John Edgar Wideman
from Callaloo

My mother is a weightlifter. You know what I mean. . .

Bad enough when life fattens you up just so it can turn around and gobble you down. Worse for the ones like my mother life keeps skinny, munching on her daily, one cruel, little, needle-toothed bite at a time so the meal lasts and lasts. Mom understands life don’t play so spends beaucoup time and energy getting ready for the worst. She lifts weights to stay strong. Not barbells or dumbbells, though most of the folks she deals with, especially her sons, act just that way, like dumbbells. No. The weights she lifts are burdens, her children’s, her neighbors, yours. Whatever awful calamities arrive on her doorstep or howl in the news, my mom squeezes her frail body beneath them. Grips, hoists, holds the weight. I swear sometimes I can hear her sinews squeaking and singing under a load of invisible tons.

I ought to know since I’m one of the burdens bowing her shoulders. She loves heavy, hopeless me unconditionally. Before I was born, Mom loved me, forever and ever till death do us part. I’ll never be anyone else’s darling, darling boy so it’s her fault, her doing, isn’t it, that neither of us can face the thought of losing the other. How could I resist reciprocating her love. Needing her. Draining her. Feeling her straining underneath me, the pop and cackle of her arthritic joints, her gray hair sizzling with static electricity, the hissing friction, tension and pressure as she lifts more than she can bear. Bears more than she can possibly lift. You have to see it to believe it. Like the Flying Wallendas or Houdini’s spine-chilling escapes. One of the greatest shows on earth.

My mother believes in a god whose goodness would not permit him to inflict more troubles than a person can handle. A god of mercy and salvation. A sweaty, bleeding god presiding over a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles. She should wear a T-shirt: God’s Gym.

In spite of a son in prison for life, twin girls born dead, a mind blown son who roams the streets with everything he owns in a shopping cart, a strung out daughter with a crack baby, a good daughter who’d miscarried the only child her dry womb ever produced, in spite of me and the rest of my limp-along, near to normal siblings and their children–my nephews doping and gangbanging, nieces unwed, underage, dropping babies as regularly as the seasons–in spite of breast cancer, sugar diabetes, hypertension, failing kidneys, emphysema, gout, all resident in her body and epidemic in the community, knocking off one by one her girlhood friends, in spite of corrosive poverty and a neighborhood whose streets are no longer safe even for gray, crippled up folks like her, my mom loves her god, thanks him for the blessings he bestows, keeps her faith he would not pile on more troubles than she could bear. Praises his name and prays for strength, prays for more weight so it won’t fall on those around her less able to bear up. . .

Random House
O. Henry awards

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