Today is not the day. It could be but it is not. Today is today.
Recently, my father and I spent most of the day at my mother’s bedside—him with his laptop and me with mine—and spun words to try to whisk ourselves somewhere else. Anywhere else. I worked on my upcoming mystery novel; my father, a civil rights attorney, worked on his memoir on race and racism.
While my mother slept, we wrote to try to dull the pain of her dying.
My mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, is gravely ill with thyroid cancer. After a two-year fight with ups and downs, advances and setbacks, my sisters, father and I are realizing that she will not be with us much longer. Her moments of responsiveness are farther apart. Her body is weaker and weaker.
Although in years past I found comfort in journaling during times of crisis, I have been unable to journal about the experience with my mother’s illness. I wrote a column about her cancer fight for CNN.com [SEE STORY HERE] last June, but since then I have been largely wordless.
Instead, I am busy. In addition to the time I spend with Mom, I teach my classes at Spelman College, I’m raising my 8-year-old son, Jason, with my husband, and I’m racing to finish a novel that has been competing against my mother’s illness since the day it was born.
But the novel, which I’m co-authoring with my husband, Steven Barnes, is far from a burden—now, my novel is my sanctuary. When it is finished, I’ll be expelled from my world of imagination, left to face the reality of here and now.
Recently, I assigned my Spelman freshmen a literacy narrative, an essay recalling a significant encounter with reading and/or writing during their formative years. As an example, I shared my experience as a 14-year-old during race riots in Miami, the day in my junior high school cafeteria I first learned that I could write to save my sanity. My essay, “I Want to Live,” described a society without bigotry and hate, and writing it made a pain in my chest go away. I remember my mother telling me how lucky I was that I have writing as an outlet.
Mom also taught me the power of writing as a tool of preservation. In 2003, we co-authored a nonfiction civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which is oh-so-precious to me. If we do not write our own stories, Mom always said, they will never be told. We must write, she said.
And here is my old friend, yet again.
Over these past difficult years, months and hours, watching my mother’s decline, I often have reassured myself with the stanza in Audre Lorde’s poem, “Today is Not the Day,” which she wrote while fighting breast cancer: Today is not the day. / It could be but it is not. / Today is today.
Those words have served not only as an inspiration through this season of uncertainty, but also as a reminder that Lorde herself found refuge from her cancer battle in her writing. One day, I hope writing will help ferry me to the other side, too.
But I know that writing will not patch every hole, or stanch every tear. I have heard about a writer I admire who reportedly could not write for a year after her own mother’s death. Writing, like everything in life, has its limitations.
But as my father and I sat in my mother’s room together—each of us transporting ourselves to a different world—I remembered anew what a blessing writing has been in my life.
Today was not a good day with my mother medically, and I am writing.
Tomorrow, I will be writing.
We write. We write. We write.
UPDATED 2/8/12: Patricia Stephens Due died on February 7, 2012. From CNN’s “In America” blog: http://wp.me/p1Ezur-1PM
For more information about Patricia Stephens Due, see Wikipedia.
Hear an interview with Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (2003) LISTEN