On Wednesday morning, approximately around 3:30 a.m., I was awakened by my mother-in-law, who had heard the sound of a diesel truck pull up directly in front of the house. She screamed for me to go out front, as the diesel engine belonged to a tow truck, which had arrived to carry out the most unwelcome task for the fiscally irresponsible. After ninety-one days past due, the bank I had financed Delores through finally came to take her back.
I threw on clothes faster than I ever have, being the size and weight I am. I ran outside to see Delores already hitched, propped by her front wheels. I begged the truck driver, himself a family man, to leave Delores where she was so I could get together what little money I could to send in a payment. But the driver refused, saying that if he left her there, he would lose his own job.
After getting together a few of my personal items, including my first pair of running shoes, my baseball glove, and a bat gifted to me by teammates of a community college baseball team I played with nearly two decades ago, the tow driver rumbled away, Delores silently at its back. I shed no tear that would belie my grief, but deep inside, despair, anguish, embarrassment and shame tore my soul to shreds.
Delores was gone, and I had failed.
♦ ♦ ♦
In October 2011, we bought a 2008 Volkswagen Passat, Cobalt Blue in color. It was perhaps the nicest vehicle I’d ever owned. It was my very first time owning a German marque; in many respects, vehicles that come from Deutschland are believed to be the platinum standard of automaking. Practically speaking, it was a big addition to our pile of stuff; after nearly nine months of being unemployed, I had taken an offer to work for a bank branch in Bowie, Maryland. My wife’s car at the time, a 1999 Nissan Altima SE with a library’s worth of stories in its own mileage, would not be sound for an everyday commute of nearly forty miles each way.
2011 was a shit year for Jessica and I. We had just gotten engaged in April of 2010, and had begun to slowly make plans to build a permanent life around each other. The woman I know as the great love of my life had become more dear to me than life itself, having been the only thing keeping me somewhat sane after going through an ugly separation, and catching heat from my family over my impending divorce three years earlier. I proposed to Jessica at Union Square, and after driving throughout Manhattan, she finally said yes, in front of all places, Yankee Stadium.
Trouble was brewing. The job market cratered in New York City that year. Jessica had spent six years getting her undergraduate in the hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and an associate’s in Fashion Design in Tribeca after that, and was a casualty of the fashion industry’s restructuring. I was selling cars at a luxury dealership on the West Side of Manhattan, and lost that job in May. My grandmother’s health had begun to rapidly deteriorate, and my extended family was on edge as the inevitable drew closer. Our Bronx apartment that had given us issue after issue developed leaks in the ceiling over the kitchen. The question we had started to ask ourselves in the midst of all this, one that we seriously did not want to answer on our own, began to answer itself:
Is it time to move back to Baltimore?
The answer became yes. In July of 2010, we left New York, emotional baggage and all. Neither of us wanted to leave, especially Jessica. She had spent her entire life trying to get to the Big Apple, and here we were, four years after her initial arrival, crossing the George Washington Bridge with our belongings for the last time as New York residents. I had gotten a job with an Audi dealership in Baltimore County, and was prepared to start fresh. Jessica and I would live separately the rest of that year, she with her mother, and I at my grandmother’s house. Thus would begin our rebuilding stage, in the city we were both from, yet neither of us truly wanted to be here. It would be here in Baltimore that I would watch my grandmother decline, inexorably to the end.
♦ ♦ ♦
Alice Delores Marie Shired was born October 21, 1933. The day she was born is one of note in our family; it is a date shared by her daughter (my mother), and my father’s mother, who was born the same day in 1926. Growing up, October 21st was known as ” All Mother’s Day”, and was a pretty big event for our family.
My grandmother and I, circa 2008.
I am my grandmother’s first grandson, and our connection was made almost immediately upon my arrival on this earth. There is a story my mother tells of my grandmother being on the phone at the hospital, and my father holding me in his arms and putting the phone up to my mouth to talk to her, not even a couple hours old. My grandmother cried tears of joy when she heard me speak. I’m fairly certain that this was my first encouragement to pursue a career in speaking, or a guarantee that I’d never shut up. You’d have to ask my wife about that.
My grandmother and I were always very close, and there wasn’t much we didn’t do. As a little boy, sometimes I would watch The Price Is Right while on the phone with her. When I got older, I would watch the show with my grandmother in her room before she got her day started. Throughout that time, my grandfather, Robert L. Brown was there, sipping his Milwaukee’s Best at the bar in his basement. By way of his service to this nation during the Korean War, and decades put in at Bethlehem Steel, they moved from the ‘hood of West Lombard Street by Baltimore’s Westside Shopping Center, and settled in the heart of Glen, part of the city’s largest community of orthodox Jews.
Grand-Dad died of cancer in January of 1998, and not too long after, my grandmother’s health began to fail. Perhaps the death of her Beloved proved too much for her to handle; not too long afterwards, my Grandma had her first stroke.
Then there were the heart attacks. Then the dementia.
And then the organs shutting down.
Eventually, my grandmother would end up going to dialysis three days a week. The one good kidney she had left failed long ago, but her condition had not stopped her from opening her home to me when I became homeless in 2008, right before I left for New York. Thankfully, it did not stop her from welcoming me back when I returned in 2010.
I helped out in any way I could. In the morning, I would help her get down the stairs for my aunts to take her to dialysis. I sometimes would get meals for her, picking up things to eat on my way home from work. If there were messes made, I cleaned them up for her.
And when there were times she needed to be carried up the stairs, I did that too, most notably in October of that year, when I would carry her up those stairs one last time.
Jessica had picked me up from work, and we were discussing something. Maybe we were arguing or something as we traveled down I-83, but something told me to veer off onto Northern Parkway, to check on my grandmother. We arrived to find her in the living room, cold and shaking. She had been on the couch for several hours, and was confused, and hungry. She couldn’t walk, so Jessica and I carried her up the stairs ourselves. Once there, Jessica put Grandma in her pajamas while I made something hot for her to eat.
Three days later, my grandmother would leave her home, never to return.
♦ ♦ ♦
My grandmother would shuttle constantly between Union Memorial Hospital and the rehab clinic south of it, especially after her finger went black. The middle finger of her left hand that was the first piece of her body to wither and die. Some in our family thought it was from the port in her arm used to flush her system during dialysis. However it started, it put her in a lot of pain.
I was doing well at the Audi dealership, despite the circumstances there. It wasn’t easy to sell cars there when the sales manager handed over every internet lead to the salesperson that had followed him up from Annapolis. But I was making it work, and was heading over to see my grandmother every Tuesday, no matter where she was. It was right around this time I started putting away money for a really nice apartment in Station North, just above Baltimore’s Penn Station.
I saw an ad for the place on Craigslist: a three-bedroom, two-bath spot on East Lafayette Avenue. The stated rent seemed like a pretty good deal, especially for an apartment north of Penn Station that was over 1300 square feet in space. The close proximity to the Amtrak station–which meant direct access to both Washington, DC and New York City–was a major selling point. A former Facebook friend went so far as to call the neighborhood an unofficial “suburb” of the city that meant so much to us.
I went to see the place, which was absolutely beautiful. I had never seen such an immaculate apartment, with such incredible expanse. It seemed like the perfect place to start our new life in Baltimore, Jessica and I. We would be able to have everything we wanted, and be happy for once in our living situation. The experience in the Bronx had left us with a bad taste in our mouths about renting.
I decided to surprise my wife-to-be with this new apartment. For all my horrendous habits with money, I managed to save up enough to put a deposit down on the apartment of my dreams. And this time, I wanted to make it all a surprise. After all, I thought, isn’t that what a man’s supposed to do, welcome his lady into the home he built?
There were hiccups along the way, and the management company wasn’t able to hold the apartment for us. However, they informed us of another property they had acquired on Barclay Street that was about to be built–still in close proximity to the train station, but in a far rougher block in the neighborhood. Ultimately, this would be the place we would make our new home. This whole time, however, my grandmother had deteriorated badly. My aunts, enduring much consternation over the decision, finally agreed to let doctors amputate her finger. No more blood flowed to that extremity at all. The nail on that finger had fallen off, and unbeknownst to us, gangrene had already begun to take my grandmother’s body, and had started to pop up in other places. In fact, one of the last things my grandmother said to me about her condition was, “I feel like my legs are dying.”
Two of the fingers on her hand were taken, but despite the therapy sessions and hospital visits, my grandmother was almost gone, and there was nothing that could be done.
♦ ♦ ♦
In March 2011, I received a text message while at an event in Mount Vernon, south of Station North. My cousin sent me the news I knew was coming: My grandmother was in hospice, dying rapidly of sepsis. The gangrene from her withered body had finally dealt her the blow she would not recover from. Sepsis, as defined by the National Institutes of Health, is a severe reaction to bacteria or other pathogens that afflict the body. It is an excruciating disease, one that inflicts severe pain, delirium, chills, and shaking. Very few people that go through sepsis survive.
Though I was expecting the news to come down, I was not mentally prepared for it. That previous month, I had been fired from the Audi dealership I was working, two days after I delivered two cars in the same evening. Having lost such a job was devastating, especially since I had become so fond of Audi during my years in New York.
That next morning, I went to see my grandmother one last time, along with one of my brothers. When we entered the room, I saw Alice Delores Marie Shired Brown–a woman who had given so much of her own life to others, much less my own–curled into a ball, ravaged in her septic state. My brother lifted the cover over her legs, revealing one them had been amputated. The nurses had kept her morphine levels up to keep her comfortable, and after a nurse had come to check in on her, I spoke to her directly in her ear.
I thanked her for everything she had done for me; for the lessons in life, the times we watched The Price Is Right, and for her example of strength and resiliency in the face of her death. I thanked her for rebuking my tendency to worry about her so much, and for telling me that above all else, to be a strong man and leader.
I took my grandmother’s hand, kissed it, then after I told her I loved her, I said, “Go home.”
I have no memory of what I did the rest of that day. Seeing my grandmother in such a state left my mind in a numbed fog. Perhaps I ate something. Took a shower. Not really sure–
I awoke with a start around 12:30 in the morning, in a cold sweat and shaking. My bedroom had become frigid, despite the heat being on. I looked around briefly, then went back to sleep. Later that morning, I got a phone call from my mother, who broke the news.
On March 4th, 2011, Alice Delores Marie Shired Brown had returned to the Ancestors, and to the husband who went before her thirteen years before. She was the last of my grandparents to die. Strangely, in the week leading up to the funeral, I never cried once; I tried to be strong for my grandmother as I thought she would want, spending my time instead being thankful that her suffering had ended. The day of the funeral was no different. I truly believed I had it all together, until we made our way to her final resting place, and watched as her remains were returned to the earth. Jessica–who had developed a deep love for my grandmother after losing her own in childhood–and I finally let go of every single tear we had been holding in.
As I mentioned before, 2011 was a shit year.
♦ ♦ ♦
When we bought the Passat that October, this car represented a new, grand chapter in our lives. 2011 had started terribly, but only got worse as spring and summer came along.
The air conditioning unit went up in our apartment, and the woman who lived below us lost a massive amount of property due to the water damage. Mold quickly sickened my wife and our neighbor, who at one time I personally rushed both to the hospital at once. The property management company had been exposed as a thief, stealing water from the city by not having a meter from the alley.
And on top of all that, I couldn’t find full-time work. Resumes were sent out, and networking was done, but I got nowhere until I got the aforementioned job at the bank, which paid a great salary, health benefits, and even a savings plan.
Jessica named her Altima “Clara”, after her grandmother Clara Wade, her beloved “Nano.” This gave me the inspiration to name the new car after my own. That 2008 Volkswagen Passat would heretofore be known as “Delores.”
This vehicle honors not just the memory of the woman who helped shape my life, but also my father’s mother Rowena Wingfield, who was brutally murdered in her own home in 2005. The color blue was her favorite, and is a testament to her wisdom and her own regal character. Delores carried me down to Busboys and Poets the night I met the man who would become my father in journalism, Jonathan Capehart. Delores bears the logos of my school, the University of Baltimore, and carried in its trunk multiple copies of The UB Post during my time as a Staff Writer and Editor-in-Chief. Aside from the trips up and down I-95 to New York, Delores brought my wife and I safely to Virginia Beach and back, with two bad spark plugs.
This car–yes, a car–became not just a way to get around, but was a mark of my identity, and a reminder of the road I’ve traveled to get to get this far.
Which is why I feel so much shame in screwing this all up.
I humbly admit to my readers, my family, my mentors, and most of all, my wife: I should have been much more careful with this car. Hindsight has rendered me a regretful, stuttering mess in the wake of my own folly. I made too many mistakes. Instead of treasuring that which I had, I let this slip away. Getting laid off from a position that sought to bring focus and gravity to the subject of voting, especially in a year filled with so many reasons to exercise this precious franchise, did not help either.
This is the first time I have ever done something like this, to publicly ask for help. Perhaps I have taken too long to “get to the point”, so to speak, as putting the legacy of my grandmother in even this way was a very personal endeavor. My grandmother meant so much to me, and was one of a powerful cadre of people that directed me to go to school, and unlock my potential. I’m still not there yet.
I am asking for this assistance so that I can make things better for my family, and for my future. I did not want you, my readers, to have any doubts as to where your money will go, or what my motivations were.
Any and all help is appreciated by clicking on this link. Also, should you hear of any open fellowship programs or writing jobs, please let me know. Thank you, thank you; a thousand times, I thank you.