Thank You And Goodbye, Gigi…

Thank you and goodbye, Gigi.

The Death of Mary Florence Black

February 26, 1930 – July 29, 2022

I have feared this day for 28 years, and it has now come to pass.
What more is there now than to say thank you and goodbye, Gigi.

My adoptive mother/ great-grandmother – Mary F. Black, aka Gigi – died on July 29, 2022, following a diagnosis of bladder cancer and the death of her daughter, Deborah Burling, on April 4, 2022. Gigi was 92 years old and is now survived by her last living daughter, Mary J. Hubbard; her grandchildren Rhonda, Alicia, Kelley, Bobbie, John, Cheryl, and Nicholas; her great-grandchildren including myself, Breanna, Jasmine, Kevin Jr., Roxana, Ceara, Nicholas, Ashlynn, and Colton; and her great-great-grandchildren Michael, Nevaeh, Ava, LaVontay Jr., Jazaeh, Brodii, Zaylee, and Xoie.

Mary now joins her husband, John W. Black; her daughters, Brenda Pietrosante and Deborah Burling; her best friend, Wilma W. “Pumpkin” Moody, and her long-missed family and friends awaiting her on the other side.

She was in all ways conceivable a Saint, sharing love, fortune, and gratitude with everyone and everything in God’s creation.

My own life’s journey is a testament to her love, her sacrifice, and her dedication to the truest meaning of family.

Goodbye Is Forever

I was 8 years old when I began to understand the finality of death. By then, I had lost pets like my dog, Poncho, hamsters, turtles, and various other critters I collected and kept from our backyard wilds. Loss of life I understood in the animal kingdom as something like a toy’s battery running out of juice, or being broken perhaps because so many animals looked alike and I hadn’t yet realized that they weren’t one and the same. That confusion mixed with my great-grandmother’s ability to nurse nearly anything back to health led me to believe that death was a temporary state.

Three years earlier, Grandma Lizzy, my great-great-grandmother, died in the house where we lived. I watched as the family gathered and mourned her passing, though I didn’t fully understand why they did it – couldn’t we just fix her; nurse her back to health as we did with so many animals?

Left to right, Mary "Gigi" Black, Maurice "Nolli McMillon, and Elizabeth "Lizzy" Apeler. Thank you and goodbye, Gigi.

Grandma Lizzy was my first memorable best friend. She’d have tea parties with me and tell me about animals and let me watch the strange mechanical fish in her pretend aquarium. We had a lot in common, in that we were not as independent as we’d like, and were constantly being corrected by Gigi and Pa, her daughter and son-in-law. For a long time, I waited for Grandma Lizzy to come back. I visited her room, looked at her stuff, had tea parties alone, and wondered why it was taking so long for her to return.

Eventually, I was moved into her room because I spent so much time there. They finally believed I was ready for that level of independence, even though I disagreed. I just missed my best friend and staying in her room didn’t make that void any less deep.

Left to right, Maurice "Nolli" McMillon, Mary "Moley" Hubbard, and Elizabeth "Lizzy" Apeler.

Moley and Grandma Lizzy sitting with me in the dining room of the house that Pa built, circa 1990.

Many nights I laid in bed asking myself questions like, “Where was she? What did it really mean to die? How do those mechanical fish keep swimming?” It was on one of those nights following a barrage of thoughts that I finally had to ask, “Where’s Grandma Lizzy? How come she doesn’t stay here anymore?”

Gigi looked at me as if I cursed at the supper table, but her surprise quickly dimmed to an expression of sadness. She hesitated, then told me “Bub, Grandma Lizzy died”.

I remember seeing her eyes gloss over. I felt guilty for bringing sadness to her, but Gigi continued…

“When people die, they aren’t here, on Earth, anymore”, she told me. “We each have a soul, and when we die our soul leaves our body. If you lived your life right, you go to Heaven with God.”

“Will you and Pa die?”, I asked and felt my ears get warm as anxiety washed over me. The words just flew out of my mouth and as they did I regretted asking them. You ever get this taste of wood in the back of your mouth, like you were hit really hard in the head and it made you taste something? That’s what happened to me, then, in that moment. The question hit me and left a bad taste in my mouth.

She sighed and giggled a little at the question, then replied, “Well, hopefully, no time soon. Everyone dies, honey. None of us are meant to live forever.”

Godbless & Goodbye

I soaked in that thought, tears puddled in my eyes and I retreated to Grandma Lizzy’s room. I pondered what life would be like without Gigi and Pa. It sickened my stomach, my heart fell from my chest, the taste of wood filled my mouth, and I began to develop a fear that someday soon they too would just be gone like Grandma Lizzy.

Gigi came in to check on me that night as she always did. “Do you want to say a prayer for Grandma Lizzy tonight?”, she asked from the doorway. “Yes, ma’am” I answered as I got out of bed and on my knees beside it, then placed my elbows on top of it as I clasped my hands together and closed my eyes. Gigi joined me and we began saying the prayer together, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Should I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take…” My eyes opened, and for the first time since I could remember saying that prayer, I understood what it meant.

“God bless Grandma Lizzy…” was goodbye.

Memento Mori

My fascination with the idea that we all die started at that moment. Awareness that you will die and leave all material behind produces a perspective of the immeasurable value of relationships, life’s purpose, and meaning. This perspective helped me to love deeper and appreciate the roles that people chose to play in my life. I carried a collection of dedicated thoughts and memories of those people with me, daily.

Some day they would die, or I would, and I wanted to keep them close to me until the moment we absolutely must part. It tempered my anger, my angst, and gave me the courage to be my most authentic self – a reflection of truth to those that I admired most. Not to say that I was perfect in demonstrating my love, but to say that I was a better person for what I had lost.

Ohana Means Family – No One Left Behind

John W. "Johnny" Black, Jr. in an open casket, January 2001.

I was 14 years old when Pa died; just five short years from becoming aware of death’s permanence. It was the deepest loss that my family had known at the time. Friends and other family members had died, but none of which had such an absolute impact on everyone’s life. It was the first time Gigi was without her husband, my great aunts and uncles without their father, and I without the stability of a loving home.

Pa and Nolli on a pontoon boat during a family camping and fishing trip.

Pa made me promise to stay by Gigi’s side until her end. A promise he didn’t have to ask for, because I couldn’t imagine leaving her. Our American society dictates that it’s natural for our children to grow up, leave the house, live their own lives, and owe nothing to their parents for the life they had before making their own. I don’t think we owe anything, but I can’t imagine what the point in life is if not to continue enjoying the fruits of labor and love with people that have existed and stayed present in our lives since our conception.

Loss & Grief

As time moved forward, I was faced with the challenge of choosing to leave for college or to stay. Gigi and I faced challenges in the life changes that followed Pa’s death. In her grief, she became an angry, lonely alcoholic that took her pain out on me. I had to learn from the age of 14 until about 20 how to cope with grief and alcoholism. She feared that I would abandon her, so she lashed out as hurt people do to bring on the loss she believed to be inevitable.

I was being left behind by my friends, the career I ultimately sought was elsewhere, I was romantically lonely, and increasingly isolated by our daily arguing. Despite the challenges and hardships we both faced, we came through to the other side with our bond still in tact thanks to love, guidance from my mom (reborn after her second visit to prison), my sister, and perseverance demonstrating truth to my intent.

What you may come to realize someday, if you have not already, is that in the end of all this… what really matters is just that we are loved and accepted. Everything else is a luxury.

To Be Loved

Prior to being born, you might imagine the kind of dispute that existed between two families caught in this black Romeo and white Juliet story, but love and joy have a funny way of changing hearts. As unwanted as I was by many when I came into this world, I was eventually accepted by all. Can you imagine hating a baby for simply existing because their skin is darker? Gigi couldn’t, and she wasn’t going to let anyone else either. She sided with my mom upon my birth and brought me into her home.

When I was 3-years-old, both of my parents went to prison for armed robbery. It was then that a decision was made about where I would spend the rest of my life. The easier choice would have been to allow my paternal grandparents, Virginia and Bobby McMillon, to take me. Gigi believed that I would have a more successful life with her and Pa, which for a long time I didn’t understand.

A Change For Love

By taking me in, Gigi and Pa came under scrutiny from their friends, and they both gave up their retirement to raise another child. Gigi forfeited her inheritance to her brother, Victor, for that action. He took everything away from her for taking in a “negro”. Gigi, Pa, and their families came from a racially segregated mindset. They were “white” Americans born during the Great Depression and grew up in a time before civil rights even existed. They didn’t necessarily hate “black” people, but they didn’t exactly bond with any either… well, not Pa anyway. Gigi often shared with me a story of a “black” old man from her hometown in St. Augustine whom she greatly respected; his existence in her life disconnected her from the belief that skin color made anyone inferior.

They spent their days teaching me what they knew, forcing me to reflect on my choices and the choices of others to understand cause and effect, and consequences. They shielded me from racism as much as they could and they tried to dismantle their own at the same time.

Here, I was given a beautiful life of love and acceptance paid for through loss of status and relationships by those that made it possible. Their sacrifice was not lost on me. Gratitude and appreciation are not just words we speak and move forward past. They are actions we take and carry with us. For me, this meant I needed to find a way to live the life I wanted and continue to be present.

Lift Me Up

Staying meant that I was criticized by family members and friends – I was accused of using my great-grandmother for her financial support, abusing her kindness, and told that I should be out on my own because I was too old to live at home. What they failed to understand is that Gigi didn’t pay anything for me and I stayed because some things are more important than living up to other people’s expectations or ideas.

In 2004, Gigi surprised me by purchasing a 1999 Pontiac Trans Am WS6 for my senior graduation gift. I had no expectation that she’d pay for it, it was my intention to take out a loan and pay it off on my own. After she gifted it to me, I told her that I wanted her to know that she doesn’t need to pay for anything for me because I am able and capable. Instead, she should enjoy her life and allow me to pay for her now. Dinners, household goods, appliances, traveling, whatever she liked, it would be hers.

She never asked me for anything, of course. I had to predict her needs or her wants, and even then, she’d still reject most anything I’d offer. She’d tell me she was just happy that I was able to have an enjoyable life and that was enough for her. I don’t doubt that. It’s a wish we ought to have for anyone we love – that life is enjoyable and we help to sustain that.

Prepare Yourself For Goodbyes

In 2012, my great uncle Jeff Burling, spouse to Gigi’s daughter Deborah Burling (Black), died of health complications. It was the first major loss in our family since Pa back in 2001, and signaled the coming end of another generation.

In 2017, my maternal grandmother, Brenda Pietrosante, came back home to live with Gigi following a severe illness she developed while working at the USDA in Iowa. Grandma Brenda was later diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in July of that year. Gigi was heartbroken. She felt guilty for outliving her child.

That year was full of change. Roxy, my little sister, graduated from Stanford University and we drove cross-country to California to celebrate it. I graduated from Indian River State College and got married to Manuel Rubio. My cousin Gabi gave birth to Brodii, her third child. It was a turbulent time for all of us, but none more than Gigi who was stricken with grief and growing more tired each day. Her health steadily declined in the years that followed. Heartbreak.

A Clause Of Concern

She made me aware of a clause that was put into her trust; following her death, I would have 6-months to find a home and move. The family home was to be sold and the profits were to be divided between Deborah, Moley, myself and/or our heirs. She emphasized this often to me, worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a place. Manuel and I decided in 2020 to buy a home in a new development by Ryan Homes called Carriage Point. We built a brand new house and asked her if she’d like to move into it with us. She refused, so there we were with a brand new home to never be lived in.

She was content to continue living at her home and for us to stay there with her. We ended up renting the new house out to a friend of mine in an effort to help her afford a better lifestyle and used it as a place to host get togethers and work remotely. This purchase and our decision to stay with Gigi shut up all the critcism. What more could be said of me now that I proved I could buy a home and leave, but chose to stay, still. All of that is a story to itself, but it turned out being the best investment I ever made…

When It Rains…

Three years later following Grandma’s death was George Costello’s, a man that Gigi came to know and love as a life companion. Then her friend and neighbor, Richard Hurst, whom was also deeply involved with her daughter, Deborah Burling. Then Wilma Waneda “Pumpkin” Moody, her best friend from childhood. 2020, the year that COVID took the world by surprise, took more than it gave to all of us.

In the early half of 2022, Manny and I decided to sell the new house and use the profit to buy another home to rent out exclusively to international students attending Indian River State College, a business venture we were developing. Just as we began the process to sell the house, the unimaginable – Gigi’s daughter Deborah Burling had a massive stroke and died at the hospital in Tradition, Florida. Gigi’s heart was shattered as she laid her second daughter to rest.

  • The "Black" Girls, Christmas Eve 1999

One Last Thing, Thank you

With the loss of Deborah, and Gigi deeply sadened, Manny and I decided to buy the family home instead of another house. This news uplifted her spirits as she had hoped that someone in the family would rise to the occaision to take and keep the home that her and Pa built. Gigi made arrangements so that Manny and I could buy the home, and with that last act she felt a tremendous relief.

“Now, things are as they ought to be.” Gigi spoke one day to herself, sitting in her rocking chair as my mom watched her from the breakfast table. “I knew then that that was it. Gigi was going to leave us.” My mom later told me.

Directly following Deborah’s death, Gigi began experiencing all sorts of terrible abdominal pain that was later diagnosed as bladder cancer. Since she was 92 years old, the doctor’s didn’t want to present any surgical options, which she refused anyway. She wished only to be out of pain, but we all knew the pain that ailed her was greater than just her abdomen. Gigi was ready to leave this Earth and join God.

Our Last Year, Goodbye

May 13, 2021 I resigned from my position as Operations Manager at The River Shop of Indian River State College; one year shy of 15 years of full-time service. For layered reasons it was a positive life changing decision that gave me one full year with Gigi free from stress and able to enjoy her presence while providing her with love and care as she grew weaker and more tired. I had no idea it would be my last year with her, but how blessed I am to have been given such a gift of a year free to spend with her in the most positive way I could.

She was entertained by my antics in developing my graphic design business, amused by my stories about volunteering for various organizations, amazed at my ingenuity of introducing the first art toy on the Treasure Coast, proud of my earned recognition in our community, and excited for me to become a certified teacher of K-12 Art and be hired at Dan McCarty Middle School for the 2022-23 school year.

It was, in fact, one of the best years of my life – only to end as the saddest.

I can’t imagine a life without her, yet, here I am. Living it… or at least trying to.

Mistakes May Repeat, But Can Discontinue

I made a mistake at Indian River State College as I continued working when my dad died. My first day on the job was the day he died in the hospital and I never took a breath to properly grieve him. Gigi died in the early morning of the day I started working for the school district, and I reported in like nothing happened. What a curse that the first two full-time jobs I should have start off on a loss of someone in my life.

I just kept moving forward – like those mechanical fish in Grandma Lizzy’s pretend aquarium. I felt a heaviness on my shoulders that wouldn’t let me move anymore as the end of 2022 came about. I decided that, for now… I needed to be free from the constraints of a job and expectations beyond my own needs. So I cut those strings and resigned after one term. I won’t continue that same mistake twice. We need to take a moment sometimes and catch our breath when we suffer losses.

To take a moment to say… thank you… and goodbye.

This is mine.

Until The Next Life, Mary. I’ll Miss You.

5 Comments

  1. Karyn Mu says:

    I am so sorry for your loss . My Mom passed away four months ago and it hasn’t been the same for me. I miss my Mom each and every day and I pray 🙏 to God that my would come back to life.I stay awake each night and don’t fall asleep until about 3;00 in the morning. My Mom should still be here. Some days I think about my Mom and cry and know that should be here. My Mom is Angel 😇 😇😇😇. . Mom I love ❤️ ❤️❤️You. I will keep you in my prayers. I know the hurt you are feeling. to lose someone you Love so much ❤️❤️❤️

    • Karyn, I’m sorry your in the same place as me having lost a mother. Life is definitely not the same, and the struggle to find a new path that copes with their absence is intense and feels cold and unkind. I hope that you find comfort in those around you that love you, and that you find yourself loved and cherished in the way your mother was; that you, too, through this grief, time, and reflection, find yourself to be an Angel in the eyes of others that look up to you.

  2. Alicia Vega says:

    I love you Son. Beautifully written and expressed.
    Gigi was like an Angel on earth, she taught us the unconditional love of God.
    I remember when I was pregnant with you. It was NOT cool to be pregnant, let alone pregnant with a biracial child. People spit on me, cursed me and actually hated me. But not Gigi.
    She would go sneak and buy baby clothes, bottles, blankets. By the time I gave birth she had snuck around and I had everything.
    I could go on and on about her love. It can’t be put into words. This generation of warriors that set the foundation for us is leaving. The best way we can remember them is to be towards others the way she was to us. It took ALOT of heartache for America to be the country it is. It was people like Gigi that fought racism way back.
    I love you Gigi there will not ever be another.
    Thank you

  3. A Hugg says:

    Beautifully written, tears welled in my eyes so many times. I appreciate your ability to be so vulnerable, this will allow others to look at your journey one focus on their ways to heal!!

  4. Jacqueline McMillon-Long says:

    My heart is full…Beautifully written and expressed by a beautiful soul! Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

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