I barely need two hands to count the number of times I remember seeing my mother before her death. I think the first time was in middle school, during Christmas break. She called my grandparents house and said she had some gifts for me. I didn’t speak to her then, but we’d talked over the phone before. My mom had dealt with substance abuse issues and occasionally wound up in jail or rehab. Apparently, she had just gotten out of one place or the other and was staying at a women’s shelter operated by the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries. So, late one evening after my grandfather came home from work, he took me in his van to go meet my mother for the first time in my relatively aware life.
I don’t remember much about the ride there or what we talked about. I can’t describe the weather or recall what was playing on the radio. If there was any mood to set, then I was completely oblivious to it at the time. All that I can remember is my excitement, not for meeting this woman who I’d only seen once or twice in pictures, but for the gifts that she would bring me. When we arrived at the shelter, my grandfather parked his van on the street in front of it. A few moments later, a figure appeared from the side of the building and approached us. This first meeting with my mother was short. Our conversation wasn’t particularly long or moving. If anything, it was more like small talk. “How is school?” “Are you causing trouble for your grandparents?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” Stuff like that. Then, just like that, it was over. She said, “I love you” and I’m pretty sure I said it back due to a feeling of obligation. With a new combination chess and checkers set and a game called “Tri-ominos,” we got back in the van and went home.
I wouldn’t see or talk to my mother again until high school. There are four instances over those four years that I remember seeing my mother. The first was when she spontaneously appeared at my grandmother’s house and waited for me to get back from school. Surprised is an understatement for how I felt when I walked through the door and saw her sitting in my grandfather’s favorite chair. We went to the movies and she cooked me some fried chicken. It was bland. The next time is when she got out of rehab again and needed somewhere to stay. She spent about a week in the basement and rarely came upstairs for more than a meal during this time period. Next is when she had moved in with her newest boyfriend and wanted me to visit. So, again, my grandfather took me by; He waited in the car while I ran in and met with her, her boyfriend, his mom, his sister, and his sister’s children. I shook hands and gave hugs and exchanged another obligatory “I love you” and went back home. The whole encounter was less than thirty minutes long. Finally, the last time I saw her was in 2008. I know because it was after my father got married, and also because my mom gifted me a laptop and a digital camera to take to college. I actually appreciated that a lot. Still living with her boyfriend, this time my dad took me by. She wanted to see me before I left for Michigan State. She said she knew I wouldn’t visit once I got to Lansing. That summer, I went to the Dallas for the National HOSA Leadership Conference and sent her some of the pictures I took with the camera she gave me. We wouldn’t see each other for another four years.
January 14, 2012 is the day my grandmother died. The last time I saw her was on Christmas day. I had to leave the care facility she was in early after snapping on a nurse who asked her why she kept calling out for Jesus and, when my grandmother who had recently undergone surgery for brain cancer to remove a tumor said that she didn’t know, told her “then you need to stop doing that.” Before then I’d spent almost all of Thanksgiving day sitting in that room, holding her hand, crying whenever she would try to say something but couldn’t force her mouth to make the right sounds. Then when my mother spoke at the funeral and said that Louise McGee Washington was my real mother, I wholeheartedly agreed. When she approached me after the service and demanded to know why I never visited or called, I just told her that was how I was. It wasn’t a lie, either. I didn’t even call or visit my grandmother regularly. So, if I didn’t go out of the way for my real mom then what made her think that she was entitled to special treatment?
What I didn’t tell my mother, and never got the chance to before she died, was that I never saw it as my responsibility to reach out to her. She wanted me to visit, but she could have driven to Lansing too. I spent nearly eighteen years in Detroit and only saw her five times before I left for college. I failed to see how that was my fault. My grandmother took care of me when she didn’t have to. She came and got me out of foster care when my mom left me with some drug addict of a friend of hers who turned me over to CPS when I was four months old. She raised me, gave me all the tools needed to survive, and never asked for anything in return. I never felt as though I resented my mother, but I hated being made to feel like I was the one who put this roadblock in our relationship. I told her that if she texted me then I’d reply, but for the next few years she would only occasionally call and leave angry voicemails whenever I didn’t answer yelling, “I’m your mother!” Even if she hadn’t denounced that role at my grandmother’s funeral, I still wouldn’t have called back. Maybe it was stubbornness or maybe I just didn’t appreciate the guilt trip she was trying to lay on me, but I didn’t feel obligated to say things to her that I didn’t want to anymore.
Then, on July 22, 2016, she died. Although she suffered from a number of medical conditions, her death certificate doesn’t state a cause of death. Knowing about her medical conditions didn’t really move me. I haven’t shed a single tear since her death, not even at the funeral. My mother had a whole life that was completely independent of my own. Only towards the end of that life did she make an attempt to be a part of mine, albeit going about it in a way that was accusatory and stifling. She even had another son whose life she wasn’t a part of that I’ve never met, since he wasn’t at the funeral. Actually, if it wasn’t for my father coming with me, I wouldn’t have known a single person in attendance. I’ve never met anyone on my mother’s side of the family because they’re all racists. When she got pregnant with me, they disowned her and kicked her out of her home in West Virginia. With no money and no job, she moved to Detroit, had me, and began her life anew. Still, even knowing the hardships she faced and the decisions she had to make because of me, it’s hard for me to feel anything for her. She may have possessed some redeeming qualities that I just never got to see, and I do think she loved me in her own way, even if she didn’t know how to show it as a mother. So, as a gesture of forgiveness, I kept a jar of her ashes. Sometimes, I look at it and think that maybe she’d be happy to finally be this close to me, that she’d finally feel like she’s a part of my life. Despite still not knowing how to feel about her and our relationship, I really hope so.