As is typical during the waning days of Arizona summer, the sun shone bright on Thursday, August 22nd, 2013. The shadows of palm fronds were cast crisply upon the concrete and they wavered with the modest breeze. The same recognizable cars zipped down Darrel Road with the same post-rush hour urgency as they had on Wednesday; the same giddy preschoolers frolicked home, parents in tow, with the same juice-tinted lips they’d had on Wednesday; the same locust buzzing and sporadic bird chirping offered the same discord they’d offered on Wednesday. Yet, despite Thursday’s seeming conformity—despite its seeming regularity—I came to learn Thursday, August 22nd, 2013, was a day unlike any other I’d experienced. Despite the literal shine of the Sun’s rays, Thursday, August 22nd, 2013, marks the darkest day I’ve ever known.
Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. I was, then, but a boy—a kindergartener with concerns spanning no further than Matchbox cars and Chicken McNuggets. Illness was not a concept I’d yet grasped, and so my only experience with my mother’s cancer was through our subsequent, annual celebrations of its remission at Susan G. Komen walks. There, I’d always fix my gaze upon my mother—beautiful—dawning with pride that most fluorescent pink. She sported a head of long, jet-black dreaded hair which, I’d imagine, was her subtle act of defiance toward a disease known to claim even one’s follicles. She was powerful, and to look upon her and feel her power emanate sated me, my younger brother, and my father with pride. A great deal of what we each learned about strength, and faith, and resolve came from Mom, and she taught us these lessons by living.
The weeks leading up to August 22nd, 2013, were tense. Mom was plagued with a physical discomfort—a lump—reminiscent of 1997, and while the thought preyed upon us like a circling vulture, we rarely uttered the name of that vile beast which had reared itself back then. On August 19th, Mom underwent a biopsy and she, I, my brother, and my father endured the torment of time as we awaited the results. Days passed. Not a one of us slept well.
I sat at the edge of Mom’s bed on the afternoon of August 22nd, laughing, joking, and distracting her from the doctoral studies. She sat in a small chair nearby, and just as our laughter tapered, an obnoxious phone ring startled us both. Mom recognized the number and answered.
There was a noticeable absence of cinema in this phone call. There were no somber orchestral chords to overlay the moment—no slow motion cutaways to a dropped phone—no single tear streaming from Mom’s eye. She uttered a single, “Wow,” and I felt my throat tighten. Her voice tremored with disbelief as she repeated, “Wow. Unbelievable. The same type?” She and her doctor continued what was ultimately a very brief conversation, and as she hung up the phone, she and I traded glossy-eyed looks of utter despair.
“It’s the same type of cancer,” she said. “It came back.”
There is undeniable, absolute strength and resolve on display when a woman, seconds removed from the revelation of her cancer, maintains the fortitude to console her adult son, who’d been reduced to an immobilized heap of sorrow upon her bed. To prioritize her motherhood before her own justifiable fear requires unfathomable courage, and as I cried and turned to hug her tightly, she rubbed my back and comforted me as though I’d just been told I had cancer. We sat. We sat, quietly, embraced, and sobbed for what seemed an eternity. Mom explained the slow metastasis of this type of cancer and stated, firmly, she’d “done this before” and she’d “beat this again.” But I hadn’t done this before. My youthful ignorance in 1997 had shielded me from the knowledge of my mother’s affliction, but the pain of revelation overwhelmed me now.
Mom consoled and assured me and, still, I receded to my bedroom and sprawled—angrily, fearfully, and tearfully—across my bed. She revealed the news to my father via phone, and when he returned from work minutes later, he needn’t say a word. They hugged. They sobbed. We hugged. We sobbed. And yet, among each of us, Mom stood the strongest.
Numerous studies evidence a disproportionate rate of breast cancer among African American women, and to experience this reality firsthand was absolutely demoralizing. To endure the polarizing political discourse pertaining to who, what, and when ought to be covered by insurance companies becomes a great feat when the “who” is your mother, the “what” is her incurable disease, and the “when” is yesterday. Admittedly, though, I’ve never witnessed a woman operate more freely in her range of emotions than my mother, even amid such despair. When she need be sad, Kimberly Jones is sad; when she need be strong, Kimberly Jones is strong; and when she need be mighty, Kimberly Jones is mighty. This is the legacy of Kimberly Jones, yes, but it is a legacy she shares more largely with Black women: remarkable endurance, and during Black History Month and always, may we tout our reverence for this legacy.