Monday, May 28, 2012
While many of us will see this day only as 'the unofficial beginning of summer,' and will proceed to use it to get our cookout, picnic, BBQ on, or our travel, amusement park, trip to the beach on, or our hot sales shopping spree all day mall day on, hopefully the majority of us will take some time out to observe, and yes, to honor the True Meaning of this Holiday.
After all, it was set aside to Honor those Brave and Heroic Souls who fought for OUR freedom, and who, in doing so, paid The Ultimate Price.
Happy Memorial Day.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
if you could see
my mama standing
in harlem, at sunset
the cruel wind
her natural hair...
you'd know this woman was
a rare & beauteous
a bare roots
boogaloo-philly dance of
a joe tex, al green
otis redding listening
poem... a sweet-
potato pie, chitlins
grits & gravy
deliciously rich type
a my man's gone
but i'm still
doesn't kill me
makes me a
a hand on her hip
'boy don't you give no shit'
it's truth or
& oh yes, a fearless
a please... address me as
"Your Majesty" cuz
'i used to be
& can't nobody tell
any diff'rently' poem!
if you could see
my mama standing
after the shit tude
dumped upon her
shoulders, you'd say...
if that ain't superwoman...
then she sho nuff
must be some
black, keep on
i got your back
by L.M. Ross
**originally published in Painted Bride Quarterly
Happy Moms, Momma's, Mumsy's MaMi's, Mamacita's & Baby Mama's Day to all!
Saturday, May 12, 2012
Last year, almost one year ago to this day, I was diagnosed with heart disease. The news came as quite a shock to my system, because, prior to that, I never once noticed any trouble whatsoever with my heart.
However, in many ways, my mind, body and spirit were engaged in erecting the Perfect Storm for Heart Disease.
I had been experiencing a deeply emotional few years. I was broke. I was thought to be a fairly successful writer, however, after several years of hard, blood-letting, soul-robbing work, I was being systemically robbed, cheated at every turn, embezzled out of every single dime due to me for the steady sales of my work; deceived by a publisher that blatantly stole from me, and who didn’t give a damn. Then, to make matters worse, all my efforts to right that egregious wrong had been dashed. Lawyers cost a bail of cold hard cash, and after fighting the good fight, for many months, I was at my wit's and my money's end. People who I thought were friends had been a constant source of disappointment to me. Family members were dying, and it seemed as if life itself was slowly crushing me.
To deal with the stress of all this, I raged, I grieved, I seethed and I smoked like the proverbial chimney. I didn’t eat any of the right foods. In fact, I pretty much ate like a typical teenager. I consumed way too many burgers, fries, pizzas and sodas. Oh my! I treated myself to ice cream on the regular and I lived for desserts… the richer the better. And oh yeah… did I mention that I smoked… a LOT?
Never one to give up on myself completely… slowly I began working on me. The mirror revealed the sad truth that my supermodel figure had gone to pot. My 30 inch waist was gradually expanding to 32, then 33, then 34 inches. Suddenly none of my rather stylish clothes were fitting! To offset this madness, I started to exercise more, to walk more, and to limit my caloric intake. Also, in a deeply revolutionary move of self-preservation, I’d quit smoking… cold turkey.
Mind you, it was shortly after I’d quit smoking that I began to notice some difficulty catching my breath. There was some craziness going on with my breathing, yes, but still not my heart.
Cut to 2011: I was sick every day from January to mid May, and I do mean EVERY single, solitary DAY! The majority of these illnesses occurred above the waist... my stomach would ache like hell and then my throat and then my head would throb from the worst migraine known to man. This became a gut-wrenching pattern where feeling lousy became the norm. I lost my appetite. All food tasted nasty to me... even my favorite things began to have NO taste whatsoever. I lost weight rapidly. Cyber doctors were assuring me that it was all a reaction to the absence of nicotine, and my body crying out for it. Hell, I almost went back to smoking just to rid myself of those hellish symptoms!
But then, to make matters even worse, I soon noticed that my feet, ankles and legs were swelling. Something was definitely wrong and now I knew it! Too many things were happening to me all at once. It had to signify something… perhaps something deadly. Something was definitely ailing me…. but what, exactly? I didn’t want to know. I was afraid to know. My entire body was betraying me. I felt fatigued after walking only a few feet. It was like having a wheezing 90 year-old geezer suddenly living under my skin. Then it became nearly impossible to do the simplest things without getting winded, or to lie on my back without a sense of sudden panic while experiencing this frightening sensation of choking, and finally, not being able to muster the strength needed to put on my shoes… my shoes! I realized I HAD to get my lax and increasingly sick ass to the nearest ER.
It was there at the hospital, after being seated in a wheelchair and rapidly rolled into the ER where a small tribe of nurses began furiously massaging my legs (apparently to get the blood to better circulate) while simultaneously I was brought to a small examination room where my heart was monitored. Within minutes, I received the terrible news that I was suffering from Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).
Fools! I figured the doctors with all their fancy tests had gotten it wrong. Maybe I'd some kind of lung infection, perhaps, but whatever the problem was, it could NOT be some potentially deadly malady that couldn’t be cured. Well, surprise! Yes. They were correct, and no, there is not a cure.
The day became so strange and dark and quiet afterward. It was raining and it had been for days. It seemed to reflect exactly what I was feeling inside. CHF? WTF? I was slowly trying to come to grips with my brand new reality.
I kept hearing my doctor’s voice echoing in my skull… telling me that I now had Congestive Heart Failure.
CHF? For real? But how could this happen and what did it mean? Did I even have a future?
The best they could do was to make me comfortable; give me something to knock down my dangerously high blood pressure. The most welcome news, in fact, the only welcome news was that they would supply the right meds so that I could finally get a decent night’s sleep. Yes! Please! Sleep was what I needed most of all… and I needed it desperately. At the time, I had NOT slept for an entire night in many, many months… and it was driving me absolutely bonkers. It’s more than unhealthy, because, the lack of sleep can begin to affect your mind, your logic and the way you generally function. Hallucinations had befallen me. I had the strangest daydreams. People I didn’t know or rarely ever thought about would come visit me in my bedroom and I’d have lengthy conversations with them. One evening, I was up half the night conversing, then arguing viciously with Joy Behar. WTF was Joy Behar (of all people!) doing in my room, and why was she saying those terrible things about me??? This was all very odd and yet it seemed very, very real-- only... it wasn’t. It was (as the Temptations sang) just my imagination, running away with me.
However, the reality was, as one doctor told me: “You’re a very sick man.”
To be told you have a disease that will likely be the death of you is not something you can easily blow off, dismiss nor forget. I’ve never been a person to live very long in a state of denial. I’m a fighter by nature, but it’s also been my history to choose my battles wisely. What could I do to fight it?
Well, since there is no cure, at best, you can combat it by eating less, exercising and moving around more, staying away from salt, nicotine, sugar, all the delicious things you’ve grown accustomed to, and maybe, just maybe you’ll have a chance at surviving beyond the general “five year” life expectancy.
Damn! Just damn!
That’s not an easy diagnosis to live with. For the first time in my life, I actually had to THINK about the reality of dying someday. I never really THOUGHT about my death before, at least not in a realistic way. No. I didn’t live inside a bubble of delusion or some cotton candy-coated fairytale that I was immortal, but I wonder now, just how many people go through life, as I did, never considering how much time they have left here, and just what might happen to cause their eventual death.
Long story short: Every day since that fated diagnosis has been a Blessing. Not necessarily a click my heels, tap-dancing like Mr. Bojangles HUGE deal, where I celebrate life, break into gradiose musical routines while walking down a city street, and EVERYONE suddenly joins me... but, a Blessing nonetheless.
I realize that there are no coincidences. Some things, some events, some moments are destined to be. After spending nine days and nights in a hospital being poked by endless needles and asked a myriad of invasive questions, I was told I’d be going home the following morning. Cool. I guess I must be better if they’re sending me home, right?
However, that very night, while sleeping (yes, sleeping, at last!) and still being monitored, Dr. Alexander Delvecchio and a floor nurse rushed into my room, and shook me from my sound slumber to ask if I was “all right?”
“Ummm, yeah. I’m fine. I’m going home tomorrow,” I vaguely remember answering in a groggy state.
“No. You won’t be,” the good Doc Alex informed me.
I was told my heart had been jumping around all over the place, clocking crazy rhythms, displaying an unusual and possibly deadly case of arrhythmia.
I had absolutely NO idea. I didn’t feel a thing.
He then made a quick and life-saving decision that I would require a pacemaker to be implanted in my chest, as soon as possible. That ASAP turned out to be the following day.
This was to be the day I was scheduled to GO HOME!
But… had I gone home, I may well have died the next day, in my sleep from sudden cardiac death, experienced a fatal cardiac arrhythmia or a debilitating stroke. That I didn’t is a complete Blessing. Had the scenario been any different, I would not be here today, living a healthier lifestyle, writing these words, telling my story, advising anyone who reads this to get a check up if anything feels wrong, physically, or any strange symptoms should suddenly nag at you.
There are no accidents. I was indeed, saved, spared to be here for a reason. No idea how much longer this will be, but I’m doing my best to live life with a renewed sense of purpose. I don’t want to cheat myself of the time I have left. I was never a bad, evil, foul or unfair person but I want to be a better one. I want to be better in all aspects of this life, a better son, brother, uncle, friend, lover, writer, and yes, a better human being.
So, on this anniversary of my diagnosis, I am acknowledging this magnificent and most exquisite Gift that is Life. I am choosing NOT to waste it with bullshit or on bullshit people, but to live without falsity or foolery or to abuse it with vanity, or to allow it to pass me by unnoticed, without giving it some meaning. I thank GOD for it.
That’s it. That’s all.
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Gig Swinton was my father.
His version of a mental/spiritual/physical breakdown was full of flying blind rages, smashing glasses and silent tears. He would fight with my mother over the smallest things, but she seemed to take it all in stride. My father was in pain…and my mother, she understood pain and war and the pain that came after war.
Gig was so torn apart by The Kid’s death that he’d go to that secret place inside his own darkness. Often he’s just leave, leave his space, leave conversations, completely abandon our family and retreat to parts unknown. Sometimes he’d take his horn to our fire escape and blow such long and angry decibels into the wounded night…only what he played, it didn’t sound like music anymore. It sounded like the noise of a wild and fractured heart. The Kid’s passing had thoroughly trounced his spirit and kicked him in what was left of that heart.
I don’t think anything before had so emotionally collapsed my father’s spirit. He was never quite the same man after that sad day. Even that carefree way he’d had, that breezy jazzy bounce so inherent in the swagger of his walk had abandoned him now. He stood among the rest who’d gathered on the wind-driven street to say their final good-byes. Seeing his kid brother’s coffin, draped in the American flag, only made the rage so much deeper and wilder.
Dakota, no doubt, feared for his sanity, and she worried just a little about what Gig’s moods were doing to me. I didn’t know what was wrong, back then, but something about that strangely brooding red-eyed man who shared a room with my mother began to scare me.
To deliver me safely from my father’s feverish fits of unpredictability and brewing madness, my mother devised a special plan. I loved my mother, but trust me, Dakota Swinton was a woman so full of secrets and private plans. This one plan was to ship me off to Virginia. Virginia, where the summers were much quieter and ‘safer’ and a kid like me would have half a chance at some semblance of normalcy.
She made it all sound like some fantastic adventure would be awaiting me there, a Disneyland of live cows, pigs, horses, and chickens, and people who would love me simply because I was family.
Family love was a given, since we all had the same blood running through our veins. She presented this idea in a way that made it sound like something I needed, an escapade I would be forever grateful for, once I’d made it to that magical place called Virginia.
However, before leaving, early one morning, she awakened and bathed me, dressed me up in my Sunday’s best. My mother had made a key and strategic decision: she was taking me to church.
While my parents weren’t exactly heathens, neither Gig or Dakota ever knew any preachers, pastors, reverends or rabbis on a personal basis. The name of God was used, at best, as a wild exclamation in our home. Now, my mother was taking me to church, escorting me to ‘God’s house,’ as she put it. This seemed a very strange move to me...but this was to be a primer, a preview of upcoming events, because one couldn’t reside in my great Aunt Bessie’s home unless they’d attended church regularly.
This place of stained glass and praise, this temple of high ceilings and higher voices raised in celebration and ceremony was all at once, strange, and yet riveting to my senses.
Before the pulpit stood an older gray man with a stooped and waning posture he’d undoubtedly attained from carrying the weight of his faith and the faith of the whole congregation on his back for years. But his voice remained and it was as mighty and piercing as a clarion horn, delivering this song of salvation. His voice, his urgent words, and the force of his sermon would rock and sway the bodies of those who had come to listen.
I turned, I fidgeted, and I looked around to see all kinds of people in attendance. Faces and bodies of those I’d seen on the street were now scrubbed clean and dressed impeccably. I even saw my mother’s friend Miss Lola. At least, I thought it was Miss Lola, though her hair looked glossy and different somehow. Mama informed me it was a wig.
The women who’d gathered there donned wide brimmed feathered hats and cooled themselves with paper fans, bearing the image of Jesus Christ. Some of them brought their children, babies, and grandkids that restlessly tussled inside their seats or else they gazed around the room, like me.
But the music, oh, that music was so freeing and moving, so loud and triumphant that at times it was almost frightening and yet so warming to the soul!
The people around me all sang along and even my mother raised her voice, though she didn’t seem to know all the lyrics to the songs.
In front of the choir, there stood a zaftig woman with a voice as mighty as the spirit in that room. She pitched that voice as high as a sparrow in flight, and then she made curve unexpectedly and she went low as an eagle touching down on a landing of gravel. It was the first time I could remember the sound of a human voice giving me chills, actual goose-flesh as she sang in her robust and moving crescendo.
“Lawd, I swear that girl sounds just like Miss Mahalia Jackson!” someone said from the pew behind us.
So this resounding noise was gospel. And the Pure Gospel this was! It made some people shout, “Hallelujah!” It made some fan themselves even faster, while others leapt quickly from their seats, as if their bodies were suddenly charged by bolts of electricity. It made Miss Lola shake and shuffle so wildly, she almost lost her wig. Some people ran up and down the aisle, screaming while raising their hands to the heavens. And strangest of all, it made some people fall to their knees, roll around on the floor, wildly weeping and speaking in a bizarre and rambling tongue.
“Why are they cryin’, Mommy?”
“They’re cryin’ because… they can feel God in the room, son.”
Oh. God was there, indeed. It must have been God's Spirit lodged and working inside each of them… Even Miss Lola. It was He swaying their heads, their necks and shoulders. It was He pitching their voices higher. It was God cryptically pulling the strings of their postures, and God was The Light in those faces with the rolling-back eyes. God was the ventriloquist who placed His hand up their spinal columns and made them speak in chattering tongues. God was jerking the bones and the working in the lungs of those people dancing, singing, shouting and hollering ‘Praise the Lawd!’ God was so involved, He was showing up and showing out in this overwhelming sound filling that church. Yes! God was so deep within this music.
I found it odd that my parents had never played these kinds of songs in our home before. Gospel, along with Country Western received no Swinton love. In a home so full of music, those genres were somehow excluded from their usual play list. Yet as a child, sitting there in the pews, though I didn’t quite understand it entirely, something in the power, the tempo, and the spirits of those who sang it, moved me to clap so enthusiastically in my seat.
My mother looked at me and smiled. “Now you can tell Aunt Bessie you go to church on Sundays,” she winked.
And so, after the maiden launch of my first religious experience, I was sent away to the ‘safety’ of Virginia.
My mother, yes, Dakota Swinton, rode the Greyhound bus with me to Richmond. Along the way, as my eyes gazed at the people reading, walking the aisle, or sleeping and snoring around me, she tapped my hand and she told me, “Don’t stare! It’s rude! Never stare at people, son! You stare too long, and before you know it, they get the wrong idea.”
Parents say things and expect a child to understand, to actually comprehend their hidden meaning. Some things they say, children do understand, and others they don’t, because their parents never provide a real cogent reason why. They simply expect you to remember that thing they said or warned you about. But as a child, I liked staring at people. They told me stories with their bodies, their expressions, and with the mystifying things that lay written in their eyes.
So I stared at people, hoping to read, to get a glimpse of their silent stories. I didn’t listen to my mother’s warning, and perhaps that would explain my later punishment.
When something terrible happens to a child, a part of him is never the same again. Whatever was new and innocent...whatever lay trusting within that gentle spirit gets shattered—mutilated beyond repair. It fractures and without a voice, without proper love and repair that spirit will slowly begin to splinter.
And when a season turns and the world grows colder, a sudden shift in the breeze can break that spirit in two. It can be such a small thing, or some catastrophic twist in nature that snaps it like twigs…and life as we knew it could fly away, like so much litter in the wind.
** From The Forthcoming Novel “Like Litter In The Wind” By L.M. Ross