When I was younger, I’m talking from ages eight to twelve, I wanted to be a pediatric nurse, married, and the mother of four kids minimally. I was always talking about that shit too, to the point where everyone who was close to me at the time could probably recite the intimate details of the life plan I’d concocted for myself based on my very limited world view at the time that hadn’t seem much more of the world beyond the suburb in which I’d grown up and various parts of Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi on family road trips.
I got to high school and realized that advanced sciences would preclude me from being successful in any corner of the medical field and also fell deeper in love with the written word, so my career goals shifted. Now I wanted to be a literature teacher. Do what the ones I’d had over the years had done for me as far as broadening my understanding of certain texts and exposing me to writers I’d eventually come to see as my foremothers. The number of children I wanted dipped down to just two, twins if possible. I was gonna go off to college, meet the love of my life, add water, grow and build or whatever. Perfect plan for the starry-eyed, hopeful romantic teenage me.
Undergrad and the underwhelming education program had me shifting gears once again. Since I had (still have) a natural inclination to help others, my major shifted to social work. By this time, I’d had my heart broken once and a possible times, so I was cool on the whole finding the love of my life thing in college. I was focused on finding me instead. The idea of children seemed cool in the abstract, but I was also slowly resigning myself to being the cool auntie instead of somebody’s mommy.
In my late twenties I became resolute. I was too selfish to be a mother. I didn’t have maternal instincts. I hated cooking, was hella moody, didn’t want to be responsible for my damn self, let alone another human. We vibin’, baby. I’m living life—clubbing, traveling, exploring, making mistakes. Some that could be undone and others that would haunt me for years to come. Kids nor a husband were things I was looking to add to my menu any time soon.
Then, just before I turned thirty, my life was forever shifted. Hell, not just my life, but the lives of my entire family. My mama’s baby sister, my aunt I’d grown up with more like a cousin or older sibling than a true authority figure, was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. At the time she’d been living in Arizona with two of her three kids, but she immediately came back home to start treatments. We took turns shuttling her to treatment, just being and hanging with her, praying like it was going out of style that she too would be cancer-free one day soon. We’d done this before. Fought alongside another aunt as she battled with breast cancer and won. So we were optimistic, certain that this too would be another victory.
And in December of 2012 we got the all clear. She was in remission. All of the scans were showing that the cancer was outta her body. I was the one who took her to the last appointment she had with her oncologist to get her port removed. We praised every deity we knew, ecstatic that she’d battled the beast and conquered. Cancer ain’t have shit on this family as far as we were concerned. We’d seen it at its worst and came through the other side barely scathed.
I’d actually been in DC for Obama’s second inauguration, getting ready to go out and meet a friend, randomly scrolling FB when I saw a post from one of my uncles talking about pray for the family, for his little big sister in particular and I immediately began calling around frantically. Unable to reach my mother, I finally got in contact with my favorite cousin, D. Cousin D is legitimately one of the most even-keeled, rational people I know. Her voice rasped a greeting and immediately my brain was on high alert, eyes filling with tears as she detailed being the one who’d been there with my aunt in her last moments of lucidity. “Do I need to come home?” I asked. “I think you need to come home immediately,” was her response without a beat passing.
Crying and scouring the internet for a one way flight back to Chicago, my mind tumbled with the worst thoughts. Shoutout to my homegirl and her now husband for making sure I got to IAD safely, then to my best friend for picking me up from O’Hare and taking me straight to the hospital.
Things get hazy at this point in my memory. We held vigil for days, taking over the waiting room in the ICU in rotations. I remember “sleeping” in that waiting room with my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins as we sat and prayed for some kind of miracle. The cockiness from December felt like a taunt now. Entirely too much dip on our chips because a month later, here we were. What we thought was a cold or the flu quickly progressed to her having to be rushed to the ER. Then losing consciousness and being intubated. Then needing a ventilator to breathe properly. Then being completely unresponsive and leaving our family to make a tough decision to bring her off of the machinery that was keeping her tethered to this mortal coil. A life cut entirely too short by a disease that gives no fucks.
Baby sister. Mother of three—twenty-five, seventeen, and eight.
The older two were in the loop the entire time, they were aware of the severity of their mother’s condition and its rapid deterioration. That eight year old though, he was blissfully unaware. Just knew that Mommy was sick. That we were going to visit her while she was in the hospital. That it wasn’t a place for kids to be able to visit, so he was to stay home with the rest of the youngins. And he’d see her when she got better.
Only, better never came and we had to break his heart and tell him that the one constant in his life was no longer.
God, I really don’t know how we did it. But we managed to stay composed. That baby was broken, though. I remember him being tethered to me while we waded through the wreckage that was our grief. Burrowed into my side nightly as I tried to get some semblance of rest, needing to make sure that I allowed myself restoration to be able to march alongside the rest of our family as we went through the process of planning a funeral, figuring out the next steps for the now motherless children she’d left behind.
It was rough in the beginning. The eldest fought valiantly to keep his siblings with him. Something I wasn’t completely jiggy with, but I was up against nearly everyone else in the family siding with him. The choice being driven out of grief, not logic or even rational thought. Regardless of what paperwork said though, I knew that I was going to keep showing up for those kids in whatever ways I could. Seventeen-year-old was in her last year of high school, so months after burying her mama, we had prom and graduation and getting her off to college.
Eight-year-old had a lifetime ahead of him. One hampered by developmental disabilities that made things a bit more difficult with his schooling and progress. This became my area of focus, though truthfully I’d always been in this mix on this side of things regardless. Even when his mama was here, I was right alongside her from preschool on. In the IEP meetings, translating what she didn’t understand, asking questions about the plans and choices made by those responsible for shepherding him through the next twelve years of schooling.
In her absence I became the sole attendee, with a notepad at the ready. Asking questions, pushing for resources, advocating for this kid at any and all junctures. Somewhere along the way, I can’t honestly say when for sure, it became less of me just being there for the academic things, but for all aspects. He got older, wanted to be in organized sports and so I’d be the willing driver to this corner and that corner of the earth, sitting in cars waiting for hours long practices to be done, buying the necessary equipment for him to succeed.
During a lot of this travel for sport, he and I talked incessantly. As you can imagine, life began making a little less sense to him as he grew and matured, dealt with the growing pains of getting older, going through puberty, and all of that.
You know how people always say it’s easier to raise a boy?
Yeah that’s bullshit.
Especially if you want to raise a conscientious and curious young person who moves through the world with a modicum of confidence.
Since I wasn’t the primary custodial individual, I had to do a lot of deprogramming. A lot of unlearning of toxicity that society likes to foist onto young Black men simply because of how they look and what assumptions are made of them. I became his soft place to land, a person he could talk to about any and everything he’s going through without judgment. A constant reminder that if no one else was willing , he had at least one person willing to go to the ends of the earth to ensure his success.
And I didn’t do it alone, let’s be clear. But I can only tell you about all of this from my point of view and how I lived it…hell still live it, with him.
We’re ten years out from losing his mama and my little eight year old Starbucks run buddy is now eighteen and about to go away to college. And I’m not her, right? Like this isn’t my child, I didn’t birth him, but whew! Nobody told me about how when you step up and get into the trenches of helping guide a young person through this world that everything about you shifts. The rash decisions you’d once make become things you either completely eschew or mull over until they barely make logical sense because you have more to consider. Constantly being in the streets and kicking it with your friends is something that falls by the wayside. You deal with people being in their feelings about that, but it’s nothing that you can bring yourself to be that bent out of shape about because they’re not what matters.
The kid who is now a young man venturing off into uncharted waters is the sole focus.
And while you’re so so proud of all you’ve overcome, all you’ve accomplished, all he’s accomplished, you still wonder. Did I do enough? Do I still do enough? Will he be okay? Have I prepared him for this moment? All of the choices I’ve made that have us at this juncture, are they in alignment with the purpose God has placed in his life?
Each day that we grow closer to move-in day, there’s a pit in my stomach that grows larger and larger. The selfish part of me wants to keep him under my thumb forever, to keep him from harm’s way, to not send him off into a world that has the capability to devour him to the gristle and cast away the bones. But to do that level of sheltering is to stunt his growth, to inhibit his potential, to cast doubt upon his abilities to maneuver in this world by his own strength.
And that’s just plain foolish because if there’s nothing I have, it’s the unwavering faith that this kid is anointed and covered. Despite the hand he’s been dealt in a multitude of ways, he’s a survivor and a thriver. And given the chance, I absolutely know that he will go on to do great things. But man oh man, am I gonna have a time reconciling letting him get there of his own volition as I desperately run alongside, just trying to keep pace.