In our series of letters from African-American journalists, novelist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the death of his mother from breast cancer


There was a lot of talk of how beautiful Mom was, what a fine woman and a good
wife. How she was in the end, in the end. How she taught me almost everything
I know. She was probably the only person I loved so much I could’ve died
fighting for her.

I felt like I was being watched, by all sorts of people. People I didn’t know,
people I knew. I was a kid, but it felt like I was being looked at by an army.
There were whispers, a lot of whispers. I thought about stopping them,
talking back to them, telling them to shut up, when what they wanted was just
for them to stay quiet. What they wanted was for me to disappear.

They didn’t talk me out of it. I just stood where I was, waiting for the
shadows to go out so there would be no more whispering, for the lights to go
out so there would be no more whispering. I just waited. Eventually a
person—a man in a suit who I knew was the funeral director and who’d brought
in the food—walked over to me and took my hand. I don’t remember what he
said, but I do remember being surprised, because it was never like that with
Mom. I mean, it was never a hug. Mom never tried to make it seem like she
loved me, though I was sure she did, and that’s why the man hugged me
instead of hugging her.

When we shook hands he took my face in his hands and lifted it up higher,
tilting my face up. At that point I wasn’t even aware of it, but I remember
being relieved to see that he had my eyes, the two of us, our eyes looking
at each other like we were the only two people in the world. He smiled and said
good-bye, and I think for a moment he said “until next time,” but I can’t be
positive on that one, because then he walked away. He didn’t say good-bye to
either of us—not to Mom, not to me. He walked out the front door, he went
down the street, I think into the house, but he didn’t come back. I don’t
remember seeing him again.

When I looked back at the guy my eyes were full of fear. He touched my cheek
with the back of his hand and smiled, and I swear it was the smile of
relief—that expression on his face—that said, Okay, you’ve convinced me.
You can go now.

I didn’t go back to the house for a long time after Mom died. I stayed in the
corner, just out of sight, I didn’t go upstairs. I sat on the stoop. I sat
there for a long time. It was getting dark when I finally left. I didn’t
have a car so I walked back to the cemetery. The lights were off at the
funeral home, but for some reason I didn’t feel like going back there, all
alone, sitting by myself on the edge of the dark, dark hill and I didn’t feel
like I could face the funeral director, all alone on the dark, dark hill. I
just sat on the stoop for a long time. I was too sad, too scared, but
there’s nothing like loneliness to pull you back from your sadness and
happiness without you even realizing it.

When I got home I didn’t feel like myself. I felt a little strange, a little
weird, for a little while. I got a haircut, I went to bed, and that was
that. I didn’t care about anything anymore, except for Mom. I thought about
her a lot, about her death, and all the pain I put her through. I couldn’t
stop thinking about it and when I couldn’t stop thinking about it I made an
excuse to myself—I thought about it a lot. When I couldn’t stop thinking
about it, I cried. I cried all night, I cried for hours, I cried until it was
morning and my mom was on my bed and I heard the sound of her breathing,
slow and quiet.

In the morning I went back to the cemetery. I went up to her grave, to
remember her as she died, the way she used to talk to me, her soft, calm
voice. I sat there for a long time, and when I got up to leave I realized that
I left everything there, the clothes, the boots, the guitar case, all the
stuff I’d packed up. I left it all in her grave.

I didn’t even know why I took it out, why I brought it all out, what I’d
thought, but I took it all along to help me keep thinking about her. I took
the guitar case, I took the boots. I took my guitar, my books, the notes I
written, the pictures I took, everything I had, everything I thought about.
I took it all for her. Mom was all I had, and I hoped to take her more.

Mom was gone, I didn’t know when. I didn’t know how much time I would have,
or even whether that time was worth any more than what I spent it on. I had
always lived by the clock, I was almost a clock-stopper. I didn’t remember
when I was alive, but I was sure it had to be before I was ten, because I
know it was before that. I never knew the exact date. I just knew that it
wasn’t long after Mom died. I was eleven when I died, I was eleven when Mom
died. When I was eleven I used to take my guitar and guitar case and books and
pictures to the cemetery, on my lunch break, I used to walk out the back door
of my house and go to the edge of the hill that led to the cemetery. I used to
sit there for a long time, and it was a long time before I figured out that
I hadn’t been looking. I had just been thinking about it, about Mom.

I went and got my guitar. I took it out of its case and I let it hang in
front of me in the sunshine.

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