Three middle-school writers chose to respond to the following prompt in my summer writing workshop based on Sharon G. Flake’s YA novel The Skin I’m In. If I hadn’t observed them writing their poetic pieces on Zoom, and hadn’t seen them revising onscreen in response to the questions and comments I was leaving in the margins of their documents, I would swear these writers had been transcribing part of a conversation they had had with the fictional protagonist Maleeka herself!
Prompt 8A: Reread pages 73-74 (69-70 in newer edition), when Maleeka recalls her momma’s response to grief over her husband’s death. “When my daddy died three years ago, Momma fell apart. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep…. I was ten years old and brushing her teeth, feeding her oatmeal like a baby. She cried all the time.” Write a short descriptive scene or poem about this time in Maleeka’s life. Try to use Maleeka’s point-of-view and voice.
Here are the three poetic creations by Nakita Ray, Resha Shukla, and Ryan Hu—whose artistry is equaled by their obvious empathy.
Tearstains are left on my cheeks.
Yet it’s nothing compared to Momma.
She looks like she’s been crying a river.
Their bed has not been slept in ever since he was declared dead.
Instead he’s lying in a box that’s underground, six feet deep.
Every time I check on Momma at night,
her eyes are open like she’s dying of fright.
Daddy’s ghost looms over us like a shadow that never leaves.
Needles pierce my heart and I feel so much agony.
I’m shaking but Momma looks like a wreck compared to me.
Getting up from the ball I was in,
I stand up to help Momma all that I can.
Holding up a spoon of oatmeal,
I’m pleading to Momma to open her mouth,
But she looks so lost.
Her eyes gloss over the spoon and me,
Looking behind, seeing an endless path,
Momma reaches for something that she cannot have.
A dream of paradise with Daddy alive,
I see it, too. (seemingly dictated by Maleeka to Nakita Ray)
It’s morning, and the last thing I want to do is get up. After last night's fiasco of hauling Momma up to her bed, my limbs are about to turn into mush and give out. Doesn't help that I ain’t that strong anyways. Momma’s like a lifeless body, but somehow, she’s still got some life in her, and I'm sure that that's all that's keeping her from collapsing. For the past week, mornings have been the same. Get up, make me and Momma some breakfast, drag Momma downstairs, feed her (even though most of it don't even make it into her mouth), and eat my own share while Momma stares out the window, not saying a word. I'm getting sick of this, every day I follow this stupid routine and then leave Momma alone in her thoughts until it’s time for another meal or sleep. The main problem, though, is how quiet it is. Momma don’t try speaking, and I can't seem to find the right words to say. No words are spoken in this house, and it seems like with the way our family is functioning, in the future there won't be any either. It would’ve been fine cause I know that Momma's brain is never gonna stop thinking about Dad, but the silence and lack of words is leaving me in my thoughts also. And to be honest, I don't wanna be left alone with my thoughts at all. ‘Cause I'm afraid, I'm afraid that I'll become like Momma. And then there'll be no one left supporting us. ‘Cause it feels like I'm facing this problem alone, even though me and Momma need to work through this together. And I know for a fact that Momma won’t start getting better on her own. She's in her own bubble, a bubble of despair, grief, regret, and pain. Momma don’t trust me with needles, so I can’t burst her bubble like that, but I have my own, intangible needle. And it’s the only thing I can use to bring Momma back to life. “So, Momma, what do you feel like having for dinner?”
(from a fictional interview transcribed by Resha Shukla)
By “Maleeka Madison”
Momma’s mouth does not take anything
Her head won’t rest onto her pillow
Her lips are motionless
Like a hand
snatched the spirit she used to have
It ain’t fair at all,
And momma’s been useless,
For almost two years now,
I wonder every day,
If the hand will return her spirit the next day,
But I know the hand ain’t ever gonna hear my voice begging,
A hand don’t got ears anyways.
“Momma open your mouth, please…”
Her eyes are remote, her thoughts are, too
She gazes past my spoon of oatmeal,
Her mouth muttering.
Occasionally a tear drops down into her lap;
I turn my back to her naturally.
At times, I want to sob with her,
Or shake her violently,
And scream at her to come back.
I never do though,
Because there is a heavy blanket I cannot see
that wraps around me,
and reminds me of daddy’s arms,
And telling me to stay strong.
(Maleeka’s words channeled by Ryan Hu)