This is what I can tell you:
On a June night in 1986, my mother drinks from a tall glass of ice water. The radio might be on. If it is on, she is listening to Patti or Luther or The Pointer Sisters or Whitney. She might be singing, voice off-key but still rising proudly up her throat.
She sits in the front room of the East New York house, the plastic cover on my grandmother’s crushed velvet sofa slick and tacky beneath her thighs. The ice cubes glitter as if her glass is full of diamonds. Her lips, layered with her trademark shade of red, leave a perfect, thick tattoo on the rim of the glass. The house glimmers with movement and bodies. Her brother in the basement. Her sisters in the blue room, arguing and watching TV. My grandmother in the grand rear bedroom, listening to the kreyól station on the radio as she powders her body post-shower. My brother and I, barreling through the dim light of the house like tumbleweeds.
The heat of Brooklyn leaves water beading against my mother’s cleavage the way bacon grease pops from the pan. Her body is loud, heavy with health. All the siblings are built this way. No one yet knows the cancer is coming.
I am five. I don’t think twice about breaking the solitary pleasure of this moment by scrambling onto my mother’s lap. My body is sturdy and kinetic; I climb over the mounds of her, burying my head against her breasts. She rests the glass of water to the side and her hands—cool, damp, and patient—wipe my face. The same hands that wipe me clean each morning, grease me up with cocoa butter or Vaseline, and section my thick hair into braids as neat and precise as lawns. The hands that feed me. My mouth is constantly putting in work on something good. I live my childhood through texture.
This is what I understand women to look like:
Skin is deep brown. Bellies are round and soft, perfect to rest your head upon. Thighs are parenthetical and stout. Unmoveable. Dimpled as clementines. Fingernails are tapered and red as fruit. Fat is not a dirty word: it is simply descriptive.
The story of a black woman’s body has many beginnings. In this beginning my mother reminds me of how she looks when she has a plate of good food: joyous, comfortable, at ease.
Another day this same summer, I heave handfuls of salted peanuts straight from the jar into my mouth. My tiny body is pressed to the kitchen table, salt and oil stinging my palms. My jaw aches but still I crunch, chew, masticate. I have learned from the women who populate my life that food is the great healer. The ability to sit and chew, to change the matter of something until it becomes part of you, is a method of meditation. Food fills when everything else fails to. Pain and discomfort are not cause to stop eating. You eat until the ache numbs.
Hours later at my aunt’s block party, while the rest of the neighbourhood electric slides on the closed-off street, the deejay’s bass unhinges my belly. I vomit for hours. I will not touch peanuts again until I am a grown woman, but I fill the gap seamlessly. Fuzzy peaches become my favourite. I hoard bags of them in the bottom of my sock jar, until my socks are gritty with sugar granules and tiny black bugs the size of punctuation marks nest in my clothes. I love the tang of dill pickle potato chips, that satisfying crunch followed by the sharp flood of flavour. I fantasize all day about my mother’s lasagna, unable to concentrate on anything else but the thought of layers of cheese, pasta, and ground beef nesting on my tongue. I learn Haiti, my grandmother’s country, not through language but through food. Each Sunday she stands at the stovetop in slippers, a dishtowel slung over one shoulder. Hours after she is done, the walls sweat out the scent of dumplings, black mushroom rice, soup joumou. The women who surround me understand that food satiates and fills much more than the belly.
The day comes where my mother, my brother, my sister and I board a plane. We are flying three thousand miles from Brooklyn to Vancouver to join my father. As we soar above our borough, we look down, faces pressed to the windows like flowers turned to the light. This is the first time any of us have seen New York from this height. We will not see Brooklyn again for years. My mother has packed sandwiches and plastic bags of goldfish crackers. As I bite into the tuna and whole wheat bread, a calm I did not know I needed pulses through me.
When they cut away my mother’s breasts we are in Surrey, the place that is now home. I am eight. My mother’s body lives in one country while her heart lives in another. This dissonance is one of the leading causes of cancer. She is one border and two oceans away from the other big-bodied women who have always orbited her life. The ones who could ease her through the danger metastasizing inside of her and sweep her fear away like dust. “Our phone bills were three hundred dollars a month that first year from home,” she will tell me years later. The first time I see the cloth of her shirt rest flat against her chest, I turn from her, afraid and small and feeling stupid for the words I do not have. I slip barefoot into the kitchen and pull leftovers from the fridge. I do not know what I am eating but the familiar slide of my jaw dampens my fear. I will not lose my mother. I will not lose my mother. I time the mantra with each bite and the food becomes part of the meditation. Later, in the middle of the night, I hear her in the kitchen, rooting through the fridge. This is how I know she will not die: through the chemo, she does not stop eating. Her towering, shining afro shrinks to chaff and she is always tired, but the fridge stays full and the stovetop fired up.
Years later, the cancer returns. It has migrated and resurfaces as a hard knot in her colon. We have all scattered now: me in California, my sister in Washington. My brother remains to hold down the family fort. When the news hits, we gather ourselves and converge upon Surrey. I sit next to my mother on her hospital bed at Surrey Memorial while the doctor sketches the mass on a napkin. She lies on her back with her arms across her flat chest.
We look at what the doctor has drawn, both our brown necks stretched forward. He has sketched a golf ball of hard tissue, wedged at the cross section of small intestine, large intestine, and colon. I watch as the doctor swirls the mass in with black ink. It looks like what anxiety feels like in my belly. It looks like mortality.
I don’t listen as the doctor speaks. I think about healers. The kind of women who populate the world of toni cade bambara’s The Salt Eaters; women who in beautiful clothing and with warm breath can braid the hair of another woman without pulling too tight. Whose smiles and murmurs calm the furious animal in you. Women others talk about with relief and gratitude for the good they bring. I am not such a woman: my hands are industrial and plain. I am better with words than with touch. My mother’s illness makes me anxious, angry, and hungry. As the doctor speaks, I remember that we are God-fearing people and I send out a prayer that I might be blessed with healing hands to lay upon my mother’s skin and dissolve this thing into nothingness. My upbringing taught me that my baptism as an infant saved me, so I cannot understand why I feel so godless.
Two weeks after the first chemo treatment, I visit home again. I come up the stairs to her bedroom and do not recognize this woman.
Her shoulders are angular. The rapid weight loss gives her biceps the look of batwings. The belly and thighs that spread and jiggled are gone. To see her in this way makes me realize how alone she is in this country. An orphan with six siblings and countless nieces, nephews, and first cousins. Everything has dragged from her.
I go back to the kitchen to pull food from the fridge. She has not eaten a full meal in days and needs nutrition. And I realize I have never thought of food in this way. Food has been surrogate, proxy, comfort. Never nutrition. Standing over the stove, I heat up mashed potatoes with pork ribs in a pan the way she prefers—not in the microwave. When the food is warm I place it carefully on one of the nice plates only pulled out for special occasions. I crown the potatoes with a thick wedge of butter. Fat shines on the meat. My mouth waters. The bones will give her something to chew and suck on, the way she has always done with ribs. The gristle will glue her body in place.
I balance the plate on my hands up the stairs to her room. “Here, Mommy.”
She turns from the food with a shudder. “Just bring me some water, baby,” she asks. We compromise with strawberries.
In a plastic bowl I hold six cut-up bits of too-ripe strawberry, slimy as albumen between my fingers. I hand-feed her, pressing the slivers of fruit to her cracked lips, bidding her mouth to wake up, be loud as ’86. After two swallows, she is full. Eating is a chore. Each bite, a tiny blade.
I have come to rely on that memory of ’86. My mind has locked on the still life of my mother on the couch, sipping water on a hot day, her body at its biggest. This, I know, is a child’s rendering of a woman. I understand this is a reduction of my mother to flesh and sweet music and a warm evening in Brooklyn. But she has always taught me, in her own way of saying it, that thoughts become things.
This is what I pray for:
To have the fortitude of her four sisters in the kitchen, fanning smoke from the stovetop with a dishtowel. To be cool and calming as ice clinking in a glass rimmed red from her mouth. I want to tip my mother’s throat back and look deep inside her, all the way down to her most truthful part and find out what will happen on the other side of this telling. I am weary of the reminders of her mortality. Black women and their daughters have earned the right to love one another uninterrupted.
One day the summer of 2015 will be a one day: a memory as old as 1986. The story will go: you lost so much weight. You scared us when you stopped eating. Then, little by little, you returned to yourself. You wore red again and reclaimed the kitchen as your domain. I walk through her house, touching things, imagining this, urging time to march forward closer to my fantasy, that this food story will spiral upwards, back to a place where satiety is returned to its proper function in our lives.
I cannot tell you this yet.
This is the romance, when I am still courting a present that starts and stops like an animal taking its first steps. I’m impatient for the beautiful story of food and survival and weight gain and hair once again lustrous and decadent. I am hungry for this reality to hold the smooth weight of relief. And this is the hunger I cannot quell.
Idrissa Simmonds grew up in Vancouver, B.C., with roots in Brooklyn, Haiti, and Jamaica. Winner of the 2013 Crab Creek Review Poetry Prize, she has been a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Award and a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant in poetry. Her work has most recently appeared in Black Renaissance Noire, James Franco Review, Fourteen Hills Press, and elsewhere. She has led writing workshops for a range of communities through the New York Writers Coalition, and curates the literary salon Brunch and Word. Her work as an educator and facilitator focuses on amplifying the voices and talents of educators whose identities and backgrounds are underrepresented in senior leadership roles. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Hedgebrook, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Poets House, and VONA/Voices. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Warren Wilson College and is at work on her first novel.