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February 12, 2007

best laid plannery

me mom sis and Saint Anne

So no sooner do I (kinda) (plan to) get back up on the proverbial blogging horse than I find myself rushing off to Miami all in a tizzy, all my plans for a powerfully focused and active ebog February falling to the proverbial wayside somewhere between LAX and MIA. What happened is that the 89-year-old Haitian woman who raised me and my sister, who has lived in my parents' home since I was born as an occasionally confusing combo of grandmother, nanny and companion (to my mother since Dad died, that is) had a series of mild heart attacks starting two Thursday's ago. Since then her prognosis, diagnosis and planned course of treatment has been flipping from cloudy to underdetermined and back on a daily basis, so I'll likely be in Miami until the dust clears one way or the other. As a result I haven't really been able to focus on the blog until today.

After the initial heart attack (described as mild, in so much as any 89 year-old's ticker trouble is mild), my big fear was that I wouldn't get to FL in time. I got on the first LAX>MIA flight I could, completely freaked out and convinced that I'd arrive to find Saint Anne (dig those crazy rural Haitian first names!) already quite cool to the touch and stiff on a slab in a morgue, much as I found my father after getting the "come right away" call. I have no distinct memories of those last moments with my (un-embalmed) dad, my first moments of being, as my shrink put it, "fatherless in the world," but I do vividly recall the morgue attendant, who was this gigantic, Ruben Studdard-looking gent. There in the middle of my shock and grief at finding my father a corpse, dude starts humming and singing like he's in church, this before abruptly jumping up from behind his desk, launching himself across the few feet between us and throwing me in an inescapable bear-hug. He quite literally cooed at me, going, "It's okay, big man. No shame in a grown man crying for his daddy," and after struggling in vain to get away for a few seconds, I, needless to say, gave in to his embrace and bawled like a baby against his chest. That incident has since morphed into a favorite anecdote of mine, and in the process it has rather completely overwritten memories that should have been filed under "last moments with father," leaving me instead with a file marked "first/only moments with Ruben Studdard-looking morgue-attendant." Which is obviously neither here nor there when it comes to the question of fathers and fatherless-ness.

(Although, not quite. There is likely a short story somewhere in the above, where the state of living without a father begins with the protag's surrender to the loving embrace of a brother who happen to be bigger and stronger than he is. I'll give the story away open-source-ish to the group blogmind, but the stipulation is that whoever takes it has to write the same story three times: once as a queer love story, once as a kind of afrocentric-journey story, and once as a black frat pledge story.)

Anyway, when I got to Miami I learned that Saint Anne's condition is an attenuated kind of dire wherein she is in no particular pain, doesn't seem to be in danger of dying within any given, coming 48 hour span, and yet also manages to present something of a mystery to her doctors. They've switched her blood pressure meds this way and that, and then they put a pacemaker in (a freshly minted cyborg!), this on the theory that the paced ticker would allow for more aggressive treatment of her hypertension. They let her out of the hospital a day after her surgery, too soon perhaps as she was back in the ER a few days later complaining of chest pains. Now they are keeping her for extended observation and talking obstruction, cardiac catheterization, radioactive dye, clots in her legs and so on. There is blood in her urine and they are worried about her kidneys. They have detected anemia, want to check the color of her stool. No one has said the C-word, but the docs seem to think something is putting additional strain on her heart and organs. They say everything really, then they cap it off by saying "she's 89," like this should explain something.

The doctors and nurses also keep insisting she's a fighter, which I guess is true although it strikes me that that what she's actually doing is closer to maintaining. Saint Anne is already in her 50s and 60s in the bulk of my conscious memories of her, I can recall her nimbly darting into traffic after my toddling sister when she must have been almost 70. Even now she could pass for a hard-living recent retiree. I could picture her living a thousand years, is what I'm saying, shaking her head the way she does whenever she settles down to some annoying (yet integral) task of caretaking, putting her shoulder to 900 more years of arthritis, implants, diabetes, eye surgery, complaining high yellow brats and so on. "Fighting" to me suggests clawing one's way towards the better, whereas Saint Anne's energies have largely been directed towards the maintenance of a never-ending steady state. Her favorite show is Matlock, her only vice is decaf coffee, her favorite verbal interjection, this for use once she's stopped listening to you and needs to get on with her day, is (in kreyol) "have courage, my brother/sister! Have courage!" Maintain it is.

It's actually enormously difficult for me to write about Saint Anne without worrying that my words are going to fail her, that I'm going to get her story wrong. I feel that in addition to sitting at her bedside and interrogating doctors I owe her some or another accurate form of, well, analysis. Her life with us has always seemed to me as having built into it a broad range of inequities, so getting her story all fuck wrong would be insult added to injury, not what you want to do for someone during their (maybe) last days. My main fear isn't so much error as self-service, self-protection. I worry that I'm trying to alternately/simultaneously extract absolution and an exquisite, related form of indictment from her story. My relationship to her binds up so many of my most thorn-laden life strands that I have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for taking them in hand and untangling - that is, until there's a need for me to stand a particular kind of tall, to show the (reading) world my palms and bleed from them in public, to display various forms of bravery, clear-headedness, insight.

Another problem about writing about Saint Anne is that doing so makes my mother somewhat uncomfortable and unhappy. She once came across an essay I wrote in college that seemed (to her) to question her unitary maternal primacy, this in favor of the notion that Ebog (kinda) had two mommies. (Not because anyone was particularly dyke-ish, but because someone was born lighter and richer than someone else.) The spectacle of my mother's persistent confusion and hurt in response to thinking about Saint Anne in certain ways has always given me an inordinate amount of satisfaction, suggesting to me that I clutch my version of Saint Anne's story closer my breast precisely when I want to indict my biological mother for something, for being a certain kind of uncritical Haitian, say, or for not buying me that TCR racetrack I wanted.

I worry that I scrutinize Saint Anne's lot in life not to improve it but in order to make myself feel different from and better than my parents and their generation, which is a bit of a pickle, as this "better" and "different" thinking also involves my feeling, well, kind of white or, at least white-ish. I find myself immediately converted into a kind of cliché, a light child protesting that the dark woman who cared for him really was a member of the family, that his love really is a mitigation of the ways she's been screwed by various histories and people, some of them his blood relations. Even if I take myself at my word about the love and family and mitigation thing, the scenario is still a tornado of wild, often unfortunate association, something that is liable at any moment to lift me up and away from my usual zones (fantasies?) of solidarity and community in order to deposit me in nabes (shoes?) where the white folks live, some of whom I have likely been berating for various, taxonomically similar and often circumstantial sins since god knows when.

Of course, quite literally billions of people have been mothered by poorer, darker, whatever-er women since time immemorial, several hundred million such pairings at least producing bonds of genuine and mutual adoration that neither sum up to nor reduce to the circumstances/conditions of the caregiver's employment. My own such relationship has instructive nuances, but when I was a freaked-out, over-thinking kid, I had no idea what a nuance was, no predisposition to look for one as a neat, counter-intuitive way to navigate a situation. (Did I even have a predisposition for the counter-intuitive then?) I had to feel/think the whole thing through on the fly for myself, blind, under-educated (that is, young), all of that under the most stressful circumstance possible, i.e., under the hot spotlight of some kid asking exactly who that person living in our house was who didn't look like us and seemed to be doing all the woman's work. That kid might not have known shit, but unconvincing BS? Verbal laziness? Shame? Fear? All that, dudes could smell.

Because I was a teacher's pet-type, I proceeded from the foundational premise that there was a "right answer," something that would be true, (2+2 equals 4 under all meaningful circumstances, sorry) but that would also get me out of the social bind implicit in the question, its allegation of difference. Cube the above by the fact that I had distinct home (a middle-class African American block), school (a white Catholic school), and family (multihued bourgie Haitian) constituencies and my answer both called for and instilled in me a certain measure of (if I say so myself) clinicism and conceptual virtuosity. (Or is that another name for good bullshit?) For example, "the maid" was overly blunt, cruel and inaccurate, whereas "babysitter" implied that I was a "baby" and was also inadequate to the scope of how Saint Anne and my family had become intertwined and interpenetrated. And while the words "my nanny," are today liable to roll effortlessly off the tongue of every black media-hipster brat in Park Slope, such affectations didn't exist for me in 1970s Queens, calling for a discussion of class, Haitian history, diaspora, exile and so on that I technically wouldn't be able to moderate until I was, predictably enough, at Yale. (Or, as I would put it for a few too many years, when I "went to school in New Haven.")

"My aunt" or (as the years rolled on) "my grandmother" was wrong but it did get me closer to a few useful ideas, like how my family in Haiti ran a bakery and has a congenital, self-serving tendency to blur the line between "relative" and "employee." This genre of answer, though, risked my interlocutor doing a quick phenotype check and bringing things back to the initial, foundational instability about what it was I "was." A real stumper, that. Just as my parents had cornered me exactly once to talk about sex, they had had exactly one conversation with me about race, this to rather mysteriously explain that I should NEVER let any white American talk down to me seeing how there were thousands of said white folk living in Appalachia with six fingers and six toes on each and every hand and foot. ("Primitives, really," my father would say, peering over his copy of Popular Science.)

My sister can keep me honest on this, but my super-light, Haitian exile parents arrived here with a foreign and largely inapplicable (to Queens) racial self-concept, so I've always fantasized that I was the one who contracted the local strain of "race" from the kids (black and white) on the conceptual mid-70s street and brought it home the flu, promptly infecting everyone else in our house. Everyone, of course, except for Saint Anne, whose very presence in our home suggested everyone at the address had survived earlier, un-discussed pandemics, that actually there was more at play at 116-68 227th than just immigrant ignorance about US racial history/hang-ups, like complicity, self-denial, desire and fantasy. A mass of completely native history and ideology and personal bullshit so huge (and so growing!) that eventually my schema had no choice but to fall in on itself, collapsing into a mixed-metaphor of such density and gravity and strangeness that it proceeded to eat my entire life, sure, but in the process also opened up, you know, wormholes, some of them leading to quite wonder-filled (and profitable) zones of thought and experience that I would never have had access to otherwise.

In so much as I have a (wackjob) thesis about race and identity in America, it's the product of the compression and fireworks that went off in my head every time the street/school-yard forced me to come up with answers about who I was in relationship to Saint Anne. Like I said, that answer that had to serve many, many masters and highest among them was, of course, Saint Anne herself. A good little Catholic boy to the core, I tended to become most desperately afraid of disappointing people precisely at the moment I was sure my choice would safely escape their notice, and, for simple reasons of scale, I was therefore constantly afraid of disappointing Saint Anne. The high hedges of age, language, nationality, immigration, temperament, literacy, class, color and so on meant that the zone of free will created away from Saint Anne (the zone where I would literally show my true colors) seemed to my child's eye to encompass the entire world of "American" people, places, ideas and things outside our home. I was a normal enough kid (meaning I did the expected share of dirt), but whenever I found myself explicitly pondering moral dilemmas "WWSAS?" (what would Saint Anne say?) was an early litmus test that has never failed me, fuck teachers, mentors, theorists, peers, therapists and so forth. I have espoused countless ideas precisely because I figured my parents would disapprove of them, but with exception of, well, vice (the proverbial drinkin', druggin' and fuckin') I can't think of a single thing I believe in or do that if sat down to talk to her about it would bring that sad look of disappointment into her eyes. (Well, when I was 11 or so I once pranked called the house from down the block and said I was immigration, but she recognized my voice.) Her pride in me has been so consistent, her belief that I will do the right thing so intrinsic (in that she has little lived connection with the particulars of much of what of I do, like make blackface charts) that all I can do is be humbled and grateful for her faith in me, make sure I carry my imagined sense of her take on things with me everywhere I go.

(WWSAS about say about blackfacing on blogs? "Don't you have something better to do with your time?" "Did somebody tell you to put all that stuff on your face or did you decide to do that on your own?")

And WWSAS also explains, I think, the difference between me and John McWhorter. I attack the McWhorters of the world for using the hatred of black people as a kind of horrific balm for the pain of completely banal and common childhood traumas, but I have to admit that underlying my disgust with them there has always an undercurrent of "there but for the grace of god (or at least grace of Saint Anne!) go I!" Because there was clearly no black angel of better nature perched on McWhorter's shoulder during that formative moment when he was attacked for "talking white," no one black-talking person to whom he was beholden and whose loving counterpoint could have given him a way out of his subsequent, lifelong spiral of shame and self-erasure. (WWSAS to John McWhorter about talking white? "Is that what you're talking? Because you see, I don't speak a lick of English so you are basically just flapping gums at me. But: have courage, my brother!") As a result of this condition of being Saint Anne-less, the poor, unhappy lonely boy that I imagine McWhorter must have been grew up to be a self-hating, mediocre, bought-and-paid-for liar who very simply loves white people and what they represent in the racial schema more than he loves anything in the world. Me, I had the Saint Anne and I can't begin to explain or enumerate how grateful I am to her for that, this even as I acknowledge that given her druthers, there may have been something else she'd have preferred to do than look after me.

(This is an aside, but unlike McWhorter, I'm also grateful to the 70s and 80s street that both hosted and forced the crises described above. Among the many things about himself that McWhorter hates is the popular culture of his era, which is why instead of running home after his ass whipping desperately quoting Conan the Barbarian - That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger! That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger! Hey! Who said that again? - he was instead blubbering about how awful and black those kids were, thereby ensuring he would never risk confronting them again without the full support of all of whiteness, never risk winning or losing or being stronger or forgiving or seducing or anything that might transform both their relationship or his to the issues that structured the encounter.)

If there is anyone I feel bad for, it is, of course, Saint Anne's real, biological son. Back in Haiti, Saint Anne had spent her entire life caring for my family's various yellow brats, invalids, dysfunctional households and so on, and when she was sent in middle age to care for one more, she left behind a boy of her own. When I was a kid, I always imagined her son as my dark Haitian twin, a feral child running wild, abandoned and deprived in Port-au-Prince while I sat fat, pale and soft in NYC. It turns out that he was already grown when she left, that he now lives in Canada, has children of his own, and seemingly spends very little of his day plotting any form of revenge. When I was a kid, though, I figured Saint Anne's son must by definition hate me, creating elaborate, Cape Fear-like scenarios where she died and I brought her body back to Haiti for burial and he ended up chasing me through the countryside like Rutger Hauer chasing Harrison Ford around at the end of Blade Runner, one replicant eager to give another (if you buy into that reading) a taste of what his life had been like. In some versions I survive, in other versions he kills me, claims my passport and my life, and in some versions our lifeless bodies fall together onto Saint Anne's coffin, our family finally together and at peace. But when he calls to check in (largely with my mother) the conversation is mostly to review his mother's condition and his non-revenge-related travel options. He has visa issues that might keep him in Canada. He might be able to swing a quick visit when she's alive but worries he might not be able to afford to come to her funeral. He is worried about timing. If he gets the call soon enough he thinks he might be able to catch her just before she dies, see her buried and be back up north in a week, tops.

("That's what happened with my father," I offer, helpfully. "I didn't get the call in time." He murmurs sympathy. We may yet be siblings after all.)

But if I was telling all this to Saint Anne she would have said "have courage, my brother!" a few thousand words ago, my cue to shut the fuck up already. I can think and I can think and I can think, tell stories and make connections, but none of it has anything to do with figuring out how to keep her heart beating until her son can get to her. I am the lucky one again, I made it in time and now I have the freedom to look at the life we lived together, I can write words about that life, develop and elaborate theories, feel sorry for someone not myself. But in the end all this yack about color and class and memory is just a way of denying this moment wherein I find myself forced to face losing her. It really is like my dad all over again. There is a hole burned into my memory where he should be, dead, me leaning over him, my tears cooling on his face. But I don't remember a thing about that specific moment, none of it at all. I just literally remember everything else.

Posted by ebogjonson in blood relations, haiti, memory, on February 12, 2007 6:00 PM


Well, by unpacking these words about and for Saint Anne, I think you're displaying a lot of courage at a time where you and she need it most. And I think that's beautiful and that she may sense that courage from others and it's helping her maintain.

I'm glad you made it safely and you're there to see her through this difficult time. I hope things work out for the best and her son also makes it there soon. All of you are family to her, and that energy has a lot of power.

Stay strong and courageous, and my thoughts are with you.

(Non sequitur: Doctors are ridiculous; "she's 89" is so...well, it shows where society places its value.)

Posted by: Sylvia at February 12, 2007 8:03 PM

You touch on so many under-explored issues here that I need to read this several times before I can react to it (if I decide I should). In any event I love that you are discussing things that often go undiscussed for the sake of pc. I should be back in touch in a couple of days.

Also, I think it's fascinating that despite being an english-speaker your prose has a distinctly French wordiness. I wonder where you get that from... (NOT!)

Posted by: alice b. at February 13, 2007 7:59 AM

Dude,. Don't karate-chop me, but your sister is like WHOAH, and I don't normally go in for light-skinned chicks...

And yeah, thios post is epic in and verbose in a print-out-and-read-later kinda way, which I will have to do.

Dibbs on the "black frat pledge" incarnation of the morgue scenario.

Posted by: the izza at February 14, 2007 12:15 PM

The aspect of the dysfunctional haitian social structure you discuss is hard to explain to our peers in the post civil rights American construct.

Its one of the stranger things about the Haitian dynamic that causes me to always think Haitian culture is innately pathological and self destructive.

Holler Back....

Posted by: Abdul-Jabbar at February 19, 2007 11:06 AM