What Didn’t Kill Her

Bernice L. McFadden ruminates on all the things her mother has endured only to find herself spending her golden years in the midst of a deadly plague and state-sanctioned racism.

Bernice L. McFadden | Longreads | June 2020 | 8 minutes (2,024 words)

My brother never calls just to say hello.

On that warm, blue-skied, beautiful May day, I was sitting in the backyard of my cousins’ home, the sun warming my bare legs.

“Hello?”

He didn’t sound frantic, but his words were halting. It was clear that he was upset.

“Mommy fell and hit her head,” he said. “The ambulance is on the way.”

My chest tightened.

“Let me speak to her.”

You sounded a little out of breath and a tad bit embarrassed that he was causing such a fuss. You couldn’t explain exactly how you’d ended up on the floor. You did remember that you were standing at the bottom of the stairs watching my brother and his friend carry a love seat to the second floor apartment and then, the next thing you knew, my brother and his friend were standing over you calling your name as they shook you back to consciousness.

***

In the passenger seat of my cousin’s SUV, I lowered the windows. A summer bop pounded from the speakers, mingling with the music sailing from the open windows of other vehicles. The streets were filled with young people dressed in bright, colorful summer finery, the air singed with scents of marijuana, jerk chicken and incense. I tapped my foot along to the music. I wasn’t too worried about you. You’d taken tumbles before. Once you were felled by gout, another time your bum knee gave out and down you went, right in the middle of the Conduit Expressway.

By the time you gave birth to your son in 1968, you’d survived the south, the Midwest, prison, and that fiery car wreck.

You’d survived those falls and I was confident you’d survive this one too.

When we hit the highway, my phone jangled a second time. It was my brother again. This time when I answered, he was screaming.

She’s not going to survive this one, she’s not going to survive this one!

Conceived in incest, right under the nose of the predator-uncle’s wife and his mother.

You were born in 1943 and were just a toddler when your teenage mother fled North, leaving you in the care of your great-grandmother, Rosa May, beloved schoolteacher, follower of Christ, devoted wife and mother of 11 children, including the son that had raped your mother.

Grandma Rosie kept you close, took you everywhere she went, even to the fields to pick cotton. There she gave you a burlap sack and beneath that ruthless Georgia sun you shadowed her up and down those rows, plucking cotton boils from thorny stems. You thought it was a game. You didn’t know that cotton paid for the kerosene in the lamps, the clothes on your back and the fat back, beans and cornbread that filled all of the bellies in that house.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


You didn’t know you had a mother, until she showed up. A tiny yella thing, with a mane of dark hair, and tits as big as her personality. When she walked into the house and called you to her, you looked over your shoulder to see who she was talking to, because wasn’t no one in that house named Vivian. Grandma Rosie called you “little girl” and everyone else that lived there called you “Pootney.”

When you didn’t move, Grandma Rosie gave you a little shove and said, “Little girl, your mama calling you, go on over and give her a hug.”

So, on that day you learned two things. You learned you had a mother, and that your name was Vivian.

You were happy to rid yourself of that stupid nick name but weren’t too keen on the woman who claimed you as her own. Whether you liked her or not, one autumn she sent for you to come and live with her and her hustler boyfriend in a cold-water kitchenette in the motor city.

You had a slew of family there. Two of your great-uncles had migrated from Sandersville to Detroit, planted roots, and set out to outdo each other in the baby making department. In the end, they tied — each fathering a dozen children.

One day your mother tried to break into the boyfriend’s safe and when he came home and discovered the damage, he pulled a gun on both of you. Dressed in nightgowns, you and your mother fled on bare feet through the dark Detroit streets and alleyways. He followed in his Cadillac, one hand steering the car while the other waved the gun. He tried to mow you and your mother down into the asphalt, but you dragged her to the safety of her uncle’s house. Her uncle had guns too.

You survived that and soon your mother decided she’d had enough of those Midwest winters and that cheating, lying man, and packed you up, heading south to Brooklyn, New York.

***

You arrived in the summer of 1955. Frankie Lyman’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love dominated the airwaves. For the first year or so, the two of you bounced between family members until finally your mother rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Red Hook housing projects. You shared a room with her that had a view of the East river.

You were an adolescent by then, filled with angst and sass and opinions. Your mother didn’t use a leather strap to discipline you. Instead, she used words. Hurtful, piercing, awful words. Words that stabbed and sliced and slashed. Even now, in this, her 95th rotation around the sun, her tongue is still a knife.

When you were 15 years old, she’d had enough of your insolence and turned you over to the state penal system. So, for a year, you were someone else’s problem.

You survived that and returned to that little apartment overlooking the East River. That apartment was smaller now. Not only because you were a year older and a few inches taller, but now there was a man living there with his four children.

Some more years passed, and your mother married that man, and the whole family moved into a three-bedroom house in Queens. You were already in love with my father, and in that new house you made a baby with him. In 1965, with me tucked in your womb you married my father in that house just a few feet away from where I was conceived.

Two years from the day I was born, you and I climbed into the shiny new 1967 Cadillac owned by the man who’d years earlier tried to run you and your mother down in the Detroit streets. With his wife in the passenger seat and me in the back, you aimed that car towards Michigan, and we set off on a journey that would end in smoke and flames.

It was late and Interstate 94 was dark. By the time you hit the brakes to keep from plowing into the disabled car on the blind bend in the road, I had been hauled from the backseat to the front to sit betwixt you two.

The car behind us plowed right into the back of that late model Cadillac and that Cadillac promptly burst into flames. When you recount the story, you well remember the heat and how the blaze roared like a pride of lions.

My little ankles were caught in the slither of space that separated the driver and passenger seats. You tell me how you tugged and tugged to free me, but I was stuck as tight as a cork in a bottle.

The flames closed over your feet and climbed to your thighs and you left me, trying to outrun the flesh-eating fire. You ran until a loud voice in your head screamed for you to stop, drop and roll.You, human cinder, smoke wafting from your flesh, returned to the flaming car and pulled me so hard, the flesh around my ankles tore apart. We both sustained 3rd degree burns, and you had to learn to walk again. Years in the future, on those ruined feet you would endeavor a foot race with your youngest children and win.

***

By the time you gave birth to your son in 1968, you’d survived the south, the Midwest, prison, and that fiery car wreck.

On Mother’s Day in 1978, your husband drove you to The Brooklyn Jewish Hospital where you gave birth — via c-section — to a pair of fraternal twins. Your doctor administered penicillin to prevent infection even though you’re allergic to penicillin, have always been allergic to penicillin, your medical records dating back decades stating unequivocally that you are allergic to penicillin, which is why when you were admitted to the hospital, your wrist was fitted with a plastic band noting this very crucial fact.

For weeks you lay in that hospital bed with the stapled wound in your belly, leaking fluids, refusing to heal, and you, wracked with pain, on a slow march to death, moaning so loud that when I came to visit, I could hear you as soon as I stepped off the elevator.

You were nearly dead by the time some physician caught the error, rushed into your room, pulled the privacy curtain aside, tore open your incision, and snatched you back from death’s sticky, greedy fingers.

***

In 2005, if someone had asked how many times, you’d skirted death, your response might have been: Three times.

Your answer would not have included the time your husband held a gun to your head, choked you unconscious, or flung you across the room where you landed head first against the cast iron radiator.

You’d survived that and 40 years of marriage to an abusive alcoholic. So, when he died, you bought a new outfit, got your hair and nails done, and sat in the front row at his home-going service like a soldier awaiting her medal.

***

I arrived at the hospital to find you on your back on a gurney, thrashing about like a fish on land, like a woman possessed, like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I’d seen that writhing before, back in July 2001, when your husband, my father, had had a heart attack and ended up in the ER, in a bed on his back, twitching like a live wire.

He’d recovered from that near-death event and lived four more years. Then exactly two weeks into the fresh year, he died from a massive heart attack. When I received the call, I’d only just taken down the Christmas lights. The wreath was still on the door and outside the January wind was corralling tinsel and pine needles into storm drains.

Here I am with you in the time of COVID-19, watching the death toll climb and climb. You are afraid for your mother who is confined in a nursing home in another borough and I am afraid for you.

I watched as your entire body convulsed, your head whipping so violently that I thought your neck would snap. When I could look no more, I buried my tear-soaked face in my hands and feared that my brother might be right — that you wouldn’t to survive this one.

When I walked into your hospital room the next day you were awake, propped up on two pillows with your legs splayed so wide I could see all of your goodies. You gave me the goofiest smile I’d ever seen. One of your eyes was swollen shut — the other rolled comically in its socket. I was so happy to see you alive and somewhat cognizant that it took a good five minutes before I realized your hands were shackled to the safety bars of the bed.

After five weeks, you returned home, a little worse for wear, but alive. The trauma you sustained from the fall crossed the wires in your brain and since then, until now, your memories of things past and near past come and go like the seasons.

***

And now here you are, and here I am with you in the time of COVID-19 — amid civil unrest and military assaults on protesters after yet another Black man was murdered by police — watching the death toll climb and climb. You are afraid for your mother who is confined in a nursing home in another borough and I am afraid for you, even though I prepare all of your meals, repeatedly disinfect the house, and we are never more than a room apart.

Still, we’ve lost family and friends to this plague, and the plague of racism, and I am left fretting and wondering if one of these will be the thing that wins, the thing that you do not survive.

* * *

Bernice L. McFadden is the author of 15 novels and the recipient of the 2017 American Book Award as well as NACCP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for her novel, The Book of Harlan. She is a Professor of Practice at Tulane University.

Editor: Sari Botton