Thursday, June 9, 2016
Changing a diaper was...something my older brother had to demonstrate to me in the hospital. Swaddling a screaming 9-pound human, again, I had no clue. The first six months of that child's life were the most terrifying six months of mine.
I did the only thing that I knew to do. I remembered. I called up the strong memories of my grandmother, who passed away a year before I discovered I was pregnant. I figured, she kept her six kids alive into adulthood, and a couple of grandkids, too, so she'd know. I had long talks with her, wherever she was, about what I should do. I thought back to the times that she held a baby, disciplined a wild toddler, and nudged a reluctant teenager to make the right choice. I had daily 'talks' with this woman, who in life didn't hardly stand five feet tall. (She thought I was a giant at 12.) She was my hero. Her get-it-done attitude, her unashamed pursuit of knowledge, her skills as a gardener, a cook, a master knitter, a patient badass mother, her love of Elvis...she worked nearly every day of her life. One morning she didn't get out of bed to go to work, that's how anyone knew something was wrong.
One of the last times I saw her, she told me that she always knew I'd surprise everybody. That meant everything to me. And then, in a blink she was gone. I named my daughter after her, because it could be no other way.
A hero is not a god. A hero has flaws and makes mistakes and hits low points. A hero is human, and yet they rise above their humanness, and still manage to peek over the ledge of impossibility and
see something greater than themselves.
Imagine that. Having the bravery to see through the thick fog of life as we know it, to the unknown greatness. That's scary shit. 'Cause you really don't know what's going to happen when you step out of that fog, but you're eager to take the leap.
"'Baby. I've been thinking and now I'm sure. You are the greatest woman I've ever met.'"
At that moment...I decided the time had come to cut down on dangerous habits like smoking, drinking, and cursing.
Imagine, I might really become somebody."
Just the audacity of that thought. Of becoming 'somebody' in a life of nobodies. It's brave. Sometimes people don't like it. They don't like the ambition, the 'arrogance' of having honest-to-god dreams, and the sheer tenacity to live those dreams out. Some would even call it lunacy. People think that kind of self-assuredness is dangerous. And it is.
Maya Angelou died just two years ago, and it was the first time I wept, openly, over the death of a 'public figure.' I felt like I knew her. I felt like she knew me somehow. Like we were on that same road together, toughing it out against the haters.
"No. No, no, no..."
Who could sleep after that? I sat out on the back steps in the pitch black and was shocked at my sadness. Like a big hole just opened up in the world, at least in my world, and what if I fell in?
Ali had a lot to say. And people didn't like that. They didn't like that what he said had the dagger of truth in it. Of course, his boxing was impeccable. He was easy on the eyes and his work ethic and odd grace made him legendary. But it was his unabashed forward momentum, being only himself, that made him a hero to me, to my daughter, my son...
"I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.”
Of all the great things Ali has said, and all the quotes and talk show reels I've memorized, imagine that. I don't have to be what you want me to be.
Heroes are incapable of being anything but themselves. The compulsion to move forward is too great. A hero doesn't just clock in a 10-hour day and quit. A hero is smart, they have vision beyond what the rest of us can see. When a hero is 'too tired', well that's too fucking bad because there is greatness to be achieved and truth to be told, so tired isn't an excuse for not being the thing that you could become. Despite being...made of flesh and bone.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice what you are for what you will become."
I am all out of heroes now. They live in the clouds. I won't stop reading Maya's books, or stop watching old clips of Muhammad Ali floating his way to victory and railing against the hypocrites of his time. I won't stop 'talking' to my grandmother when I can't hear her on the wind. But it's sad. These ghosts of greatness.
Maybe it was the sun shining behind her. Or the wild shock of her Afro bouncing on her head, or the gleaming white smile...but it caught me in my chest. And I wondered about this powerful young woman living under my roof...