I am the oldest daughter of Juanita Joanne Mitchell. She was 19 when she met my father, Robert. Twenty when she married him and had me.
My mother was the first person I laid eyes on when I came into the world and the only person that mattered. I cried whenever she left the room, threw tantrums if her voice wasn’t near and that’s why my sister Gina was born – To distract me.
It didn’t work. I still talk to momma everyday…
But in 1980 — when I was just 9 years old — I nearly lost her forever: Cervical cancer. Stage 4. Doctors cut it out, but weren’t sure if it had made it into her bloodstream.
Honestly, I only know this now, because Momma told me three years later after she had safely gone into remission. At the time, her death sentence was her secret. Not wanting to bother anybody or let’s keep it real – have family, friends or my father, who she was going through a messy divorce and custody battle with all up in her business – Momma quietly decided to dedicate the little time she feared she had left to complete her life’s last mission: Prepare her 9 and 6 year old daughters to grow up and become strong women without her.
Back in the day, there was no rulebook for this. Oprah Winfrey’s show was six years from debuting on television and it was 18 years before I would see her episode interviewing Erin Kramp, a mother dying of breast cancer, who recorded video messages to help her husband and daughter continue their lives without her.
So my mother – true to her no-nonsense, get it done nature – attacked her mission the only way she knew how: With tough love. And as the oldest, I got it the hardest.
Sick from medications, fighting to keep her job and despondent her cervical cancer was a ticking time bomb in her blood stream, Momma made it her business to teach me the lessons she believed would help me grow into a strong, independent black woman: How to cut a whole chicken, how to make a dollar out of 19 cents, how to mop the kitchen floor Cinderella style with just the right amount of ammonia in the water.
Not concerned with mushy stuff, Momma’s boot camp focused on teaching concrete skills and overnight, I found myself cooking full-course meals, grocery shopping alone with her checkbook, washing clothes, cleaning house, taking care of my sister and maintaining an A average in school, because Momma – dying or not – didn’t play and there would have been hell to pay if my grades had dropped.
Needless to say, I didn’t have a social life. Play dates, pajama parties? Forget about it. Momma didn’t know how much time she had left and she didn’t trust my father or whatever woman he would end up with to give me the foundation I needed to not become a crack head baby momma.
Of course, I hated every minute of it. Yes, unbeknownst to me, my sacrificing mother was performing an amazing selfless act. But every morning when we left for school, all I saw was her lying migraine prostrate on the couch, blinds drawn blocking out the light. And in the afternoon when we returned, she would still be there, ushering up just enough strength to tell me to do my homework and help my sister with hers before I cooked dinner.
I now know my mother was depressed and was afraid she was dying. But to my clueless, ten-year-old mind, she was just lazy and mean. I didn’t know or care what she was going through. I just wanted to go outside and play like a regular kid.
For three miserable years, my life went on like this. And I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t a ray of sunshine for momma to be around. I talked back to her, rolled my eyes, stomped whenever I left the room. And momma punished me. Too sick to beat me, she psychologically chastised me. No radio. No television. I loved to read — She took my books away. She was mean. And not once did she tell me why.
I was the child. She was the mother. And it was her job to protect me from the truth, raise me right and prepare me for life without her. Period. Never mind that I didn’t like her for it. That was the sacrifice she was committed to make to make sure her babies would be OK.
Obviously, momma’s take-no-prisoner tactics worked, because I graduated with honors from high school. I wasn’t pregnant and I wasn’t a crack head. Three years later, my sister followed in my footsteps and we both went on to earn college and post-graduate degrees – Me in journalism and film. Gina in English and Law.
Today, we’re both successful, married and relatively sane and not a month goes by that a random someone – the First lady of our church, one of my father’s ex wives, a cashier at Walgreens – doesn’t compliment Momma on how good a job she did raising her girls.
I honestly, though, didn’t give much thought to this until recently.
Believe or not, Momma’s not just a cancer survivor. She’s a stroke survivor, a knee surgery survivor, too. And after having back-to-back knee replacements, she started having strokes again, her legs began swelling with fluid and she inexplicably lost more than 100 pounds.
My job on the line, I went back home to play nurse. I took Momma to all of her doctor appointments and hospital tests to try to figure out what was happening to her. She was scanned, poked and prodded from head to toe, but doctors still could not pinpoint what was causing her strokes or why she was losing so much weight so fast.
Momma, Gina and I were all thinking, but not saying aloud the same thing: Had her cancer returned? A full body scan, thank God, revealed the answer to be ‘no.’ But during those fretful days waiting for the test results, I selfishly worried how I’d be able to go on if I lost my momma. And knowingly watching her fight for her life this time around made me feel like that little girl who cried every time she left the room or threw tantrums whenever her voice wasn’t near.
But in reality, this wasn’t 1980. And I wasn’t 10 years old. It was 2017 and I was a strong, grown 45-year-old black woman who had overcome failure, setbacks and challenges all because of the lessons momma instilled in me. Because she had sacrificed the time she thought she didn’t have 37 years ago, I was now able to sacrifice the time I never would have had to be there for her.
And for anyone feeling some kind of way about the title, rest assured, that is what this essay is about – Reflections on the time Momma invested in me, ponderings on the lessons I continuously draw upon nearly 40 years later and a celebration of the love I’m still blessed to share with Momma in our phone calls every day.
Hope you laugh and smile with me as you read it,