It’s the little things you seem to always remember. Her laugh or her perfume. White Shoulders or Charlie was every present in our home. Jean Nate’ was a close third. The way she would hum a random tune while cooking something so simple like a pot of pinto beans. That hum and the power in her dark brown fingers created magic in that pot over and over and over. The time she bragged about being the “JUMP ROPE CHAMPION!” and then fell squarely on her butt in the driveway after jumping into the double dutch ropes and losing her footing. We laughed so hard that tears streamed down our faces. I miss that laugh, that hum. I miss her. After 20 years, new memories of her last few days on this side of the veil are starting to creep in like shards of light in a dark room. Her last hugs and kisses to the boys from Nana. They were 6 and 7. The look of knowing on her face when I said “Alright now Miss Lady! You stay put until I get back!” to which she responded, “I’ll try…”
The conference was called “Unfinished Business”, it was focused on the continued work of the civil rights movement and was in Birmingham, Alabama. Lynne Huntley, who was the president of the Southern Education Foundation, asked me to come and co-facilitate space with her. She was always looking for ways to put emergent leaders in rooms, spaces and gatherings. She was a mentor and a friend. She’s an ancestor now too. I remember my sister’s voice on the phone sounding frantic, emotional and scared. She needed something from me. She needed to know that it would be ok to make mommy comfortable even though she had a very specific DNR order (Do not resuscitate). She needed to know that I was on my way back home because the doctor’s finally said what we already knew to be true. It wouldn’t be too much longer before our mother’s body did what it was made to do. That she would die. I made my way home and we held space for her over the next 24 hours as her body began to relax and let go. New memories are reminding me of my initiation into my identity as a doula.
the action of admitting someone into a secret or obscure society or group, typically with a ritual.
When I landed at RDU, I came straight away to the hospital where a waiting room full of family and friends were waiting for me. I vaguely remember calling my eldest sister in New Bern to share the news. What I do remember now is the arrival of my sister Mary Ann, Aunt Cora, Aunt Barbara, Aunt Carrie and Aunt Emma. They kind rushed into the room like a gust of strong wind. At this point my mother was resting comfortably and her communication with us was slowing down. I remember my Aunt Carrie, the eldest of this amazing constellation of Black women, kissing my mother’s forehead and then we circled her bed. There were 6 of us, 7 including my mom. My Aunts and my sister began to pray. I don’t remember the words, but I remember the feeling. It was like a calling forth, a conjuring. Their words were inviting God and the ancestors into the room and they came. The rhythm of their voices, the call and response, the “yes lord… have mercy Jesus” loosened something inside of me. It also loosened something inside of my mother’s body. Her breath slowed and the energy in the room shifted. She was ready. When they left to return home, my Aunt Cora who was a hospice nurse and had traveled from Virginia stayed. She would assist me with my first death on November 16, 1998.
They say that a doula is a “birth companion”. They are non medial professionals who assist physically and emotionally families preparing for childbirth and often offer additional support after the baby’s arrival. There are death doula’s too. People who seem to be called to be death companions. That sounds weird, but that is exactly what it is. It is a calling that requires initiation. It’s not like you wake up one day and say “Self! You know what I would like to do today? I would like to be a death companion to my mother.” No, that’s not how this thing works. I believe at some point in our lives on this plane, we are all called to help someone we love along their way at least once. I also believe that there are those of us who have a particular predisposition or destiny that includes being in this role multiple times. My new memories are reminding me of those doulas who were with me when I answered the call.
Assisting my mother with her transition, other family members and friends is the most loving, intimate, vulnerable and hard thing I have every done. You learn the power of consciousness between worlds, that touch, smell and sound still exist in that delicate balance. You realize that your voice and presence in the room is like giving someone permission to do what we will all do one day. To exhale one last time. To go home.