Caleb Catlin remembers his mother, her faith, and the power of the music that they shared together.
By    October 30, 2022

By Caleb Catlin

On a scorching Phoenix afternoon circa 2007, my mom picked me up from school in my grandma’s white Buick. It was so hot you could burn your skin touching the seat belt metal. I eagerly scrolled the radio dial as she asked me about my day: what I learned at school and if I had any homework. On our way home, she listened to me ramble as I searched for the station that played new rap.

The sign on our house displayed my mom’s maiden name, “Hostler” in a velvet-colored wood. “You wanna know what my last name reminds me of?” Being in elementary school, I could only ever make out the word “host.” She dryly laughed in response: “no, it’s awfully close to hustler.” Perhaps that was profound to her in that moment, indicative of the life she led. I still didn’t get it back then and for a while, I never really thought much of it. But a hustler is about as fitting a description as I could ever give my mother.

Even though she was a God-fearing woman first, we weren’t devout churchgoers. She was skeptical of the institution and what it had to offer in relation to having a relationship with the Creator. As for me, I’ve always been reliant on logic and reason, needing the unexplainable to be explained. I was the little kid incessantly asking questions until I didn’t feel like bothering the adults anymore. Faith was always an unsatisfying, uneasy concept to comprehend. What kept me in was fear. I was terrified by the idea that there would be nothing after this hellish life we persevere through. I wasn’t scared of the dark because of imaginary monsters and unexpected danger. The dark was the closest thing I could liken death to – an endless state of nothing that I couldn’t survive.

Over the years, I’ve grown colder to the idea of Christianity and organized religion as a whole. I’ve got enough love in my life that I don’t need it. The idea of faith felt unsatisfying because no one truly knows. But my mom would always tell me, “You have to believe in something, son. What are you here for otherwise?” It always struck me how she’d describe God being there for her in the moments she called out to him. When things grew turbulent, she held the bible close to her chest. One of the things I still hold close from my momma is the file folder she inscribed countless scriptures on: endless principles and proverbs on love, endurance and faith. It gave some semblance of peace when reason failed her.

I often think that her faith came from a place of desperation. When all else failed, there was a source that gave her purpose to continue. It’s why I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around the fact that my mom, the strongest woman I know, committed suicide last month. I ask God why He wasn’t there for her the night she took her own life. If God couldn’t help the strongest person who I will ever know, then what’s the point?

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, my mother lived the life of young naive innocence that every kid is supposed to have. She followed every thing that her brother Adam got into, whether it was hanging out with the bad kids or playing football with the other boys in the desert heat. Tragically, her brother was shot right in front of her when she was only a pre-teen. This is what triggered the whiplash that dictated so much of her life. She grappled with that trauma the same way anyone tries to silence the grief. The bad kids who her brother hung out with became staples in her early years. The emotional fragility of that event caused her to lash out against her family, who have always had issues being empathetic and truly listening to problems. It was all about fixing it. That’s where a lot of her faith stemmed from – that God had the answers.

Eventually, she moved from Phoenix to work as a hairdresser. She was the best I’ve ever seen with a pair of scissors, her only complaints stemming from her feet hurting and customers (and me) moving too much. Her dad, a bald, portly, and country Navy veteran, was always somewhere in the panhandle of Florida (they were in Pensacola by the time I finally met them. My mom eventually met my dad through his dad, a tall, lanky, dark-skinned Black man from Alabama with the hardest accent and the brightest smile you could ever imagine. My granddad was a smooth talker— something I’ve grown to trademark as the Catlin Charm™— and spent much of his life as a con man.

Cutting hair by day, my mom inevitably went into business with my granddad in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d come into the picture by December 1999. Life grew hectic as dad looked for real, honorable work to put food on the table. Momma stayed with me but still grappled with the agony of losing her brother, vicious waves of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and a toxic relationship. My dad tried his best to hold on for my sake, but couldn’t keep living through a relationship so unhealthy; my mom was only held together by me and faith. Even with the countless men I saw come and violently go, she took life to the chin. It took immeasurable strength to keep going. She was a true warrior. For that, I will always admire her.

Ever since I was in the womb, my dad made it a point to play classical music to help me develop— I’m sure it was a nice contrast to the Mary J Blige, Stone Temple Pilots, and No Limit that they loved. Who knew the baby they played Beethoven for would grow into a toddler who kept requesting G-Unit and Joe collabs and T.I.’s Trap Muzik? My mom never had a lot but she always supported my love for music. She gave me the money for the first album I ever bought: Chris Brown’s self titled debut. I ran to the checkout at Walmart right before momma paid for groceries so that I could say I had something. “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” was everything to me as a 6 year old, awestruck by the idea that someone who was still a kid could be on 106 & Park. She always threw me the remote so I could watch Terrence J and Rocsi countdown the best music videos of the day over chicken nuggets and ketchup. It all made me the man I am, someone who was birthed by the art and will die for it.

What keeps me loosely grounded in all of this grief is that I know my momma doesn’t have to suffer anymore. I recall the countless days she’d sink into the bed and sleep the pain away when she wasn’t in full “mom mode,” scrambling to the store after cutting hair all day, frying chicken or mustering up McDonalds money on occasion. The echoes of Keyshia Cole and Jaheim came from the CD player in the bedroom. The smell of Newport’s making its way from the porch to the living room. Anything she could do to endure, she did it. It’s why I don’t resent my mom for some of the deeply turbulent times in our relationship. If anybody understood her, it was me. My mom gave me everything she had with the hand she was dealt.

My momma gave me perspective on life that I’ll never forget. She taught me to be empathetic of other people’s situations. There were people in her life that took her empathy for granted but she continued to grant love and forgiveness in spite of what was given to her. She wasn’t oblivious or ignorant, she was street smart enough not to invite in everyone. She loved strongly even when it didn’t always serve her well. It was God’s way.

My mom wasn’t always easy to deal with though and she’d often clash with family for what sometimes felt like trivial things. When I think back on those times, the empathy she gave wasn’t always reciprocated. At our best, she was my best friend, the person who understood me at my core and vice versa. We supplied each other the empathy and understanding we both tirelessly searched for in others.

When she might’ve needed grace, she was met with conflict, physical or emotional. Whether it be shitty boyfriends or calloused family, she knew none of it could truly destroy her. She lived broke, but never broken. She could always count on the fact that her baby always loved her. I always will.

In the wake of her loss, I have lost my light. The sparkle in Melissa Hostler’s baby boy is often consumed by an overwhelming sense of darkness. I smile, I laugh, I still have that smart ass charm my mom loved so much. But the fire that once roared inside me feels dim. It’s a dangerous thing to be without hope. It’s to be in a never-ending free fall, skeptical of this world’s true beauty. I often think about a scene in Menace II Society, where Caine’s grandfather asks Caine, “do you care whether you live or die?” Caine responds with a pause and glances up, “I don’t know.”

My momma taught me how to be strong. She always told me she couldn’t teach me how to be a man, her primary reasoning for why she sent me to live with my pops and his new family. While she was partially correct, most of what I needed to learn as a man was in her strength. She told me to stand up for myself if I ever got in a fight. “It’s not the answer but you should never back down when someone tries to fight you. You gotta protect yourself son.” I saw her fight her fair share of dudes. She prided herself quite frequently on being a “tough son of a bitch” followed by a hearty laugh. “I don’t care how big you get boy, I’ll still whoop your ass.” It made me smart about not looking for fights but to never let anyone talk to me any type of way. But really, the strength I admired was the emotional and mental blows she took and how she persevered. She always reminded me after every setback, “I can cut hair anywhere in the country.” All she needed was a place to stay so she could send me to school and she could go to work and pay the bills.

I’ve spent weeks imagining what my mother’s last moments felt like. She was a woman of intense passion and strength. Even in her weakest moments, her eyes were fiery. She believed that any storm can be weathered. Her faith in God kept her afloat in the darkest of times, that no matter how much pain she had to endure, she’d be blessed for her efforts. The agony of losing her brother in front of her eyes, the constant mental and physical abuse, reluctantly giving up custody of me to my dad to ensure I grew as a man. Life would never be easy for mom but the evils wouldn’t go unpunished. Even when she was essentially blackmailed to give up custody of my little sister, she was adamant about getting her shit together, no matter how hard it would be. The comeback story was never pretty but it always happened, even for a short period. It’s why her suicide will never sit properly with me. What was her breaking point? Did she go out feeling unloved? How could this have been avoided? Why?

When I first started writing, one of my goals was to interview my mom and to properly tell her story in a book. I figured I had so much time to get this done, to grow into the best writer I could become. Maybe by that point, mom would be in a good, stable place so she could reflect on her life with a sense of peace and clarity. She always let me know how proud she was that I could even reach the heights that I have in this field. She would never pretend to understand the intricacies of the industry but always inquired regardless. It blew her mind that I could be paid to interview artists, listen to music, and write about it. I could practically hear her grinning when I broke the news about my GQ placement. She could tell I was doing something I loved and that it revolved around the one true love in my life, music. It breaks my heart that I’ll never get to properly achieve that goal. But she gave me this love for the art. I can’t waste that blessing. So I continue to love the music for her. I continue to write for her. No matter how much it shoots me down, I continue to love life for her. I know she’d probably lose her mind knowing I wrote about her, I like to think she’s somewhere smiling that I tried my best to honor her.

I imagine a quiet place where we can finally catch up. I get to truly express my apologies for not always being there and my gratitude for her raising me, warts and all in my childhood. I imagine my Granddad cuts up as Curtis Mayfield plays somewhere, dazzling his pearly white smile and his country fried hysterical laugh. I think about my mom finally getting to hug her brother Adam again, the trauma finally relieved, capturing so much lost time.

I’m forever grateful for the art, for life, and for the ones I’ve lost within the last year. My mom always told me that she loved me and she always smiled when she asked how much. I always knew the answer. More than the world. To my mom, Melissa Hostler, I hope your spirit finally has peace. You don’t have to fight anymore, not in this evil world that failed you. I’m proud and I’m so grateful that you always fought for me. You can finally rest now momma. I love you. I love you more than the world.

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