“The most powerful ancestor you have is your mother’s mother.” unknown
Story of Saretha and ShaRhonda
I’m in the hospital now. It’s 2:22 on August 31st, 2019. I received a full hysterectomy less than 12 hours ago. I’m doing surprisingly well, considering all the different ways this could have gone wrong. Truthfully, I’m still heavily sedated and on the strong hospital-grade pain medicine, so my claims of an “easy hysterectomy” maybe a bit premature.
However, alas, this is my situation: in an uncomfortable hospital bed, surrounded by loud noises, bright lights, and way too many people anxiously waiting on me to pass gas. It’s an ironic time to have a moment of reflection about health care, Black women and the similarities and differences between the experience of uterine cancer between my maternal grandmother, Saretha and myself.
I never got a chance to meet my grandmother. Neither did my mother, her baby girl, Aretha Faye, who was less than 1 year old when she died. The picture attached here is the only picture anyone has of her. It is the most important family heirloom I have. Not a lot was spoken about Saretha growing up. Mostly because my mother was blessed to be raised by her aunt Johnny who was in every since of the word, who my mom referred to as, “her momma.”
My mother’s “momma” made sure to all tell my mother Aretha about her birth mother, “Saretha.” It was a promise Aunt Johnny made to her before she died, she would let her children know who she was. But even with the best intentions, the stories, memories, and what’s most difficult to me, the pictures of her are scarce.
We know her birthday, kind of (damn, leap year) and we know what we can find on ancestry and census records. She was a Black woman, beautiful and tall, like me, my mom is 5’4. She was well-dressed, well-spoken, and extremely intelligent are the main characteristics we get from antidotes from family who knew her.
Unfortunately for my grandmother, the fact that she was a poor, Black, unwed mother of 4, in the rural south in the 1950s, was more a factor in her life outcomes than any of her internal accolades. Being a Black poor southern woman, in the 1950s, with a serious illness was to be on your own with very little help by the medical field.
It is through that truth, being a Black woman with a serious illness, that I am most like my grandmother. I’ve battled lupus and many of the terrible attacks on my organs and body from lupus since I was 22 years old. Being chronically ill was always tough but it became my impossible, never going away burden when I decided to have children. People with the kind of lupus I have been discouraged from having children because of the toll on our bodies.
Knowing the risk, which I imagine Saretha did too, I choose to have children. It’s very hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t had the experience, it was even hard to explain to my own mother, the emotional feeling of knowing and being willing to die to birth a child, especially when you aren’t certain you will ever get to know them.
I would be described by family and friends that know me, probably the same way Saretha was described. Highly intelligent, with an insatiable thirst for complex, heavy conversation, is my thing. So, trying to explain a feeling so strong to do something so dangerous, life/threatening, is hard. Mostly because it isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a heart and faith-guided decision.
I believed I had a 40% chance of living and being able to care for my daughter. In 2019 with excellent health insurance. The reality is grim for Black women, pregnancy, and mortality. Black women are still the most likely to die and/or be disabled from pregnancy. It was true in 1950 Arkansas for my grandmother, Saretha, and it was true for me ShaRhonda, in 2019, Chicago.
Being Black, Female, and pregnant is often a death sentence for us.
I don’t have any stories about how doctors treated my grandmother during her pregnancy, cancer, or her transition. But I know, because I know how I was treated during my pregnancy, multiple lupus health scares, and my near-death experiences.