Monday, September 24, 2012

On grieving for black little girls we never knew

Maggie, 10 months


I was in sixth grade. Every morning of middle school I caught the warm yellow bus at a very early hour to be transported to the magnet school across town. After collecting me and my brother and our friends from our white neighborhood the bus winded through many other neighborhoods, neighborhoods I would never see otherwise, and the black kids joined us on the social microcosm that is a school bus. And there we sat for the hour long bus ride to and fro, daily, in segregated integration. I didn't like the black girls only because I was afraid they didn't like me. They didn't like me because they were afraid I didn't like them. And so we disliked and misunderstood each other for two hours every day across the streets of Houston.

That morning the bus was at a stoplight in one of those other neighborhoods. My little girlfriends and I discussed the latest horror fiction we had snuck past our moms until we heard the bang. So loud. Then the school bus was completely silent and forty or so black and white children were unified for the first time ever by the shocking sight on the other side of the glass.

His car was completely sliced in two by the telephone pole. Like a knife through butter. But only in the back seat. Physically he was untouched. He stared out the window, his hand on his forehead. Had I not known I would think he was bored. He was not bored. I watched a man transform, missing the life he had led just five minutes ago.

The little girl looked like the girls on my bus that didn't like me. She lay in the street, silently, still, and her brown-orange coat flapped in the wind and I was very worried for her, that her dress would blow up and everyone on the bus would see her panties. Why doesn't she pull down her dress? I stared. Why doesn't she get up?

Her mother was not silent. She wailed and wailed and wailed and wailed as I and forty other black and white children watched from the windows of the school bus. She did not look at the girl on the cement. As she wailed, she danced a strange jerking stomping dance around the girl. She paced back and forth, collapsed to the ground, got up again, stomped her feet, waved her arms, held them to her head, collapsed again. My child heart did not understand this strange dance. My mother heart does, now. 

We sat there for what seemed like such a long time until finally the children began to talk again, the bus grew loud again, the traffic was cleared, and we continued our journey to school.

I don't even know if we were tardy. I don't remember talking about it, to anyone. The bus driver drove on, never mentioning it. Certainly no counselors were called. We got on the bus the next morning and rode through our neighborhoods to our school just like we had every other morning. It was like it never happened. But it did happen.

When I was a little girl I saw another little girl die.
I did not know that child but I was there, staring through a window, watching her die.
It happened to her. It happened to me.

That has to change a child. That experience, the memory of that experience, must seep inside a heart until the very DNA of the soul is transformed. I don't know how it changed me, and the other children on that bus. I only know that it did. It must have. It must have made me a different me than the me I was before. Made them a different them.

I can still see her brown-orange coat flapping in the wind. I still want to pull down her dress and protect her. I still want her to get up.

It's been thirty years and I'm a mother now and I'm at Costco with my children. My little girl gets in trouble. Nothing major, she simply took a second pasta sample when I told her she could only have one, so I took it away from her. Not a big deal. But her face collapses, and soon she is sobbing. We turn down an aisle and she continues to sob. Her heart is broken. This is about more than pasta.

I kneel down, cradle her face in my hands, "Maggie, why are you so sad?"
"Because you got mad a me!"
"I'm not even mad at you. I told you I forgive you. Now tell me, why are you so sad?"
"Because I'm afraid that you're going to send me away if I'm bad!"
 
I'm shocked. Stunned to hear this come from her. Shocked that she even felt it, said it. But mostly shocked because my friend Grace and I had talked just the night before about how Grace's daughter had said this very same sentence to her. And Grace was delighted that she had verbalized this fear because when our child's heart cries out loud, our child's heart can be comforted.

But Grace's daughter is adopted from Ethiopia. Grace's daughter has good reason to fear abandonment by a mother, because she's experienced it once before. She knows that it happens. It happened to her.

But why does my daughter have this fear?

My daughter has never been abandoned, my daughter has never been left.

But since she can remember, she's been thinking, talking, wondering, praying, waiting for an invisible someday-sister. And that someday-sister needs another mother because her first mother went away.

At some point, recently, my daughter realized that sometimes mothers leave their little girls. This horrible knowledge has seeped into her heart and transformed the DNA of her soul. And suddenly, kneeling on the cement, looking into her wet eyes, I realize that she is now a different she. 

"Maggie, I will never, ever send you away, no matter what you do. I will never, ever leave you."

She stares. I continue. "But sometimes, not here, but in Ethiopia, mommies don't have enough money to buy food for their babies. And when they don't, even though they love them, they have to leave them in an orphanage so that someone else can take care of them..."

"BUT THAT'S SO SAD!!" She wails, and she wails, and she wails, and she wails. I gather my daughter in my arms and she clings to me and I cling to her as we sit on the cement, together grieving for black little girls we never knew.


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