Five Days Later
Lourdes Dolores Follins
Today is my birthday and it’s a warm, sunny day that is not too cool and not too hot. It is 62 degrees Fahrenheit when I wake up at 6:32am. Ordinarily, I wake up filled with excitement on my birthday—that is, once I moved out of my parents' home at age 23. As a child, no one made a fuss about my birthday. No "Happy-birthday-to-you" songs (neither the traditional version or the 1981 Stevie Wonder version), no birthday cake or cards, no birthday wishes from my grandparents, and no birthday kisses and hugs. It was just another quiet day in my house. I only remember having one birthday party as a child: I was 5 years old and one day, my mother unexpectedly showed up at my classroom door. At first, I worried that I was in trouble, but I quickly became overjoyed and giddy when I realized that she had come bearing cookies! My mother brought in enough of my favorite cookie—Black and White cookies—for the entire class and the teacher. The rest of the memory is a sticky, happy mess!
However, today I turn 45 and it is five days after my mother died. When I wake up at my girlfriend Stevie’s house, I vacillate between trepidation, sadness, and determination. Stevie’s 12-year-old tawny pit bull Hannah bounds onto the bed once she hears me stir. Climbing over her human parent Stevie who lay next to me, Hannah sticks her cold, wet nose in my eye and precedes to lick my face. It’s as if she smells the tears that are about to escape from my eyes. I am too weary and achy from the past five days to push her away in earnest, so I whine, “No, Hannah… no!” She has known and loved me for two years, so she knows not to take me too seriously right now.
“Hannah! No!” Stevie commands. “Down!” Hannah looks at Stevie sheepishly, casts a baleful glance at me, and slinks off the bed. I am in the fetal position now, taking a deep breath as if I am about to go under water. Stevie turns towards and embraces me. “How ya doin’, Booboo?”
“Not so good….” I sniff.
I am now completely submerged and gasping for air as the wave of tears comes hard and fast. I burrow into Stevie’s side and bawl like a wounded animal. Stevie strokes my shoulder-length braids, then rubs the middle of my back in a wide, circular motion. I can’t cry fast enough; the wave of tears is both overwhelming and physically painful. Hot, salty tears, snot, and bitterness stream down my face.
“I-can’t-believe-she’s-dead!” I stutter. “I can’t believe she’s dead…!” Another wave comes and I sob and sniffle some more. “Now-I’ll-never-know-whether-she-loved-me…!”
For years, I harbored a fantasy that my mother and I would have a reconciliation talk just before she died, like White folks do in the movies. I knew that we’d never have it when she was alive and well, so I was waiting until she was too sick to put up a fuss. Like many Black mothers I know, my mother did not discuss how she felt about things and occasionally, she dismissively referred to me as ‘emotional’. As the realization that my mother and I missed out on our Come-to-Jesus moment fully sinks in, I curl up like a millipede and weep uncontrollably. I cry so hard and so deep that it feels as if Spirit is wringing me out like a wet rag. Soon, I quiet and Hannah whimpers from the foot of the bed. She wants to tend to me, too.
A few days ago, I told Stevie that I wanted to spend my birthday completing three tasks: picking up my mother's ashes and death certificates from the funeral home, finding a copy of my mother’s will at Surrogate Court, and getting my mother's medical records. The trepidation I’m feeling is because I am worried that the nasty treatment that I often experience in my hometown will prevent me from obtaining my mother's medical records the same day because I hadn't submitted a request for them in advance. Typically, the White women I encounter in medical offices, supermarkets, and pharmacies back home are brusque, dismissive, and rude towards me. I always assume it because I am Black because I never see those women treat White patients and customers that way. I learned at a young age that the best way to get anything from White people is to smile excessively so that I don’t look threatening, be deferential, and speak so slowly that I cannot be misunderstood. During these exchanges, I always feel as if I am speaking with small children who are still learning the language.
As for my sadness, although I did not like my mother, I think I loved her because daughters are supposed to love their mothers. I hated how she trained my family to behave as if major occasions revolved around her, was frustrated by the fact that she was the only one allowed to have feelings and despised how verbally abusive she had become towards my stepfather in the last 11 years. While I am actually relieved that my mother is dead, I still cannot believe that she is dead. I can’t believe that I will never be stuck on the phone with her, listening to her blathering on about something I do not care about or someone from her life whom I do not remember. It is unfathomable to me that I will never again hear her laugh or complain about some ache or pain.
These feelings notwithstanding, I am determined to find a way to celebrate my birth, to celebrate Me and My life after I take care of these tasks. Since my stepfather did not want an autopsy done (“We know what killed her; she was sick,” he said assuredly) and after discovering papers that indicated that my mother had been diagnosed with stage 2 endometrial cancer two months before she died, I want to know more about my mother's health. More specifically, I want to know what had killed her. Did the heat in my parents’ sweltering bedroom overtax my mother’s weakened heart? Was there an infection at the wound site? Did the surgeon who conducted the hysterectomy fail to remove all of the cancerous cells? Or was it a combination of things that killed my mother?
After breakfast, a few more tears, and a bear hug from Stevie, I embark upon my journey back home. A few hours later I warily cross the threshold of the 1931 neoclassical building that is the Richmond County Surrogate Court and await barked instructions from the two White Court Officers standing nearby. Having worked as a foster care social worker in the past, I had spent enough time in various New York City Family Courts to know the drill. However, these two officers are so engrossed in gossip that they barely glance in the direction of my wife and me. I presume that once they see us, a queer version of the White American male comedy duo Abbott and Costello—me, a Black, stocky, femme version of Costello and Stevie, a White, sinewy, butch lesbian version of Abbott—they will stop everything to ask us what we’re doing here. But today, they can’t be bothered.
I search for signs on the tan walls that will tell us where to find the Information Desk. Stevie saunters behind me, taking in the middle-aged, blue-collar Black and White men who alternately slouch and perch on the thick, time-worn, pew-like wooden benches that line the dimly-lit hallways. The older White women sprinkled among the men who are waiting to be called, stare at us as if they are trying to figure out what business we have here. My eyes land on the sign, “Information Desk” and I turn and purse my lips to gesture to the sign the way I have seen my Puerto Rican godmother Marie do over the years. “Oh! Okay,” Stevie says and follows me into the room where the Information Desk is located. The room still has its original woodwork: thick mahogany wood with a patina from all the souls who touched it as they walked by. Multiple taupe and black four-drawer vertical file cabinets line the perimeter of the room and appeared to have never been moved. The white veins that ran through the marble flooring are now grey, and three old, black Dell PCs sit wearily on a long wooden shelf, waiting to be used.
A nondescript, middle-aged White man with an ash brown combover and brown bifocals sits behind the desk, staring intently at a newspaper laid out in front of him. Stevie and I approach and he does not notice us. I clear my throat once to get his attention, but to no avail. The second time I clear my throat, he looks up at me.
“Yes? Can I help you?” he squeaks as if he just sucked in air from a balloon. I expected a different voice, so I pause as I stifle a chuckle.
“Uh… my mother died a few days ago, and I need to see if she or her attorney filed her will here.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I realize that I hadn’t seen anything with an attorney’s name on it among my mother’s papers in the last five days. I silently pray that I’m not asked for an attorney’s name and press on.
“Do you know when she filed her will?” Mousey squeaks.
“No. I have no idea if she even filed one, but I figured that I’d check in the event that she did.”
Mousey purses what little bit of a mouth he has. “Well, if she did file in Richmond County, there will be a record of it. What’s her last name?”
With energy that was clearly well-disguised, Mousey leaps up from behind the desk and joins Stevie and I on the other side. He strides over to a PC and hunt and pecks while entering my mother’s last name into the database. “Rollins, you said?” Mousey sounds skeptical, as if I am lying.
“No, Rollin. R as in Robert, O-L-L-I, N as in Nancy. Rollin.” I reply. Stevie chews on one of her cuticles.
“Hmm. Nope. There’s no Rollin in our database.”
I try not to groan aloud, but I feel my shoulders tense up. “If you can’t find her in your system, what does that mean?”
Mousey turns around to look at me, pushing up his bifocals in the process. “It means that she never filed a will with the Court.” He blinks as if he is making a point.
“Oh. Okay… thank you for your time!” I try to sound grateful and cheerful.
“You’re welcome!” Mousey says just as cheerfully and turns away from us, leaving us to our thoughts. Stevie stops chewing and tenderly asks, “What now, Booboo?” She knows me well enough to know when I’m acting as if everything is okay when it’s clearly not. I am grateful that I don’t have to explain anything right now. I don’t have to explain my anger at my mother for leaving behind a tangled mess of papers for us to deal with, my terror that I might incur debt because there is no will, and my utter confusion as to what do to next.
Pushing back my shoulders, I say, “Let’s see if I can get my mom’s medical records.”
“Okay, Booboo. We can go wherever you want today. Today’s your day,” Stevie reminds me.
I sigh. “Okay, let’s go to the Staten Island Medical Group to see if I can get my mom’s medical records. I need to know more about her medical history before the surgery.”
“Okay! Just tell me how to get there and we’ll go, Boo.” Stevie used to joke that she had never spent as much time in Staten Island in her entire life as she has since we meet a few years ago. At this point, she has a good sense of certain parts of the Staten Island Expressway, but she still needs a GPS—mechanical or human—to get around the residential areas. So, I direct her to the health clinic where everyone in my family (except me) gets our healthcare and where my stepfather was the Chief of Maintenance for over 40 years.
As we pull into the parking lot, I am taken aback by the sheer size of the building. Although I stopped by almost daily to visit my stepfather after school when I was a child, I never noticed the girth of the hulking, white structure. It looks more like a concrete dome for storing salt than a medical clinic. We enter the building and again, I search for an Information Desk. Staten Island has trained me to ask for assistance when I enter strange places and buildings; it is better than being stopped and having White people presume I am in the wrong place or worse, up to no good. It is because of these kinds of memories and experiences that I steel myself as Stevie and I walk towards the thick and slightly misshapen, middle-aged White woman seated at the Information Desk.
“Can I help you?” she asks in a thick Staten Island accent. A Staten Island accent is a cross between a typical New York City accent with a dollop of a typical Brooklyn accent mixed in for good measure.
“Yes, I’m looking for the Records Room?” I answer in that non-threatening, sing-song way that some women speak when asking for something.
“Oh! It’s downstairs. Just walk down this spiral staircase behind me, then go down the hall, and it’s right there. Ya can’t miss it!”
“Thank yooou!” I chirp. I am determined to play my role of the grieving yet dutiful eldest daughter well because I want those records.
Stevie and I look at each other as we walk away, checking in with one another. I feel bad having her drive me all over, running errands related to a woman who barely acknowledged Stevie’s existence over the past year. We joke about that from time to time, but I know that Stevie felt slighted. Stevie and my parents met at one of my road races in Staten Island. I signed up to run a 5 kilometer race with my Uncle Denny and Stevie came to cheer me on. My parents were seated in my mother’s car, where they were parked and waiting for me to run by. When we approached the car from the driver’s side, my mother rolled down the window, and I introduced Stevie to both of my parents. My stepdad was in the passenger seat and my mother was behind the steering wheel.
Dad leaned over with a big smile and said, “Hello!”, while my mother simply said, “Oh hi,” without looking at Stevie or me. I was accustomed to my mother’s coolness, so I hadn’t noticed her response. It wasn’t until Stevie later remarked how she had never been ignored like that, that I realized that my mother never actually looked at her. I got defensive and sputtered some lame excuse about my mother being shy, but the damage was done. Stevie was hurt, but she remained as friendly and outgoing as usual with my mother after that initial interaction.
We finally reach the Records Room and a brunette who reminds me of Annette Funicello asks if she can help us.
“Hi…,” I pour on the charm like Barry White. “My mother died on June 18th and I would like a copy of her medical records.”
“Oh! I’m sorry for your loss. What was your mother’s name?”
“Oh! She was such a nice lady! Funny, too! I’m so sorry that your mother passed, sweetheart. Aww!” Annette appears to be genuinely stricken by the news and I do not know how to respond since the woman she’s describing does not necessarily match the woman I knew. I stand still and smile weakly as she momentarily looks away to search for something on the counter near her. “Here, sign this form and include your address so we can mail the records to you. You should have them within a week, okay?” Annette offers condolences for my “loss” once more and ruefully looks at me as I complete and sign the form.
After saying it for the past five days, I have perfected what I think is the most graceful and humble way of responding to the various forms of condolences—both real and manufactured—that I receive. I dolefully look into Annette’s eyes and say, “Thank you for all your help. I really appreciate it!” As I turn away from the Records Room, my eyes cloud over and I feel my face flush with anger. In the last five days, I have heard how witty, thoughtful, and kind my mother was, as well as how proud she was of me from my mother’s former co-workers, friends, and acquaintances. What infuriates me is that she never told me how proud she was of me, she never told me how impressed she was with me and my accomplishments, and she never seemed to care about my life. In addition to feeling hurt and embarrassed by these comments, since the day my mother died I’ve been scratching my head wondering, “Who the hell was this woman? And, what else didn’t I know about her??”
Lourdes Dolores Follins: "I am a Black, queer, femme who comes from a long line of survivors, intrepid women, and working-class strivers. I have authored several articles and book chapters about the health of LGBTQI people of color and am the lead editor of Black LGBT Health in the United States: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (Lexington Books, 2016). My development as a creative nonfiction writer was enhanced by a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellowship. I am returning to Lambda Literary as a 2019 Writer-in-Residence to complete a wry and moving memoir about my relationship with my mother."