When I was pregnant with Boogie, I had a difficult time getting used to the idea of pregnancy and negotiating the new changes I was going through. So the irony of being invited (along with Ove) to perform at the school for pregnant teens in Brooklyn was not lost on me. While waiting to present, I saw a pamphlet on the bulletin board purple and pink, with a picture of a young, pregnant woman, gazing softly out of a window. She looked peaceful and angelic. I felt anything but. The pamphlet read, Is this your first pregnancy?
I hurriedly popped one in my bag, and took a close look at it when I got back to my friend Lynne's apartment. Though I'd just signed the lease on an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I'd been sleeping on her couch for months. I was too scared, too pregnant, too lonely to spend much time at my own place. Plus, I didn't have any furniture or money (outside of rent).
Anyway, when I finally looked at the flyer, I realized that it was just what I needed: An offer for a nurse to visit me once a week during the pregnancy and then once a month until the baby was 2 years old. The nurse would help me with some of the things that I found difficult and encourage me to take care of my health and my emotions in order to deliver a healthy baby. I hadn't been eating well and the worry was already threatening this high-risk pregnancy. I called and spoke to a Maria. I held my breath waiting for her to tell me that there was some catch that they really needed 15-year-olds, pregnant and alone. I was wondering if they wondered why an almost 30-year-old woman would need the same kind of help they offered those half my age in this particular situation. They assured me that it was for first time mothers-to-be, regardless of age, education, or social standing. A few days later, I got a call from a woman named Valada. She had a soft gentle voice with the hint of the south that most Chicago residents seem to own. She laughed easily as I hid my nerves through jokes and smartass replies to her questions. At the end of that first conversation, she told me that she was looking forward to meeting me the following week and working with me during the pregnancy.
When I met Valada, I was struck by how slight she was. This golden woman with a short, cropped afro, dyed to match. She sat with me and talked me through a questionnaire. I found myself tiptoeing through an honesty I found surprising. When she asked me about a history of depression, I held my breath and hesitated.
She took my hand and said, It's all right I've been there too, and we spent the rest of the time talking and crying about our shared history as black women who constantly have to fight a world that threatens us, with the strength we can’t always summons.
She was only supposed to spend an hour with me. She was there for four. When she left, she promised me friendship and a shoulder through the next few months and years.
During the course of the next nine months, I saw Valada nearly every week and spoke to her every other day. When I told her about how uncomfortable I was at the clinic, she made a few calls and found a private practice in Brooklyn Heights that would take me and then eventually perform my surgery after the baby was born. She came with me to that first appointment, the day after my son's father and I had the worst (at that point) of our fights about what, I don't remember. I just know that I was bruised and broken and bargaining with my body to just hold on for the sake of this child a baby I wasn't sure I even liked at that point. Valada remembered I loved waffles, and promised me breakfast if I just took the first step out of the door.
In the doctor's office, she asked the questions I couldn't. Told the doctor what I forgot. And because I liked to make her laugh, she kept my spirits up by throwing softball pitches for my punchlines. That afternoon, we spent more time in a diner than I'm sure she got clocked for, navigating maple syrup and stories about the Jamaican men we regrettably loved at one time or another.
Valada was my friend. So when my son decided he needed to come early, she came to the hospital during her vacation to ask the questions I was afraid to ask. She held my hand and calmed down my mother who had taken the first hysterical thing smoking into Brooklyn to support.
And when E was born and she met him for the first time, she held him like the children she never had an opportunity to bear. Turned to me and said, Look what you did. Everything was for this. Don't you wish you could do it again? and I said, Yes. And for the first time, meant it.
Valada was my friend. So when she wasn't feeling well and took time off from work, I worried but remembered the sickness we shared. She said, Girl, it's just this damn depression. I can't eat. I can't sleep. I just don't feel right. It'll pass. Months went by and we were phone buddies. I'd call her to see how she was feeling and she'd call me to say, Girl what did that boy do now? I swear these men And we would gossip and laugh. And she sounded like she was feeling better.
And then the days I didn't hear from her turned to weeks. Her cell phone went straight to voicemail. Her office phone was answered by someone else. Then her boss called me and told me that she had taken a sick leave. She wanted to get to the bottom of this thing that was hurting her. I sent her my best. Wondered if our friendship had ended now that her job had. But always wished her the best. Called the office to check but no one had heard from her. The months passed and the baby and I relocated to Maryland for the summer. One afternoon, Edna called to check on Valada's favorite patient. And I laughed and told her I was good. Mentioned that I'd had a dream about Valada last week. I should have called her then, I said. And Edna said, I'm so sorry, Bassey and her voice broke before she got to my name. And I said, Don't tell me. What happened? and I was crying before I could get to the Don't.
My friend, Valada Skeet, passed away from intestinal cancer. She was beautiful and compassionate. And bold and funny and generous and lovely and strong and helped so many people through some of the toughest times. I wish we could have helped her through hers.
She was too young and too necessary for this mysterious and ugly thing that was diagnosed and killed her in the span of three weeks. I've cried for a number of reasons but the biggest was that she'll never know what she did for the lives she touched. I always meant to tell her beyond her thinking I was the most polite child on the p
lanet. I didn't have the words to express how life -changing and -saving my meeting her at that time was.
Valada, you are so loved. You will be missed. I'm grateful that you've found your peace.
Rest easy, Sis. Thank you for life.