You could always recognize my mother’s laugh by the timbre of her delight. So rich, so black, so hers. A laugh that made you stop and turn, made you want in on the joke. You know that feeling. At a crowded restaurant, and from a table on the other side of the room, laughter fragrances the air and floats toward your curiosity. And you have to look. You know pleasure when you hear it and, starving, you want in.
I loved making my mother laugh. The sight of her head thrown back, eyes crinkled shut, all of her teeth catching light usually pushed me to try my luck with another joke, another riff, another perfectly timed slant of my eyes. Even when I went too far and got an “alright, now, that’s enough” from her, it felt like a standing ovation.
Back when you could actually meet people at the gates, my grandma greeted us at Memphis International Airport, chuckling softly as we walked toward her. “I could hear you laughing from all the way on the far end of the jet way,” she said, looking at Mom. “Been listening to you for what feels like three minutes now. That’s my Carol.” My mother looked at me and we started laughing all over again.
Alright now, that’s enough. In the spring of 2011, my mother died. By the fall, it occurred to me that she had taken the sound of her voice with her. I have no video footage of my mother — no saved voice messages, no random audio recordings made holy by what they preserve. She had a heart attack the night before Mother’s Day and was in a coma until the doctor declared her brain dead a few days later. There were no urgent, soft-spoken conversations beside her hospital bed. Neither of us had time to grasp what we wanted the other to remember. There was simply a late-night phone call, and then I was in an airport, a hospital, a funeral room, a cemetery. My mother’s silence was sudden and, as I slowly realized, definite.
With time, she started appearing in my dreams. Lately, perhaps because I’m writing this essay about her, she shows up several nights a week. But she is silent or stands too far away for me to hear her. And when my mother does speak to me in dreams, by the time I wake up I can’t recall the sound of her voice. I’ve tried. In the first few moments of consciousness, I have sat up in bed with my eyes still closed, trying to hear my way back to her. Nothing.
I can’t recall the sound of her voice. I’ve tried. In the first few moments of consciousness, I have sat up in bed with my eyes still closed, trying to hear my way back to her. Nothing.
Imagine my surprise then, when several years after we buried her, I heard my mother laugh. Not in a dream, in the middle of the day. That same richness, that same timbre. I snapped my neck around, looking. Only to realize as the last traces of the sound colored the air, that my mother’s laughter was coming from my own throat. The person who had made me laugh, a coworker, had already walked away, but I stood alone in the hallway for a moment, delighted and heartbroken at once. I felt silly holding my hand to my throat for a moment, but I didn’t know what else to do. I even tried to recreate the laugh, to no avail. I just stood there, humbled, realizing that the laughter is mine to receive but never to own.
This is not a ghost story; it’s a story about an inheritance. Grief takes so much from us. We are well-versed in its agonies, and if we aren’t yet, we will be soon enough. But nearly a decade down this road, I feel that I owe it to grief to honor its pleasures. To recognize what love gives us, and makes of us, even as it takes.
Grief takes so much from us. We are well-versed in its agonies, and if we aren’t yet, we will be soon enough.
I’ve noticed that, though its arrival is rare and unpredictable, my mother’s laughter arrives most frequently when I’m talking to someone, usually a black woman, who reminds me of her. Mom would’ve loved to get drinks with Sylvia. Mom would’ve wanted to go to lunch with Mary every chance she got. Angel would’ve had her cracking up just now. And so, forever her son, I offer another joke, another riff, another slant of my eyes. It’s never enough but it’s plenty.
Sound wave illustrations by Carmen Johns