ama’s voicemail sounded an alarm. “I’m not feeling well. Call me back.” I returned her call right away. No answer. Heart pounding, eyebrows raised, I left a message in return, chiding her for scaring me by leaving mysterious messages and then refusing to answer the phone. In my nearly 30 years of life, I’d never heard her say anything so ominous.
Minutes later, I headed to our rendezvous point – the emergency room. She’d enlisted a neighbor to drive her and she’d arrive shortly. “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I told my best friend’s voicemail. “I don’t think this is going to turn out well.”
She sat alone, casually waiting for me as if she had arrived early at a restaurant. Upon questioning, Mama was still evasive about what ailed her. The triage nurse summoned her and I stayed put. I noticed other people being triaged and returning to the waiting room, but not Mama. Inquiring into her whereabouts, I was led down a fright-inducing corridor of rooms labeled Cardiac.
I noted the wires running between her and the small machine left of her gurney. “You’re having a heart attack,” the doctor announced. Breathless. Nervous. We had to act quickly, he urged. Decide right away whether Mama should be given the “clot buster” to stop her heart attack. Tears appeared in Mama’s eyes, ready, but not willing to fall. In a rare moment for know-it-all women, neither of us knew what to do. Speechless, she nodded. He dispensed the shot and we waited.
grew up the only child of a school librarian and an accountant. Although I found joy playing school and racing the neighborhood boys, my favorite pastime was lounging at home, lost in a good book. I spent hours after school and on weekends, reading in my room. Sometimes well beyond bedtime, flashlight in hand, head buried under the covers. Always a bit shy, I found it difficult to join conversations already in progress. My athletic prowess got me chosen early for playground sports teams, but my reputation as smart and standoffish sometimes kept me out of cliques. Reading required no skilled social maneuvers.
As a little girl, I was close with my extended family and spent summers with my maternal grandmother. My parents drove me to their hometown of Savannah, my suitcase overflowing. They delivered me with kisses and hugs all around, played a few card games with siblings and friends, and returned to Atlanta for a few weeks of freedom. Summers in Savannah meant buttery grits, ham and red eye gravy, or oatmeal with sugar and Carnation milk for breakfast. Late morning game shows faded into afternoon soap operas on CBS. I sneaked cheeseball after cheeseball from the dark blue can in the kitchen, licking orange fingers as Victor and Nikki fought through their latest escapades. Sweltering late afternoons were for swinging solo in the park or running through the sprinklers in Grandma’s yard.
Although I spent most of my time with this grandmother, I always had a few days with my paternal relatives, too. Visiting my dad’s side meant time with Bee — the only cousin my age in Savannah. We had no sense of sunburn, browning to a crisp as we traversed the neighborhood for candy ladies and thrills (Kool-Aid popsicles in paper cups). Sometimes we opted for bikes. We’d pedal to my other grandmother’s house, and to the aunts, uncles and older cousins who conveniently all lived in the same subdivision. We explored the nearby school, raced the neighborhood kids, and when all else failed, there was always a good tree to climb. We cooled off indoors with endless rounds of Go Fish, Uno, and I Declare War. Swapping gossip about boys and our older cousin Ant, we’d laugh until we cried ourselves breathless.
Thanksgiving and Christmas found me again with my maternal grandmother (and Mama and Daddy), this time with my mom’s siblings and my two younger cousins as well. I didn’t see them often, but we made up for lost time. Hide and seek outdoors when the weather allowed. Pillow fights and taunting the youngest cousin when we were stuck inside. Staying up late into the night, we strained our ears to guess the gifts our parents were busy wrapping.
But eventually I began seeing less of my extended family. I outgrew summers in Savannah. We stopped