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The Mom Who Made Me Feel Like a Son

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Black child in black and white looking up with hope

I waited for the ambulance and the police to arrive, surrounded by shards of broken glass and my own blood. I was a minor, and my mother’s boyfriend, Chuck, was a monster. I wondered if I’d made the right decision. I could only pray that my mom would tell the truth, and that the truth made sense.

We were well-acquainted with my biological mother’s infamous, sometimes obvious lies, and tales of goblins and ghouls. For me, my older brother and sister, her stories were a brief escape from the harshness of Chicago’s South Side in the 90s. I doubt we knew how dangerous she was at the time. We certainly didn’t know the extent of her madness back then. We’d joke, “ain’t Mom off the chain?”

Her kind of odd was sweet when I was little.

She dressed like a woman from a different time period, another continent: scarves around her wrists, bright, colorful 70s-era hoop earrings, dashikis and head wraps. This was Ann Miller.

In my earliest memories of her, I saw a gorgeous woman of 5’0” who could have been the lovechild of Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross. She smelled of sweet cocoa butter. Thin as a twig, but a personality as big as the tree itself, I loved this woman so much I thought I’d explode. Why did it seem like she didn’t even like me?

My mother’s weirdness only got weirder over the years. She’d call me up sometimes, asking for butter, bread, water—and I was over a thousand miles away. She’d send long, hardly-legible, barely intelligible letters ranting about bugs and devils or mythic creatures. It was hard to listen to, and harder to read.

She remained in Chicago, well after I left. I moved frequently in early adulthood: Gainesville, Anaheim, Virginia Beach, New York. At first, I moved because of the Navy. After my honorable discharge, and during the height of the recession, I floated from city-to-city to find work, meaning, or love, something to give me purpose.

Somehow, no matter how much I tried to stay hidden, my mother would find my numbers and addresses. I wasn’t giving out my digits or area codes like that. It had become customary for me to lose touch with my family. I felt like they’d abandoned me as a kid, and besides that, my true mother and father were all I needed in life. Or, so I thought. That never stopped Ann Miller from calling. 

“What is it?” I huffed into the phone one day when I saw the Illinois number.

“Why you keep tryna hide, Son?” She cooed at me in a high-pitched, sing-song on the other end. “The Lord always helps me find you!” She giggled to herself. When I was a kid, she would coo at me in different voices when she wanted me to laugh. It was silly, but effective.

But I wasn’t a kid anymore. That’s what I told myself, and I was sticking with that. I was a 20-something, bitter ex-sailor, barely surviving as a working college student. I was much too grown for her.

The last time I saw my birth mother was the last time I was in Chicago, in 2007. I was in town because my eldest sister, Yvette, had passed away from cancer at age 41. I was in a parking lot with my mother, waiting for my brother Zach and sister Alexandria. Tears and sweat drenched me. I was trying to talk to her about the day I tried to kill her boyfriend. But my commentary was most of the conversation. Ann would often interrupt me with something totally bizarre, per usual.

She said, “You know, sometimes I see the future. It is revealed to me. I can tell you that much, demons are everywhere. I am a Child of God. A prophet.”

I screamed. Anger warmed my ears. “Stop acting like a damn lunatic! I know you understand what I’m saying. I was ten, Mom. Why would you hurt me so long? Why would you allow him to hurt me?”

She was quiet for a moment. And that moment felt like it would yield itself to another round of nonsense. She’d been staring out the window in the backseat. Then, slowly, her face turned to me, half in yellow, from the streetlight, and the other half was darkness.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

I was shocked.

“You know, if I could go back, I would. If I could do things better, I woulda’ stayed with your dad. Charles and me…we made mistakes. Charles hurt both of us.”

That last part was a major revelation. I cried harder.

When her boyfriend came into our lives, only a few months had passed since my parents’ breakup. I was still a happy seven year old. Much of my small family was still together.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Chuck. He was the tallest person I’d seen at the time, 6’6”, pudgy, and really dark-skinned, like me. But he seemed smarmy to me. He bought me junk food when I did nothing to deserve it. He spoke too softly for a man his size. Often he’d cut off a sentence, which suggested to me he was protecting a secret. My siblings and I called him Lester the Molester, behind his back, because it rhymed. We laughed. Some jokes turn out not to be so funny.

Chuck had his own life in the beginning. This made things less uncomfortable.
Then, “Charles is coming over, kids,” and “I forgot to tell you, Charles is on his way,” became some of the most despised phrases for me, a youngster with no dad. My mother wouldn’t even let me talk or write to my father, so I just assumed I no longer had one. But this guy was going to be the replacement? Why not Carl Winslow from Family Matters or Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince of Belair? This dude always smelled like a different type of awful.

As the years progressed, Chuck was around all the time. My sister left because of this. My brother followed. They moved out and started their own lives in their late-teens. Just like my dad before them, I reckoned I’d need to get replacements. Why had they forsaken me? Chuck had won. He moved in after that.

While my mother and Chuck did discipline me before my siblings moved out, nothing could have prepared me for how serious things would get. I received beatings almost instantaneously. If I disobeyed, picked my nose, stared out the window too long, I would be dealt swift justice. Sometimes my mother chastised me, but mostly it was Chuck. “God’s showing you the error of your ways,” she informed, as her boyfriend whipped and punched me in the stomach, legs, ribs. Anywhere handprints wouldn’t be visible. My screams and cries encouraged him. Then I’d get a treat, as if being beaten was something to look forward to.

Things got so bad I’d stay outside playing with friends just long enough to miss a beating, but early enough to miss the bullets from gang members; I wagered that if I was too tired to make trouble for myself, there’d be no reason to hurt me. I was often wrong. 

“I’m going to marry your mom,” said Chuck, on the day he introduced us to his family. “Won’t be long before I’m your dad.” Bile filled my mouth at the thought. And after his nieces and nephews whispered to me the abuse they’d suffered for years, including sexual, I knew I had to kill him. “Has he ever touched you?” One of the boys asked, as if the question wasn’t shocking and taboo. He was so casual about it. He smiled. What kind of joke was this?

“No!” I spat, thoroughly offended.

“He will. Don’t worry.”

 No, he wouldn’t. He may have broken my body, but he would not take my innocence.

Back home, I planned.

Chuck had a sledgehammer in the kitchen because he sometimes did construction work. I hefted the hammer, but I wasn’t strong enough to maintain. It dropped and made a thump, alerting him. I swung, he intercepted. He snatched the instrument from me.

The 38-year-old man struck the ten-year-old boy in the thigh with the weapon. Luckily, it wasn’t in the head. The weapon smashed the window and shards ruptured my skin when I braced myself on the sill. EMTs and police followed.

“Alex did that to himself,” my mother lied to the emergency personnel. “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with him. He’s fine. Just a misunderstanding.” No one could believe that.

Doctors and authority figures examined me. My slender body and bloated belly gave proof of my malnutrition. The scars and bruises zigzagging along my body showed my abuse. Full custody was given to my father.

What followed were years of nightmares where I was still being beaten, contrasted with  years of absolute love. I’d always peed the bed, something I’ve read is a classic trait of the abused child. My parents made sure that I learned, waking me up two times a night. I eventually got the hang of it when I was 13. That didn’t stop the persistent fear of  the mother I used to know kidnapping me, bringing me back into that world. 

Years of calls and letters chased me. Always her contacting me. Never the opposite.

From the first time my true mother looked at me, a beautiful mocha-skinned angel, with pretty almond-shaped eyes and a smile that could melt a million snowmen, I knew she loved me. This was Rhonda Miller. What a feeling of relief. She took me in as her own. I very rarely remember that I’m not. I was rebellious at first, when I came to live with her and my dad. Initially, it was rather difficult because I didn’t recognize how to respond to that kind of love. The treatment, show of affection, the honesty, and genuine concern.  A gentle soul who looked at me like she only wanted to hug me every time we met. I always wanted that from a mother.

There were all these new rules: “Tie your shoes, Alex,” “Wipe your nose,” “Don’t sit like that!” Rules for life that I can’t thank her enough for instilling in me.

“Life will be a better teacher than I can ever be,” “I just want you to be happy in life. You’ve made us proud enough as it is.” She’s said that for years and I still feel lucky to hear it.

Through band practices, track meets, birthday parties…there she was. “You go, boy!” Mom said that after every event in which I participated. I blushed (probably…I’m so dark I’ve only seen that happen a couple times), the usual embarrassment a kid goes through.

She nurtured within me a healthy appreciation for Star Wars, the Minnesota Vikings, and Prince. And even though I only needed this one mom in my life…

One person still followed me.

“Are you OK?” My biological’s voice would always start the conversation with the same question. She always sounded distant, like she was trying to talk while watching a soap opera.

I’d usually make some excuse to get off the phone with her, then listen to her say “I love you.” I repeated the words until I got tired of saying them back. Eventually I stopped calling her Mom because that seemed inaccurate. Eventually, I wasn’t sure what to call my birth mother, so I stopped making calls, and I only sometimes answered hers.

Ann Miller called me one last time when I was 25, but I didn’t answer. I’d gone through a breakup earlier that day. A few days later my brother told me she’d passed away.

“That’s too bad,” I told him, indifferent. My recent heartbreak seemed more important.

Exactly one week after she died, I found that she had left me a voicemail. It was odd that I missed it. I played the recording.

Her mental illness, and overall bad health, had progressed to the point that I didn’t know what I was hearing. The voice was fragile, distant, indecipherable. Her words were a jumble of harsh groans and murmurs. I wept.

I think she apologized back in 2007 because she was both sorry and perceptive. Her mental stability had been in rapid decline for years, and I believe she may have finally realized she could no longer care for me. Maybe seeing her youngest son try to murder her boyfriend was the hurt she spoke of, the realization that she’d lost control over her own mind and her son’s welfare. She probably lied in order for her custody to be taken away, because it would ensure my protection. Or maybe that’s a little fib I tell myself.

My mom told me recently that she and my dad visited Ann Miller on her deathbed. When they went into her room, she was well into her final days. Speaking clearly, audibly, was a luxury she would no longer enjoy: cancer tends to do that. The disease had gnawed away at her mouth and left a massive hole where flesh should have been. She’d lost too much weight. She was foaming at the mouth. Bottom jaw protruding. I’ve often felt guilty for noticing that this happened to someone who wouldn’t stop telling lies.

She mumbled, then crudely scribbled, “Thank you for taking care of Alex. You were the best parents for him.” Not too long after my parents left, doctors operated on her for 12 hours but she succumbed to sarcoma of the throat. She’d called me on Veteran’s Day of 2011, and died shortly afterward. With her died any encouragement of pride she may have wanted to tell me.

My birth mother never prompted me to show interest in anything, especially not academics. But Mom taught me the importance of school.She went back and got 4 degrees, and I’m still trying to catch up. She’s supported my writing career and nearly every decision I’ve made (she doesn’t agree with the bad ones).

Something I will say about the woman I came out of: she wasn’t entirely the bad guy. She was hurt, possibly abused by her boyfriend. Plus mental illness is no joke, so a lot of what was going on was out of her control, including the constant lying. In retrospect, and even though she knew it because she told my parents as much, I’d settle for hearing her tell me one more lie, just so that I could tell her one more truth: “Your lies saved my life; I finally got the mother I deserved.” 

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Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! Love you to bits!