A wick, a basin of oil, a few brass prongs, and a glass globe hot enough to light your wall on fire if it was held too close; back when I was young enough to take naps beneath the pews without having to worry about getting pulled up by the ear, those oil lamps were the main source of light in every tiny church house Daddy was asked to preach at. That night, as the fans waved and the tambos were being smacked hard enough to bruise palms, I watched Momma do something I’d never forget.
Filled with the “Spirit”, she danced and sang all the way to the front of the church and with her bare hands, yanked the globe off a lamp that had been burning on a shelf for about three hours. Without missing a beat to the old hymn that was being stomped out from behind the pulpit, she rubbed the red hot glass up and down either side of her face, then turned around and set it right back inside all four of the brass prongs. Nothing; not her face, hands, or anything else on her got burned.
“I don’t believe that!” A big ole boy shouted from the back of the church and the music and singing stopped. He had dirt on his neck and a bright red handkerchief hanging out of the back pocket of his coveralls. Looked like the type of person that really needed to be in church, but would never come on his own accord. About as fast as I think he was capable of walking, he marched down the center aisle over to where that oil lamp was and yanked the globe off.
The crackle and hiss of flesh cooking was immediate. He yelped like a dog being whipped as he struggled to put that globe back in those prongs. I still remember what it smelled like. When he finally pulled his hand off, a perfect handprint of burnt skin stained the glass on that globe. Crying like a baby, he wrapped his hand in that bright red handkerchief, knelt down behind the altar and asked Daddy what he needed to do to be saved.
That was the kind of woman my momma was. She followed her God. Loved Him. And she never stopped.
Summer of 53’ was when Momma first got sick. The cancer started on her chin and worked its way down her neck. She didn’t act like it bothered her much, but eventually, enough neighbors, church members, and even strangers told her she aught to get it looked at and so she did. When she went to the doc. they wasted no time working on her. Her first surgery was almost immediate and it took a hunk out of her chin about the size of a marble and left a big scar down her neck. Looking back, I don’t remember ever really thinking about how the cancer was making Momma feel. What must of went through her mind every time she looked in the mirror and a little bit more of her face was missing. Ironically, I would one day know exactly how she felt, but at the time I was too busy being selfish and thinking about how much Momma’s cancer was bothering me.
See there was nothing worse to me than the cancer that got Momma. She was beautiful, loving, patient, and kind. She didn’t deserve to have little pieces of her cut out bit by bit, but she also didn’t deserve to have black spots of what looked like rot crawling down her face and neck. After her first surgery they gave her a shot of radium that nearly killed her. For three months it was all Momma could do just to lie in bed silently and not moan. I hate cancer and I’ll hate it till the day I die.
The closest I ever came to committing a serious crime was on account of Momma’s cancer. The radiation treatments she needed were going to cost over a thousand dollars; a small fortune for a barefoot family from the wrong side of town. I was seventeen and had been working at the drug store since before I was in high school and old Doc Crews trusted me about as much as he trusted himself. Every Friday he’d have all the store’s money for the week tucked away in the register. No safe, no nothing. And he’d leave it there till the bank opened back up on Monday. There was always close to a couple thousand bucks in there, and I knew that store as good as anything.
The plan was simple. We needed money for Momma’s cancer, and I knew just where to get it. It was around midnight that Friday night. I tucked my pistol in my waistband, and covered my shoes in burlap so they wouldn’t leave any tracks. The lock on the back door was simple to jimmy of you were handy with a pry bar, and of course I was.
I parked my car a hundred or so yards away from the store and walked the last little bit. The light over the back door flickered a dim yellow and buzzed faintly like somebody was getting a haircut with a fancy electric razor in the next building over.
Steps muffled by the rough burlap, hands trembling over the pry bar, I could barely see what I was doing for all the tears. I’d been to church my whole life. I knew what the good book said about stealing. If Momma knew how I got this money she would never accept it. Sick or no, she’d pull me by the ear march me down here and make me give it back if she had to. And if she asked me straight, there’s no way I could lie to her.
As I edged the pry bar against the door I couldn’t take it anymore. Sniffling and crying I whispered to the cracked paint on the door. “I’m sorry Momma, I can’t do it. I just can’t.”
“Reverend, is that you?” A voice weathered and thin shouted overhead. Miss Anderson, an old widow who lived in an apartment above the drugstore, was having trouble sleeping and had heard me fiddling with the lock.
“It’s me, Miss Anderson,” I said back, half petrified by the fact that she had recognized me. “I was just checking to make sure the back door was locked.”
I cried the whole damp walk back to my car. Had I went through with it, I would have got caught. No question. And no matter what the reason, I would have been labeled a thief for a long time.
A week later, some of the rich folks that Daddy had done a lot of woodwork for found out about Momma’s cancer. They got together in one of there rich folk parties and raised the money for Momma’s radiation. Proud as he was, Daddy eventually took the money. He loved Momma about more than anything.
Even though the radiation was paid for, Daddy spent most of that time gone on account of the rest of the hospital bills. With Momma not able to wash clothes and me staying home more to help keep the house going, if Daddy didn’t do more working us kids would have to do less eating. My older sister Mable and me did most of the cooking and cleaning while Mary, being barely a teenager, looked after Momma. I knew how to fry chicken and potatoes, and boil beans because Momma had showed me. The older kids had long since left the house. Marvin was in the military and Leeroy—his given name was Leeroy Vincent but we all just called him L.V.—had started running a bulldozer and preaching the gospel, while Clifford and Lydia were God knows where. We were a family of five, and our momma was dying of cancer.
The fried chicken and boiled beans carried us through the winter, but in the spring of 54’ Momma started coughing up blood. Even as kids, no one had to tell us that Momma was in bad shape. Once or twice I leaned my head against the door to Momma’s room and I could hear her praying for God to heal her. She wasn’t selfish like me though. She’d stay knelt at her bedside for longer than I thought she should in her condition, and she’d pray for Daddy and us kids, and anyone else she could think of that needed something from the Lord. It must have been so hard for her to get up and down off her knees every day only to keep getting worse.
“You want to pray with me, Reverend?” She said once when I had let the door creep open a little too far.
“No Momma,” I choked out. “Just checking on you is all.”
Momma smiled. “You’re a fine young man, Reverend. I’m blessed to have such fine children.” Her voice was still just as smooth as a pretty girl’s cheek. The smile never left her face as she kept praying. I didn’t watch for too long though. It’s hard to see much when you’re crying.
The year I was to graduate high school was the year we took Momma to a specialist doctor in Tampa. That hospital was the biggest building I had ever stepped foot in. Whitewashed and smelling like medicine and bleach with room after room of people either getting better or dying; I wanted to leave the moment we got there. The specialist was tall and lean with a full head of hair, and younger than I thought he should have been. He was older than me of course, but younger than Daddy and too young to know so much about cutting the cancer out of my momma. But that was just my opinion.
“Your cancer is the creepy crawly kind, Mrs. Williamson,” the specialist said to Momma as Daddy stared at him stone-faced. Daddy hadn’t gotten more than a couple years of formal education so it must have been strange for him to hear another man talk so easily about what was killing his wife. “Our tests show that it has moved into your lungs and is spreading aggressively towards your brain. Now that’s what we are most concerned with. Brain cancer must be dealt with very carefully and as soon as possible. Every minute we wait is another minute it gets closer to becoming inoperable.” He paused and read Daddy’s face. “If we wait too long, the cancer could spread to the places we can’t cut on without endangering Gracie’s life.”
Momma nodded her head while the specialist kept talking, but her lips never stopped their subtle moving. She was praying. “When do we need to have the surgery?” Daddy finally broke his silence.
The specialist leaned back in his chair, tapping his pen against some papers on his desk. “I’d say this Sunday, if at all possible. But we’ll need to keep her here until then for observation.” It was Monday.
Hospital or home, dying or not, Momma was still Momma. She spent most of that week talking about three things: How good God was, how much she wanted to see all of her seven children before she had the operation, and how upset she was that they were gonna have to shave her head for the surgery. Momma was from the old school, and old school Pentecostal God-fearing women didn’t cut their hair. No sir. They wore it in a bun.
The days went by and Momma waited, never doubting. The night before the operation I watched as one by one, my older brothers and sisters came in to see Momma. My momma did a whole lot of smiling and a whole lot of crying that night.
When it was just me and Momma, she pulled me over to the bedside and hugged me up close with as much strength as I figure she could manage. “You follow the Lord, Reverend. You go where he leads, and do what he tells you. God has a plan for you, Reverend.”
“Yes, Momma,” I said somehow keeping it all together as she rubbed a thin hand up and down my sleeve.
“Now go get your daddy,” she said when she finally let me go.
The next morning, as the nurses were preparing momma for the surgery, she left this world. She died in the bathroom in a polka dot hospital gown just minutes before they were gonna shave her hair off, and she was buried in a long dress with every last hair still wrapped in a perfect bun on the top of her head. Cancer scars or no, Momma was still beautiful. The funeral was almost exactly one month before I graduated high school.
I had no intention of making good on the promise I made to Momma that night. Why should I follow a God who could take my momma away from me without even letting her see me graduate? A God who could heal me from polio before I had even done anything to deserve it, but wouldn’t heal my momma who had been a saint her whole life, well that wasn’t the kind of God I could understand. And sure as heck wasn’t a God I wanted to follow. I had heard scriptures talking about rain falling on the just and the unjust alike, but I didn’t care. That was my momma that I watched die for a year one piece at a time as she coughed up blood and prayed for healing. Needless to say I was mad.
After I graduated, I ran from the God that let my momma die. I ran as far away from Him as I thought possible. A place where I could be told exactly what to do, and when to do it, and could wash away any thoughts about Momma and God with push ups and stiff liquor.
“Boy, I guess I outta hug you,” Daddy said as I stood with my green military duffle bag over my shoulder taking my first steps toward the train. To say he was a loving man would have been just stupid. Daddy was hard. At times it even felt like he was a special kind of hard on me. I remember when I was a little boy pretending to be asleep at the end of revival services just so he would have to pick me up and carry me out. He had never hugged me before. So as I turned around and he got closer I kept trying to imagine just how awkward this was going to be. A man doing something he hadn’t done often, just because he figured it was appropriate, stiffly and unnaturally fumbling through the motions of something foreign… forgotten.
Daddy’s hug was none of those things. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes till he couldn’t anymore. Then he wrapped his arms around me. I was bigger than Daddy, but I remember feeling small in his arms. It wasn’t a long hug, but Daddy meant every second of it. The feeling of it lingered a good while after it was over. In fact, I swear I felt it for most of that train ride to Charlotte, North Carolina.