My mother passed away two Novembers ago. Almost no one was propelled into shock as hard as I was. She died from complications related to lymphoma, which she had only been diagnosed with three months before. My mom was prideful—humble in every respect that didn’t relate to admitting that she needed help. The timeline of her sickness was so short that neither of us had seen her end steadily approaching. A single parent who hadn’t expected her only daughter ever to be left alone, she had no plan in place for what would happen to me in the event that she wasn’t around. She was supposed to always be around.
I was living with my mother’s childhood best friend from Trinidad when I got the news, a woman I’ll refer to as Merrie. She resided in a one-bedroom apartment blocks away from our own with her three sons, and I joined them during the month before Mom’s passing, when I still ran home every day expecting her to be back in bed.
Merrie had known my mother for around four decades, seen her grow from scraped knees to an injured heart, and she had known that she was going to die. Her entire family had—yet no one had told me, or even hinted to me. (Looking back, I was too hopeful to allow myself to read between the lines, but there was more. The last attempts to revitalize my mother pushed her into a comatose state, during which I was told she was “just resting” until she was rushed to ICU. One of the doctors in the unit had called Merrie and explicitly told her that my mother would only make it to the next morning if she was lucky, and that she should bring me to see her one last time. Merrie’s response to my absolute disbelief when she told me belatedly: “I couldn’t take you so I didn’t tell you.”) When it happened, her second oldest son pulled me aside and told me about the vision he’d had the night before. “You might not believe me, but I saw your mom yesterday,” he whispered to me. “I woke up and she was standing in the corner. I knew it was her, but she was younger—dressed in all black, and unhappy, as if she was thinking about something. I didn’t want to tell you, but I knew she was gone.”
The day after we went to identify my mother in the hospital morgue, Merrie drove me to my first job interview. The Monday before, we had been watching Wheel of Fortune and she talked about me going on game shows for her. “Dan, weren’t we just talking about this? Britney could win on one of these. We’ll sign you up for some in the next few years.” Merrie talked about all five of us moving into a bigger apartment when she finally came into more money before my mom was even dead, something that had confused me to no end. I had known her all my life and for that reason, I feared her. My mother used to reference Merrie when she scolded me for being ungrateful. “Be happy you don’t live with Merrie,” she’d said. “Then you’d really have something to complain about.”
My best friend Caterra and her family knew about Merrie; so did my mother’s boss, Jean.* In December, both parties asked me if I wanted to live with her. “Not at all,” I hurriedly responded. Anyone who asked me knew my reluctance to spending the next few years of my life with a woman whose underlying envy of my mother had trickled down to me, a woman I had been fine with from afar, when her negativity didn’t leech onto me from the start to the finish of every day. Jean would see me from time to time, but she didn’t have any space to take me in. Caterra’s family couldn’t either, but they let me stay in Caterra’s room for a month while I cleared out my childhood apartment and slipped into the panic of trying to find a new home.
With the knowledge that I was so unhappy living with Merrie (and of the near impossibility of five people sharing a one-bedroom apartment), my school set out to find a new faux mother. A priest and one of our Chemistry teachers both came forward with a name: Rachel, a newly widowed 50-something who loved church and her religion above all. She had not only lost her husband the preceding summer but her sister as well, from a stroke and an illness respectively. She lived deep in Queens, farther than I’d ever been before, on a solitary cul-de-sac that was always crusted with black ice diadems because the city’s sanitation department rarely came to clear it out. “It’ll be just the two of you in that big house,” someone said to me, “Maybe you’ll help each other grieve.”
I was fearful of the initial hints of Rachel’s conservatism, for a multitude of reasons: my mother had always been spiritual, but not very religious besides our stint at the local church and a few cathedral visits a year. She has been a fairly liberal parent, one whom I considered my best friend and told everything—I’d even come out to her after I started dating one of my friends, a girl that I was still seeing when all of this happened. I tried to subtly ask Rachel about her general tolerance without completely blowing up my spot, and my results were only confusion and a spiel about going to church every day. “You’ll have to go if you live with me,” she warned. I felt a row of invisible peach pits line up in the outside tissue of my stomach. I considered trying to evade it, telling her about why I had stopped going in the first place, but the few hints I dropped did nothing to dissuade her. “My church is different, a new religion, a new start. There are kids your age there too, you’ll see.”
The process of moving from my home to hers (actually, my home and Caterra’s home to hers) was incredibly jarring. I remember the car ride there in mid-January, peak white season, burrowing deeper into the frost of suburban Queens and talking about what I thought it would be like. The gradual decrease in cars on the road brought on a slap of fear that I could do nothing but silently stomach.
Rachel met us at the front door, dwarfed by the white pillars she stood between. “Oh no…” she said when she saw the moving truck. “Are you bringing all of this with you?” I was already a burden, making myself known as a velveteen sack that, like sleight of hand in a folktale, miraculously gained thousands of pounds once anyone tried to pick it up. Seeing the house that I had imagined in simplistic terms that made it easier for me to relate to life in the middle of nowhere (Twin Peaks…boy in heavy flannel slipping me out through my window…logging town where finding a dead body is more common than a live one) and feeling every room close in around me, stuffy with old wedding gifts and altar-worthy statuettes, I knew that I was irrevocably screwed. She furnished her home in a way that was specific in my mind to the older women from my former church who bought hundreds of trinkets and idols as signs of their devotion to God, then covered any available surface in them as further proof of the marriage.
Rachel was my first close-up view of radicality in the church. Our dealbreaker—although there would have been many more eventually-was that I would not go. Every time 6 AM Sunday rolled around, she gave me a choice: go with her to a service, or spend the remainder of the day in the January winds. I always chose the latter, sitting in train stations for hours or wandering around the Lower East Side until I had to take the two hour journey home. (I’d also never lived so far away from the city and everything I considered to be the marrow of my days and it was taking a toll on me. There wasn’t even a bodega unless I wanted to walk for 20 minutes.) I knew that I could easily suck it up and go to this woman’s church and pretend that when her prayer circle stood over me screaming and muttering different Bible verses I had been converted, unblinded to her dogmatic relationship with the Lord. But I couldn’t do it. The prospect was even more painful than simply not being able to live with my mother anymore. I knew that she was watching me and saying no, nudging me toward other horizons. I couldn’t tell what.
I would stay at Jean’s house as an occasional respite, sleeping on the air mattress she’d brought out for me. Toward the end of my days with Rachel, who was getting closer and closer to telling me to leave, Jean told me about a woman she worked with who wanted to take me in. I trusted her—I had known her for eight years, and she’d been close enough to my mom to understand what I was going through—but I could see it falling through. I had no choice but to do it and hope I didn’t screw up again. Anything was better than where I was.
The memory of meeting Alice and her family during February of that year is etched into my mind, unlike much of that year. I remember walking down Amsterdam Avenue with Jean, who recounted her years in the neighborhood while she was a fledgling college student. She pointed to a glass-protected Banksy piece that was near her old apartment. “Isn’t that funny?” I said. “Once it was a stain that probably almost got covered, now it’s illegal to ruin it.” We continued down the street until we reached the building, directly across the street from a park that mirrored Central Park in an interesting parallel of Jean’s apartment right outside of Prospect Park.
Alice was one of the most eccentric, intelligent, lovely people I’d ever met, and living with her was simultaneously the hardest and most incredible time of my life. It was the first time I had ever lived with a family, which was a great comfort at times and an immense burden at others. I was still reeling from the blow of losing a mother, and no longer actively being a daughter sloppily ripped out a large chunk of the identity I’d maintained for 15 years. I stayed in the room I’d been lent for the majority of the time, knowing that I should leave and talk to Alice’s daughters but too daunted by the possibility because of how little we had in common. I was also denying my grief; I should have been mid-mourning glory, but instead I was intent on maintaining perfection. The ideal image in my mind was a girl who could persevere through anything, who could lose her only parent and best friend and still smile at everyone as she walked down the street. For the first time in my life I was doing terribly in school and I was the polar opposite of OK, but I still thought I could pull off shirking my emotions.
For reasons that had no doubt arisen as a result of the aforementioned dual self, I was unable to continue living with Alice around May or June of that year. With nowhere else to go, Jean, who had already become my legal guardian, made plans to convert her dining room into a bedroom for me. Alice and I remained in touch, making her one of the few people I’d lived with that I’d left on good terms.