Your life in the wilderness begins the moment you lose your mother. When the very being that birthed you no longer exists, your instincts somehow wither away with her. You thought you knew how to survive because you’d spent your life navigating the streets of Baltimore, eight months in the African bush, and years caring for your mother as she deteriorated from a disease that shattered her bones, bit by bit. Each had its own roadmap. Each eventually seemed navigable. Now, it’s all foreign.
Inside this wilderness, you cry out for her in the middle of the night and get no response. Nothing echoes back to you—not a howl, not a laugh, not a sound—just silence and stillness. You pray that someone will call back to you. But all you find is your face on the cool tiles in a puddle of salty tears.
You stop eating because that requires strength. You tell stories for a living, but you’ve forgotten how. You have no words. Only blank pages. You show up when you are needed and put on your best face. People keep telling you how thin you look and you know this is not a compliment. You don’t expect them to understand; they’ve never encountered your wilderness. And you don’t have the heart to explain that you just aren’t into the hunt any more. So, yes, some nights you go to bed without eating or bathing. Some days you just play possum and wonder—if I do this long enough, will it become my reality?
Other days you wake up and feel the sun beaming on you. There’s a sense of hope. Today may be the day you find her. You look around, scanning for traces of her footprints. Maybe she arranged for someone to look after you the way Charlotte asked Wilbur to protect her babies before she died in Charlotte’s Web. Maybe there’s something in your DNA that will intuitively fix everything that’s broken. Maybe she left you a road map, a clue, something that could lead you back to reality—to words, to the hunt, to life.
You muster up enough faith to pray to the same God that took your mother and ask that your time in the wilderness doesn’t lead to hospitalization, eviction, or the grave. Days run together, minutes feel like weeks, weeks feel like years.
You swing like a pendulum between days of darkness and days of light. And, somewhere in the middle, you’re forced to realize that maybe this is the new baseline for your life, how things will be from now on. Maybe this is what happens to us all. Maybe you’re not cursed like the people of Egypt. You too have the power to set yourself free. You were made for survival, and everyday that your own thoughts don’t eat you alive means you’re supposed to be here. Everyday that you don’t fall prey to drugs or alcohol or sex or shopping, you’ve survived.
You spent nine years surrounded by death in an attempt to understand the first person who left you. You have survived this before. But what you feel now is indescribable.
You don’t know if you are lion or lamb. You don’t know whether to hunt or be hunted. You don’t know whether to fight for your territory or just give it up. So you wake yourself up one morning and try to piece sentences together. You search to find words to tell a story about why you can’t tell a story. And all you can think to say is: I’m in the wilderness, one scarier than the streets of Baltimore and standing alone in the bush. There are clear tools of survival for these places I’ve traversed. Here, I don’t know if I will survive. I don’t know who I am without her.
SHERI J. BOOKER is an author, poet, and educator from Baltimore, Maryland. Her memoir Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home is the recipient of the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Debut Author. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Sheri spent nine years working in the funeral business in Baltimore, and eight months living in the African bush, but nothing prepared her for the wilderness that she would face after losing the most important thing in her world.