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The Cup of Bitterness

She is lying in a bed in the ICU, her mouth wide open to accommodate the hose of the ventilator, her bony arms blackened by the assault of the tubes running in and out of her body. Her eyes are either open or shut. Either way, she sees little. A gray, slightly frayed blanket covers her from the waist down. Her hands are tied to the cold metal rail of the bed. Earlier today, she had fought against those tubes and this is her punishment. Her white hair falls on the pillow in an arc, framing her sallow face.

I am seven thousand miles away attending a wedding in America in one of those ultra-modern churches designed to hide the fact that it is a church, as if that knowledge would drive its young parishioners away. It is a pretty wedding, some teenage girl’s idea of a fantasy wedding, I’m sure—the handsome, straight-backed groom with his thick, dark hair, the slender, blond, porcelain bride in the elegant wedding gown, the ruddy-faced best man and the plump, well-fed bridesmaid, children of the American Midwest, raised on its cattle and corn and milk.

I sit in the seventh row by myself, aware, as I seldom am, of my ebony skin against my crisp white shirt, the only black man at this wedding, watching my junior associate, Ben, marry his college sweetheart, Gloria. Gloria is indeed Glorious and I can see them two, four, five years from now, in their first home, a ranch with a large back yard, and there’s the mandatory play set behind the house from which descend the two mandatory children, a boy and a girl, of course, with their standard-issue blond hair and their cuteness and their freckles. This is what it means to be American, I think, in the first decade of the 21st century, in the waning days of Empire, though of course Ben and Gloria will be the last to know. No, they will coast along on their whiteness, on their erect, country club carriage, on their fluoride-protected teeth, their private school grammar, their summer vacations at Grandpa’s cabin in the Upper Peninsula, their acquired knowledge of good wines, their tanned golfing buddies, their individual inheritances. They will know heartbreak, of course, and loss even, but they will never know hardship, they will never know what it is to be the woman alone in the ICU with the ventilator tube in her mouth

who is my mother, after all, who has lost, lost her only son to the great white whale called America many, many years ago, who lost out to the magnetic pull exercised on him by the Ben and Gloria’s of the world, who couldn’t compete, who had no money, no influence, no education, no language, no grammar, no enticements with which to lure her only son to stay.

The tears gather in my eyes as I stare ahead at the altar, at the white-robed priest doing his priestly duties, and suddenly I see two people, thin enough to be stick figures, dark-skinned as me, but young—ridiculously, stupidly young, standing at another altar a lifetime ago. She is dressed in a hand-me-down white frock, her polished leather shoes already coated with the red dirt that blows and swirls everywhere in the city of her birth. He is wearing a white tunic and baggy black pants and what I notice most about him is his long, thin neck. Everything you will ever need to know about this man, my father, is in this neck—the awful, heartbreaking poverty, the Third World city that gave birth to him, his hunger, the pride that conspires to keep his head unbowed. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down as he swallows nervously before repeating his marriage vows. I take in the impoverished church with the solitary candle on the altar, the way the priest stumbles over my father’s name, the earnest way in which my grandmother leans forward in the front row, those critical eyes missing nothing, the shabby army of aunts and uncles and cousins who shift and fidget on the hard wooden chairs, dreaming of the rare feast that awaits them tonight.

I blink and I focus again on Ben and I’m transfixed because now I notice how thick and short Ben’s neck is and why have I never noticed this before? Not when I hired him three years ago, not when we traveled together to Thailand last year, not in the countless meetings where I’ve listened to him talk about our acquisitions, our hostile takeovers, our proprietary interests, and I’ve never noticed the neck, how it grows out of his tuxedo like a tree stump, and, my God, it looks just like those military necks, the ones who drop anonymous bombs in Afghanistan, the ones that support heads wearing night-vision goggles and infra-red scopes; Iraqis run in fear from this neck. This is the neck of men who beat down doors at midnight and enters into strangers’ homes and sneak a peek at women without their burkhas, these necks guard the diamond mines in the country I come from, make deals with drug overlords, these are necks that uphold heads that make other heads roll

and speaking of heads, I see my mother in her dying bed and she is shaking her head violently, no, no, no, she is saying and now the young resident comes running up and he adjusts the medication flowing like a poisoned river into her veins. My mother’s neck is shriveled and skin drips from it like candle wax onto her chest but Lord! how high that neck held her head on her wedding day when the priest was done with his mumbles and sanctifications, and her best friend Rebe came up and sang The Internationale. It embarrasses me to think about this, how ridiculous and earnest they were, no religious hymns for them, my father had only agreed to get married in the church to please his mother, Tyra the Tyrant they called her, and this was his act of self-assertion, the singing of The Internationale. And they were true believers, oh yes, they were caught up in its old promise

So comrades, come rally

And the last fight let us face

The Internationale unites the human race

they took it all at face value, irony had not been invented yet, the Age of Detachment was yet unborn. They were like those innocent figures you see in the silent Chaplin movies, you know, the ones who look like us and walk like us but are so damn guileless they may as well be aliens.

Five years. That’s all it took to beat The Internationale out of them, to exorcise every revolutionary impulse, every daydream, everything that was young and alive and promising. Whatever moved through them that day at the altar, stopped moving, became driftwood and then, deadwood. It was like the world had been waiting for them, waiting to pounce, throwing everything it had at them—stupefying, boring jobs, daily traffic jams that cut into their time at home together, the mounting medical bills for his asthma, the constant surveillance by the police, the persistent poverty that hounded them like a chronic disease, the inevitable debt. And then the predictable domestic fallout—the fights, the nagging, the smashing of dinner plates, the drinking, the one-night stand, the finding out, and then, more frighteningly, the hurt not shown, the anger not expressed, the forgiveness neither sought nor given. How absurd that they had ever believed that they would not succumb. That they would not be reduced to a pile of metal shavings. That life would not whittle them down, that the winged thing inside them would be allowed to keep fluttering.

Even if they could’ve survived everything else, they met their match, first in Tyra the Tyrant and later, in me. Even Tyra, perhaps, they could’ve anticipated—every culture has its mother-in-law horror story, the female figure at the center of every domestic ghost story. My mother was high-spirited, high-strung, independent. What was worse was that my father was openly, unapologetically in love with her. No self-respecting mother-in-law could’ve tolerated this.

What they couldn’t have anticipated was me. Their posture toward my upcoming birth was total and utter joy. They spent nine months sewing clothes for me, saving money, fussing over names. But then I arrived, a baby with freakishly healthy lungs, a wail that had our neighbors banging on their ceiling at midnight, and an insatiable appetite. There was never any thought of formula feeding—their poverty and their politics made that impossible. And so my mother bit down on her lips as I suckled at her breast, bit it with my gums, bruised her until the pain was unbearable. And there were a hundred other expenses—vaccination shots, remedies for my colic, the money they owed the midwife who had delivered me.

By the time I was five, he was on his way out. Out of the movement, out of our lives, out of the small town we lived in, on his way to the big city, our nation’s capital. I’ll send for you as soon as I find work, he promised, and she looked away, unable to bear the lie in his eyes. We moved in two months later with Tyra the Tyrant, who promptly began to live up to her moniker. She was a large woman, Tyra, and in my father’s absence she grew ever more large. Fueled by resentment, she grew in size, even as my mother shrunk. First, it was her laughter that shrunk and then her voice and then the songs she used to sing (until I grew up hearing her sing just one song over and over again) and then her body itself shrunk, as if she was afraid to occupy too much space in Tyra’s home.

The military coup happened when I was seven and my mother was swept up in the mass arrests that followed and spent six months in jail. No charges were ever filed, no court appearance, no lawyer or judge or jury, just six months in a sunless jail infested with rats and other women as wild-eyed and powerless as she was. One day, someone opened the door and told her to walk out and she did, blinking in the astounding sunlight, walking the twenty-eight kilometers from the jail to our home and arriving at our doorstep like a pitiful, stray kitten two nights later. I had become Grandma’s boy during those six months, and as my mother told the story years later, I was lying curled up in Tyra’s lap, my head against Tyra’s ample bosom, sucking my thumb when she walked in. I barely looked up at her. I barely looked at her. I barely looked at her before curling my upper lip and looking away, as if she was something that smelled dirty. More than anything, she said, this hurt. More than the windowless, sunless cell. More than the cellmate who one night stood still and systematically tore every stitch of clothing off her body. More than the bemused look in the eyes of the guards who watched her.

She sang the dirge-like song much more frequently after that. From the cup of bitterness I sip/Touching its poison to my fevered lip, the chorus went. Morbid, morbid song and it produced in me a kind of wild anger, a desire-to-smash-something kind of anger

which, it occurs to me, is what I’m feeling right now, sitting in this church that tries so painstakingly to not be a church, witnessing this elegant, beautiful, antiseptic wedding ceremony that tries so hard to hold itself away from the dank, dark bowels of life, that pretends to not know the blood, the pus, the entrails, the sheer human misery that coats over ninety percent of the world, this ceremony that pretends that it exists on a planet different than this cursed, wretched planet where three-fourths of its poor bastard children don’t even have clean drinking water or clean air; where women walk kilometer after sodden kilometer through deserts, forests, mountains, plains to fill one lousy pot of drinking water; even the pastor here, although in his fifties, looks so young and trim and fit, and I wonder what my father looked like at fifty, whether he lived to see fifty, if he had holes in his plastic shoes as he rode the filthy, overcrowded trains to work every day of his life, if his lungs wheezed from the soot and dust that hovered over our nation’s capital like a punishing God, if he went home to a tiny flat dark with roaches and a sofa whose broken springs protested every time he dropped his tired, heavy body onto it, a man of thirty, then thirty-five, then forty, who every once in a while wondered what happened to his life, who looked around to search for his future and saw only carnage. If he lived to see fifty, if he is alive even today, it is only inertia that keeps him going, that dumb, cattle-like instinct humans have for living.

Someone steps up to the side of the altar now, it may be Gloria’s sister, I think, and begins to sing, We Thank Thee for Thy Gifts, Oh Lord. I remember this hymn from the church I attended with Tyra until I turned thirteen and refused to go. Even now, I feel its beauty, the rise of the melody, the aching purity of the soprano still stirs something deep within me. But today I do not hear the thing I always did in that humble church in our hometown, with its one ceiling fan and the mass of dark, sweating bodies fanning themselves with pieces of cardboard every Sunday morning. Then, I heard a fervent, desperate thanksgiving that was brined in fear, the knowledge that God was hard as well as benevolent, that His grace was nothing we could take for granted, that each slip, each mistake—each time we went to the witch doctor, for instance, instead of the Catholic priest—was something we would have to pay for. The God of my childhood was a landlord in whose good graces we tried to remain.

But Gloria’s sister shows no such fear. She rocks slightly on her toes as she hits the high notes, her eyes are closed, a beatific smile hovers on her lips. There is no fear here. The thought occurs to me suddenly: We thank thee for thy gifts, oh lord, and firmly expect that they will continue. Shower us with thy abundance. We’re off to a good start, born white, blond, and American in the 20th century, and our streak of good fortune continues to serve us well in the first decade of the next. Yes, bad things have happened, like the terrorist attacks, but that was far from the heartland, and the fact that we are still traumatized by them years later, itself speaks to our privileged status, our buoyant good fortune. No fresh trauma has replaced that one—no famine, no drought, no flood, no cataclysm, no coup, no dictatorship, no war (well, yes, there is a war, there are two wars, but they are over there, thank God). I am twenty-four years old, Gloria’s sister thinks, and I have seen no death. I know nobody serving in either war, nobody died the night of my high school prom, no parent is old and frail, even Fleck, the chocolate lab is twelve years old but still going strong.

I think of the rows of women who sat in that old church next to Granny and me and I check them off—Matilda, dead from childbirth; Agnes, a prostitute, rumor has it, in the capital city; Old Woman Sophie dead of a heart attack after a day working in the fields in 104 degree weather; little Sapphire, returning home after being blinded in an industrial accident in town. All of them, sipping from the same cup of bitterness as my mother.

I turn my head discreetly and survey the pews full of broad-shouldered men in suits and small-boned women in their pearls and sun dresses. It is a large wedding. Here and there, I see a face that I recognize from the office. I remember how warmly Ben’s parents greeted me before the service, how his father took my hand in both of his as he thanked me for taking such good care of his son. It is not their fault that my mother is dying halfway across the world. It is not their fault that I am not by her bedside. It is not their concern that I rejected her world, her nation, her bitter cup of woe, years ago. The day I became an American I vowed to put her behind me, to put her in a large white envelope labeled The Past and seal it. Return to Sender. Unknown address. It was the only way to not drown in the cup of bitterness that was always there waiting for me. America was my weapon, my antidote, my tool to catapult into my future. And I am not a man who believes in looking back. I think of guilt and regret as inefficiencies, as bad business practices. Business school taught me the dangers of sentimentality. In America, we look forward. This is why we are in America. Every immigrant is a frontiersman. And by the time business school was done with me, what did I have in common with that small, bony, bitter woman who had birthed me? Who clung to her ahistorical obstinacies. Who, despite all evidence to the contrary, claimed that money was not important, that people were. Mam, I said to her once, during one of my rare visits back, men butcher other men every single day. Every day, people are burned, stabbed, shot, bombed, buried alive in mass graves. But did you once hear of men burning or voluntarily stabbing currency notes? Or tearing up checks? Or burning coins? So who do you think they value more, money or people? Who’s more important?

She made a face like a sour lemon and said, So which side you gonna chose, my son? Who you gon worship more? As if there was still a chance for me to chose. As if she hadn’t noticed the calfskin briefcase, my Italian shoes, my Swiss watch. As if I hadn’t bolted to America at the age of eighteen, first chance I got.

Ben’s mamma looks so proud of him. How soothing, how safe to have a mother as vacuous as a peach cobbler, whose only demands on you are that you earn good grades and don’t make a girl pregnant before you marry her. Who does not expect you to save the world that she couldn’t, who doesn’t eye you with confusion and disappointment and later, with a kind of—yes, admit it—horror. Whose disillusionment in you runs as deep as her expectations once rose. Who doesn’t produce in you a red-coal anger, that burns as hot as shame, who doesn’t make you feel that whatever you do—however successful you are at diversifying your lily-white firm, however much you give to charity, however hard you work to influence your CEO to be a good corporate citizen—will never be enough, never be enough to wipe that puzzled disappointment out of the eyes of a woman

who lies in the ICU of a hospital with a tube pouring out of her mouth, her feeble wrists tied to a bed, her eyes occasionally flaring open, searching the room, the ceiling, for her unfaithful, ungrateful, prodigal son, who is not with her, who is not in the bleak room, who is paying her hospital bills, but is not by her side

who is instead loosening his blue tie that is suddenly choking his sweaty, black skin, the skin that she conferred upon him, the skin that connects her to him, that stretches between continents and ties them together, the skin that will always make him a stranger to these good, hardy, white folks from the Midwest, whose ancestors, he knows, may well have been responsible for the plunder and destruction of his ancestral land, but who would be stunned by such a wild accusation, who would proclaim their innocence because more than anything else, they lived and died by their innocence

which is what allows them to smash down doors in Iraq and call it nation-building; which allows them to visit places like Bangladesh and Mexico and return home thanking their lucky stars for being born in the good ole USA; who eat Doritos on the couch while watching footage of Afghan villages destroyed by Predator drones; who fret about the hordes of illegals trying to destroy their country. It is this innocence that keeps them looking so fresh-faced and gleaming, so hip and glam, to whoop and holler as the newlyweds kiss and walk down the aisle as a newly married couple.

There is now a pre-reception to the reception and this is the time to slip out and call the cell phone of the private nurse that I have hired to care for her. She is still hanging in there, the nurse says, and I am glad and I am furious—by what tenacity, what perversity, what on earth does she have to look forward to that would make her hang on like this? —and suddenly I want to flee this celebration and fly over the ocean to be with her, I want to rush back inside and ask the music to not be musical, ask the champagne to not be bubbly, ask the celebrants to not be celebratory. What I want instead is solemnity. Something important, something grave is about to happen, is happening—across the world, an old woman struggles for her breath, refuses to die until she has reclaimed her son, until he has redeemed himself, proven worthy of her devotion to him, her belief in him

because otherwise, what’s the use? What was the use of the raggedy church wedding to the skinny man with the long neck, what was the use of The Internationale, what was the use of six months in prison and the other, longer prison sentence living with Tyra the Tyrant, and the slow whittling away, the sipping from the cup of bitterness? For her life to have a shade more meaning than that of a lowly earthworm, the son must return home, must redeem himself, must concede that in the end, people matter more than money.

But that is not about to happen. My place is here. Many years ago I had offered to bring her to America and she had laughed, shaken her head, as if the very notion was ridiculous, another sign of some moral failure on my part. It is too late now, much too late, going now would be a wasted trip, she will be dead before the next day’s dawn, and there is the deal we are closing on within the next four days. Ben has even postponed his honeymoon—where were they going? He hadn’t said but inevitably it would be to some place where brown or black-skinned people would wait on them, feed them, pamper them—so as to not hold up the finally signing. No, Mam, I think, I will continue to disappoint you, fail you, in death, even as I have in life.

Just then Ben’s older brother, Jon, who works for an oil company in Texas, approaches, his smile broad, his handshake hearty. Hiya, chief, he grins, clasping my shoulder with his other hand. I heard you been working my kid brother into the ground? Good for you. I grin back at Jon, whom I first met at a July 4 picnic a year ago where he’d held forth about the importance of American energy independence so that we could stick it to the frickin’ A-rabs. And now I remember something else: How, after he’d bashed the lazy, spoilt, camel-loving

A-rabs he had glanced at me, unsurely, uncertainly, as if he wanted to make sure he hadn’t offended his brother’s boss, as if, in his mind, all dark-skinned men belonged to that nebulous, amorphous region called Over There. My smile falters a bit at this memory but I recover, and Jon and I bullshit the way men who have nothing in common do, before someone else grabs his attention and he moves away.

I accept a glass of wine from a passing waiter and have downed half of it when I notice Ben making his way toward me. Hey, boss, he grins in that open, affable way of his, and in that moment I love him, I wish him well, I remove the cup of bitterness from my own lips, so that I can smile back at him without malice, without envy, without judgment. He’s a good kid, Ben, a hard worker, sharp as a wolf in his business dealings but innocent as a puppy in his friendships. If he had a tail, he’d be wagging it now, and his face is so open and trusting, it makes me ashamed of the ungenerous thoughts I’d been thinking.

Benjamin, I say, Congratulations, man. What a beautiful couple you make. He nods, acknowledging the compliment as matter-of-factly, no, as complacently, as a princeling, a young emperor surveying his inherited lands, turning his head to gaze at his new bride, a proprietary smile stretching across his face

and something about his manner reminds me that I am a middle-aged man, unmarried, childless, and about to be orphaned, that there is no Grace in my life, that I am wealthy but not rich, that I am socially connected but friendless, that I am both a beneficiary and a casualty of the American Dream because somebody’s dreams are almost always constructed from someone else’s nightmares

and right then someone approaches me from behind and thumps me on the back so hard that I take a small, involuntary step forward but it’s a slight movement, recoverable, but then I feel my cell phone buzz in the pocket of my trousers, I have turned the ringer off and there’s so much noise and laughter and conversation that I know not even Ben can hear it, the murmur of my phone, but I can feel its vibration against my thigh and I know it is the nurse calling to say that my mother is dead, I know that I am now truly alone in this world, an exile in America, that my mother’s prodigal son will never return home and that this was her last thought before she sank into oblivion, her disappointment as pungent as the grief that is tearing through me, and here is Ben still smiling and talking, oblivious to my sorrow, oblivious to me, not seeing me, I am invisible to him, I am anonymous, and something slashes through me, an emotion so strange and original, I have no name for it—AngerDespairGrief some newly-minted, newly discovered blend of all this

and I have to make someone pay, pay for my mother’s life and my mother’s death, for her insignificance, her namelessness, for the smallness of her life, I have to make Ben pay and so

I don’t take the small, recuperative step from the unexpected thump on my back, instead I keep stumbling forward, toward Ben, and I see the red arc of the wine as it empties itself out of my glass and onto his white tux. And as the stain spreads, the look of horror on Ben’s face spreads also, and there is this white-hot second of knowing, a split second of recognition where we are two prize fighters baring our teeth at each other, where my loathing and rage and his disgust and contempt, sizzle like foam on the cusp of a wave and then it breaks, and I am mouthing my apologies and already he is accepting them, and trying valiantly to make light of what has happened, and in another second, we will both forget what has really happened here, we will slip into the garments of clumsy blunderer and aggrieved party, we will both turn our accusatory gaze onto Leon, the accidental back-thumper.

Ben’s mother has hurried up to us and I include her in my apologies, which she accepts with murderous resignation—I am her son’s boss, after all—and now Ben is joking about his wanting to slip into something more comfortable for the reception, anyway, and I am assured that it’s alright, no harm done, really, everything will be taken care of. Ben punches my upper arm in a no-hard-feelings gesture and then he is gone, escorted out of the room by a convoy of women who will fret and fuss and tend to him.

I stand in the same spot as before, suddenly cold, isolated, feeling the pinpricks of everyone’s eyes before they look away to resume their chatter, and the room assumes its normal shape. I edge my way out, my hand already curling around the phone and the instant I’m outdoors I’m calling my mother’s nurse. She answers on the second ring and tells me what I already know. At 5:15 p.m. my time, Hettie Mae Sarr died in her hospital bed, alone, isolated, separated from the only child she ever bore. A wave of shame mounts over me as the nurse gives me the details of her death.

In the movies the hero always reaches the deathbed in time. Well, I’ve never considered myself a hero and I know that this flood of emotions engulfing me at this moment as I stand alone on this lush green lawn, hearing the tinkling laughter and joyous voices, will recede. In two weeks, four weeks, in six months certainly, I will forgive myself, will not feel as if I have been complicit in my mother’s death. It will pass, I tell myself, this feeling will pass. All you have to do is breathe. All you have to do is not cry. It is simple. All you have to do is remove the cup of bitterness from your lips and set it down. Set it down. Set it down. Set it down.

  1. Dolores Johnson on

    I have a Nigerian son-in-law who must be feeling the similar pains as he succeeds on Wall Street and tries to get his American princess wife to accept the Nigerian customs his mother and father are outraged she doesn’t.
    Crossing cultures is what we all want, but the cup of bitterness that accompanies it seeps into our blood and continues to circulate, always. Your piece sent me to my room to cry.

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