiding my sister’s hair every morning over breakfast. We’re talking ribbons and barrettes, the whole nine. My sister looked like a doll headed to school every morning. We couldn’t leave the house without being crisp and clean. Everyday.

      The food. Oh, man... We’re from the South (Birmingham, AL) and my mother was old-school. Everything was homemade; yes, from scratch. Fresh greens, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, cornbread (real, not that sweet cakey shit), fried okra, peas and beans seasoned with fatback. Her specialty was desserts, though – chocolate pound cake, lemon ice-box pie, banana pudding (real mama-made custard, not pudding from a box), homemade ice cream. She just had a gift for it. Could and would adjust new recipes she got from newspapers or magazines… like an MIT student whizzing through a math problem. All in her head. Never had to write shit down. Once, she found a recipe for a Milky Way pound cake and as she read it she murmured, “Well, that won’t work. It doesn’t make sense.” She mentally made the adjustments (instead of sugar or cocoa, you melted the candy bars and poured them into the batter) and that was the best fucking cake ever. Before she died, she gave me her recipe book and recipe rolodex, which was full of clipped recipes that she’d crossed through and refined...

      My mother crying as I told her about my friend Robert. I met Robert many, many years ago, as he was coming out of the Wendy’s on Sunset & La Brea. He had a cup of water in his hands and sat down on the curb to give it to a fat black puppy. He was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. We exchanged smiles. Before I knew it, I was accompanying him as he walked the puppy through Hollywood. He wasn’t really my type but he was very cute (not handsome, cute) and we vibed. We became fast friends (nothing more, though the charge was always there) and for the next year were in constant contact. We only beefed once. When he accused me of supporting murder for being pro-choice. He was raised a strict Catholic and had swallowed the teachings whole. Uncritically. He was also convinced he was going to hell for being gay. About 18 months into our friendship, he called me and said softly, “Well, I got it.” And then he vanished. I didn’t see or hear from him for about two months. I next bumped into him on Hollywood Blvd. He’d lost a ton of weight, his hair was thin and falling out and he’d aged a good fifteen years. He was twenty-five. We hugged and I tried to pretend I wasn’t shocked by his appearance. He was excited because he was going to be an extra in HBO’s And the Band Played On. I made him promise to call me. He never did. I found out later from an old boyfriend of his that he’d died. Knowing that he died feeling certain that he was going to hell still makes me fold over in pain. It makes me furious. I’m certain that his conviction that he was damned sped up his death. My mother shook her head and cried when I told her about him. She just kept saying, “That poor baby.”

      Two years before she died, she came out to LA to visit. She wanted to meet my friends so we arranged a huge dinner party. We spent days shopping and prepping. I thought it’d be too much for her but she loved it. We served greens, pinto beans, macaroni & cheese, fried chicken, corn bread, pound cake and sweet tea that was so sweet my friend Lisa had to dilute it three times. Tasted like home to me. Who was there: Paul and Kate, Jeff, Goz, Shari (who brought Cheryl “I am quote-unquote an African princess” Dunye), Eve, Lisa, Brian, some crashers whose names I forget (but there was more than enough food)… and Ms. Vaginal Davis, who did an impression of Halle Berry that made my mother laugh until she cried. She loved meeting all my friends. Until she died, she’d ask about each one every time we spoke – “Honey, did that child ever finish making her movie?” “How is so-and-so doing?” – but she really loved Ms. Davis and marveled at her appetite. At one point, as my mother was dishing more food onto Ms. Davis’ plate, Vag deadpanned, “Honey, I’m a big girl. I eat.”
      I still kick myself for not taking pictures.


Miss Vaginal Davis


      The most shocking thing about death is its banality. How it changes everything and nothing. After my mother’s funeral, I came back to LA and sat in front of the TV for decades. My first day back, I spotted the box of See’s candy that she’d asked me to bring her. (I was going home for a family reunion / had no idea how sick she was / she went into a coma a few days after I arrived and never woke up again.) She’d asked me to bring her the candy and I’d bought it but forgotten to pack it. It was on the kitchen table when I returned. The fact that she’d have been too ill to eat it was of no comfort; I’d forgotten the last thing she’d asked me for.
      Everything changes. The way you hear, the way you see. The way you interact with other people. I question almost everything I’ve written over the last four years because my bearings have been out of whack. My senses are… off. As a result of my mother’s death, some friendships have deepened into sturdy familial bonds. Others did a slow fade-out. Lots of people kind of shied away at that time and I understand that. It was painful to have some friends not “show up,” as they say. But I know that people are afraid, they don’t know what to say, the proximity to death is terrifying… I get all that. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that those people who did come through were elevated in my mind. They pushed through their own uncertainty and discomfort, and they showed up. There was much compassion showed to me by many, but I especially have to single out Lisa, David, Brett, Lesley… and my ace boon coons: Goz and Bill.
      And a special nod to Pocho Joe, who I didn’t even officially meet until after my mother died. But this year, on the morning of her birthday, I woke up and found the kindest, sweetest, most thoughtful emailed note of love and support on what he knew would be a difficult day.

Much love…

3 comments:

Gendy Alimurung said...

Hey! You have a blog. I completely get everything you are talking about in this post. Our parents, our mothers especially, are really the only ones in this world who love us and care for us simply because we exist. And when that goes, it's...unspeakable. Anyway, I just wanted you to know I'm thinking good things of and for you.

ronnie brown said...

E, i didn't scroll down far enough down the page to catch this post the last time i made an entry...i am so sorry to read of your mother's passing...you have my deepest sympathy...try to maintain, good brother.

soulpeeps said...

Wow. You want coincidence? I am just seeing this post as the 1st anniversary of MY mother's death from cancer was two days ago today. There are so many similarities between our moms. Not so much in their experiences, but in the ESSENCE of who they were. It was like you were talking about my mother.
A friend emailed me on the anniversary day because he thought I would need comfort. But I had to tell him that I honestly didn't realize it was the anniversary, because I think of my Mom all the time. I don't want to remember her death like some dead president. It would be too easy to fall into that trap of "visiting" the grave with tears and flowers on "that day". Forget that! What lies in that grave stays in that grave cause my momma ain't lying there. She is with me and in me and I am an extension of her (just like you, friends and family would always say I was just like her. As a matter of fact before my voice changed, I sounded EXACTLY like her on the phone! I used to have a blast messin' with my aunts!).
There are alot of horrible circumstances surrounding her death, mainly to do with my father's treatment of her. Shit you would NOT believe! Needless to say, he and I have NO relationship. But no matter because my Mom has always been there throughout my life to be the "man" my father could'nt/wouldn't be. And it's because of her that I am a true man (no quotation marks).
Your mother raised a brilliant, sensitive son.I'm sure she's happy. So should you.