Monday, February 13, 2012


Giving up 

is so hard to do
I said I've tried
But it just ain't no use

But my light of hope 
is burning dim


But in my heart I pray
That my love and faith in the girl
will bring her back someday

~ from Donny Hathaway "Giving Up."

"Sit down on that chair, hear? What did I say?"

This sixty-something year old woman furrowed her brow and pointed her finger sternly at the two toddlers fidgeting in the chair beside the examining table. A little boy and a little girl -- certainly no older than three and clearly a big handful.

"Gran'mama, I'm hungry!" the little boy whined.

She didn't say anything in response. Instead she reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a little box of animal crackers and opened it up. Next she whipped out a little package of travel tissues and quickly secured one tissue in each hand. Holding both up to each child's nose simultaneously she directed them. "Blow."


Those little toddlers did just as they were instructed. This grandmama meant business.

I had just stepped into the clinic room with one of the residents when I caught all of this. And honestly? It wasn't exactly unusual to see a patient with children in tow. I kept things light and made a little small talk.

"Hey there, Ms. Ashton. I think we may have met before -- I'm Dr. Manning and I work with your resident doctor." I reached out hand shook her hand even though she'd just had a snot-filled Kleenex in it. "I see you have your grands with you today, huh?"

She made and exaggerated eye roll. "Honey, I got my grands with me every day--y'all stop dropping' all them crumbs all over the place, hear?" The obedient toddlers shifted nervously in that shared seat.

"Are they twins?" I asked. Partly because I was still making small talk but also because I was just curious.

"Mmmm hmmm, chile. And they a handful, too. Sweet little babies, but they a handful for sure. Cain't you tell?"

We all laughed, the resident, Ms. Ashton and me.

"You keep your grandbabies during the day?" I chuckled and reached out for the little girl's hand. It warmed my heart when she let me.

Ms. Ashton grabbed the box of animal crackers and dusted the crumbs off of their laps with her other hand. Her wide hips shook as she swished her hand and caught crumbs into the box. She returned to her chair and let out a sigh. "I keep my grands all the time. They stay with me 'cause my daughter cain't take care of 'em herself."

I widened my eyes and prepared to back off. I cast a quick glance in the direction of my resident because none of this had come up when she'd presented the patient to me. The look on her face suggested that this was news to her, too. I suppose she'd simply assumed that a kind grandmother was watching two of her grandchildren.

"Her mama got a stronghold. Hooked on that crack mess. So the state was gon' take her babies but I said, 'Naw, we don't do that in this family.'"

"Stronghold." Sure, Merriam-Webster has its own meaning for this word, but coming from a Grady elder, I knew exactly what this meant. A stronghold. The term the elders use to describe an addiction or gripping weakness; usually referring to how powerless it renders its victim.

I remembered that woman today. I remembered her not because of the medical problems we treated her for that day but because of our very brief conversation about her daughter. She went on to say a few words about her daughter and her addiction--always referring to it as a "stronghold."

"It's out of your hands. That's the thing about a stronghold. All you can do is love 'em and pray. Getting' mad at 'em don't help nothin'. So you jest love 'em and pray. Other than that it ain't much you can do."


This past weekend we went to visit some of our closest friends, Shannon and Michelle, in Virginia. The weekend was full of joy and laughter and memories and all of the things that time with old friends affords. Saturday was full of celebration. Their youngest child, Colin, turned five and we spent the day swirling in kid-centered fun. The night involved sugar-hyped children and dance games on Wii consoles. Wonderfully trapped in the basement where no one could get into much of anything. Which for us grownups meant clinking wine glasses and adult conversations. It was the very best kind of time.

At some point after a few too many laughs and after the Pinot Grigio had just about worn off, a couple of us wild and crazy kids decided that nothing would better than some Dunkin Donuts coffee for the after party. So my friend Nikki G. (who was one of the only ones who'd passed on the Pinot) agreed to drive and off the two of us went on an 8 PM coffee run. On a Saturday night. Which, okay, now that I think of it, sounds like a very lame and forty-and-up thing to do.

But I digress.

Anyways. Here we are all loquacious and happy like some twenty-somethings who are just leaving the club. LOL-ing and OMG-ing. And full of life and vigor and joy as we danced our way into that empty Dunkin Donuts. And, yes, it was totally empty because, as it turns out, America might run on Dunkin but Dunkin Donuts is not EVEN the hot-spot on a Saturday night. At least in Alexandria, Virginia it isn't.

But for me, it was the place to be because I felt light and free and relaxed. My kids were having a great time with great friends in a safe place around people I trust. And at the very same time, Harry and I were, too. The older you get, the more you appreciate these moments. Yes, you do.

So yeah, Nikki and I bust into the spot all giddy and goofy--her just because and me because I'm out of town/away from work/and okay, perhaps with some remnants of Pinot Grigio--and it was a perfect moment. It truly was. I even had on Zachary's Paul Frank monkey hat which made us laugh even more. And that made it just that much more perfect.

"Dude! Since when do they have plasma TVs up in Dunkin Donuts!" I joked. Still laughing and giddy. With my monkey hat on.

But then, just as Nikki prepared to counter my observation, we look up at that screen and see this:

And just like that we stopped laughing. Both frozen in our tracks, staring at this literally sobering news. Because we both knew that this was one of those "where were you" moments. So we just stood there in silence for a few seconds letting it sink in. 

Whitney Houston Dead at 48.

"NO WAY!" I immediately yelled out. 

"WHAT!?" Nikki screeched a mere two seconds later.

CNN. That's reputable. Wait, huh? Whitney? Whitney Houston? Our Whitney? Dead? According to CNN? 

"NO WAY!" 


And then we just paced back and forth, looking at the flatscreen television and repeating those same words over and over again.  NO WAY! WHAT?!

Then I turned my shock toward the poor, unsuspecting South Asian man behind the counter. "WHAT HAPPENED TO WHITNEY? WHAT DID THEY SAY HAPPENED TO WHITNEY!?" 

And yes. I meant to put it in all caps because I was speaking loudly and was probably being a close-talker to boot. Hearing that Ms. Whitney Houston was no longer alive was disorienting. So much so that I decided that Mr. Dunkin had some kind of hot off the presses information that we hadn't yet learned. I mean, seeing as he is up in there with that flatscreen on CNN all day. 

"YO! What they say happened to Whitney?!" I demanded again. And yes, I meant to write "what they say happened" because honestly? This is exactly what I said. I mean, somebody had just said that Whitney Houston had died. This was no time for standard English.

where I was when I heard

So Mr. Dunkin just shrugged in this weird way that looked partly like he had no idea what I was talking about and partly like he was deeply afraid that this was about to be a stick-up. I believe that my interpretation of that shrug is spot on. 

So we go from pacing to just standing there with our arms folded shaking our heads. Then we both get tearful for a moment as the same images keep showing over and over and over again.

Whitney is dead. No, wait. Whitney Houston--our Whitney Houston--is dead.

That's when that word popped into my head:


So apropos, that word. I thought of Whitney Houston's mother, Sissy. I imagined her daughter, Bobbie Christina. I even thought of Oprah Winfrey applauding her big comeback and punctuating it with a two-part episode in her final season. 


I thought of every single woman who has ever sang a song or wanted to have a big and unforgettable voice and how by definition she had to look up to Whitney Houston. Because regardless of her struggles, her voice was unmatched. 

That voice made her very rich and very famous. But despite her talent and fame and fortune, she wasn't immune to that stronghold. And just like Ms. Ashton said that day, it was nothing her family could do. Hell, it was even too big for Oprah Winfrey herself to love her through. 

Ms. Ashton spoke a good word that day between passing snacks and wiping noses:

"It's out of your hands. That's the thing about a stronghold. All you can do is love 'em and pray. Getting' mad at 'em don't help nothin'. So you jest love 'em and pray. Other than that it ain't much you can do." 

Ain't that the truth.

So today I'm reflecting on Whitney Houston--our Whitney Houston-- and her stronghold. I'm also reflecting on Sissy Houston and Bobbie Christina Brown and every single Sissy and Bobbie who have ever had to stand by helplessly in plain view of their loved one being strangled by some kind of stronghold. 

Because the worst part about it is that it's out of your hands.

A lot of us were disappointed in Whitney. I guess we thought that with a voice like that, that she was superhuman and supposed to do more with her legacy. Seeing her erratic behavior was so hurtful yet we still loved her and accepted this version of her. That's the thing about a stronghold. 

Yes, we loved her and saw her as a golden girl. We wanted a scapegoat  so we even blamed Bobby Brown for a while, but over time it became apparent that she was ill. And even if Bobby sat next to her acting quirky and high on Barbra Walters' show, he still had his own stronghold. And Whitney's belonged to her. 

No, I don't know the specifics of Whitney Houston's cause of death. But I have lived long enough and worked at Grady long enough to know that even if it wasn't specifically related to drugs, it still was. We had waved good bye to the old version of her some years ago. That lanky, confident songstress with the poise of an opera singer and had forced ourselves to get used to this new person in her place. That's the thing about a stronghold. It's like watching a slow death. . . . even before someone dies.

I have seen people escape strongholds. Very few--but I still have. 

I've seen Ms. Ashton a few more times since that first meeting. Every time those grand babies are in tow. And most of the time, we've moved on and chatted about mundane things as if her lost daughter was just "one of those things" that you know of but tried not to think of. But you quietly promise in your heart to pray about it because the love is the part you can't forget.  Even when they're gone. 

Kind of like we did with Whitney all those years.

That's the thing about a stronghold. We hold on, too.


Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . "Giving Up" by Donny Hathaway. . . .the song that always reminds me of strongholds -- and especially the people loving someone through one. His haunting voice and the musical accompaniment seems like it was recorded for this very moment, I swear. Please. . .please listen to this one,okay? Thanks.


  1. You wrapped up a lot of truth right here, Doctor Woman. You surely did.

  2. Someone sent me this post to read, and I totally agree with the whole stronghold theory.

    It also brings to mind a statement I heard a few years ago:

    "The bad habits I let go unchecked in my life will eventually be the very source of my downfall."

    It also makes me sit down and reflect on my own habits, those things I need to rid of in my own life. No, nothing major like drug issues, or trying to beat them, but that little stuff that's a stronghold in my own life. All of this makes me reflect and evaluate my ownself.

    And you are right. I wrote about that today... this is one of those moments when you will always remember exactly where you were... when Whitney died. Geez. RIP Whitney Houston.

  3. So many of us were pulling for her. That's what made it so heartbreaking.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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