Aside from her loyalty, I deeply admired her resilience. At 39 she had her first heart attack. It happened right after Christmas, so we spent New Year’s Eve in the hospital. (She made it mandatory that we always spend that holiday together). Despite struggling to do it, she gave up smoking. She was also a diabetic. She experienced ups and downs she never spoke about. Through it all, she lived to see another 28 years. The time she had was a gift, because there were multiple times that could’ve taken her life.
As I got older we became confidants, pillars of support for one another. At some point, our roles reversed. I’m proud that I took care of her and talked to her about what I had learned: having perspective and intent and communication.
By the time she was 67, Mom Dukes was a little old lady. Poor health takes its toll on us all. Unchecked diabetes meant she lost her right toes and the lower part of her left leg. She was in a wheelchair those last few years and it was the most fragile I had ever seen her.
I rarely saw Mom Dukes cry, but after the amputations, she was vulnerable. One day I walked into the apartment and found her on the floor, in tears, because she couldn’t get up. She was embarrassed, yet grateful I was there. I knew I was probably the only person she could physically depend on. I took my mother to as many doctors appointments as possible. Some days it was a lot to handle. But after she got sick and people stopped calling and visiting or when she got lonely, I did everything to be by her side.
In November 2017 I was in Chicago for my son’s birthday. We sent Mom Dukes some photos and called her to say “We love you Ma-Wela!” That was the last time my son spoke to her. Mom Dukes was visiting my sister in Maryland for Thanksgiving and had a heart attack the next day.
No one thought it was that serious. It was another trip to the hospital (she had dozens). When I called to check on her she told me she felt like shit, and explained she had a triple bypass. I decided to fly home and head down to see her. For the next two months I spent every weekend in D.C. In that time, Mom Dukes had cardiac arrest and a tracheotomy. Being with her became my priority.
It was freezing as I waited for the bus to go see her on Saturday, Dec. 30th. I called my mother to give her an update. She told me, “Pop, you don’t have to come down.” I replied “MA! Please, if the roles were reversed, nothing would stop you from coming to see me.” I needed her to know that I would be there for her regardless of any obstacle.
I spent six straight days in the hospital with her. It’s where I last saw her alive. My sister called a week later to tell me it was “that time.” I desperately wanted to drop everything and make the hours-long ride down that Sunday afternoon. She recommended I wait until the next day and come with my grandmother and my aunt. I reluctantly agreed. When I got off the phone with her, I called Mom Duke’s hospital room. When the nurse picked up I asked her to put the phone by her ear. I heard Mom Dukes breathing. “Ma! it’s me Pop. I love you, MA! You’re my girl! I’ll be there tomorrow.”
At six the next morning my sister called to tell me Mom Dukes had passed away. I went to Maryland, even though I wouldn’t be able to see her. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I called and told my son Wela was gone. It was heartbreaking. It was incredibly painful telling people who loved her that she was gone.
Mom Dukes was one of my closest friends, one of my confidants, and my sounding board. She apologized to me once. She even asked me if she was a good mother. I told her yes and that she didn’t have to apologize because my love for her is infinite. I wanted to show her I was always going to be there for her, no matter what. My Fela, My Mom Dukes didn’t give up on me and I never gave up on her. My mother was a mountain.
All photos courtesy of author.