Bozoma Saint John, THE URGENT LIFE: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival

Bozoma Saint John, THE URGENT LIFE: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival

Bozoma and Zibby unexpectedly laughed their way through their conversation about loss, connecting over how important it is to find the humor in the atrociously bad stretches of life. Bozoma discussed her late husband’s illness and her relationship with God (her “homie”), which she wrote about in her memoir, and how her losses and experiences have made her question her religion. They bonded over Zibby’s new magazine idea “Sag Mag” about the indignities of aging, and decided (?) to collaborate on a book called Turbulence. Fast friends, Zibby and Bozoma, will soon be found meeting up for drinks IRL and laughing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” So much to discuss. The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival.

Bozoma Saint John: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. Oh, my gosh, your story was so powerful. The way you wrote about your former husband, the way you wrote about Ben, the way your mom — it was one thing after another. It was so powerful and moving. I was just like, oh, my gosh. It was very, very powerful. Good job.

Bozoma: I appreciate that. I appreciate it. This is the complexity of life as a middle-aged woman. By the time you get to this age — I’m forty-six years old.

Zibby: Me too.

Bozoma: We’re the same. Look at us. 1977 babies.

Zibby: I’m 1976. August.

Bozoma: You’re on your way to — it’s fine. We’re all here. By the time you get to this age, you’ve had a lot of shit happen to you. Things have happened in your life. I wish I knew another forty-six-year-old person who didn’t have some drama at some point. We’re trying to balance all of these things and be these superwomen that the world has told us that we’re supposed to be. Yet we’re dealing with all kind of loss and trauma and generational shit that we’re trying to untangle and trying not to be like your mom but trying to be better for your kids. God, it’s too much stuff. I was just writing all of my things, just putting it all on paper, all the things.

Zibby: Should we just give up and go get drinks or something?

Bozoma: Yes. Let’s just lay everything down and then go . In fact, I have a bar back here. Should I pour us one?

Zibby: I would love it. We’re joking, but I’m with you. I’ve had a lot of loss and crazy stuff that’s happened. You tell people when you’re our age. They’re like, oh, my gosh, really? You also don’t know. We meet each other at these phases of life. It’s not like when we go to school and we’re like, let me catch you up on everything. Now you’re going to know me. You’re going to know my family. I know. I think it comes as a shock, but what choice do we have but to be really resilient about it and go about our day?

Bozoma: Right, and at this point, to be honest about it. I am very thankful to be the age I am because I don’t have to pretend. It wasn’t like my twenties where I felt like, I got to be the hot, cool chick, and then my thirties when I’m like, I’ve got to be a businesswoman and figure out how to win. Now I’m just like, oh, well, here are my scars.

Zibby: I came up with this idea yesterday as I was dropping my kids at school and feeling my stomach. I was like, there’s got to be something stronger to keep my stomach where it’s supposed to be. Maybe I need to start a magazine called Sag where it’s all about the things that happen to moms. Not moms, but the things that happen as we all age and we don’t joke about enough. We all feel shame. Yet it’s happening to everybody. I think I’m going to start this tongue-in-cheek Sag mag situation.

Bozoma: Oh, my god, I love that. I love Sag magazine because it can be both the physical and the emotional, the mental and the spiritual, all of the things. All of your belief systems, that’s our sagging. It’s our twisting and turning. You’re like, do I really believe in this thing anymore? I don’t think so because too much shit has happened to me for me to still believe that. It’s like, okay, so with my boobs, what happened? They were supposed to be sitting up here. Now if I turn around and they’re at my waist, how did that happen to me? You’re right. Look, sometimes I feel like we need to have these honest conversations. This is not funny, but we still have to laugh about it. We compare our scars. We compare our saggy breasts. We compare the traumas. To some degree, there’s some humor in it. There is some lightness to it. Even in writing the book, I realized that too.

I’ll speak for myself. I put away a lot of memories, stuffed them way deep down and said, you know what, that was too painful. I don’t want to think about that. I don’t even want to have a hint of it anywhere. Then as I started to write and pull up some of those memories, I was like, oh, man, there were some things that were really good at that time. Life as I am experiencing it now, there are some bad, horrible things, but through it, there is some love. There’s some laughter. I’ve been, actually, so surprised by people who have told me that while they read my book, they cried. Then they laughed. Then they’d feel this emotion and that emotion. I was like, but that’s actually it. That’s life. Even if I’m writing a book about grief, we’re not crying for three hundred pages because there’s other things that happen in the midst of the grief that can bring you some lightness or bring you some frustration or any number of emotions. Sag, I agree. Make Sag. What are you doing anyway? Come on.

Zibby: I know. I’m doing it. Let me get off of here so I could go write the whole thing. My mother has been pitching me columns on text. She’s like, “I need to have a column in this. I don’t even know where to start.” I’m like, “Mom, how about you start with an essay?” One thing at a time over here. I do think with books like this, though, it’s one thing to be able to share — there’s a book by Catherine Newman. I don’t know if you’ve read it. It takes place over hospice. It’s a novel where she’s losing her friend, but it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy at hospice. You’re like, what? It’s the same type of thing as this memoir where there are the tragic, and then there’s the funny. It’s because it’s all life. It all percolates at the same time. Then you leave it feeling almost uplifted because you’re like, well, she got through it. She got through that. You got through this. Here you are.

Bozoma: I’m sure you’ve had a moment — we all have — a moment in your life where everything was going wrong. Maybe you started to cry. Then in the middle of your crying, you started laughing because you’re just like, I cannot believe this is happening. Nobody would believe me if I wrote this. They would think this was a lie. There’s no way this much can happen to anyone. That’s the way I felt while I was writing. I was like, nobody’s going to believe any of this. This is so wild. I’m crying while I’m writing it. I’m just like, yo, this shit was really, really crazy. I cannot even believe this.

Zibby: When you got to the part where you then lost your job and you’re like, this was happening, and then I lost my job, I was like, no, she didn’t. Come on.

Bozoma: Yes, exactly. How much more can I take? At some point, you really do sit and you’re just like, wow. It’s hit after hit. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this or you believe it. You know how they say that things happen in threes? Have you ever heard that?

Zibby: Yes, I have. I have heard it.

Bozoma: Sometimes when that number-two thing has happened, it’s like, shoot, let me look around. Where’s that third one coming from?

Zibby: I’m always waiting.

Bozoma: You’re waiting for the thing. The way I’m living now — I’ve been asked, are you fearless? You’ve been through so much. You can conquer it all. I was like, are you kidding me? Most of the time, I’m looking around like, geez, is something going to fall down now? It’s not fearlessness in which I’m living. I just know that I can survive . That’s why I’m walking around confident and why I can still laugh while I’m wearing yellow and being effervescent. I know that whatever else is coming — by the way, I’ve already talked to God about this. I was like, look, you little omnipresent being, you, if you don’t get yourself together and provide me some happiness for the rest of my days, I’m going to have a thing or two to say when I get to those pearly gates. In fact, you know what? I’m not coming in. How about that? It’s going to be my choice whether or not I come there or not.

Zibby: I had this moment. I had the worst turbulence on a flight to LA, so bad that I was crying. It was really bad. I was sure I was going to die. I was literally holding my daughter’s hand. I was about to open this bookstore that I just opened a month ago. I was like, God would not do this to me right now. Not right now. No, no, no. I was like, you cannot do this. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I was like, you cannot do this right now.

Bozoma: I write about God in my book a lot, not because I’m overly religious, but because I really do feel like God is my homie to some degree. I was raised Christian. I don’t go to church currently, but I still have a lot of conversations as if God is a tactile, real, living, breathing person who sometimes I get angry at and who I’m like, hey, look, I don’t know what in the hell you think you’re doing, but you’re messing things up for me.

Zibby: You picked the wrong person. This was supposed to be for that person over there. You already gave me this.

Bozoma: I’m telling you. Actually, in the seriousness of it, when — my husband was a very devout Catholic. He was the one who’d get up and go to mass. I’d be lying in the bed talking about, “Can you grab me a bagel on your way back, please? I just need some breakfast.” He was so devout and so faithful. As we prayed for his healing or his recovery from cancer, I just could not believe it that God wouldn’t answer that prayer. Okay, I can understand if I say some things. You’d be like, do you remember that night in 1999 when you — I’d be like, all right, fine. Okay, fine. Peter, though? Peter? To me, it wasn’t even a coincidence that Saint was in his last name because he really was that person. I promise you. It’s not just color-coated and rose-colored glasses and stuff. Even though we ended up separating, it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t like he was this terrible person and I was like, I got to get away from this relationship. He might have just been too vanilla, even in his whiteness. It was all of those things that caused our friction and things that he was trying to do to protect his wife and protect the family, and saved me at some points, that really ended up driving us apart. I was just like, God, seriously? This is the one you’re going to take? Isn’t there somebody else you could go get? How does this happen to him? That kind of stuff has really shaken me in my faith. At the same time, like you said when you had the turbulence — turbulence could mean any part of life, not just on the plane. Any turbulence hits my life, and I’m like, yo, seriously, you owe me. You cannot do this. Seriously, relax. Relax. Go do it to somebody else that deserves this. Not me.

Zibby: I was thinking that would be a really good book title. Don’t you think? Turbulence.

Bozoma: I look at you — this is how I know you’re brilliant. You’re out here just casually — now you’ve got a magazine called Sag. It’s got all these different levels of meaning to it. Now we’re about to create a book called Turbulence. Damn, you’re good.

Zibby: No lack of ideas. A lack of time. To your point with Peter, we’re joking, but you had this moment where it started smelling really bad in the room when he was dying. You were like, what is that smell? Then you realized it was the smell of death. Then you said, wait, maybe this is the smell of God. I thought that was so interesting. I’m like, could you turn all of this around and make it positive? Is there positive to be found in the worst moments?

Bozoma: Yes. Yes, there is. That’s why even in this conversation we’re laughing so much.

Zibby: I know. I feel so bad.

Bozoma: How dare we laugh when we’re talking about grief. That’s the thing. There is lightness in the darkest moments. There really is. I’m not trying to be corny and pithy. There is lightness. You know what? Now I can’t remember whether or not it made it in the book. I’m going to tell you a story. The writing process was so wild. My editor and I, we had a lot of back-and-forth about what stays and what goes and all that stuff. My book was started not because I was like, oh, I need to write a memoir. It was actually started because I really hated the phrase, take it one day at a time. I just really hated that so much. My reaction to that and my rebellion to that was that I started taking a picture a day. I was like, y’all want to tell me to take it one day at a time. Look at what my days look like. These are not the kinds of days you want. As I started to take the really sad photos, sometimes there’d be something that would be really funny to me. I would take a picture of that. Something was inspiring, I’d take a picture of that.

One night — God bless him, he’s now gone, but my father-in-law, George Saint John, we were all in the room, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, me, Peter. Peter’s in the bed. There’s a couch and two chairs. We’re just all rotating, except for Peter, obviously, who stays immobile in his bed. One night, I wake up, the early dawn. Peter had his prized possession, which was this football, still in its case, still in the cardboard case, that had been signed by Tom Brady. He was a huge Patriots fan. I was working at Pepsi at the time. My colleagues who were working on the sports deal — I had a negotiated a deal with the NFL. They reached out to Tom’s team. They got him to sign a ball for Peter. It’s Peter’s prized possession. It’s sitting in the room on the windowsill where Peter can see it constantly. Let me tell you something. I wake up. I would say it’s just around the crack of dawn. Let’s say it’s 6:15. I’m looking at this daggone ball. I see something tucked in the corner. I’m like, what is that? Could that be some gift that maybe Tom gave Peter that we didn’t even notice or recognize? I’m gingerly making my way over to the windowsill quietly trying not to wake anybody up. Girl, why do I see my father-in-law’s dentures tucked right in the corner there, resting?

Zibby: No!

Bozoma: I took a picture of that. I still have it. I’m going to send it to you after this. I took a picture of the daggone dentures. That’s the kind of thing where it’s like, when I tell you I could not contain my laughter, I could not. Everybody woke up because I was hollering. Think about this horrible situation. Literally, Peter, he cannot move. He’s in the bed. He’s struggling. He’s looking at the football as the glory. I’ve got my elderly in-laws uncomfortably sitting in these terrible hospital chairs trying to just get some sleep. Then the dentures are in the box. It is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen in my life.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I think the hardest I’ve laughed in my entire life was when I was dragged to Disney World against my will, pregnant with my fourth kid, with my other three kids. This is right before my divorce. I had hurt my knee being pregnant. I had to use one of those scooters. I am literally the most miserable I’ve been in my entire life. I also have no spatial relations ability. I was trying to get onto the monorail and back up. Everybody was screaming at me because the doors were closing. I was trying to back this thing up. Literally, it’s the hardest I’ve laughed in my life. I just was sitting there. I couldn’t even pretend to drive the thing. I was just like, things are so bad. Now I’m stuck backwards in the monorail on a scooter. It doesn’t get worse than this.

Bozoma: In your misery, there’s always something. There’s always something. I’m not saying that all situations like that or mine or anybody else’s, we should just laugh at it all the time, but I think to some degree, it’s coping. It’s a coping and survival mechanism where you just have to look at it and be like, yo, I could not even believe this is happening. Wait until I tell somebody about this. That’s now what I think whenever I’m in a situation like that. I’m like, yo, this is going to make a really good story at some point. I promise you it is. It’s going to make a really good story. It’s almost the only way to get through it.

Zibby: Did you read Black Widow by Leslie Gray Streeter?

Bozoma: Oh, my gosh, I want to read it. I haven’t read it yet.

Zibby: You have to read it. It’s a really funny subtitle too, something like A Journey for People Who Hate Using the Word Journey or something like that. She has a really funny scene at the morgue with her sister where they’re hysterically laughing. You would appreciate.

Bozoma: Right. It’s like that.

Zibby: I don’t mean to make us seem cruel. Obviously, we both — just from your book — we both feel deeply and cry. Things are .

Bozoma: Absolutely, yes.

Zibby: I feel like this is the thing that gets us through.

Bozoma: That’s the connection point.

Zibby: Yeah, no matter what it is. All of it. I know this is sort of a shorter podcast because we got started late. I feel like I could literally sit and talk — we have to get the actual drinks next time.

Bozoma: For real.

Zibby: For real.

Bozoma: For real, yeah. It’ll start with my picture of the dentures, that way you know I’m committed to this relationship. Then we’ll follow up with the drinks.

Zibby: Perfect. I can’t wait. I’m counting down. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for sharing. Honestly, it was so great and beautiful. The way you told the story was fabulous. I’m sorry for all the things that happened to you, but you definitely made it into a fabulous book, for what that’s worth.

Bozoma: I know, right? I appreciate it. I also want to say I love your podcast. I think it’s so brilliant. The name alone makes me feel like, oh, my god, yes, these are my people. This is my tribe. I really appreciate it. Thank you for the time and the recognition. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. I really appreciate. To be continued.

Bozoma: Look out for the picture. It’s coming.

Zibby: I’m ready. Bye.

Bozoma: Bye.

Bozoma Saint John, THE URGENT LIFE: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival

THE URGENT LIFE: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Bozoma Saint John

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