I waited for someone to tell me what was happening. The situation felt surreal. It felt like I was watching a 10-year-old take the five-minute ride to the hospital, while I was just an innocent bystander. After all, scary things weren’t supposed to happen to little kids, let alone me.
The ride to the hospital was taken with two EMTs. I knew they were there to help me, but in reality these two people were strangers. My mother had always lectured me about getting into cars with strangers, yet here I was, in an ambulance with two people I’d never seen before. I worried my mother would be angry with me for not asking her permission to go without her, but I figured once we all arrived at the hospital, my sister and I would be reunited with our mother, this whole mess would be cleared up, and I could explain why I hadn’t asked permission before going. This was all one big misunderstanding. Everything was going to be all right.
I rode in the back of the ambulance, slightly embarrassed because I was wearing my pajamas. Why was I still wearing my pajamas? I didn’t even remember how I’d gotten outside. Although I was in the warmth of an emergency vehicle, the chill of the December night had seeped inside. My hands shook, and my teeth banged from shock. Just then the medic handed me a single sheet of narrow-ruled notebook paper. Unfolding the edges, I expected whatever was written there would provide a full explanation of recent events; everything would make perfect sense. Instead of a simple note from my mother, telling me what was going on, and step by step instructions on how to proceed, scribbled on the scrap of paper was a recipe in my mother’s handwriting. It was a clue! It was an encouraging sign. My mother would need that recipe because Christmas dinner was just a few days away. I was going to give it to her at the hospital, as soon as I saw her. “May I have this?” I asked. The nervous emergency responder nodded his head, as if to say yes.
I never saw my mother again alive. Someone killed her. Even as I write these words, part of me wants to ask my mama, “May I use the term ‘murder’ to describe what happened to you?” That word seems extraordinary to describe ordinary people like us. I shudder because the weight of that word seems much too heavy, a burden these shoulders weren’t equipped to bear.
Once I realized I was an orphan, no one’s child, essentially just someone to be pitied, my inquisitive, confident nature dissipated and was replaced with insecurity and fear. I had so many questions and I was afraid to ask them. I would “ask” my mother – and then simply extrapolate my own answer. Sometimes I would ask my sister, but she seemed mostly annoyed and too busy for me. How could I expect anything more? She was a motherless teenager with questions of her own. Although there were people around that I could have turned to in order to ask the hard questions of growing up, I never felt as if I had permission. On many occasions, even if it was subconsciously, I would silently whisper “Mother may I?” and because I was certain I would never get an answer, I did exactly as I pleased, sometimes to disastrous results.
While all my friends thought it was awesome that I got to do pretty much as I pleased, I began to grow resentful, because I believed no one really cared what happened to me. The truth was, the people who loved me the most had grown so frustrated with my unpredictable behavior that one by one they had thrown up their hands up in defeat.
I became angrier and angrier. Mostly the anger disguised itself as garden-variety depression. Depression paralyzed me for periods of time; “Can I get up now? Should I get up now?” I would ask myself. Just like the rules of the childhood game, I forced myself to take steps back because I hadn’t uttered the words I thought I must: “Mother, May I?” I was angry because she never taught me to apply just the right amount of lipstick or how to talk to a nice boy. I would see mothers and daughters shopping at the mall and want to scream, but mostly I just allowed tears to well to the surface before pushing them down again. “Mother, may I scream or cry?” The answer was, “No, you may not!” I was angry because my mother died one night without explanation and left me to figure out the deal with Santa Claus all on my own. Mostly I was left to figure out everything important about life on my own.
The anger became overwhelming. My mother would never be at my wedding or the birth of my first child, or my second, or eventually my third. No amount of anger was ever going to change that cold, hard truth.
With time, insight, and hard, painful work on myself, I asked myself the question only I could answer: “May I ever be happy?” Bravely, I replied, “Yes, you may!”