I come from a long line of strong women.
And for the longest time, I thought that was because of my dad.
I grew up halfway across the world from all four of my grandparents but my dad’s mom came to live with us twice when I was little. She’s the center of some of my favorite childhood memories. I used to sneak into her room as she was napping and beg her to wake up and come sit outside on the stoop with me. I can’t remember her ever saying no. And even though my time with her on this earth was much too short, she has visited me in dreams to remind me that the ones we love never truly leave us.
She raised eight babies of her own and somehow kept them all healthy and happy. And she always had food for anyone who came to her door hungry. She had an impressive resilience and independence, in a time and place where women were never described as such.
So as I got older and forged my own way in the world, I prided myself in thinking that I was strong because I was her grandbaby.
And then my mom got sick.
I don’t think I would have ever said my mom and I were close. All our lives, my brother was clearly her favorite, which sounds unfair but it’s true and I’m okay with it. And it’s not like my mom and I fought all the time. Most of the time we got along just fine. But I never thought of her as my best friend. We just didn’t have that kind of relationship.
But there is something about cancer that makes you rethink everything.
The day we found out about her diagnosis, I climbed into her bed and wept. She held me as I choked out great big tears and heaved until I couldn’t talk without gasping for air, that little girl cry. She told me it would be alright; she’d make it through. I couldn’t sleep that night so I got back into her bed while it was still dark out and she stroked my hair until the sun came up.
It doesn’t matter that you’re nearly twenty-one years old. It doesn’t matter that her body is betraying her. A mama is always gonna act like a mama.
In the months that followed, my mother faced her diagnosis with an unrelenting determination. Never one to draw attention to herself, she reached out to just a few close friends and family to pray for her as she readied her mind for the daunting road ahead. Surgery. Weekly chemotherapy. Daily radiation.
I sat behind her in the salon as they chopped her mid-length hair into a pixie cut. I nodded my approval as she tried on wigs. I swept the locks off the kitchen floor when my dad finally shaved her head bald.
My mom is a really good looking lady. Honestly. She’s tall and has great skin and the most impeccable sense of style that I’ve ever seen. And everyone knows it. Even if she’s just putting on a pair of scrubs for work, my mom will be sure that her clothes are neatly ironed with a perfect crease down her pants.
Which is great for her but it’s caused me much grief over the years. Because as the attractive woman she is, she takes a lot of pride in making sure her kids look nice. And being her daughter, that leaves a lot of pressure on me. She didn’t let me pick out my own clothes until almost middle school so most of my elementary school pictures show my friends wearing mismatched socks and multicolored t-shirts of their own choosing while I’m donned in my Sunday best.
She lets me pick out what I want to wear now but she’s always got an opinion to share before I leave the house. My mom’s not one of many words but when she talks to me, she’s brutally honest. Even when the truth hurts.
So for most of my life, I felt this unshakable need to look as pretty as my mom. And while I’ve slowly grown in confidence and self-esteem over the years, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that every time I buy new clothes, my first question to myself is, “Would Mom like me in this?”
I was still chasing those lofty and misguided notions of beauty when she was diagnosed. But one night, we were having some prayer time together in the living room. My mom began to pray out loud and as the words tumbled from her mouth, I opened my eyes to look at her. (Don’t judge. We’ve all done it.)
She was in a threadbare nightgown, misshapen and baggy, but the only thing she could wear without irritating her surgery scars. Not only was all her hair gone, but her eyebrows were starting to thin out too. She had lost the glow in her skin.
But as she sat on the floor, humbled and vulnerable before the God of her foremothers, I could only think one thing.
Oh, Ma. You are so very beautiful.
My maternal grandmother passed away before my mom got sick. Unfortunately, I didn’t know her very well. But when I picture her, I see her standing at the doorway of my mother’s childhood home, waiting to welcome me with a tremble in her hands as she pulls me close and breathes me in.
My grandmother suffered a stroke about a year before she passed. It left her confused and disoriented and it stole some of her most precious memories. She didn’t always recognize her children.
And yet, when the clock struck five each evening, she would lift herself from her chair to make her husband a cup of tea, as she had done every day of their marriage.
And my mama, as the cancer and the chemo flooded her body, did the very same thing.
I like to think I’ve learned a lot about of love in my quarter century of life. But it was in their sickness that my mother and grandmother taught me the truth about marriage. Maybe love, the kind of love that lasts, isn’t about grand gestures and bold proclamations. Maybe it’s in the little things. The everyday things.
What if love unconditional is found in a cup of tea?
I had always believed I was strong willed and opinionated because of my dad and his side of the family. Growing up, he was the one to encourage me to stay informed and debated with me about my stance while my mom nervously asked us to talk about something else. And as in all things, I’m sure my dad has influenced the woman I am today.
But I know enough now to realize that my mom, who I underestimated for most of my life, has shaped me in ways I may never fully grasp. I will always use my words to show how I feel, what I think. But there is equal strength in the quiet poise and grace my mother exudes.
Last month, my mom hit five years since she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. It’s been a crazy journey but she’s in remission and the future is looking bright and healthy. It’s a future I wasn’t sure I would ever get with my mom. But I am the grateful daughter of a fierce survivor and a Good Father.
Happy Mother’s Day, Ma. I love you.
“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” -Unknown