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An Open Love Letter to My Mother

On January 29, 2024 my mother suffered a massive ischemic stroke that covered about 80% of her neocortex (the part of the brain we use for thinking, talking, making decisions, our personality). It was completely unexpected and utterly devastating. I made the decision to remove her from life support on January 30, 2024. She passed away quietly on January 31, 2024 just before midnight. There was never once in my 49 years of life that I ever doubted my



mother's love for me or mine for her. I didn't begin to comprehend the endurance, profundity, or immensity of our love until she passed away.


As an only child to a single parent (my parents divorced when I was 11 and my father passed away on February 8, 2023), I knew there was no one else to eulogize my mother but me. What follows are the words I shared at her funeral services (unabridged). I'm sharing them here for many reasons but chief among them is to document and memorialize the enormous impact this amazing woman left on the world.


 

We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other. But we can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other. - Audre Lorde, Eye to Eye, 1983


My mother was a force. She was a born leader. She made you want to show up as the best version of yourself because she simply demanded excellence without ever having to directly tell you so. It was in her appraising gaze, her unsolicited opinions, the sage and thoughtful feedback or advice she gave when asked, her consideration of multiple viewpoints, and the wisdom she shared so effortlessly. She also was a nurturer. When Bertha Coleman invested in you, you knew she was going to be around for the long haul.


As you know, she taught Kindergarten for over 30 years. Now, I know when you hear Kindergarten teacher and nurturer certain personality traits come to mind - maybe things like bubbly, gentle, soft-spoken come to mind. But we know that wasn’t Bert! My mother’s teachings and nurturing were of the down-to-earth, pull-no-punches, let’s-look-a-thing-straight-in-the-eye-and-let-it-know-we-mean-business kind. 


If I’m being honest, there were certainly times in my life when I wanted the soft, sweet, bubbly, gentle version of nurturing and even complained over the years about “Black mamas” and their “toughness”. To be even more vulnerable, there were many times in my so very short 49 years with my mother that our relationship was strained because of that toughness. There were times when we just didn’t get where the other was coming from. Before her passing, I would tell people, “I love my mother...and we have a bit of a complicated relationship…” I would say that to mean it wasn’t that we didn’t have a close, loving relationship but that it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine either. After my mom passed, I had a memory come up for me that has helped me fully understand our relationship as it actually was, not the version I believed it to be. 


When my daughter was little, she would get a lot of attention whenever we would be out and about. People would stop and stare, chat her up, and most of the time they would say something like, “You are just too cute!” Because she is my child and FOR SURE Bertha’s grandbaby, she would often say, “I’ not cute! I’ comp'i'cated!” That’s what I remembered after my mom passed. Who needs cute when you can have complicated??? What I’ve come to understand in such a deep and meaningful way are two things: 1- that it never mattered that we didn’t always get where the other was coming from. It mattered that we never stopped trying to understand each other; and 2 - the best kind of love is one where you get every single thing you need whether it’s what you thought you wanted or not. 


In her 78 years, my mama taught me so many invaluable lessons that leave a legacy as deep and substantial as her presence, personality, compassion, caring, and love. I know this is true not just for me but for everyone here whose life she touched. Before I close here today, I want to share some of the most important ones with you.  All of these I’ve learned by watching what she did and how she conducted her life. Some of them are from her success and a few are from her shortcomings. I think she, of all people, would be ok with me sharing both with you. 


1 - You always win with love and compassion. 

You won’t like everyone you encounter but if you center love and compassion in your life, chances are you’ll have way more good people in your life than bad.

2 - Make yourself useful.

We all have unique talents and gifts in the world. They aren’t given to us to keep to ourselves. Every day ask, “What more could I be doing to be useful?”

3 - Find and make your joy.

If you sit around and wait for joy to come to you, you might be a sad somebody! You can find joy in the smallest of things and you must be intentional about creating your own. 

4 - Enjoy today but plan for tomorrow.

The best of life is happening right in front of you. But there will always be struggles and hard times. Make time to set aside resources and prepare yourself for when they will come.

5 - Be discerning about who’s in your corner.

Listen to your gut. Not everyone is for you and that’s ok. Surround yourself with the people who really lift you up. The ones who cheer for your success and hold your hands through your challenges. The rest can find their place somewhere else.

6 - Your mind is one of your biggest resources.

Invest in your education. Remain curious. Seek out knowledge. Ask critical questions. Learning never stops and its benefits are enduring. 

7 - Feed the people you love well.

Good food is good for the body. Food made with love is good for the soul. Feed your loved ones’ souls and they will feel the difference each time. 

8 - Pretty things make everything better.

Take time to dress yourself well. Tend to your appearance. Take time to make your home beautiful. Tend to its cleanliness. This is not frivolous or vain. These actions demonstrate your personal pride, how much you value what you have, and make you feel good to be in your body and the space you spend the most time. 

9 - Your life is as good as you decide it will be.

None of us is owed anything. We each get the hand we’re dealt and there’s nothing we can do to change that. However, it’s what we do with those cards that makes all the difference. Decide to live a great, big, joyful, loving, adventurous, connected, and compassionate life and that’s the one you will have. 

10 - Don’t waste your time or energy on anyone who doesn’t matter in your life.

There will always be someone watching, with an opinion, or expectations for your life. If they aren’t adding to your joy, well-being, or security, don’t give them a second thought. And don’t mince your words, when you’re escorting them right on out of your business. Spend that time and energy focusing on who really matters in your life. 

11 - Be determined but not stubborn.

Life likes to play you to your face sometimes. It is designed to challenge you. That’s the only way we grow. Determination is a must to get through the most difficult times. But we also have to know when to be flexible, when to surrender, and when to try something different. 

12 -Family matters.

The bloodline matters. You have to respect where and who you come from because they are a part of you no matter what. And sometimes, just maybe, you’re more alike than you want to admit. Family matters because they can help us grow and stretch in ways for our own good that we cannot without them. 

13 -Actions matter but so do the words.

Tell your people how you feel about them often and without hesitation. You can never say I love you enough.

14 - It really is ok to ask for help.

You’re not meant to do it all on your own. If you’re being useful, compassionate, and loving; if you’re surrounding yourself with friends and family who value and love you, chances are they will be just as happy to help you as you are to help them. Be a blessing by letting someone else bless you.

15 - Take great care of yourself first, so you can be there to take care of others.

Taking care of yourself, listening to your body, making uncomfortable choices, and having healthy boundaries, are NOT being selfish. You can take a little more time, rest, care, compassion, and love for yourself so that you can continue to show up for everyone else in the best possible way.


One of the many ways I plan to keep my mother close even now that she’s gone is to strive my best to live my life in alignment with these lessons each day. In her last remaining days, the nurse told us that the hearing was the last thing to go and that we should keep talking to her. I told my mom over and over again that: She had done so, so, so good with me and my daughter and that we were going to continue to make her proud. And that’s what we’re going to do, because you know Bertha wouldn’t have it any other way. 


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