My mother used to make a kind of sweet tea that could heal all wounds, fix all problems, and demolish all kinds of pain. If my siblings and I were fighting or in the midst of an argument or in a sour mood, all she had to do was pour us a glass of that sweet tea, and every single damn time, we would stop whatever we were doing, declare an international truce, and take as many gulps of that sweet tea as we could.
“You’re just encouraging bad behavior, giving them that sweet tea,” my father used to say. “And they’ll get cavities, too”.
But that didn’t bother my mother. She just smiled, understandably, nodded, and promised that she would stop if we started getting cavities.
I never understood how it worked – erasing every trouble or pain from my young, fresh mind. One time I scraped my knee from playing tag in the Barrow’s backyard, under the tall, sagging trees, the ones that looked like specters, weighed down by Spanish moss. The kids laughed as I cried my way down the block, barefoot and bleeding. When I got back, my mother kissed my forehead, poured me a glass of that sweet tea, and I forgot what I’d been crying about.
A week after I turned thirteen, I was dead set on being a linebacker in the Alexandria Juniors Athletic Association football team. In my juvenile mind, linebackers were the ultimate form of power. They were strong, focused, intense, disciplined – everything that I wanted to be. I started lifting weights, doing pushups, and running laps every day.
After six weeks of conditioning in the scorching Louisiana humidity, I triumphantly stepped onto the scale and reached a whopping weight of 150 pounds. Needless to say, God didn’t bless me with a body that was meant to play football, but I sure as hell didn’t realize that at the time. I returned back from tryouts, dehydrated, humiliated, and not a linebacker. My mother took my helmet, poured me a glass of that sweet tea, and for a brief moment, it didn’t matter that I would never be a linebacker.
By the time I was in high school, my drive to become a linebacker had slowly turned to teenage angst and cynicism, mixed with a hint of southern irresponsibility that everyone talks about. When my mother’s birthday came around, I forgot to get her a present. My siblings and my dad woke me up early that morning to bring her breakfast in bed and give her the gifts that they’d bought with their month’s savings of meager allowance. I followed them as they marched into her bedroom, and realized that I was the only one who had nothing to offer. My dad carried a tray of grits and bacon, my siblings each carried the present that they’d bought.
“Where’s your present?” One of my siblings asked, with copperhead venom in his voice. Everyone turned to look at me, wondering what I would say next. My mother sensed my hesitancy, and improvised. She leaned over to her bedside table, pulled out a piece of jewelry that she’d bought for herself two days before, and put it around her neck.
“It’s right here,” she smiled, like a Hollywood actress. “He gave it to me early.”
She wore that necklace everywhere, and never wavered from the story that I was the one who gave it to her. She was wearing it when I graduated from Pineville High. She wore it when I graduated from Tech. She wore it when I got married, at that old church in downtown Alexandria. She wore it when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
I saw my mother for the last time in a hospital bed, at Rapides Regional. She looked nothing like the strong, gentle woman that I knew my entire life. She was weak, and frail, but ferocious in the face of cancer. There was an inextinguishable kind of fire that she refused to allow to be stamped out, regardless of the torrential downpour of chemotherapy. She endured the shower of weight loss, the flooding of her hair falling out, and the violent sickness that rocked her frame like a storm battering the Louisiana coast.
I visited her early in the morning; the Louisiana heat approaching quickly, yet still brewing in the distance. She hadn’t slept. We knew that it would happen soon.
She battled so hard to offer me a smile – It was like she had to tear her emotions from the sky and glue them across her face to show an expression, but it didn’t matter. I said goodbye, and thank you.
By the time I left Rapides Regional, the Louisiana heat had swept through the open vastness and the sun poured down, as if to say “I don’t care that you’re mother is going to die, I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
My wife, Anne, learned how to make the sweet tea from my mother a week before my mother found out that she had cancer. Anne and I weren’t even married a year by the time my mother passed away – she was thrown into the midst of seeing me say goodbye to my mother, but she handled it well.
I returned home from the hospital to Anne, who greeted me silently with a comforting hug as I entered our small, southern, one bedroom house. She led me inside and poured me a glass of my mother’s sweet tea.
But it tasted different, like it had lost something essential to its taste. And it’s never tasted the same since.