Everything is Beautiful and Everything is Terrible

midnight and indigo literary journal for black writers
Photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor

My mother’s eyes are bulging, glassy and wild, almost spinning in their sockets with fear. Her cracked lips are pulled back from her teeth, which snap viciously. She is warning an invisible opponent of her bite. Her face is waxy and becomes more and more grey as the blood drains from her hollow cheeks.

This is the violent final showdown between my mother and her leukemia, and in this moment, though I stand beside her, she is facing death alone, terrified and tortured by the blood that runs in both of our veins.

My heart bashes unevenly against my chest as I watch my mother die her excruciating death. She’s looking at me but she doesn’t see me. From the hospital room, I text my husband, “I will have nightmares about this day for the rest of life.” He texts me back and my text tone, the sound of a clown horn comically honking over and over again, fills the void left by my mother’s silent screams.



It was 10 pm on a Tuesday night when my mother first told me she was dying.

She’d traveled from Los Angeles to Portland the previous week to visit me and my new baby, and as soon I saw her it was obvious to me how sick she was. She was frail, translucent and papery, more like skin shed by my mother than my mother herself. When I spoke to her over the phone a week later and she confessed her diagnosis, I begged her to come and live with me. I was her first born. Of course, it should be me that cares for her.

Though my voice never wavered during our conversation, after we hung up, I fell apart for hours. My son, only 6 months old, called out every thirty minutes to be fed leaving both my face and my torso wet with tears and milk and snot and sweat. I shed my soaked nightclothes and continued frantically pacing back and forth through the house, now naked, sobbing, and leaving trails of breast milk everywhere. A shaft of moonlight cut across my kitchen window and I caught a glimpse of my neighbor, our adjacent backyards and kitchen windows in full view of each other. He stood beneath his porch light, naked, vigorously masturbating and making determined, aggressive eye contact with me.

And I laughed. I laughed at the thought of telling this to my mother. How on this night, in this moment, arguably the worst in my life, I was still totally fuckable.

She would reply, “Well, was he at least good looking?”


When my sister and I were children our parents would take us to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico every year. My father would book tours for us that traversed tranquil villages, glittering swimming holes, and thick swampy jungles. When I was 11, I challenged a tour guide to let me swing on a vine sworn to be the vine Arnold Schwarzenegger swung from in whatever movie he’d most recently been swinging from vines in. A middle-aged woman followed, taking my successful swing as an indication that it was also safe for her. She swung out above the rest of the tour group, lost her grip and plummeted to the ground. She bounced, hollered, and sheepishly limped toward her husband. The rest of the tour was immediately canceled. We rushed her to a local hospital. My mother joked the whole way there. “Next year try jumping off a waterfall, Let’s see how many grown-ups we can get to follow you off a cliff.”

That night at the resort, there was a huge celebration for the guests. My mother made fast friends with another couple. She was fantastic, cracking jokes, dancing, singing. I was in awe. It got late, and my father took my sister and me back to our hotel room. My mother arrived a few hours later, held up by her new pals, sloppily giggling about how she just threw up in the pool. My father and sister were fast asleep. I helped her inside and she crawled straight to the cool tile of the bathroom floor. She laid down and sweetly asked me to undress her. She sang softly the whole time, Lullaby of Birdland. The zipper on her dress was stuck. I stopped trying to move it. We lay together on the tile and fell asleep, arms and legs entwined.


Every moment of caring for my mother is a complex potpourri of love, resentment, fear, and annoyance.

I am honored to do this. I fucking hate this. This is my duty. My mother is a burden. I finally understand a mother’s love. I would never do this to my child.

I am honored to do this. I fucking hate this. This is my duty. My mother is a burden. I finally understand a mother’s love. I would never do this to my child.

It never stops. It’s dizzying. Nothing is easy and everything hurts. My mother is dying and I begged her to let me watch.

I do what I can to make my mother comfortable in my house, but there is no comfort for her, there is nothing I can do. There is no cure for her cancer. The survival rate is zero percent. She undergoes chemo in vain, and I wonder why she would want to spend the last year of her life in such agony. She tells me she feels like she’s burning from the inside out, she doesn’t want to do it anymore. She tells me that she’s scared, and she wants her mother. I hold her and tell her I will support whatever choice she makes.

I close my eyes and rest my face in the crook of her neck. The smell is different now, but nonetheless I am 11 years old again, snuggled against her warm flesh as she hums a lullaby on a tiled hotel room floor in Mexico.


I’m reaching out to family members more often. I call my father and we reminisce about our favorite family moments. I talk about the trip where mom ruined a hotel pool in Puerto Vallarta and I accidentally made a lady break her back. He doesn’t remember much of the trip, but he remembers how drunk mom was. His recollection is not as fond.

I remind him that was our last family trip. The following year he came out of the closet.

We fall quiet because we both know that my mother began dying then, nearly 30 years ago.


My mother spent most of her adult life as the only black woman in the room, but she made it her business to be the type of ambassador to black culture that progressive white folks loved. This was how she survived her life.

It was exhausting for me to witness, and brutal for her to live. I would hear her refrain of defeat often, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as much.” That was my mother’s reality.

When my father left, she unraveled. She wasn’t just a single mother, she was a single, black mother, whose white husband had left her for a man. To her, there weren’t many greater shames. She would nurse this heartbreak, the wounds of heritage, and the wounds of her ancestors for my whole life, but she would never heal.

No doctor in the world can tell you how a person ends up with Prolymphocytic T-Cell Leukemia, but by the looks of my mother, a lifetime of trauma may be a contributing factor.


In the moments before my mother’s death, a nurse administers a dose of morphine and tells me that at this point they are walking the line between pain relief and literally stopping her heart. She tells me my mother’s numbers resemble that of an end-stage AIDS patient.

I don’t know what to do or what to say. I tell my mother I love her and she emerges from a haze of painkillers, her old singsong voice, so full of charm and verve; “Write a poem for my funeral. And don’t forget about the gnats. The gnats. Gnats.” She shook her head in frustration. That wasn’t what she was trying to say. “The gnats. Gnats.”

And then she was gone.



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Brianna Wheeler

Brianna Wheeler is a copywriter and essayist in Portland, Oregon.