The first night I ever spent in Selma, I cried myself to sleep. Sherod and I had been married for about 2 weeks when we drove from Huntsville to Selma for a few days. That night we slept in Sherod’s old room. If I swallowed, the bed creaked and groaned. Not that it mattered since I felt like there was a stranger in bed with me, more concerned about not offending his mama than showing his endless, passionate devotion to me. Disney was decades from appropriating the term “princess” for the proletarian masses to hugely profitable advantage. But already, Sherod called me his SAP—short for South American Princess—and this little imperial self was not the least bit pleased about having to compete for attention. If my lips were pouty, Juanita was thin-lipped, too gracious to be ugly, but clearly none too happy to be around this foreigner who was decidedly not the first wife, not the mother of her beloved grandbabies, not a lot of things important to her. We got through that first visit in August of 1988.
Sherod, Maria and I drove to Selma to spend Thanksgiving with Juanita in 2001, just months after María’s adoption was finalized. My mother and I had not spoken to each other for a couple of years. We had had an awful falling out when my mother made a stunningly racist and disparaging comment about María while we were still waiting to bring our girl home. In the summer of 2001, while Sherod was going through the worst of radiation treatment, we almost lost María after she had a very bad seizure that the doctors suspected was related to a terminal illness. They were both so sick and I was so alone. It still hurts, all these years later, that my mom was not there to help me. In fact, she would not meet my daughter for another 3 years. She didn’t put up a picture of María in her home for more time than that. But while Maria was in the hospital that summer, I got a lovely note of encouragement from Juanita and our girl a whole stream of “get well” cards from her “Annaw”.
It had been that way from the first day we could finally call María ours. I’ve kept the letters and little things Juanita so lovingly sent her, year in and year out. She, who was and is a child of the South, with all those prejudices and awful stories, was so generous in her welcome of my beautiful, dark honey-skinned daughter. I have never felt that Juanita saw her as anything other than one of her own. That Thanksgiving, Sherod and I slept on that creaky old, horribly uncomfortable bed with María on a pad on the floor on my side of the bed, where I could reach out and reassure myself that she was OK during the night. Even the peach-pecan-coolwhip-jello mold salad tasted good that year. My little one had the time of her life with all that family, all those hugs and kisses. Home was where my daughter was welcome so I was home.
The three of us are heading back up to Selma in a little over a week. Juanita is losing ground quickly. When my mom reached the end in Panama, I got a little booklet from the hospice team that described the dying process. This afternoon, during the regular phone calls we’re having with Sherod’s sister who’s in Selma, I also got to hear Juanita speaking to her son. The passage has begun. She’s always been tough with Sherod, so quick to criticize and complain, often so cranky. In recent years she’s also been more and more self-absorbed which always upset me for him. That was gone today, replaced by what I can only describe as her essential sweetness, that core of maternal love and delight in her boy that is left when everything else is slowly but surely being stripped away.
I listened to a dying mama talk to her son and I wanted to stop both Sherod and time, so he could savor the exquisite joy of getting to say to his mom, “I love you”. Months and years from now, he will remember the times he got to say those “I loves you’s” during this time of passage and he will feel gratitude and relief down to the very molecules of his being that he got to say each and every one of them. He will wish he could have squeezed a few more in, but he will know that what he did get to say was enough, a bit of eternity right here, right now.