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My head was leaned back over the sink as the stylist started to work shampoo into my hair, and I let myself close my eyes. Something I learned in the months since finding someone to trust with maintaining my locs is that you can either white-knuckle your way through an anxious hair treatment, or breathe, unclench and give yourself over to what could be a meditative experience, if only because you're not going anywhere for a few hours.

That was when I could just start to hear “Caught Up In The Rapture” come over the salon’s speakers, the unmistakable '80s groove tinged with guitars, and the voice, rich as gospel and draped in mink, of Anita Baker. 

It is impossible for me to not think of my mom when I hear Anita Baker. It was the soundtrack of our house when I was younger, on a regular loop along with Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. And, for reasons I’m still not sure of, Kenny G. They all lived together in a collection of cassette tapes stacked neatly by the stereo, and when one side ended, mom would tell me to get up from whatever I was doing and flip over the cassette to the next side. On and on. And mom’s gone now. 

Sitting in the salon I was confronted by this reality, sense memory ambushing me by way of the Sonos, and a slow flood of anxiety beginning to pool in my chest. But it wasn’t the recall of those stacks of cassettes or the living room carpet or the sound of mom’s singing voice that came back when I heard the song. It was something hollow but heavy at the same time. Because in the year since mom died I had forgotten how to remember anything but the grief. I would need to figure out how to remember mom all over again. 

Losing a parent to a disease like cancer can feel like being trapped near the edge of a black hole. Time begins to move strangely; days and weeks blur together; your memories are closer to soup than anything distinct or relevant. Did I call the health insurance appeals line? Did I google the name of that drug? Were the chemo appointments yesterday, or Tuesday? Was yesterday Tuesday? Do I know what a Tuesday is?

In December 2020 my partner Mitu and I moved back to Minneapolis, the first time I'd lived there since leaving for college. I made hard decisions, worse ones, and the kinds where the only possible response is to be numb. I also bought a sensible mid-sized SUV.

Life took on a different kind of shape then, becoming something closer to a task list with all the associated urgency and anxiety that comes with it. You go to appointments, you listen to doctors, you take copious notes, you sit and watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives as mom sleeps through her latest procedure. The last time mom and I had spent so many moments together, we were living under the same roof. When I was a kid I would meet her downtown after work, go to her favorite popcorn shop, and she'd give me money we didn't really have just to buy a few comics. We'd both ride the bus home reading in peace. Now every drive to the hospital was a chance to talk about the old neighborhoods where we lived, or the news—at that time the case against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd. The trial was happening blocks away from the hospital where mom was getting treatment.

Caregiving became a routine, and thanks to a functioning Google Calendar, I could make that part work. It also required the kind of total commitment that is helpful for letting unwanted feelings and hard conversations slide away. What I could not anticipate is how the slow fade of being on the losing side of a cancer diagnosis would push the immediate memories of pain to the forefront over time. Visits to the hospital cafeteria, camping out between appointments as mom told stories of her childhood over a chili dog. Then back to another exam room, telling mom to squeeze my hand as hard as she could to overcome her anxiety over injections. If mom was admitted to the hospital I'd follow a tradition nearly every time I left, drive to a park on the banks of the Mississippi and stare at the skyline, as if salvation might float free from the ruins of the mills. She was resilient, in that way black women and single parents have to be to endure being left in the margins; all she would say to me was, "It is what it is." She had been the strongest and most righteous person in my life, and now she was locked in a cruel decline where her world seemed to vanish around her.

She fought for months just to have a semblance of her normal life, to be the woman who always made it to friends' concerts, who served in her teachers union long after she retired. She fought to stay healthy for my wedding. One day mom's oncologist and I had a conversation about the future, about the wedding Mitu and I were planning for the fall. And though he did not offer a fixed timeline, he made it clear whatever date we were thinking for a ceremony should be sooner rather than later.

So we had a surprise and secret wedding on a uncharacteristically sunny May afternoon in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the day after mom's birthday. By then COVID vaccines were becoming available, meaning some family could make it, I could spring mom from the care facility she was now living in, and for one day we would celebrate and smile and dance. Mom read a poem, watched Mitu and I jump the broom, even helped cut the cake.

It's hard to separate out the joy from the grief, even now, like trying to remove sesame seeds from an everything bagel. It was an incredible day, this much I know. But it was a happy day bookended by arguments over vaccines, fights with the insurance company, the shrinking list of treatment options. I know that five months later—days shy of the original wedding date—mom was gone.

Not knowing how to remember someone isn't the same as forgetting them. I can tell you plenty about mom: Her name was Victoria Lynn Ellis, she loved showing up for the people she cared about, and she had no problem telling you off if you did wrong. She became an educator like her mother before her, she was passionate about making sure little black boys and girls who grew up like her got everything they were owed to have a good life. She was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer somewhere around the time Joe Biden was elected president. These aren't quite memories so much as facts. For a time after mom's memorial service, I realized I essentially never stopped giving her eulogy. When you lose someone, you inevitably have to talk about it with the world.

My memory of mom had become flattened into a hard and unyielding trauma that made it feel impossible for me to reach back beyond the rawness of her final year. Luckily I am a writer who lives in New York, so I have not been a stranger to my therapist. Any therapist or counselor will tell you mourning looks different for everyone, that it doesn't work on a timetable. You will get a lot of book recommendations. You are told to be gentle with yourself, to allow time to heal, but also that stepping back into your life is good too. But returning to the world only brings the reminders of the void. The voicemails from the care facility, invoking her name to manipulate me into paying a final bill. The wedding photo sitting on my desk, the blanket mom used to keep warm in the hospital, slung over a chair. These are also facts.

I wish there were one trick or revelation to unlock the stunted emotions. If I had enough money I'm sure an ayahuasca voyage or darkness retreat in the wilds of New Mexico could convince me I'm better. The fact is, you are going to remain partially broken for a spell. It may be a long time. Maybe the rest of your life. Most of us are only afforded time to figure out what to do with grief while also grabbing the groceries or riding the subway or sitting in the chair at the hair salon. If I've learned anything now, it's about how necessary it is to find new associations for good memories of mom. I have to reclaim those visits to her favorite popcorn shop as a comfort instead of sorrow. I need to laugh at the bleached Cheeto that is Guy Fieri instead of scrambling for the remote whenever he appears. And as much as mom loved Anita Baker, she would have had much more to say about her son finally getting locs, especially because she always threatened to braid my hair when it got too long.

She would have had even more to say about her 3-month-old granddaughter, Rukiya Victoria. I have to accept that my daughter will never meet my mom, that she will only exist in photos. I have to accept that my mom, who would have ransomed anything to become a grandmother, won't get to tell Rukiya about the history of our family. If I want the two of them to have a relationship, then I will have to be the one to encourage it—to have a conversation with the past and with the future.

Every day my daughter grows through giggles and fits and farts, and I study her for clues about the person she'll become. This is the same thing every parent does, quietly keeping tabs to see which side of the family the baby favors. Mitu thinks she has my eyes. She must, because I recognize mom's eyes.

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