By Tyrese L. Coleman
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and writing instructor. She is also an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction. An essayist and fiction writer, her prose has appeared in several publications, including Catapult, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, the Rumpus, and the Kenyon Review. An alumnus of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, the Tin House and Virginia Quarterly Review writer’s workshops, and a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, her collection, How To Sit will be published in 2018 with Mason Jar Press. She can be reached at tyresecoleman.com or on twitter @tylachelleco.
She’s on my television. When I see her, I know her—personality as big as the body she inhabits, mean as the sores on the underside of her thighs. She spread across a mattress on the floor. The matriarch, her family gathered around her. A goddess of anger and love. Physically powerless, yet she incited fear. You could see it in their eyes. That tongue must lash, must whip red-licked slashes like those made on tender thighs from skinny green switches off a pine tree. Her babies watched as the paramedics took her from the house. They watched as she screamed and roared with fear. I say her babies because a woman like her is loved by all the young ones in a family even if she isn’t their mother. Loved for her sass. Loved for her realness. Loved because she will tell you everything about life and love and sex. Loved despite her meanness and sharp, loud words. Loved because of her meanness, because to make her happy is a joy and a relief and hard, hard work.
Her babies lean over balcony rails in bare feet and dust and stare down as the white men (it is always white men that come rescuing) heave her through the front door, down the stairs and into a truck. She is herself turned up to 1000. She flirts. She pretends at confidence even when the sheet covering the sores and her shame slides and reveals everything laid beneath. She is crass and crying and fussing and laughing and cursing and smiling and no one knows exactly what she feels. There is no way of telling, and you know, she won’t say. In that moment, her full display embarrasses me. I cannot tell what feelings are true and what she is putting on to save face. I cannot tell what is really happening. This feeling of distrust is the truest aspect of this entire TV show.
The episode continues in this uncertainty for all except the doctor, a little white man with a foreign accent employed to state out loud the nasty thoughts viewers have of this woman.
“You are lazy.”
“You don’t care about yourself.”
And I look at my own body, feel the loosened couch springs beneath me, my swollen feet, my sore, unfixable back, the ache in my knees. His finger is pointed in my face. I see the disgust, the loathing. He is that doctor who didn’t know what my skin condition was and told me I was dirty, I needed to wash more. The emergency room physician who treated me like a junkie and asked me what drugs I wanted instead of how he could help me when my back felt broken in pieces. That one doctor who looked me up and down then offered to arrange weight loss surgery before he even had me step on a scale.
A close-up of the good doctor, his furry eyebrows, his condescension.
“All you want to do is lie in the bed and do nothing.”
“You are playing games.”
“You’re a liar.”
Yes, he is speaking to me. This is how they speak to us black patients, us slaves to medicine.
I watch as a parade of thin “no nonsense” professionals march through this mama’s life. I watch her want to tell the therapist, another black woman who is thick in all the right places, weave down her back, face beat for the television gods, about her trauma. About the rape and ravage to her body as a child. About how she ate to feel something other than suicidal. I watch as this black doctor, on script, refuses to listen or ask the right questions. The frustration burns in my gut like an emptiness that needs filling, a void perpetually seeking satisfaction. Hungry for righteousness. If only the sister listened.
If only the nutritionist, a thin white woman who threw out the frozen pizzas and ice cream, who packed up dollars and dollars and dollars of food, food that could’ve been boxed up and sent to those babies who leaned over balcony rails with tear streaked faces to watch their mama be carried to the ambulance because she could not walk, had not walked in years, if only that skinny white woman had listened. This nutritionist comes into her home, calls her food trash, stuffs it inside black garbage bags and throws it out. The waste. Oh, the waste! If only she could see that food as the treasure it is, the treats we allow ourselves because the world is a stingy motherfucker. If the only part of life you can control is what goes in your mouth, can you begrudge someone for wanting to make that part the best part?
I see the humbling anger on her face and know it is all too much. The distrust, not knowing whether you feel what you feel or whether you feel what they say you feel is enough to make you lose your damn mind. This sense of craziness is why Serena Williams had to demand her own course of treatment for blood clots in her lungs after having just gone through childbirth. It’s why so many of us black mothers don’t even make it to mothering.
When I went into early labor, the doctors gave me a medication that made my body sink down into the bed, down through the mattress, down through the floor, down to the earth, down below the earth. My mind could not hold on to anything: the cold steel of the bed rail, the blanket brushing my upper thighs—those sensations did not exist. I felt my face smiling, and I thought to myself, I am dying. I said to the nurse, I am going to die. She did not believe me. Was she right not to believe me? I’ve often wondered what would’ve happened if I had been correct, how my life was in the hands of a woman who didn’t trust the things I said about my own body.
Funny how this was not the first time I thought I would die.
The Good Doctor, the too-cute sista therapist, the skinny white lady nutritionist all make good sense considering the facts. When their voice is louder than your own pain, it’s easier to believe you are crazy than that there is something physically wrong with you. Not all of us have Serena Williams levels of confidence and demand. It is why so many of us die.
I watch this episode of My 600-lb Life with my husband. I scold him for judging her. He is a man, and although I love him, he does not know how to view a woman’s body in a way that does not center his purpose or use of it. I ask him not to judge—though I do. I judge because I know her. Not that I am or have ever been over 600 pounds. But I know what it feels like to be a slave to your body and to the men who are supposed to fix it. Being a medical slave mean to fight for your life with someone else in control of it. I know how that feels. I know what it feels like to scream and cry and yell and your words have no impact, no response but air. When you say over and over, “this hurt,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I want to die,” and they tell you to stop lying, stop being so dramatic. I know what it feels like for those words to be true.
Our black feminine bodies draped in white stiff robes wander hospital halls and nursing homes. We seek comfort and help. We want to live but our lives are hard. We die fast. We bear the weight of a millennia of oppression inside our arteries and bones and wombs. We are the most educated. We are celebrities, athletes, we are activists. We are goddesses. We are breadwinners. We are CEOs. We speak our minds and quietly suffer. We are superwomen. We say it’s okay, I’ll be all right, when we are not. We are dying. They are letting us die.
The black patient experience is about that humbleness anger, humiliation, of taking a human being who is incapable of fighting for herself—physically, socially, economically, politically—and lowering her more and more so that she now wants to be so low she is beneath the earth. It is about removing all power, even the little power granted to a black mama in this world and forcing her to beg for forgiveness. Forcing her to beg and justify her existence. It is about forcing her to beg for treatment. It is about stripping her of all might so that all she is or will ever be is 600 pounds of black skin, lifeless on a bed.
“Elegy Continued” by Annie Fletcher
Annie Fletcher received her BFA in drawing from the University of Tennessee. She is an award-winning illustrator and currently works as a freelance artist in Memphis and Knoxville. Some of her accolades include Outstanding Graduate in Studio Art, Drawing, and the Mary Lynn Glustoff Scholarship for watercolor.