The struggle has ended. The moment is soft, like a pink baby blanket. Soft, like my daughter’s skin when she was born. Mama placed her in my arms, and I started to cry like crazy—big sob- tears sliding down my plain face onto my baby’s perfect face. Yeah, joy-tears like Mama’s and relief-tears that our Charlotte was breathing…and that I did it! I birthed her out of me with Mama’s help, at home. I was afraid I would pass out, but I didn’t. I was strong and smart, and I listened good to my Mama. She told me how to breathe right and how to push right. And out came this tiny little thing, this baby girl who loved me already. Loved me and needed me. And I loved her right back.
Mama said no, I couldn’t love her, that I was too young to know how to. But I wasn’t. Because my love felt like steel. Strong, so strong that nothing could bend it. Not ever. Not then, not now.
My body is plain up stopping and I can’t make it work no more. But inside? In my mind? I feel like a ferocious lion ready to pounce and save my cub. I’m on a mission, and I gotta think fast. My “Lottie” just turned five, and she needs a chance at life. She’s little, but she’s smart. She can sing the alphabet song and count to 100 all by herself! But right now she has to listen to me—and listen good. God maybe needs me, but he can’t get her too. Nuh-uh. No way.
I pretend I’m not scared, I pretend that everything is okay. I’m a good actress, like on TV. My boyfriend, Jimi, always has a good laugh at me: “Girl, you are the best actress in Texas, you should go on stage. Go find yourself a giant-size stage!” How I wish I could. I’d take Lottie with me, and we’d get famous and rich!
Well, at least we’d be dry.
It feels like sleep is grabbing at me, pulling me to sink into its softness. But I’m stronger than it is, for now anyway. I have a job to do—the most important job of my life. To keep my baby alive. Lord help me, I can’t give up. Gotta be strong. I tell Lottie in my most serious voice: “You will be okay! But you gotta listen to me, and listen real good!” Her grip is strong and tight around the sides of my belly. I wanna tell her I’m sorry I never learned to swim right. I wanna sing her the “Mess Up/Fix It” song—it could help keep her calm. But I need to save my energy. So I tell her quick how to live and how to stay alive. I think I better hurry, cause that light of softness is telling me to follow it, to surrender to it. It’s like an angel whispering kindness to me.
“Lottie, stop crying. You need to be strong. You’re going to be safe, I promise, my precious girl. I love you with all my heart. But you have to listen real good. You’re my smart girl! You will go to school after this water drains away, and you’ll learn to read and write. Yeah, you’re my smart girl!”
It seems like she’s listening. Her eyes are wide and scared but she’s stopped crying and she’s listening hard. Real hard.
“You keep holding me tight, no matter what. Mama has to go to sleep to be with a pretty angel. One that God has sent special for me. I’m not scared, and you can’t be either. I want you to sing the “Mess Up/Fix It” song over and over when I go to sleep. Promise Mama that whatever you do, you’ll hang on! Just like you’re doing now! God will watch over you. I will still be here even when I sleep. Hold on to me, y’hear? Don’t let go of me not for one second, you understand? I’m your tug boat. I will hold you safe. But you can’t let go. Don’t let go of me, you understand, Lottie Girl? Tell me!”
Lottie is all shivering, and her little lips are purple. Her wails cut me deep, slice up my heart into pieces, “Nooooo, Mommy, don’t go, don’t go. Please, please, please! I’m scared, Mommy!” I know there is no time to give in to her cries, no time for a lot of comfort words.
“You stop, Lottie, stop! You breathe deep and you find the strong lion in you. When you’re scared, you change it into roars, roars of strength, y’hear? You have to grow up fast, right now, because you need to live, you understand? You need to live for both of us. Look at me, look fierce-like into my eyes, like a strong lion, Lottie, nothing can stop you… Roar, Lottie, real loud! Every time you want to give up or cry, you roar loud!”
And then she does. Just like when we played the zoo game. Lottie lets out a roar, a beautiful, fierce roar. “That’s it!” I say to her. “Yes, girl, you are strong… Jeez, you are strong.” I fight my own urge to cry. But I won’t give in. And I start to growl and roar with Lottie.
And then there is silence, and my little baby uses her best grown-up voice, and she says real loud to me: “I understand, Mommy.” And right after that—like she’s handing me the most beautiful present with a big yellow bow—she says “I’m smart, Mommy. And I listen to you like you listen to Maw-maw. And I won’t let go. It’ll be okay, Mama. We’re okay, Mama. Don’t worry, Mommy. I will roar when I need to, and I will be strong as you, Mommy. Just like you taught me. Don’t worry, Mommy. We…how do you say that, Mama? Wait. I know! We got this!”
And I think maybe she’s the real actress. Because, somehow, I believe her. I really do. And I start to feel some comfort. I feel it from her, and I feel it from a childhood memory that is drifting into my mind. It makes my heart smile…
I was a little older than Lottie, maybe seven or eight…and I’m walking with my baby brother, Tyler. We lived in South Philly then, and Tyler and I…we were walkin’ along the Delaware River. The sun was blazing and jumping through the bright green leaves, making pretty shadows for us all over the dirt path. Suddenly Tyler yells: “Look!” And he points to something floating in the river. At first we thought it was a huge log or somethin’. But no… It was a big puffed-up bloated man’s body. Kind of like a beached whale just floating on top of the river…a dead body bopping and bobbing along. It looked like a movie, but oh my God, it was real. The body was floating.
And that memory is my prayer. It makes me think that Lottie just might make it.
“Pretend I am your boat, baby. If I bop up or down just hang on tight. And whatever you do, don’t let go of my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt! Mickey Mouse can save you too. Just hold on tight. And remember, there is a snack in your backpack for later. I made you your favorite peanut butter and honey sandwich. Only don’t try getting it ‘til you get help. And don’t worry, your big-girl school papers will dry out. You keep doing your kindergarten homework and you’ll grow up smart. And you go to high school, y’hear? Stay smart, Lottie-girl. And stay kind. Mommy loves your kind heart best of all—my Lottie love. No, don’t cry, Lottie… You got this. You hang on tight. No matter what! Don’t ever let go until the man comes in his boat. Maybe you’ll get to ride up in a big basket, up up up ‘til you get into the helicopter! Yeah, you’ll be flying, baby! The people will help you. Make sure you listen to them. They are nice people and will take good care of you. They will help you call Maw-maw. Her phone number is inside the backpack. Remember how we put it there with blue magic marker? Be brave and strong, Lottie! Once you are safe you can eat your sandwich. It will stay dry because it’s in a plastic bag.”
“Okay, Mommy, I will. I promise I’ll eat it, Mommy.”
“That’s my girl! Hang on, my tough little girl…my Lottie-bird… Hang on and keep singing, baby!”
And with every ounce of strength left, I start our special song: “Whaaaaat? Mama messed up? Whaaaaat? Well, you know what that means. ‘Mess Up/ Fix It!’ to the rescue!”
When we mess up it’s really okay
Because we know it and we can say…
I’m sorry Mama or I’m sorry Lottie
We love each other so much
We’re both seein’ dotty!
A big giant hug can help us feel better
Because God’s love keeps us together
I hear Lottie start to sing with me, and I feel the pull to the quiet, to the quiet deep inside me. I gulp some more water down and pray I won’t sputter and scare my little girl. I stay as still as I can. There’s no air I can’t breathe! Water. Just water…
I can’t… get any… air!
And just then I know. I no longer grab for it.
As Lottie sings me to sleep, I quietly breathe in my death.
Activist. Warrior. Survivor. The blank page beckons. It can provide the key to truth, to inspiration, to enlightenment, and to justice. At a time when fundamental democratic institutions are under assault, arts and letters can give testimony to the unprivileged, the underserved, and the forgotten. I write because it is life sustaining, and I hope that my words reflect, even in a small way, the indomitability of the human spirit. A Connecticut girl transplanted to New York City’s East Village, I later found my way to Venice, California. I was quickly won over by its tableau of diversity, art, and the breathtaking views that always promise better days—for our daughters, our sons, and all mankind.