The first was my sixteenth birthday. She was about half an hour away with her boyfriend, too occupied to visit me on my birthday. But she sent me a dozen red roses. I had never been sent flowers, so the gesture overwhelmed me. A ring was tied to the bouquet. It was a ring like my mother was given by her mom representing a Never Ending Love knot. I was deeply moved and later in life lost the appreciation of it because I realized that all it took to send flowers was a phone call. It would have been nice to actually have a visit from her, but that's when I got a little jaded.
These flowers seemed a little similar. We had not spoken since Christmas. I had deleted her from my Facebook and had sent any of her crazy emails to a folder in which I never opened or read them. Neither of us called each other. Suddenly, she seemed desperate for me to call her. She had stressed it's importance and seemed to almost beg me via text. So I called her.
My stomach turned as she said she had been to the ER and hospital several times since the last time I met her there back in September. They found blockage. Her two arteries in her neck had over 70% blockage. She wanted to meet to talk about it.
She had pets and said she couldn't take care of them when she went into surgery. Would I mind watching her bird? My brother would watch her chihuahua, Scooby. She asked for us to meet her in the park in a town near her home.
I cried at the realization that I might lose my mom. I decided not to be angry anymore, this was more important. She was not in good health. I was going to forgive her. I was having a baby, and I wanted things to be right between us.
We have not found out the sex of our baby, but I already know I am naming my baby after her brother, an uncle I have never met. Johnny.
"He would have made the difference." There was a plaque at my grandmother's with his class ring and the signatures of his teammates. He was in a purple high school uniform, kneeled on the ground resting his elbow on a basketball. It was a large tribute that hung on a wall in one of the coldest homes I have ever been in. His team went to state that year, but they did not win.
Johnny and four other high school boys were killed in a car accident on the way to a school function. A man who had kidnapped a woman and child sped through town and slammed his car into theirs. Everyone died. I have seen the small town's newspaper dedicating their news and filling all of their pages with the tragedy that day. I read about each of the boys and saw the mangled mess of metal that was at one time two cars. Articles and interviews explained how the man had driven through road blocks, and there was a speed chase involved.
This was right before the big state championship game. Johnny was killed instantly with a broken neck on April Fool's Day. He was a couple of years older than my mom, but he would be forever a seventeen year old boy in the memories of those who loved him. On my grandmother's wall, he still wore his high school uniform in a glass shadow box with a class ring he never had the opportunity to wear on his finger. Etched on a plaque inside, "He would have made the difference."
My understanding is Johnny was a gifted basketball player, and they attribute their loss to the loss of someone on the team they loved very much. What little I've gathered from the very few people who talk about Johnny... He was incredibly bright. Naturally brilliant with excellent grades and little effort to do so. He was also a bit of a rebel, which makes me smile. After my grandma died, my mom was going through photos. She showed me a roach clip of his that he used to smoke marijuana. She told me, and this is probably the most she has ever disclosed to me about Johnny, that he had moved out of the house because he and his parents weren't getting along. He had move back in only days before his death, and things were still in boxes. She said they had wrapped the cigarette butts from his ashtray and kept them.
I talked to my uncle very recently about the concerns I had about mom. He was too young to remember much of Johnny. But he said it greatly affected his parents. They could not cope. They put all of his things in the garage and never sorted through them. He said then when his father died years later, his mom could not grieve over him. So his belongings were added to his dead son's. Then my Mema died when I was about 16. My uncle said that when they cleaned out the house to sell it, they had to grieve three deaths.
I've been told by many that Mema became overly protective when she lost her son. She took both my uncle and mother out of school. I know that my uncle quit talking for years. I think life must have changed and turned very dark for the family.
As a young child I sat in my Mema's living room sprawled across her green shag carpet. The house was only warmed through a space heater on the wall that we weren't allowed to stand in front of. The house was always cold, but there was a different type of coldness in the air. All three of her children had graduation pictures on her wall. They were incredibly large, but Johnny's was the largest in the middle. No one ever talked about him. No one told stories. No one laughed or cried. I could sense when I was young it was forbidden.
I was always fascinated with him. I was always terribly sad at the loss of a boy with great potential who never had the chance to fulfill whatever greatness lay ahead of him. I yearned to know him and to know more about him.
When we became pregnant the second time, I knew I wanted to do something in his memory. I wanted to honor him and in some way, extend what life he didn't have the opportunity to live.
I have been angry with Mom and haven't wanted to have her present when the baby is born. But as I sat on the phone with her, and she cried that she wanted to fix things between us, I held my belly and imagined my husband carrying out our child, boy or girl, and introducing "Johnny." I wondered if she would be overjoyed at us honoring her brother. I wanted that to happen. I can't help but wonder, too, if it would make her angry. But we have already decided that is the baby's name.
I often think that is what happened to my mom. Maybe his death triggered this sadness and anger and need to keep things that mean nothing. What makes a person lose interest in life? What makes them surround themselves with filth and seclude themselves from people who love them?
I can't help but wonder, maybe he would have made the difference.